Sitting in the back of a flatbed truck yesterday, trying not lose my teeth as we rocketed over another rut, and simultaneously to answer Ivy’s question about whether we have savannahs in England, drinking in the smell of hot grapefruits from Kim's tree, I suddenly realised in disbelief that we had not yet been here two days.
We’re in Aishalton at LAST! The journey took six hours though it’s less than a hundred miles. The track is deep sand in some places, ugly rutted rocky or gravelly in others. It goes across or through countless creeks. When I say some of them are surprisingly deep, I mean we went into them in rear wheel drive and were surprised to find we couldn’t come out again! Father Paul Dominic, a diminutive Indian ascetic philosopher of 68 years old, climbed out and waded round to engage the four-wheel drive on each front wheel every time we were surprised. We arrived happy but less than fresh.
We’re moving in in three stages. First, four days in the Jesuit Presbytery. Then a few weeks in the government hostel, guarded by the foursquare efficient distant-smiling Petronella. And then into a little house of our own.
Sitting on the balcony of the presbytery today, I listened to the silence again. Silence is commonly said to fall, but it definitely doesn’t here. It bulges, spreads. It is the reality that underlies, and the noises are the fragile, ephemeral phenomena. This quality of silence is most evident in the early afternoon. The world slows down until it almost stops. The heat squeezes you, inflates you. It expands out into the valley spread below the house. The bleat of the goat is stifled; even the tweet of its kid, exactly an octave higher, trembles in the fat air and is squashed. One last flock of parrots vibrates its cricket-like unresonant harshness into the afternoon and then expires into a treetop. Stillness expands. You can hear it.
At about four, the birds begin to sing again. I hear a guitar in the church behind. A distant motorbike farts across the valley. A tiny boy emerges from the thatch directly opposite, half a mile away, and begins to wind buckets up the well. Awakeness returns. But silence continues to be present. Once you’ve heard it, you can’t stop hearing it, lying underneath, confident and profoundly simple.
So when Ivy asked me if we have savannahs in England, I didn’t know how to reply. I don’t know what the question means. Does she mean wide open places, or grasslands scattered through with villages, or places where giant anteaters, armadillos and huge storks flourish? I found myself thinking of the Scottish highlands- ironic in a place that could bake your brains out in ten minutes flat! The quality that reminded me of Scotland was not simply wilderness, but the potency of the silence. Despite the roar of the truck engine, the babble of Wapishana and the giggles from the children sharing the flatbed with me, the crashing, creakings and splashings of the various substances over which we drove and the dry crackle of iminaru (sandpaper tree) leaves underfoot, the savannah has a breathing silence which I hope you have the chance to hear sometimes in your life.