Tag Archives: brain

Mrs Basson’s Whisper (# 6)

Young Fiona on stage

Young Fiona on stage

“Hey, guys, Spy Snyman sent another fax. Listen to this…” Sersant Dreyer spreads the page on the counter and starts reading.

According to the records of Dr Axel Atlas, some sort of neck surgeon in the Cape, Fiona Basson consulted him soon after the brutal attack. (His receptionist happens to be a client I assisted with a rather messy divorce. She owed me one for the photos I took). Anyway, it seems as if the injuries to Mrs Basson’s Hyoid bone may be corrected by surgery. Mrs Basson, however, refused. No reason is given in the file.

Also: Mrs Basson is actually Miss Basson. She never married. This I got from the offices of Internal Affairs, where I naturally maintain extremely good contacts. The only reason for this deception, I think, was to keep possible suitors away. She seems to have gone to extraordinary lengths to isolate herself.

And lastly: Dr Atlas’s records indicate that she used antidepressants. You may want to check whether she still does.

“The woman did this to herself?” Servaas can’t understand it. “I mean: we all go through heartache and sad times, but to live such an isolated life – for two decades! – is completely daft. I think she’s mad. No, in fact, I know she’s mad.”

“Don’t be so harsh, Servaas. None of us knows exactly other people really feel. I mean: this woman’s voice was her career, her life, her passport to the future. She loved her parents. And then, in a matter of seconds, everything changed.” Gertruida pauses a second, deciding on the wisdom of the next sentence. “Er…you’ll remember, Servaas. You received a telegram once: it changed your life. And remember old Oom Hatting? Our lives never stick to the planned course, Servaas. Not the one we think out in our quiet moments, anyway.

“There’s only one reality, Servaas, and that’s the present moment we live in. The past is merely the background and tomorrow must still happen – if there is a tomorrow, that is. So, now, this moment, is all you’ve got. And don’t think of moments as fleeting seconds. Some moments last a lifetime. Take Mrs Basson for instance: her clock stopped ticking that second when her world came crashing down around her. Her ‘present’ froze to become a lifetime.”

Kleinpiet just shakes his head. This is all way too deep for him.


Arf? Yes, she seems to smile a bit and she’s already scratched behind both ears now. I even put my paw on her lap. But…she needs words, I think. Not arf-arf words; real ones. I’ll call Gertruida.


“The brain isn’t like a computer. It’s an organic thinking machine – and it reacts to its environment. You affect one bit, and the others all change accordingly. But expose it to an overwhelming situation, and bits of it can switch off completely. It’s a mechanism to protect us, see? That’s why we remember laughter, but not pain.

“Sometimes a brain can go into complete lock-down. Such a person can breathe and do basic things, but it seems as if all logical thought disappeared. And then you have Alzheimer’s, where memories simply disappear. In a case like Fiona’s, it is quite possible that her brain deliberately refuses to compute and assimilate the past and the present, leaving her without a future.” Gertruida is in full cry now, loving the opportunity to lecture the group. “It’s not uncommon, either. We choose what we want to remember. Miroslav Volf wrote extensively on the subject, saying that we reject the truth about certain memories to manufacture new ones. This, of course, overlaps with rationalisation, where we justify all the wrong things we do by blaming the context of events.”

By this time, Kleinpiet just sits there, shaking his head. Then he remembers how Oudoom rationalised the visit by that stripper and has to smile. Yes, if even Oudoom does it, we all do it, don’t we? Rationalising isn’t a sin…or is it? He’ll have to ask Servaas one day…

Vrede disturbs his thinking as the dog pads in to utter a low, questioning ‘Aaarf?’.

“Oh look,” Fanny says, “he wants us outside.”


Thankful for the interruption, Kleinpiet carries chairs outside, forming a semicircle in front of Fiona. The group soon joins him when he sits down. Vrede wags his tail in appreciation.

“Fiona,” Fanny addresses the older woman, “we’re just a group of friends who’d like to see you become better. See, even Vrede likes the idea.” She points to their favourite pet, who obliges with a friendly ‘woof!’.

For a moment, an uncomfortable silence settles In Voortrekker Weg. This is not the Kalahari-quiet they are all used to; that stillness that folds around them with soothing compassion. This is an ominous, unpredictable silence, a silence punctuated with uncertain looks and stolen glances.

“I can’t remember,” Oudoom says, “what exactly I thought when they told my my father had died. I mean, it’s so long ago! I was young and had all kinds of dreams,  But I retain the memory of loss – and that never fades.”

Boggel picks up the hint immediately.

“Yes, I wish I had a father to remember. Growing up in an orphanage isn’t so great. Oh, we had a matron, and she was okay, I guess. And there was Ai Mieta who tried to teach me to sing, but she wasn’t all that successful.” He flashes a disarming smile. “Like you all know…”

A series of guffaws and giggles follows his remark. When Boggel lets loose after a few Amarulas, they usually have to beg him to stop.

“My parents were strangers to me,” Precilla adds. “I so wish I had something good to remember.” Her past, like we know, is tainted by alcohol and abuse.

They fall silent again, looking at Fiona.

“Mrs Basson,” Gertruida ventures, even if she knows Fiona is a Miss, “what do you remember?” It is a direct question, a challenge for her to join the conversation.

Fiona Basson doesn’t seem to notice. She’s patting Vrede’s head. Then, with a torturded look, she raises her head before opening her mouth to say something. The townsfolk crane forward.

To everybody’s surprise, Servaas holds up a hand. He scampers off, returning with Siena’s old wind-up gramophone and a 78′ vinyl record. Placing it next to Vrede, he winds it up, sets the needle in the groove, and returns to his seat.

Later, all the others will congratulate him on this stroke of genius.

Let’s enjoy ourselves

for the delight of love is fleeting and quick.

It’s like a flower that blooms and dies

And we can no longer enjoy it.

So enjoy; A keen and flattering voice invites us!’

From: La Traviata, by Verdi

Precilla’s Tango

“It’s the tango,” Gertruida says. “Ever since Precilla started with this idea, he walks like that.”

Kleinpiet sits down at the counter after taking several small steps across the room. He obviously has to concentrate hard to keep his feet moving with the right rhythm, and almost stumbled across old Marco, who is reading in the corner.

“It’s not normal.” Vetfaan frowns at the empty beer glass in front of him. “Kleinpiet is a farmer, man. You can’t teach a real Boere-Afrikaner to tango. Maybe a sakkie-sakkie, or a simple shuffle – but not this Italian thing Lucinda is helping Precilla with. Oudok will have to order a new supply of those new pills. The anti-stuff. It helps for sprains and bruises. At the rate Kleinpiet is going on, we’re all going to need it.”

Boggel bristles a little at the remark, feeling he should defend Lucinda. On the other hand: Kleinpiet has broken three glasses while he was twirling around last night. As much as he loves Lucinda, he has to admit the tango classes are a bit far-fetched.

“Listen, it’s not the dance – I quite agree with you. Precilla is an expert, stepping around like she’s floating on air. The problem is Kleinpiet. He’s like an elephant on roller skates. No co-ordination. And when he finally gets his feet in the right spot, he’s way behind the music. I watched while Lucinda gave him extra classes. She made him dance with a broom; but he broke it after five steps.” Boggel has to smile. “When I suggested a piece of pipe, Lucinda said it might be fatal.”

“But what is this sudden urge to teach him to dance? And a tango, nogal? Its not something we do around here?”

“Oh,” Gertruida smiles, “Precilla may be thinking about the First Dance. You know, like at a wedding?”

A stunned silence follows.


“Now look, Kleinpiet, you have to concentrate. It’s only five steps, two slow and three fast. T, A, ngo. Like that.” Precilla moves her pretty feet to demonstrate. “You have to do it like that.”

Kleinpiet is secretly (but extremely so) frustrated. He has accepted that his faux pas with the clothing; and his efforts to sound clever resulted in almost ruining the relationship. Although he promised himself he won’t do anything stupid like that again, he still can’t work up the enthusiasm needed for the dance.

“Look, I’ll try. You know I want to. It’s just my feet – they don’t work like yours do. I’m used to the veld and the rocks and the fences. This fancy stepping is all new to me.”

“Kleinpiet, when I was small, I promised myself I’ll get a boyfriend who can tango. One. Two. One-two-three. It was my way of escaping the reality of being poor. The tango had a message for me: it was smooth, sexy, grand – all the words that didn’t fit into my world. I could close my eyes and see myself floating in the arms of a man who understood exactly how my mind and my body works. I wanted to be the extension of his power. A graceful walk into the future – that’s how I saw it.

“Now, I know it’s difficult for you, but you have to try. Just to please me. You will, won’t you, Kleinpiet?” She flutters her lashes at him during the last sentence and he feels himself crumbling under the weight of her plea.

“It’s not just the feet, Precilla. I have to lead you, bend you this way and that, and even swing you around. It’s very intimate. Very personal. I get nervous when you’re so near.”

“That’s the point, you silly. The tango is like love – you become one person with four legs. One in mind. One in soul. To me, the tango is the dance of love.” She falters now, not sure whether it’s a good thing to bare her soul like this. “But Kleinpiet,” now she uses a little-girl voice, almost pleading with him to understand, “it’s something I’ve always dreamt about. It’s childish, maybe; even foolish; but it’s one way of breaking down the barriers between us.”

Kleinpiet understands this bit. They’re both grown adults – mature adults – on the verge of breaking new ground. Both of them have had relationships of varying degrees of intensity before and both of them have reservations about what it means to be in love. The baggage, he thinks, the baggage can sink this friendship. However, if they can allow each other into a communal and shared space, it’ll help to make them less aware of the obstacles in their way.

“Look, Kleinpiet. I’ve danced with men before. The usual stuff in garage parties. I can two-step and even get by doing the foxtrot.” She can see he doesn’t like the line she’s taking. “But I’ve never done the tango. Ever. It’s as new to me as it is to you. I dreamt about it like young girls do – a dream you never expect to fulfil. Like the perfect life in suburbia with a husband and kids and a dog named Rover. Picket fence and a few roses next to the front door.” She feels the emotion rising and swallows hard. “And I know that’s not the way my life turned out. I’ll never have children. The house turned out to be a cottage in the desert and the roses are a few withered shrubs in the sand. I can’t change that.” She’s crying now, angry at herself. “But I can still dream about the tango. And if there’s one person – one person in the whole wide world – I’d like to tango with, it’s you. Can’t you understand it?”

The human brain remains a mystery to even the most brilliant scientists today. How does it work? Where do thoughts come from? How do we conjure up images in the grey slush between our ears? We simply don’t know. It’s a miracle; an unexplainable process that we live with. We accept it as an everyday (everysecond?)  happening, which we seldom stop to analyse.

In Kleinpiet’s mind an unused neuron suddenly discovers a new protein. It’s called an engram, and it’s unique – he’s never known about this microscopic cell before. Yet, this single protein conjures up a line of thoughts; a series of images in Kleinpiet’s brain.

Precilla’s words and her emotion set this neuron off. People may say she touched a nerve – and maybe that’s much nearer to the scientific truth than we ever considered.

In that micro-second, Kleinpiet sees Precilla as she really is – a young girl trapped inside the body of a mature woman. The years roll back to a time of hope and innocence, when they both believed the world was their stage and the audience was waiting with bated breath. An invisible hand tears the pages from their history books, the war disappears, the tears get wiped. This, the neuron tells him, is possible. He can start anew. It is possible to make this woman’s dream come true. With her at his side, there is nothing he cannot face.

This neuron waited a lifetime for this moment. We call it self-discovery or acceptance or even love. One day a clever laboratory assistant will duplicate the process in a test tube, and the world will change. But now, inside Kleinpiet’s head, the engram-protein is working its magic.

He sees her watching him in this timeless moment. She wants him to answer, to laugh, to reject, to respond, to accept. Anything – but after she’s put her soul on the line, he cannot remain silent. Tell her, the neuron commands, and then dance her breath away.


It’s almost closing time and Boggel is serving the last round, when Vetfaan looks at his watch.

“Kleinpiet hasn’t been in tonight. I wonder if he has problems on the farm?”

“Don’t you listen, Vetfaan?” Gertruida cups a hand behind her ear. Faintly, above the buzz of conversation, faint music can be heard.

“Are they still at it? Gee whiz! That’s the third evening in a row. I never thought Kleinpiet would persevere. That tango-thing is a difficult thing.” He is quiet for a while before coming to a decision. “He’s too clumsy. He can’t dance.”

“Oh,” Gertruida says, because she knows everything, “I think you’re wrong. And…,” she wags a playful and naughty finger at Vetfaan, “I’m not sure they have their feet on the ground right now.”

Poor Gertruida. She doesn’t know everything. She’s right about one thing, though: inside Precilla’s cottage two people are dancing as one. They’re moving in perfect harmony, two slow, three fast. They sway and bend and tangle and float across the wooden floor while the music takes them back to the beginning, where they have to be: where innocence and hope are the keys to opening the new door they face. And yes – it’s as if their feet never touch the floor; like it should be; while the dance fuses the past and the future together in the sweet and sacred, intricate and delicate web we call Life. It is a dance of leading and following -blending into a common purpose.

It is the tango. Latin: tangere: to touch. Without it, Life means nothing…