by Joke Debaere

Francois rings the door of my home for the first time in my life. I open the door and see him, wearing an orange t-shirt. He smiles at me. We great each other and I offer him some help with getting his stuff out of the small black car.

I got in contact with him through Andy Fierens, an Antwerp poet. Francois is going to give a concert for … 9 people. My apartment is simply too small to host more people.

While we are busy offloading his stuff, my landlord, and old Jewish man who lives above my ground floor, comes down the stairs. Mr Burger, that’s his name, always leaves his home at 18h30, sharp, to go and visit his girlfriend, a thirty year younger catholic woman. They see each other twice a week, on Friday and on Saturday. I didn’t ask for his permission to give a performance in this old house, which does not isolate any sounds louder than coughing. And I had hoped or calculated, wrongly, that he would be out by the time Francois arrived.

Mr Burger watches the pavement, filled with boxes, stands, a keyboard, cables. And with a mixture of anger and amazement in his eyes, he asks me “Which orchestra is going to perform tonight in my house?!” I tell him, while Francois carries on offloading his stuff, that it’s no orchestra. “It’s just a cellist” I assure him. “One man, from South Africa!” Mr Burger looks around. I assume he’s looking for the cello, which is not even on the pavement yet. Then he becomes furious and starts shouting at me: “What the hell are you telling me? Liar!! Look at all this stuff!!! It’s an orchestra, I swear!!!”

I have to put all my effort into not laughing out loud at this situation, which might madden him even more (Mr Burger is known for his anger, throughout the whole neighbourhood). Francois, though, in a bit of a rush, apparently, carries on offloading his stuff.

When Mr Burger walks away, he furiously shouts “I’ll call the police when you make noise after 23h o clock!!” – the time that he’ll be back, as usual.

At 23h indeed, Mr Burger knocks on my door. He opens it and sees Francois behind my white piano, which fills a big part of the small room. Francois is improvising on a theme I gave him from a Handel piece I performed as a teenager. Mr Burger observes Francois, who keeps on playing and says “So he’s a pianist too?” I smile, and say “Mr Burger, we’ll end the performance right now, but you can join us, if you want to, for the last song.” He says “No, no.” And with a remarkable softened voice, he adds “Just keep it brief.”

Then Francois looks at the nine people in the room. We’re all spellbound by what this man from South Africa has showed us. A performance as if it was the first and the very last one he would ever give. A performance as if he was not playing somewhere in an old cracky home, but in the Royal Albert Hall. Up to today, I have hardly enough words to describe the heartfelt silence he brought into my heart, that evening.

Francois asks us what we would like him to do, as a way of ending this evening. A friend of mine suggests to play a goodnight song for my landlord. We all smile and agree. Francois improvises on a well known theme. In my imagination, the old Mr Burger, who suffers from a very painful blood disease for which he doesn’t want any cure, goes lying down on his bed, closes his eyes, and falls asleep like a rose.

When I close my eyes, thinking about all that I’ve experienced with Francois after that first evening, then I see so much. We’ve danced with 30 black children in Adelaide. We’ve improvised for Aids patients in a hospital in Berlin. I’ve improvised a song with an Afrikaans teenager on a big school stage. I have performed in a former prison cell, shouting raw sounds, with Francois on cello, acoustic, behind me. We have improvised lyrics with two children’s choirs. I’ve carried our stuff in and out of the van, each time again with a sincere feeling of “yes, we’re on the move.” Simply too much beauty to mention in one newsletter …

These months, I am working in Antwerp, as a writer. I am working on a theatre script for Madam Fortuna, the theatre in Antwerp where Francois and I gave our first performances together. And I’m finishing my first novel “Winter Song”. It’s certainly a different existence from being on the road, yet I feel how both nurture each other. And within less than 4 weeks, I’ll be jumping on stages throughout South Africa with Francois by my side, “all over and over again,” words we often use in our conversations.

Ending this letter, I have to add a little grounding note too. Since life is not always easy, so travelling, loving, caring, writing, paying bills, listening to each other, respecting each other’s limits, giving a performance of good quality, etcetc are not always easy either. But breathing with Francois by my side has grown over me. It nourishes me, and I dare to say, that the things which we’ve done so far on stage, have also nourished audiences, throughout Europe and South Africa.

Maybe I will meet you, his audience, one day (in case I haven’t met you already), on or off stage. I can only wish for us to share some meaningful, heartfelt time together. And I’d like to end this letter (of which I kind of wished it was a book, to be able to write everything down as detailed as the first anecdote) by saying that I feel simply honoured in sharing this space. With you, with him, with me, with the silence we all carry inside, with the world.

Francois is a cellist and an orchestra at the same time. Mr Burger’s confusion turned out to be quite metaphoric. I long to add my voice soon … “all over and over again.”

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