A popular party game (perhaps still played today) used to be ‘Whisper Down the Line'. The game did have another well-known name that, today, would seem racist. It consisted of whispering a message in the ear of a listener who passed it down, in turn, to the one next to him and so on down the line until at the end the received message was spoken aloud. Often the finally uttered message bore little resemblance to the one delivered in the first place.
The game served to show that in several retellings an innocent statement could be tarnished by inaccuracies and this, cumulatively, leads to error. Rumour and gossip are cousins to such ‘whispered' conversations.
Sabrina, an unmarried lady who lived in our small township in the sixties, was a fountain of information, real or imagined, about everybody in the neighbourhood. For all her expertise in obtaining gossip I believe she would have had a more satisfying career as an Olympic marathon walker if only she'd set her heart on this more noble aspiration, so determinedly did she stride about. It's as if she had to be everywhere at the same time or she'd miss out on a salacious crumb.
As soon as she was spotted walking at a good clip my mum would hurry inside and shut the front door, much in the manner of Hyacinth's (Mrs Bucket's) neighbours who hurry out of her path in the British comedy, Keeping Up Appearances.
"I thought we were going to sit in the cool breeze and get some rest," my dad would say, perplexed, for he enjoyed his rests under the shady mayflower tree, after returning home from an eight-hour stint driving a steam locomotive.
Mum would roll her eyes and say, "It's Sabrina."
Whereupon dad would walk just as swiftly to the door and lock it. Mum may have been able to tolerate them but dad couldn't abide gossip.
"Did you hear about … ?" was how Sabrina prefaced all her conversations.
One time, because dad stayed out of the gossip loop he became an innocent victim of the ‘whisper' which everyone knew originated from Sabrina. It had to do with the Jackson family and their son Jack Jackson who at the age of 12 was still bedwetting. It didn't help that Jack's father, a locomotive driver too, had the same name which is why young Jack was known to all as Junior Jackson.
By the time dad finally heard the story - very reluctantly - from mum, who'd heard it from a cousin who'd heard it from her sister who'd run into Sabrina at the vegetable shop and picked up the hastily whispered gist of it from behind the leaves of a juicy green lettuce, the story was severely distorted. The protagonist had been supplanted; Jack, the father, had become the bed-wetter.
By coincidence a week later dad and Jack Sr were in the same railway waiting room prior to driving their rostered trains back home. Jack excused himself to go to the toilet and dad unwittingly put his foot into it by saying something seriously prosaic like, "Good, Jack, that's one way of keeping the bladder from emptying during the night."
I was reminded of this recently when my friend Barney who watches cricket obviously misheard Sunil Gavaskar on television. "Did you hear?" he asked me the next day, "One of the Indian batsman had a big lighter in his pocket. A huge one. What's a batsman doing batting with a lighter?"
After laughing hilariously I, who had watched the same game, had to correct him quickly. "Gavaskar said the guy was going to be a bit lighter in the pocket — for standing and protesting his dismissal," I told him, but Barney seemed like he wanted to believe his own ears. Therein lies the power of the whisper.
Kevin Martin is a journalist based in Sydney, Australia.