“Next to silence,” Gertruida said, “words are the most powerful things on earth. Without them atom bombs can’t happen, conservation is lost and people will never understand each other. Whether you speak, use sign language or Braille; the basis of all communication rests on words.” She stares at the patrons in Boggel’s Place with a winning smile. “That’s why it was so important to understand what happened between Platnees and Vetfaan last week. Without words, we’d never have known[i]…”
“Listen, I’m com-mu-ni-cat-ing with you,” Vetfaan is fed-up with references to the week he spent as Platnees, so he stretches the word like a teacher would to a grade 1 class, “one more snide remark about how I looked in that old overall, washing my own bakkie – my own bak-kie – then you’ll have to call in Koos Kadawer and Oudoom, because it’s going to be a huge funeral. Un-der-stand?”
Boggel ducks below the counter to hide his smile. Gertruida throws up her hands in mock horror. Kleinpiet just draws a gallows on the counter top.
Vetfaan breahes deeply to get his temper under control. “You guys must remember you can’t take back words once you said them. Just the other day, Gertruida told us that soundwaves get dispersed, but never destroyed. Theoretically, you can harness the words of many years ago, if you had the right machine. So, watch what you say, guys, I’m not in a good mood. Words get remembered, that’s the problem.”
“Well, according to the Richardson Cascade, sound dissipates at a distance, half the inverse squared. Although sound waves become inaudible, it remains possible that they last much longer than we think. In theory, that means one can tune in to Shakespeare or Churchill, and hear them talk – even today. However, it remains a theory and one I believe we’ll never prove.” Gertruida, of course…
“So with a sound-catcher, I’ll be able to listen to what you all gossiped about while I was slaving my backside off last week? I’ll know who said what and why you laughed at me?” Vetfaan’s ire is still irked, and he’d love to get back at them all.
He knows, of course, it was Boggel who made him jump up in church – but he can’t acknowledge it. The shame of admitting he didn’t really volunteer, but acted the way he did because of Boggels finger poking in his armpit, would cause gales of laughter. Boggel is clever enough to know this, and has kept silent about it. It’s only when Vetfaan orders a beer, that the unspoken threat is conveyed by his gaze: I’ll get you yet…
The prospect of Vetfaan eavesdropping on their conversations the previous week, sends a shiver down Kleinpiet’s spine. Oh, they had a great deal of fun, that’s for sure; and most of it at Vetfaan’s expense – but if Vetfaan found out what was said, his threat of a huge funeral would have to be taken up literally.
“Relax, Vetfaan. It isn’t all that bad. I’m sure they laughed at me, as well.” Ever since the swap-week, Platnees is now a regular customer at Boggel’s Place. Oudoom had such good intentions with his project. How could he have foreseen this? “And you must remember: this is the Kalahari. If you had a sound-machine, all you’ll hear is silence. Maybe the occasional jackal; but otherwise, nothing.”
Vetfaan goes harrumph, and sips his beer.
Lucinda Verdana, the new lorry driver at Kalahari Vervoer[ii], has fallen in love with the bent little man who owns Boggel’s Place. She sits in the afternoon shade of the old thorn tree outside the offices in Upington, trying t find the right words to write a letter to Boggel. Being Italian and new to the country, she is not only unsure of the correct grammar for her broken English – she’s also uncertain how people go about these things at the southern tip of Africa. In Rome she could say ti amo with impunity; and te quiero rolled off many a Spanish tongue when she was near … she even heard nakupenda in Kenia. But now, here in this desolate corner of the continent, she wants to use the right words to convey her feelings; these new feelings that flushes her with excitement.
She starts off with Dear Boggel… and then realises she doesn’t even know his real name. You can’t start a love letter with Liewe Hunchback, can you? And what could she say afterwards?
I love you because you’re the first man who treated me like a princess? That you gave up your bed , slept on the floor – because you wanted me to have a good night’s rest? Or: that we both woke up before dawn and sat chatting about life until noon? That we found out we both came from broken homes, and shared our experiences – shared, until we found out we actually liked each other?
Oh, Boggel, you made me laugh – for the first time in a long time? I loved your humour, your cynicism, your light-hearted way of telling me about your time in the orphanage, the little bear you fixed up and … even Mary Mitchell?[iii]
You’re a man, Boggel. Much more of a man than the matador in Barcelona, or the guide that took me up Kilimandjaro. Te quiero isn’t enough. Ti amo – neither. ‘I love you’ was killed by television. What words do I use to tell you?
She sighs, tears up the blank page, and goes back to the office to check the roster. Maybe she’ll get a Rolbos-run again.
In Boggel’s Place, Boggel wonders what’ll happen if he told his customers about the way he made Vetfaan jump up when Oudoom asked the question. Vetfaan wonders how he’ll get even. And Gertruida wonders how to harvest lang-ago voices.
But not one of them says anything.
Neither does Oudoom, who knows he’ll have to come up with an idea to cheer Vetfaan up again. His main elder has avoided him lately, and that’s bad for the church. There must be some way he can talk to the man.
And there’s Wiele Willemse, erstwhile driver for Kalahari Vervoer, in his bed in the rehab centre. He’ll have to find the words to talk to his previous boss. He needs that job. He’s heard that some woman took over his position, and that’s all well and fine – but the Kalahari isn’t a place for a woman, alone, when her lorry breaks down of a tyre gets punctured. Besides, he’ll need a job when he gets discharged…
Let’s not forget Platnees, either. The week as boss on the farm was quite an experience, and at times he really felt sorry for Mister Vetfaan. Still, the seven days taught him (or, more correctly, both of them) some valuable lessons. He’ll have to tell Vetfaan how he appreciates his job – now even better with the new house Vetfaan is building behind the barn. But how? Vetfaan isn’t a sentimental person. If he, Platnees, starts talking nicely to his employer, Vetfaan will think he’s got rabies or something.
Platnees is right. The Kalahari is a place of great silences. People wait here for the right words before they speak them. Sometimes, too often, the words are there, but people afraid to give them life.
Building a machine to catch up ancient voices will be a feat, and some nerd is going to earn millions once he manages to tune in to Da Vinci and Mari Antoinette. But the greatest invention of all times will be the aid some geek will dream up – to help us find the right, kind words to communicate with each other.
Even more important than the invention of Right-Word-Finder ©, will be the Audible Unspoken Word Detector, to help us say what we want to, even when circumstances make it difficult.
And so, in the silence that follows Vetfaan’s outburst; under the tree where the scattered papers are blown about by the gusts of dry wind; and in the minds of the people involved in the struggle to find the right words, the right time … we tip-toe away in the hope they’ll allow silence to be what it was supposed to be in the first instance: the womb of wisdom.
May we all respect that stillness…