Duet by Liesl Jobson




by Liesl Jobson




When the man put his gun to my head, a switch tripped inside. I heard a click. Not the click of the trigger. I never heard that, nor would I have. And even if I had heard the trigger pull, I would not be here to recount it. I heard a switch trip below my skull.


I also heard, after the click inside my head, the gunman’s finger playing with the safety catch. He seemed anxious, flick-flick-flicking, like the way I flick my ballpoint when my nerves get going. Perhaps I heard the click after I heard the flick. I wanted to tell him to stop doing that flick-flick-flick story, but he seemed to be in no mood for being told what to do.


The next day, I couldn’t stop talking. I chattered, nattered, uttered and chit-chatted for ten days straight, then discussed, debated, dialogued and disagreed without pausing for breath for ten solid nights as dirty talk accumulated on the chinaware. Night after day, I washed my dishes clean of the strange conversations, the unkind badmouthing, the wicked gossip, swear words, jokes, earnest secrets, the wishful prattle that I had cleansed already. And day after night, I made them dirty again with more of the same until someone took me to hospital.


In the ward I met a man who couldn’t talk.


I asked the cleaner why the man couldn’t talk. He swished his broom and made me jump out his way. I asked the nurse why the man couldn’t talk. She rattled a pill bottle at me and told me to be quiet. The doctor said it was none of my business and asked if I had been feeding my meds to the potted plants.


Outside, the assembly of oaks dropped leaves silently on my head.


One patient told me the ex-wife of the speechless one had used a carving knife to slit his throat. A second said the man had paid a doctor to excise his speech organs. A third said he had swallowed ground glass and lye. Or that, at least, is what he recalled – when he could recall anything – which wasn’t often.


“Beckfluto, blokfluit,” hissed a coffee urn in the lounge.


When tolerably satisfied with life, the man who couldn’t speak took a beige plastic Yamaha recorder from the music therapy room. He took a deep breath, placed his fingers over the holes, and blew a stream of air through the mouthpiece. He emitted twittering chirrups as he watched the stream that meandered through the hospital grounds. Staring at the mossy ferns, he trilled and warbled - crimson shards when angry, an iron gray keening when sad.


The man with no speech occupied the bed next to me. He preached in his sleep. I heard unfathomable warnings, promises of archangels, sobbing of abandoned cherubs, the wailings of the damned. That’s when I started to think his speech loss might be reversible.


Next morning, everyone in the ward had something to say. “He grunts,” said a lady as she knitted a baboon. 

“He babbles,” said a boy who knotted together chairs stolen from the cafeteria.

 “He gurgles,” said an uncle who wore diapers.


“Blokflojte, blockflöte,” squeaked a linen basket on castors.


I wanted to communicate with the man who could not talk and wondered if we could play a duet, a call-and-response recitative that only we would understand. I took my own, the rosewood Dolmetsch, out from the drawer of the bedside table and started to blow.


“Blockflöjt, blockflõték,” murmured the padlocks on the medicine cabinet.


Suddenly, patients looked up from their beds, momentarily attracted, transfigured by the duet we blew. We played love songs then music from the movies followed by Hans-Martin Linde’s Music for a Bird.


Later we played three operas and just before handover, while the staff exchanged patient reports, he played Jesus loves me this I know. I tried to ask what Jesus had to do with it, but lost my voice. Instead of a question, a twelve-tone serial pattern flew out of my instrument in a repetitious and jarring seven-beat rhythm:


SCHOEN-berg PEN-de-rec-ki BERG … SCHOEN-berg PEN-de-rec-ki BERG …SCHOEN-berg PEN-de-rec-ki BERG.


As suddenly as we started we stopped. The humid anguish in the ward could not bear our effort. Patients in fetal positions exhaled clouds that waterlogged our instruments.


The man and I held hands across the aisle between our lumpy cots.


The next morning, a flock of guinea fowl eclipsed the sun and hovered about the ward.


I woke to find "Blockflauta," tattooed on my arm, and "Blockfleita," on his.  Everywhere was blood. Under the bed, in sharp splinters lay his recorder, or perhaps what I saw were sticks, or the spines of autumn leaves that blew in through the window. It wasn’t clear through the cloud of guinea fowl feathers and the screaming of my duet partner. He struggled against two orderlies who were also smeared in blood – or so I thought until a nurse aide scrubbed the red painted lettering off my arm under the bathroom tap. She cursed the fool who left the art cupboard unlocked.


“He jumped on his recorder to make it work again,” explained the lady stitching a bassoon.

“He carved a heart on your arm while you slept,” said the boy, netting soap bubbles blown through a spool.

 “He anointed you,” said the aunt who wove a daisy chain.


The staff, which disliked his wailing pipe and, it seemed, mess in general, put him in The Cry Room without his recorder. The Cry Room is not like the one at church where babies are breastfed and toddlers play during the sermon. Mattress coverings rivet to the floor and bolsters line the walls.


“Why is he in The Cry Room?” I asked the janitor who chased me with his broom. I asked the nurse if she’d take him my recorder, but she gave me another pill. I asked the doctor if there were visiting hours in The Cry Room, and he prescribed for me a sleep-deprived EEG the following day.


I stood at the window of The Cry Room and watched silence fade color from the cheeks of the man who could not talk. Could not? Would not? When he was as gray as the stuffing that wept from the walls, he lay down as if to die. I took my recorder out of my pocket and played to him, Nearer my God to Thee.


That night by lamplight from the nurse’s station, I saw a ceramic plate, decorated but unfired, that hung above his bed.  I wondered why the man who could not talk had hung it there. Then I remembered I’d given it to him. I’d written it with shaky strokes of a fine bristled brush, remembered that a Zen master said the wise man thinks before speech so mischief won’t result from ill-chosen words. I had written Iwanu ga Hana – the equivalent in Japanese of “Silence is Golden.”


As I stared at the plate over his sleeping head, moisture-darkened patches formed letters in the powdery paint that read, “No.”


The next morning I laid down for a nap under my bed. I woke to hear the medics discussing my EEG, which by the sound of things came back revealing normal brainwaves. The first doctor asked if the recorder was an instrument of music.


The second doctor said it was an instrument of torture.


The third doctor, who I guess was the professor, said, “Stop that woman’s Fluanxol!  Wean her off Lithium and halve the Prozac! This is a straightforward case of Post Traumatic Stress. What are you guys doing? Killing a mosquito with an AK47?”


"Blockflauta, blockfleita, blockflauta, blockfleita!" agreed a kiln from the Occupational Therapy workshop.


Suddenly I knew that I could go home again if the man who could not talk would say his name. As long as the plate had not been fired, the man's speech could be returned. I knew I could decode his peculiar mumbles if we could but walk beside the river. I knew we could walk by the river if the plate got off the wall.


I broke the plate to crack the wordlessness to open the speech vault of the man who had been silenced, so that he could get his voice back to say his name, so that I could once again be still.




Author’s note:

In March 2001, I attended a Baha’ì prayer meeting in Johannesburg. Six armed men intruded. We were assaulted, bound, and held hostage for nearly three hours. The gangsters fled with jewelry, cash and vehicles.


This story is a fictionalised account of the incorrect diagnosis I received when I was admitted to hospital three weeks later. Anti-psychotic medication invoked a semi-psychotic state. When the Professor of Psychiatry heard me practising my flute in the hospital grounds, he called me in and re-assessed me. I am eternally grateful to this experienced clinician for my recovery.




Liesl Jobson works as a communications officer for the South African Police Service in Gauteng Province. Her fiction and poetry have been published, or is forthcoming, in Exquisite Corpse, InkPot, Gator Springs Gazette, Retrozine and FRiGG magazine online and in the South African print journals New Coin and New Contrast.



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