“It’s crazy season,” Gertruida says when Boggel returns with a new crate of beer. “The Americans have strange candidates for their future president, there’s a cease-fire-war in the Middle East, Putin is a hero and a villain according to the newspapers, and Zuma says people actually like him. The only way to make sense out of all this, is to stay right here and enjoy the silence.”
Now, as we all know, the silence of the Kalahari is unique. Well, it’s not silence, really, come to think of it. The whirr of a bird’s wings, the eventually almost inaudible screech of the cicadas, the rustling of the wind through the dried-up bushes – even the scraping of a tortoise’s stubby legs against the warm stones on the ground… when one tunes in to the sounds of Nature, you realise that silence is a relative thing around here. It’s all in the art of listening properly.
“I suppose that’s what’s wrong,” Gertruida muses quietly, “we’ve forgotten to listen.”
“Huh?” Servaas interrupts his reverie. He’s been thinking about Siena, and how they used to listen to the old vinyl records on Saturday nights. “I’ll have you know we listened to every word. Especially when Mario Lanza sang. He was our favourite.”
Gertruida glances at the old man, knowing he isn’t anywhere near her line of thought. It must be great, she thinks, to be able to slip away into some imaginary world, to browse about in the past, and to relive some happy times. These days everybody’s faces are dunked under the muddy waters of doom and gloom by the newspapers; while those unfortunate enough to have a TV dominating their lives, have to put up with pictures of broken buildings and wrecked bodies.
“Those were the days, eh, Servaas? No newspapers, no TV and the radio played music almost the whole day. It was nice to live in that bubble of sublime ignorance.”
He shakes his head, clearing away the images. “Was no bubble, Gertruida. Was real. We had the farm, the house and ourselves. What did it matter if Cape Town had a storm, or Krakatoa exploded on some faraway island? Yes, there were catastrophes all over the world – but the question remained: what could we do about it? The answer is still the same: nothing!
“But in our little house? Now, that was an entirely different matter. Siena made supper and I changed the records on the player. We even,” Servaas blushes at the admission, “danced sometimes.” He smiles at the memory but quickly adds: “At arms length, you know – long-arm dancing. Nothing untoward.”
“Oh, come on, Servaas, don’t play coy with me! You two made a baby! Everything wasn’t at arm’s length, was it?” The smile on her face says it all.
“That, Gertruida, is none of your business.” Servaas’s indignant tone underscores his serious look. “That was our sacred duty. The Bible says so.”
“Calm down, Servaas, I’m only pulling your leg. But what you’re saying is true, of course. There was a time when we lived according to a completely different set of rules – before the TV came. We cared for our neighbours. Nobody burnt down schools. And relationships were based on trust and sometimes love.”
“Love?” Servaas has calmed down and now stares at his glass. “Yes, that was there, too. But there was more. Much more. Respect and trust and loyalty, for instance. You kept your word when you promised something – not like today where people say this today and something else tomorrow. Integrity…that’s the word I was looking for…”
Boggel, who has been silent throughout the discussion, clears his throat. “Well, I think the two of you’ve just diagnosed all the ills of the world. The problem with relationships – all relationships, be it between people or nations or man and nature – is that we’ve lost integrity. I don’t know how we’ll ever get it back.”
“The word has a Latin origin, of course.” Gertruida, in lecture mode again.”Integer. It means ‘whole’ or ‘complete’ and it was in relationship to ‘truth’. So, Boggel, the problem isn’t integrity alone – its the way we lost Truth. That, and the way we insist on being the sole custodians of the only truth.” She ignores the puzzled frowns. “In politics, you get people who believe their own truths, you see? The prez thinks Africa is the biggest continent – that’s his ‘truth’. The EFF thinks the whites living in South Africa today, stole ground from the blacks in previous centuries – that’s their ‘truth’. In the Middle East, people are fighting for their ‘truths’ they get from their holy books.
“‘Truth’ has devolved into ‘opinion’ – and we know how every individual has the right to his or her own on that score. So: no truths plus only opinions equals no integrity and massive conflict. And that, Boggel, is the truth.”
“Ja,” Vetfaan say as he comes in. He’s been outside on the verandah, scanning the sky for a promising cloud (there wasn’t a single one), “Too much noise in the world, but nobody says anything. And we’ve stopped listening.”
Gertruida smiles at this rare gem of wisdom from the burly farmer, takes him by the hand and leads him outside once more.
“Let’s go sit on the stoep, Vetfaan. I want to listen to the silence…but with somebody, not alone. Maybe we’ll hear something nice for a change. Something meaningful, like a cricket or something.”
Once they’ve left, Servaas returns to his memories. Yes, that’s what he and Siena did, too: listened to the silence. Together. At arm’s length… He smiles at the thought. He also remembers the way silence didn’t mean the absence of words, but served to emphasise the fact that we each have two ears but only one tongue.
“Oh, listen to that windpump squeaking” Vetfaan says on the stoep.
“It’s such a significant sound, Vetfaan. Shhhh…”