The little girl always sang.
Well, maybe not with words all the time: she’d hum or whistle – or simply played the tune inside her mind. Her aunt said it was because she inherited her talent from the Hanekoms that used to tour the country and maybe she had a point; but her father told everybody that God sometimes blesses a child with an exceptional talent and that He deserves the praise. And of course: there was the influence of her mother…
Despite her obvious gift, little Fiona Basson lived in the cul-de-sac of poverty. There was no money for a proper education, no prospect of attending a conservatorium, no hope for receiving training for the sweet juvenile voice. Her father used to bring home just enough money to sustain the family; but coal-mining is a dangerous occupation and the feared Black Lung forced him to be bedridden by the time she was eight.
Her mother worked as a shop assistant, which didn’t even pay the rent. Little Fiona, a hard worker and somebody who knew at a terribly young age her mother needed help, eventually found a job: a dishwasher at the Greek’s cafe a few blocks away. Her sunny nature and diligence resulted in her being promoted to be a waitress when she turned twelve.
And all the time music accompanied her wherever she went. In the Greek’s establishment (rather tacky, but serving an excellent mixed grill and equipped with a second-hand jukebox he swindled from his brother) she’d serve the customers with a smile while she hummed the latest melody on the hit parade. In the kitchen she’d sing (not too loudly) the songs on the Vinyl 78’s in the jukebox: Callas, Piaf, Mario Lanza…
And it was there, shortly after her thirteenth birthday, that Hendrik Brandt heard her sing for the first time.
The little crowd inside the rondawel can’t really decide what to do. Fiona Basson, they now know, once was a famous soprano – a woman with the opera-world at her feet. But now, that Fiona Basson is no more. The Silent Woman took over the life of Fiona Basson, robbing her of her voice, her life and a future that promised so much. Like a hermit crab, The Big Nothing invaded her very existence to obliterate the dreams that once were.
“Maybe she had one of those mini-strokes,” Servaas ventures in a whisper, remembering Siena. “Maybe she simply lost the ability to speak? You know: unable to find the words to express herself.”
Gertruida nods. “It is possible, but I don’t think so. Look at the books.”
Gertruida – as always – is right. The books are everywhere – on the floor, next to the chair, under the bed. All of them similar, all of them simple school-exercise books.
Fanny, who’ve been paging through one, agrees. “She’s not at loss for words, that’s for sure. Look at this: pages and pages filled with poetry.”
The withered face turns slowly, very slowly, to look at Gertruida. The pain in the eyes makes Gertruida flinch.
“Can you understand me?”
“Can you speak?”
The eyes swivel downwards again to stare at the arthritic hands folded on her lap.
“Something happened, didn’t it? Something bad, really bad? Way back then?”
This time, Fiona doesn’t respond. She just sits there, waiting for them to go.
When he heard the sweet sound of her voice drifting from the kitchen, Hendrik Brandt immediately recognised the gift the young girl had. Hendrik had dropped in for a quick bite; he was hungry and in a hurry ; but the voice – the clarity and beauty – made him forget all about his immediate needs. This was talent…genuine talent.
As the musical director of CAPAB (Cape Performing Arts Board), Hendrik had heard, judged, rejected or promoted so many artists, that he thought he had heard the full range of vocal capabilities in his time. But now, staring down at the greasy steak and two eggs, he felt goosebumps developing all over as the voice carried to him amidst the aromas emanating from the kitchen. He got up, pushed open the door, and gazed in wonder at the child-woman setting up the next tray.
Two months later, Fiona moved to a modest flat near the Nico Malan Theatre, where Brandt personally supervised her tutelage under the stern eye of Madame Gudrin Sjodin. She became part of the choir soon after, but progressed to minor solo roles by the time she was sixteen. At eighteen she starred in Carmen and two years later she sang the lead in Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor. It was her rendition of Il Dolce Suono; written in F Major, and ending on a high F above high C; that landed her the contract with La Scala.
“I think she’s mad.” Servaas pulls at the lapels of his black suit as they get out of the car at Boggel’s Place. “If she had a minor stroke, she certainly chose a strange way to treat it. Why sit cooped up in a bungalow? And Ouma says she doesn’t take pills or anything like that. No…I think she lost her marbles.”
“That’s harsh, Servaas.” There’s no mistaking the rebuke in Precilla’s voice. “I think she’s hiding from the world. And did you even look at the poetry? I read a few verses, and it’s filled with pain. And…she knows her poetry. I saw a bit of Aleksandr Pushkin amongst her verses:
Not long ago, in a charming dream, I saw myself -- a king with crown's treasure; I was in love with you, it seemed, And heart was beating with a pleasure. I sang my passion's song by your enchanting knees. Why, dreams, you didn't prolong my happiness forever? But gods deprived me not of whole their favor: I only lost the kingdom of my dreams.
“I think it’s incredibly sad.”
“We can speculate until we’re as crazy as the parliament, guys, but I’m going to find out. There has to be a way. And I’ll call in a few favours for this one – some of my old friends still owe me…” Gertruida has that look. “And whatever it is…we must do something. We can’t let that woman destroy herself like that.”
Boggel recognises the look, the tone. Well, he’ll do his bit. Smiling sweetly, he opens the bottle of Cactus.
“Love is a rebellious bird
that nobody can tame,
and you call him quite in vain
if it suits him not to come.” …… (Bizet.)