Lighting an old candle with a wet match.
That’s how Rolbos will remember Mrs Basson’s reaction to the La Traviata song. The hesitant, sputtering flame flickered, almost died, grew stronger, waned.
And then the promise of light became a faint reality…
Fiona Basson seems startled in the beginning, as if a crack in her shell allowed light in where darkness should reign. She peers at the gramophone, looks away, feels her gaze drawn back to the vinyl record. And there is the voice , of course. Unmistakably Maria Callas, undeniably the best. There was a time, she now recalls, that her voice was likened to Callas, but that was after Maria lost weight and some of her abilities on stage. Still, she remembers the compliments. And the stages. And the lights. And the applause. The flowers afterwards. The audiences begging for an encore.
The candle that has been unlit for so many years, suddenly produces a flame that won’t let the darkness rule over everything any more. It may not be much of a light, but even with it’s humble flame, it makes an undeniable statement.
Fiona stretches her hand towards the music, like a tentacle grabbing at the invisible notes. Calla’s pure tones fill Voortrekker Weg, calling Fiona to open the door and to let the sunlight flood into her life again.
“Cal-las...” It’s a soft whisper, recognising the voice.
“Kallis?” Kleinpiet’s response is typical. “Ja, he still bats for the Proteas, but he’s past his prime.”
He doesn’t expect the furious dig in his ribs. Precilla gives him the eye and clamps a hand over his mouth.
“Callas…” Fiona manages again in her hoarse whisper.
“That’s right, Fiona. It was her 90th birthday yesterday.” Gertruida, of course.
Fiona gets up slowly to approach the gramophone. Almost to attention, she cups a hand behind her ear as if to force the music back into her head. She closes her eyes as she sways gently to the rhythm of the music. She sees it again and again: the stage; the conductor’s baton in the white-gloved hand, the footlights and the spotlights blinding her to the audience. She’s alone on the stage, alone and wrapped up in the music, the atmosphere, the tension to sing the notes exactly the way they should be,
When the needle enters the final groove to end the song with a circular scratching sound, Fiona stands transfixed for a second.
“She said something,” Fanny’s surprise echoes in her voice, “she actually said something.”
Once again, the effect on Fiona is remarkable. Her eyes open wide for a second as her hand flies to her mouth.
Gertruida understands: “Yes, Fiona, you are able to say words. That blow injured your larynx, but it didn’t take your voice away. Come on now: is there another song you’d like to hear? Siena had a lot of records and I have a small collection as well.”
“Vi…Vilja.” The hoarse whisper again.
Servaas scampers off to return with Lehar’s Merry Widow. “This isn’t Callas, unfortunately. I actually picked it up in Upington a while ago. It features Kimmy Skota as Hannah.”
“Oh, the Andre Rieu version? I heard it on the radio the other day. That woman can sing, that’s for sure.” Gertruida beams with pleasure.
“Okay, before we kick off, tell me what the song is about. I don’t follow these Italians so well.” Kleinpiet puts down the tray laden with beers and mops his brow. All this culture stuff is making him thirsty. While the small crowd helps themselves, Boggel writes the tab. Gertruida seems deep in thought – as if something is nagging at the back of her mind. She looks up at Kleinpiet and winks.
“It’s in German, Kleinpiet. Franz Lehar wrote the operetta and it was first performed in 1906…”
“1905,” comes the rasping rebuke. Gertruida gapes at Fiona in apparent surprise.
“Okay then, in 1905. The song is maybe the most popular of the operetta, and is sung at the end of the first act…”
“Beginning of the second.” Although she is so unused to using her voice, there is no mistaking the irritation in Fiona’s tone.
“Anyway, the lead singer, Anna…”
“Hanna!” Louder now, more assertive.
“Well, she sings about some sort of witch…”
“A fairy! A Vilja is a forest fairy!!”
“…who wants to seduce a hunter in Pennsylvania…” This time, Gertruida waits for the rebuttal, and gets it.
“The country is imaginary. Pontevedro.” Fiona strains the words out. “And it is the hunter. He’s in love with the Waldmägdelein. The song tells the story. He loves her. She leaves. He’s heartbroken.”
“Oh.” Gertruida seems genuinely surprised. “Sorry. Anyway, it’s just a song in the piece. The real story is about Baron Beta…”
“Zeta! His name is Zeta!”
“…and a chap called Daniel….”
“Stupid! Stupidstupidstupid! Danilo Danilovitsch . DANILO!” Fiona’s flushed cheeks shout her frustration. “The other leads are Valencienne and Count Camille de Rosillon, a tenor!”
“So they meet up, make love and live happily ever after.” Kleinpiet has had enough. “Play the song already.”
Servaas cranks up the gramophone and releases the needle on the right track. The nostalgic music causes a somber silence in the listeners as they think back on loves lost, impossible causes, dashed hope. Servaas doesn’t even bother to wipe the tear from his cheek: let them see it. He’s not going to hide his longing for Siena, the one he loved but was taken away by fate.
It is also Servaas, lonely in his own way and sad for his loss, who notices the effect of the song on Fiona. Grieving, he decides, has no rules. Neither has the feeling of guilt. Everyone must work through those emotions the best way they can. Sometimes you need help – a mental ladder – to climb towards the light. You can’t learn that from a book – it’s something inside the mind that must settle in a new compartment. Reading all the right books, he decides, so often leads to the wrong decisions.
And sometimes time isn’t enough: you need friends to support you. And so often, somebody must force you out of your discomfort zone by challenging you in a way only you would respond to. Yes, Servaas thinks, the skill and the art of that challenge is a fine line to walk.
When the music stops, he bends down next to Fiona, offering his hand.
“Shall we go inside, Fiona Basson? It’s hot out here.”
She looks up. Sees the black suit and the white shirt. He looks, she decides, almost like a conductor: the man with the baton. More importantly: the man who directs the music…
“Yes…,” she whispers.
As the two lonely people shuffle slowly to the door of Boggel’s Place, Vrede follows them with a barely-disguised swagger. There’s a new scent in the air – and he loves it!
Gertruida watches them with a knowing smile. Yes, she knows it was a bit of a gamble.
But it worked, didn’t it?