Sunday, 27 May 2007

Desperately seeking serenity

Having sounded off about the dogs in my street, I have a few other disturbance anecdotes to share about rural life.

One of the other most intrusive noises of the countryside was brought home to me a few years ago when a friend from the city – let’s call him Dennis, since that is his name – came to visit on what was to be a 10-day sabbatical. A movie producer, he’d got to the stage where he was seriously burning out and wanted nothing more than some time away from phones, people, traffic, computers, movies, restaurants, televisions, dogs, beggars, vuvuzelas … everything, in fact, that lends big cities their vibrancy and drives their inhabitants into insane asylums or a life on Prozac, whichever is the cheapest and most convenient for their families.

On the first morning after his arrival, Dennis staggered into the kitchen, where I was perking coffee, at about 10am. He looked bleary-eyed and irritable, a surprise to me since we’d had a sober dinner and gone to bed early the night before.

‘What the fuck was that astounding racket at 3 this morning?’ he asked.

‘Racket?’ I said. ‘Really?’

‘Jesus!’ He grasped at his hair as if he were trying to pull it out by its roots. ‘It went on and on and ON..!’

‘Oh, the chickens,’ I said. ‘You get used to them.’

This was actually dishonestly ingenuous of me, since I know from bitter experience how ghastly it is to wake up at 3am to a cock’s crow that sounds – and, here, is – practically right next to your ear. When I first moved to this village, there was a cockerel that clearly didn’t think much of me, and would highstep it to my bedroom window in the early hours of every morning, and crow its stupid head off. Now, chickens generally are not known for their big brain capacity, so every rooster in hearing distance (here in the unbroken landscape of the country, about 5km in all directions) would hear the call, shake itself awake, and add its two bits to the melee. So, in spite of the fact that dawn was still hours off, you’d have rooster-calls echoing up and down the valley from about 3am until, oh, 6am or so – when you had to get up to see the kids to school.

Well, you do get used to it. Eventually.

The following night’s shenanigans were of a more hysterical nature. Dennis – a tall, strapping lad with a reputation for ruining people’s lives just by looking crossly at them – came racing through to my bedroom around midnight, his face flushed with fear. ‘There’s something in my room,’ he said. ‘It’s big, it’s hairy and it’s moving at the speed of light.’

Ah. A solifuge.

I don’t mention the solifuges to most people who come and stay over, because if I did, they wouldn’t. Solifuges (sun spiders, or ‘Red Romans’, as they’re known locally; who knows why, I always thought that was a fish) belong to the spider family, but they’re the embarrassing backwoods cousins who took too many drugs when they were young, and now have too much hair, too much bulk and too many legs, and are irredeemably psychotic. They’re not poisonous, but they have big jaws and they can bite. And they’re really scary-looking – the stuff of nightmares.

There was no way I was going up against a solifuge in the dark hours of the night, so I made up a bed for Dennis in another room. Using a torch as if we were CSIs, we checked every corner of the room for creepy-crawlies, and Dennis made me stuff a towel into the crack along the bottom of the door before he was satisfied.

The next morning his eyes were bloodshot and his complexion pale. ‘I dreamt I was being eaten by spiders all night,’ he said. ‘What other rural wonders have you got in store for me?’

‘Let’s go and drink our coffee out on the verandah,’ I said soothingly.

You see, the countryside, for all its various nasties, is really wonderfully soul-restoring – and my verandah, which is huge and looks out over the valley and up to the mountains, and gets the morning sun, really is my favourite place in the entire world. And Dennis really would have appreciated this, had he just not decided to extravagantly slide open the entire verandah door, and had a snake that had been curled up along its top not dropped into his hair.

Dennis richocheted off the verandah like a man electrocuted.

‘It’s okay!’ I shouted. ‘It’s only a mole snake! It’s not venomous!’

‘I don’t care!’ he screamed, caroming around the garden and beating at his head as if he were on fire. ‘It’s a fucking snake! And it’s in my hair!’ (Well, I suppose he had a point.)

The snake dispatched (Dennis was disappointed when I refused to beat it do death, and instead released it into the garden), we spent an exceedingly pleasant day around the pool, swimming as it grew hotter and hotter, and drinking some lovely chilled Chenin Blanc. At 10pm and with the sun long gone, but the earth still radiating heat like a DeLonghi, Dennis yawned, stretched and announced that he was off to bed.

He was back two hours later, his eyes rolling in his head, his expression murderous. He stood over me, where I was reading out on the quiet verandah in the endless serenity of the rural night and screamed, ‘What is it with these fucking mosquitoes?!’ And he snatching down his sleepshorts to show me his bottom, liberally festooned with angry red bites.

‘Oh, yes, sorry,’ I said. ‘I forgot how they can swarm when it gets hot…’

‘Swarm?!’ he yelled. ‘They’re like the fucking Wehrmacht!’

‘Look,’ I said, ‘it’s quite simple. You plug in a Baygon mosquito mat, rub Tabard stick all over your body, and light a Doom Super Coil and leave it on the windowsill. Then, if they’re still getting through…’

I stopped there, because Dennis was looking at me with an expression that made me decidedly uncomfortable.

‘What?’ I said.

‘I’ve known you for a long time,’ he said (energetically scratching his arse, which diluted the effect somewhat), ‘and I’ve always considered you a sensible woman. But this!’ and he extracted his hands from his shorts and flung them around, encompassing my house, my garden, the village, everything. ‘This! This is… it’s… it’s just ridiculous! Crowing cocks, falling snakes, hunting solifuges, bloodsucking mosquitoes…. It’s insane! Insane, I tell you!’

He disappeared inside and reappeared moments later, fully dressed and grasping his suitcase. ‘Don’t take this personally,’ he said, ‘but I need to go back to the city… to get some peace!’

I didn’t take it personally, and Dennis and I are still close friends. What I’ve never told him, though, are the many other things that make life in the country so uniquely unserene: the bird guns that go off for two months every summer during the grape harvest; the occasional rallies that see farmers on bakkies driving slowly through town and exhorting the villagers through loudspeakers to come to the square to hear boeremusiek and political messages; the Sunday-morning motorbike breakfast runs that roar through the streets; the frog infestation at the beginning of winter when the rains start to fall and you find squashed amphibians everywhere; the ‘miggie season’ in spring, when biting midges descend on the town and afflict the unfortunate with flu-like symptoms; the toxic spraying of the outlying farmlands in summer, when everyone suffers from a hayfever so severe that simply breathing becomes a chore; the endless electricity blackouts, not per se because of Eskom (amazingly) but because the substations are so old and verlep; how the municipality will willy-nilly turn off the water because a pipe has burst somewhere, and they won’t bother to warn anyone because in a community this small, who cares…

And of course the dogs. There are always the dogs.

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