“Never?” Precilla can’t believe it.
“Never. Doesn’t say a single word. Ouma says so, and she should know: that woman has been staying at het guest house for more than twenty years.”
Ouma’s Guest House in Grootdrink has a reputation for good value for money, and is a popular stopover for weary travellers. It’s also widely known that she has a silent guest – a long-term one at that – who stays in the rondawel at the edge of her property.
Now, we all know people like that. The Strange Ones, the Misfits, the Hermits – they live amongst us and somehow we become so used to them that they become invisible. We don’t see them any more…or, more accurately, it suits us not to see them any more. It’s a choice. The beggars, the politicians, the man in tattered clothing at the stop street – we block them out because it’s uncomfortable to acknowledge their presense in our realities.
So, although everybody knows about The Silent Woman staying at Ouma’s, she was relegated (by virtue of a communal and unspoken understanding) to the Invisible World, where it wasn’t necessary to care or worry about her any longer.
Oh, it’s not as if Ouma didn’t try to break through the barrier of silence. Mrs Basson was, after all, a well-travelled and apparently extremely intelligent woman. Ouma used to visit her daily – that was at the beginning – to hear whether she needed anything; but Mrs Basson, The Silent Woman, just sat there with her empty eyes and the vacant smile; staring out of the little window at nothing. Ouma gave up after a while, and now Mrs Basson simply exists in the void she has created around herself.
“Ouma says her bill is paid on the last day of the month. As regular as clockwork, she says. Some lawyer firm in Cape Town. And twice a year she gets a letter from the same people, requesting an update of her guest. What can she tell them, other than Mrs Basson is alive and well and…silent?” Gertruida spreads her arms wide, not expecting an answer.
“But where did she come from? It’s such an unusual place for a woman like…that…to settle down. A rondawel in the middle of nowhere? Who’d want to do that?” Although he loves the isolation of the Kalahari, Kleinpiet cannot imagine being cooped up in a rondawel for such a long time.
“Ouma says she was brought there by a man in a neat suit, way back then. The man said Mrs Basson asked to stay there and that her bills would be paid. No, he didn’t know for how long, but that was Mrs Basson’s choice, he said. If she wanted to move on, Ouma had to phone the lawyers and they’d take care of everything.”
“Well, we all know about Mrs Basson and before tonight nobody really mentioned her. What made you bring up the subject, Gertruida?”
“Ag you know how it is, Vetfaan. I stopped at Ouma’s on my way back fro Upington – just for a cup of tea and a chat. Halfway through the tea, Ouma mentioned the woman, saying she is becoming a problem. Of course I was curious.”
The issue at stake, Ouma explained, was that she wanted to expand the guest house. “The rondawel will have to go, Gertruida, to make room for the new wing of rooms I have in mind. So I told Mrs Basson she’d have to move to the main guest house while the building is going on.” That’s when, Ouma said, Mrs Basson became extremely agitated. “Apparently she shook her head violently before collapsing on the bed, sobbing silently. Ouma didn’t know what to do and left her. When she went back, the door was locked. Mrs Basson doesn’t want to let her in any more.”
They all drove over to Ouma’s Guest House the following day after a lengthy discussion in Boggel’s Place. Fanny had reminded them that it’s a month before Christmas, and they couldn’t just ignore the situation. It’s their duty as human beings and as concerned citizens, she said, to do something about this.
“Mrs Basson?” Gertruida uses her friendliest tone after knocking on the rondawel’s door. “We need to talk.”
Servaas thinks this is the worst way to get Mrs Basson to open the door. A mute woman and you want to talk with her? Yet, much to her surprise, the key rattles in the lock and the door swings open.
The best way to describe Mrs Basson is to imagine a very old, dented, antique Buick Y. You get the impression of style and elegance, of the fascination of a past generation…and of decay, damage, delusion… Mrs Basson must have been a beauty in her prime; but all that now remains, is the shell of elegance – a faint reminder of something magnificent that no longer enthrals. He blond hair is grey now, the high cheek bones covered by wrinkles, the ears almost too big in comparison with the rest of her features…and the false teeth date back to a time when her face was fuller, kinder…
“Mrs Basson?” Gertruida gets a faint nod. “May we come in?”
It is dark inside the dwelling. the single window covered by a curtain that sheds a cloud of dust when Gertruida pulls it open. Except for a bed and a chair, the only other furniture is a wash basin on an ancient stand. Against the wall, a single framed picture hangs at an angle. And there are books…stacks of them, scattered around.
“We wanted to know what you’d like to do for Christmas.” Gertruida sits down on the bed next to Mrs Basson while the rest of the little group stand around uncomfortably. To describe the conditions inside the rondawel as ‘spartan’ is an overstatement.
The woman places a hand on Gertruida’s knee and shakes her head. No. I don’t want your charity.
“You see, we’re from Rolbos and we don’t think it’s fair for you to sit here, year after silent year, with nobody to share Christmas with. What can we do?”
A single tear rolls down the pale cheek. Another shake of the head.
Fanny studies the picture against the wall.
“Fiona Basson? Fiona?” Surprise colours her question. “You are Fiona Basson?”
The teary eyes swivel towards Fanny before an almost imperceptible nod follows. Is that…fear…in her eyes now?
“I heard you sing. In the Royal Albert Hall in London. I was barely a teenager then, but I’ll never forget the night. My father forced me to go, you see? I didn’t want to go because my best friend had a sleepover. And…” Fanny falters at the thought, “you saved my life.”
A flicker of interest in the old woman’s eyes now – just for a second, before they stare down at her lap again.
“My friend had arranged quite a party that night. Some time after midnight, they decided to get something to eat. It happened while they walked to a nearby fastfood outlet – a lorry smashed into them. No brakes, drunken driver. They – there were three of them – were all killed.” Fanny lets out a shuddering sigh: even after all these years, the memory still bites deep.
“I didn’t know that while I was listening to you, of course. I sat there, puffed up and angry, while you sang the lead in the Nun’s Chorus. And then I heard you – really heard you. Not your voice, but your passion. I…cried, You were beautiful.
“The next day, when we heard the news, my father didn’t say much. We were shocked. But we knew: if he didn’t force me to tag along with him the previous evening, I’d have been dead,,,”
“Are you the woman who returned to South Africa after singing the lead in Aida in La Scala? The one they called The Voice of the Century? And then, why then…you simply disappeared?” Gertruida – who knows everything – vaguely recalls the newspaper articles about South Africa’s once-famous diva.
This time, her answer is a stifled sob.