The Woman Next Door By Yewande Omotoso: Book Review
Hortensia doesn’t like Marion, and Marion doesn’t like Hortensia.
The two women, both in their eighties, may live side by side in a Cape Town suburb as neighbours, they may both take great pride in their gardens and they both attend the monthly local committee meetings with an insufferable know-all attitude, but they can not, and will not, see eye to eye.
“It was known that the two women shared hedge and hatred, and they both pruned with a vim that belied their ages.”
The Woman Next Door is the hilarious tale of warring octogenarians, but it is also the story of how identity, race and belonging is understood through the land we live on and the communities we build.
Hortensia is the only black woman at the committee meetings and her struggle against Marion and other white women gives insight to a nation scarred by racism.
Author Yewande Omotoso asks if these scars can ever be healed – and if Hortensia and Marion can ever be friends.
The Woman Next Door By Yewande Omotoso: Book Extract
The habit of walking was something Hortensia took up after Peter fell ill. Not at the beginning of his sickness, but later, when he turned seriously ill, bedridden. It had been a Wednesday. She remembered because Bassey the cook was off on Wednesdays and there were medallions of lamb in Tupperware in the fridge, meant to be warmed in the convection oven, meant to be eaten with roasted root vegetables slathered in olive oil. But she hadn’t been hungry. The house felt small, which seemed an impossible thing for a six-bedroomed home. Still, there it was.
‘I’m going out,’ Hortensia had shouted at the banister. According to the nurses, she wasn’t supposed to leave him unattended but Hortensia held the nurses and their opinions in contempt. She didn’t see the need to knock on the door and tell him she was leaving, either. She had convinced herself that Peter’s hearing, unlike his deteriorating body, was intact. That he was capable of hearing even while buried beneath blankets, hearing through the closed door of what she called the sickbay, hearing down the stairs, hearing as she closed the front door behind her. She’d gone out through the pedestrian gate, looked up and down Katterijn Avenue and turned right towards the Koppie.
The Koppie, a small rise in an otherwise at landscape, was the obvious place to walk to that first time, and every time since. Being neither fit nor young, it was important to her (especially with her bad leg) that the slope was gradual enough not to be a bother; but still high enough to afford Hortensia a sense of accomplishment each time she climbed it. She was petite and her strides were small. Her walk had grown laboured over the years but in her youth, with her small stature and vigorous movements, she had been regularly confused, from afar, for a child. Her curly black hair cut close to the skull didn’t help her appear any more adult. Up close, though, there was nothing childlike about the sharpness of her cheekbones, her dark serious face, her brown eyes.
Once on top of the Koppie, Hortensia liked to trail through the grasses and low bush. She wore her hiking boots and enjoyed the crunch of their soles on the rough ground. All this had been a surprise that first time; enjoyment of nature wasn’t generally something Hortensia engaged in. But at the advanced age she was, with over sixty years of a wrecked marriage behind her, this enjoyment was precarious. The slightest thing could upset it.
The top of the Koppie was planted with wild-growing vines and scattered pine trees. A path cut through the long grasses and although it looked maintained, Hortensia couldn’t help but think of the Koppie as a forgotten land. Once it became of interest to her she quickly noticed that the kids of the neighbourhood didn’t play there, and the adults of Katterijn seemed to flatten the hill with their gaze, discount its presence.
Soon after she started climbing it – to get away from a dying man, to give him room to die faster, to catch fresh air, she couldn’t work out which – some old bat from the committee mentioned it; put it on the agenda in fact. Katterijn committee meetings never failed to make much ado of the quotidian, to wrestle the juices from the driest of details, to spend at least an hour apiece on the varied irrelevances experienced by the committee members since the last meeting.
The Koppie was also a surprise because Hortensia had reached the age of eighty-five without having understood the meditative power of walking. How had she missed that? she scolded herself. But now, with Peter almost gone, it seemed right that she discover walking, that she do a lot of it and that she not resist the contemplation it provoked in her, the harking back to the past, the searching. These were all things Hortensia had grown skilled in avoiding. All her life she’d occupied her time with work. In return her company, House of Braithwaite, had enriched her and, in exclusive circles particularly in Denmark, amongst interior designers and fashionably nerdy textile-design students, made her famous.
Before the Koppie, memories were balls of fire sitting in the centre of each earlobe. A headache, her doctor in Nigeria had called it when it first started, but this was no headache. It was resentment, and Hortensia found that if she looked away from the things that were rousing – the memories – she was not happy but nor was she in agony. And then, so many years later, to discover walking. To discover that if she remembered while walking, the memories were bearable. Was it the fact of simultaneously thinking back while moving forward in a wide-open space, unconstricted? Not that the walking made the memories come sweetly. They came with anger and it helped that the Koppie was deserted, so Hortensia could shout and not be disturbed by any other living thing except some squirrels and, judging by the small mounds of sand, a colony of ants.
Katterijn was an enclave of some forty houses within Cape Town’s suburb of Constantia. Not all owners lived on the premises; many were European, leased their properties out and boasted of their African summer homes at dinner gatherings. The Estate had its origins as a wine farm. When Hortensia and Peter had moved to South Africa the agency had made a fuss about the great history of Katterijn, which went as far back as the late 1600s. A Dutch man, Van der Biljt (Hortensia found the name unpronounceable), had visited the Cape, a guest of the Dutch East India Company. Corruption was rife in the company, and Van der Biljt was a reluctant part of a team posted by the directors to bring order to the venality. The parcel of land was gifted to him to sweeten the deal, encourage him to settle after the mission was completed, should he so wish. He so did and eventually used the land to produce wine as well as fruits and vegetables. Some said Katterijn was the name of his lover, a slave concubine, but others – more invested in a de-scandalised history for the neighbourhood – insisted Katterijn was his daughter. What about the history of the slaves? Hortensia had asked, because it was in her nature, by then, to make people uncomfortable. The agent did not know anything about the slaves of Katterijn; she directed their attention, instead, to the marvellous view of Table Mountain.
It had been 1994. South Africa shed blood and had elections. The USA hosted the World Cup. Nigeria beat Bulgaria 3–0. Already sick, nothing excited Peter, but soccer still could. And as the players put the ball through the goalposts fair and square, a democratically elected president in Nigeria was arrested; the previous year a perfectly decent election had been annulled. Hortensia and Peter agreed to leave Nigeria. After the perpetual warmth, they were reluctant to return to England’s cold climate. South Africa with its new democracy, its long summers and famed medical facilities would ensure the best conditions as Peter got sicker. They’d arrived to their new home and Hortensia had realised that she would be the only black person living in Katterijn as an owner. She’d felt disgust for her surroundings, for the protected white gentry around her and, in her private dark moments, she felt disgust for herself as well.
Despite its beauty, Katterijn turned out to be ugly and, to begin with, Hortensia was unable to fathom why. Not one for uncertainty, she preferred simply not to notice the prettiness at all, then the puzzle of how something apparently good-looking could generate disgust would be avoided altogether. The houses were white and green and the lawns were wide and planted with flowers, bushes and grass that presented a manicured wildness. Gardens made to look like they’d sprung up that way, except they hadn’t, they’d been as good as painted into place; branches trained and bent into position. The Katterijners had simply mastered a popular pastime, making a thing appear to be what it is not. But by the time Hortensia had worked all this out she was too tired to move again. And besides, she wondered if such a place wasn’t just right for her.
Once a month a Katterijn committee meeting was held. As far as Hortensia understood it, the committee had been started by a woman named Marion Agostino who also happened to be her neighbour, a nasty woman who Hortensia did not like. But then again Hortensia did not like most people. She had stumbled upon the meetings by accident, soon after she arrived in Katterijn. No one had thought to mention that by rights, as an owner, she was entitled to while away time with the other committee members. The information was let slip. At the time Hortensia had felt that the initial omission was not forgetfulness but deliberate, and it was easy enough to assume that the slight was based on skin colour. Armed with the knowledge, Hortensia had taken the short trip to Marion’s and pressed the buzzer on her intercom.
‘It’s Hortensia James from next door.’
She had not been offended by the absence of any show of welcome from her neighbour or the other residents. They had not come to Katterijn to make friends, something both she and Peter had managed without for the bulk of their lives.
‘Wait, I’ll call my madam,’ a disembodied voice said.
Hortensia leaned her shoulder against the wall.
‘Hello?’ That must be Marion.
‘It’s Hortensia. From next door.’
This was the moment when Hortensia understood she would not be invited in. The slight annoyed her briefly, but she waved it away as unimportant.
‘I’ll be attending the meetings.’ It mustn’t sound like she was asking permission. ‘The committee meetings.’
‘Hmm, I hadn’t realised you were owners.’
Hortensia still listening at the buzzer like a beggar. ‘Yes, well, we are.’
‘Oh, well, I was confused. And . . .’ Hortensia could almost hear Marion searching for another gear, ‘. . . is that gentleman your husband?’ She wasn’t asking so much as scolding.
‘Who, Peter? Yes.’ Again this hadn’t surprised Hortensia. She’d fallen in love with a white man in 1950s London. They had been asked on many occasions to verify their courtship, to affirm that they were attached, to validate their love. Within a year of being together they were practised at it. ‘Yes, Peter is my husband.’
In the silence Hortensia supposed Marion was thinking, inching towards her next move, preparing another strike, but instead she heard a sigh and almost missed the details of the upcoming meeting. Marion even threw in a dress code as a parting gift.
‘We dress for our meetings, Mrs James. We follow rigorous decorum.’ As if she thought dignity was something Hortensia required schooling in.
The meetings seemed to have been created for the purpose of policing the neighbourhood; keeping an eye out ‘for elements’, the community librarian had explained to Hortensia. Foolishness, she’d thought, and soon been vindicated after attending a few sessions. The meetings were a show of a significance that did not exist. Old women, with their wigs, their painted nails, their lipsticks seeping down whistle lines; scared and old rich white women pretending, in the larger scheme of life, that they were important. Hortensia attended because the women were amusing, nattering on in earnest about matters that didn’t matter. She enjoyed to think she was laughing at them. But really it passed the time, took her mind off whatever else there was.
There were times, however, when the meetings moved from amusing to offensive. Once, a black couple moved into Katterijn, renting a duplex not on the Avenue but off one of the minor roads. They had two children. A neighbour, an old man, green at the gills and one-toothed, complained that the children ought not to bother his postbox. The matter was raised in committee. He claimed that the children were assaulting his postbox, messing with it. How did he know this, had he seen it? No, he had smelt it when he climbed down his stoep to collect the mail. He knew the smell of brown children. Could this botheration come to an end? he pleaded. Hortensia had cursed him, walked out of that meeting. And as if the Heavens had heard the man’s plea, the botheration came to an end – he died.
Regardless, Hortensia always went back. To mock them, to point out to them that they were hypocrites, to keep herself occupied. Next chapter
Hortensia checked her watch. Give or take, there were usually ten people present, ten of a possible thirty or so owners. Tonight twelve had shown up. It was all women, all over sixty, all white. This was Katterijn. The meetings were usually tedious but this time apparently something important was to happen. ‘Crucial’ had been the word used by her neighbour Marion.
‘Evening,’ Hortensia greeted the batty librarian whose name, just then, she couldn’t remember.
‘Hortensia, good you’re here. Today is crucial.’
As if the word had been circulated, sent out in memo by Marion. True, there was an extra breeze of excitement. Hortensia, as always, chose a chair near the door. She did it deliberately to remind whoever might bother to notice that she could leave. Well, they could all leave, but it was particularly important to her for them to know that she could leave first.
‘Evening, ladies.’ Marion Agostino seemed to press these words out of her nose. Her smile was painted in a red too red for white skin, Hortensia thought, showing her distaste, hoping people would notice. ‘Today’s meeting is particularly crucial.’
A shiver went round, scented in a bouquet of Yardley, Anaïs Anaïs and talcum powder. Sometimes Hortensia hoped the women were pretending, like she was. She hoped they were there for the same reason, even if secretly. Not for the discussion of fencing left unfixed, bricks from previous works uncollected; nor for hedges to be trimmed or three quotes to be inspected; but for the promise of something non-threatening and happily boring with which to pass the time, get nearer to death, get closer to being done with it all. After so many years of living – too many – Hortensia wanted to die. She had no intention of taking her life but at least there were the Katterijn committee meetings, slowly ticking the hours off her sheet.
Hortensia watched Marion lengthen her stubby neck and lace her fingers together atop a manila folder obsequiously named (in elaborate stencil) Katterijn Committee Meeting File. That the same tattered folder had been in use for the twenty years Hortensia had been whittling time away at these meetings proved the kind of nonsense they’d been up to.
‘Yes, there is this pressing matter, but I first wish to deal with issues pending from our last meeting . . .’
True to form, Marion was circling the issue, circling. Marion the Vulture. Hortensia looked around the table. They were bickering about a swing in a park, just by the highway that headed back towards the city centre. A group of vagrants had taken possession of it. Clothes were seen drying there, strung along the bars. Offensive smells had been noticed. Someone resolved to take the message to City Council. Then there was the clutch of trees that was blocking someone’s view of Table Mountain, but someone else’s grandmother had planted them, and so on.
‘Okay, so now,’ Marion was readying for her big strike of the evening. Her hair was dyed a wan colour to conceal the fact that she’d been living for over eighty years. At one meeting Hortensia had overheard her refer to herself as a woman in her late sixties and almost choked on the tepid rooibos tea she’d been drinking.
‘. . . finally, ladies, to the matter at hand. I’m not sure if any of you realise – in fact the only reason I found out is because of my first granddaughter, I’m sure you all recall that she’s a law student – well, the point is, a notice has been made of a land claim in Katterijn. The notice was published in the Government Gazette by the . . . Land Claims Commission.’
‘What’s that?’ Sarah Clarke asked.
Sarah was the only other person on the committee who got so much as a word in edgeways. She was the resident gossip, now in the unfamiliar position of asking a question, since there was little that Sarah Clarke did not already know.
‘It’s the . . . Commission . . . it deals with land claims, things like that.’
Hortensia rolled her eyes. Not that she cared but, naturally, she knew all about it and said so, explained that the Commission was set up in the Nineties to restore land to the disenfranchised. While reaching into the hallowed folder, Marion spat a look at her.
Marion pulled out a map of Katterijn, which she unfolded in the centre of the table with a reverence Hortensia had seldom seen shown for paper.
‘The Land Claims Commission, Sarah, is one of those things with a self-explanatory name. And now,’ she rose to point out the parcels of land, ‘a group of some . . .’ she rifled papers, more a show of importance than a real search for information, ‘some three families . . . well, one big extended family, the Samsodiens.’
Marion rifled some more, until Hortensia had to concede that perhaps she was actually looking for information and, more than that, the woman looked nervous.
‘What’s the claim, Marion?’
‘Just a moment, Hortensia. Just a moment.’
She found what she was looking for. ‘The claims process has just this month been reopened, so . . . what I mean is they’d been closed since 1998 and then, for various reasons, on the first of July—’
‘Why were they closed?’ asked a woman whose name Hortensia could never recall.
‘Well, Dolores, they were closed because . . .’ She rifled. ‘Doesn’t say here, but—’
‘The Commission was only open to claims from ’94 to ’98. That was the window-period.’ Hortensia was enjoying herself. It wasn’t like Marion to give away such easy points but, while she was being generous, it was Hortensia’s aim to collect. Their rivalry was infamous enough for the other committee women to hang back and watch the show. It was known that the two women shared hedge and hatred and they pruned both with a vim that belied their ages.
Marion looked crestfallen. She was of course accustomed to doing battle with Hortensia, anywhere from the queue at Woolworths to outside the post office, but these committee meetings were like sacred ground to her, sacrosanct – she never got over the shock each time Hortensia questioned her authority.
‘The Commission,’ Hortensia continued, ignoring the glare in Marion’s eyes, ‘came about as a result of the Restitution of Land Rights Act that was passed by the then- new government.’ Hortensia relished the use of those words ‘new’ and ‘government’, aware of how much they affected the women.
‘Alright, alright, Hortensia. If we can just get back to the actual issue that we – gathered here – must deal with. The history lesson can continue after the meeting is over. Thank you. The Samsodiens are claiming land. The Vineyard basically. I’m surprised the Von Struikers aren’t here, I’ll make a call and request they attend the next meeting. It might be their land, but something like this will affect us all. Don’t even get me started on what it’ll do for property prices.’
Hortensia hated the Von Struikers. Bigots of the highest order, they owned the Katterijn Vineyard, bottled a limited-edition white wine and sometimes a red, neither of which Hortensia found drinkable. Not because of its taste; even if the wines were the best thing ever, she would have found them unacceptable. The thought of drinking anything made by Ludmilla and Jan Von Struiker made her sick.
‘They make me sick,’ Hortensia had once railed to Peter after a dinner at Sarah Clarke’s, where Ludmilla had let slip the year that she and Jannie had arrived in Cape Town to start their ‘small venture’. ‘It took her a whole minute to realise what was wrong with coming to South Africa in the Sixties.’
Ludmilla pronounced ‘v’ with an ‘f’ sound and resembled the largest of the babushka dolls. Once, when Hortensia still deigned to entertain them, she’d offered her cheeks to be kissed in greeting and caught a whiff of foul breath. All these details she piled together as incriminating.
‘The claim dates back to the Sixties when the Von Struikers acquired the land. I’ve made copies here for all present – you can study the details so we can discuss at the next meeting. It’s going to be a long haul.’
‘How do you mean?’ Hortensia felt like a fight.
‘Well, we’re going to challenge it of course. I certainly won’t be allowing this and I doubt Ludmilla and Jan will be, either. I’m sure, if pushed, these people would be hard pressed to substantiate the claims. People looking for easy money, if you ask me.’
‘When you say “these people” what you really mean is black people, am I right?’
‘You most certainly are not, and I would—’
‘Marion, I’m not in the mood for your bigotry today. I distinctly remember asking you to keep your racist conversations for your dinner table.’
‘I beg your—’
‘Ladies. Please. Let’s try and finish the meeting. Marion, I assume that’s all for now?’ Sarah had her uses. Thick as she was, she made a good buffer. ‘Shall we continue at the next meeting? Do we need to type up a formal response to the Commission? Perhaps you want to speak to Ludmilla first then feed back to us.’
‘Well, yes, but actually.’ Marion was smiling; so soon recovered, Hortensia thought woefully. ‘There is one more thing. Specifically with regards to the Jameses’ property.’
Hortensia’s ears pricked up.
‘This is a special case. Well, not case as such. It’s not a claim but rather a request.’ Marion relished the moment and, despite her absent-mindedness just moments before, she appeared to have memorised all the details of this ‘special case’; she knew it word-for-word, and the spaces in between – as if she’d written it herself.
‘I received a letter from a woman, Beulah Gierdien. She had a grandmother named Annamarie, who was born in 1919, right here,’ Marion said and a few of the women looked around the meeting room, half-expecting to still find the afterbirth dangling on the back of a chair or laid out on the plush azure carpet. ‘Annamarie’s mother was a slave woman on the farm for which No. 10 was the main house.’ Marion looked pointedly at Hortensia. ‘It states here that No. 12 – that would be my property – is where the adjoining slave quarters were, but that . . . well, that bit is . . . I think they got their facts wrong there. I do intend to challenge that but, anyway, where was I . . .? I must say it’s a rather protracted and odd request.’ She was enjoying herself. ‘There’s no money involved, Hortensia, so you can relax.’
‘Get on with it, Marion. I need to be getting home soon.’
‘Well, it’s precisely that home that Beulah Gierdien seems interested in, Hortensia. Or at least one of the trees on the property. She refers to it as a “Silver”.’
‘The Silver Tree. Yes, I have one of those. What, she wants the tree?’
‘It’s not quite that simple.’
The librarian, Agatha, coughed. A woman, lips newly Botoxed, poured herself some water but struggled to drink. People stretched in their chairs; someone’s yawn cracked and silence settled again.
‘Apparently our Silvers – your single Silver Tree and my several – marked the edge of the properties in that day. There were no fences. Anyhow apparently the trunk of your Silver has some carvings on it.’ Marion arched an eyebrow. ‘You’d need to confirm that, Hortensia, but that’s what she’s saying were the markers.’
‘Markers for what?’
‘For where Annamarie’s children are buried. For where Annamarie requested, in her last will and testament, that she be buried.’ Marion was beaming.
‘She wants to bury her grandmother on my property?’
‘Correction, she wants to bury her grandmother’s ashes on the property. The woman’s been dead a while already.’
Through the excited chatter Hortensia snapped her fingers for Marion to hand over the documents. There were several sheets of paper, handwritten in a neat cursive. Hortensia started to scan the pages.
‘Perhaps, while you familiarise yourself with that, Hortensia, we can call a break. Ladies.’ Marion, her face beatific, rose and the other women followed suit.
‘And the reason she wrote to you?’
Marion shrugged. ‘She got the contact for the committee via the Constantiaberg Bulletin. My guess is she assumed the owners lived overseas and her best bet was to write to the committee.’ It was always gratifying when outsiders acknowledged the significance of having a local committee.
Hortensia stayed sitting; she continued reading. The Katterijn Estate had originally been 65 hectares of land that, as the years collected, got parcelled and sold and parcelled and sold. By the 1960s only a small portion was being farmed, and this was the land the Von Struikers now owned.
In the mid-nineteenth century Annamarie’s grandfather, Jude, had worked on the original wine farm. He’d also formed the group of slave men used to construct most of the buildings from that era, some of which still stood: the post office, Beulah wrote; the library, which was actually stables. They built the roundabout and planted most of the trees that formed the generous groves within the suburb. Jude was a dark man with paper-white eyes and small feet that his wife, apparently, had teased him about. Hortensia grimaced as she read, just the sort of memory-lane nonsense she found difficult to swallow – people fawning over their individual and collective histories.
Jude and his wife had children as slaves, but grew old in freedom. Their daughter, Cessie, gave birth to Annamarie. Jude and his wife, on being granted their freedom, had been permitted to remain on the land as workers and earn wages. Annamarie’s parents had inherited the same agreement and stayed on in Katterijn – raising their family. Annamarie learned how to read. But by 1939 the Land Act of 1913 caught up with the small family and they were forcibly moved off the land. By then Annamarie was twenty years old, a mother herself and a wife. Except her first child had died at birth and, after another child died too, her husband walked off somewhere one night and was found floating in the lake. Father and babies were buried under No. 10’s Silver Tree.
Hortensia looked up. Marion was standing by the refreshments table chewing something; their eyes met. Marion offered a smile, which Hortensia ignored and returned to Beulah Gierdien’s notes.
After the tragedies Annamarie settled in Lavender Hill and married again. They had a boy, Beulah’s father.
Hortensia laid the papers down.
A few of the members were milling around the tarts, the meeting having gone on for longer than seemed bearable. Someone had prepared flapjacks, scorned at first (for fat content, for too-largeness) but eaten by all. People piled their plates, filled their cups and settled back in their seats.
‘So you see, Hortensia, this is not about your favourite topic, the race card. For once we’re on the same side.’ Marion’s smile looked set to burst and set the world alight.
‘Not so, Marion. We are not on the same side. You should know this by now. Whatever you say, I disagree with. However you feel, I feel the opposite. At no point in anything are you and I on the same side. I don’t side with hypocrites.’
Marion was red. And quiet.
‘I am not in agreement with you to push back on the Samsodien claim. Let those who are justly claiming their rights to the land – land owned by hoodlums, I might add – let them claim it.’
‘And the Gierdien woman?’ Marion managed to let out in a squeak.
‘This,’ Hortensia indicated the pile of papers in front of her, ‘is sentimental claptrap and I won’t be taking any notice of it at all. That you thought to waste precious committee-meeting time on something so trivial is, indeed, a puzzle to me.’
Marion’s shoulders slumped in defeat. Sarah Clarke slurped her tea. The meeting was adjourned. Next chapter
On the drive back home after the meeting, Marion played Hortensia’s derision over in her head.
‘Well, she can’t just brush the whole thing aside,’ Marion told the steering wheel. ‘Just watch me. See if I let her just brush it.’
It was a cool evening, not too chilly and only just darkening.
‘Race this, race that. Everything race – “when you say ‘these people’” . . . Cow!’ Marion braked in time to spare a cat scuttling across the road in the half-light of dusk.
Over the years the two women had argued about many things, each new encounter tense with enmity. In truth, they couldn’t have been more opposite. Hortensia, black and small-boned, Marion, white, large. Marion’s husband dead, Hortensia’s not yet. Marion and her brood of four, Hortensia with no children.
In the early days, when Hortensia still attempted to socialise, the Clarkes, who lived across from the Jameses, had had a dinner party. Peter pleaded fatigue, Hortensia went out of boredom. It was uneventful, until Sarah mentioned an article she’d seen in the latest Digest of South African Architecture. Hortensia hadn’t seen it. It was a Who’s Who of local architects. Sarah looked innocent enough when she said that she’d expected to see Marion listed.
‘Well,’ Marion was caught off guard. She’d read as far as K (Karol) and then put the magazine away.
‘Marion?’ Hortensia pressed, the party suddenly looking up.
‘I don’t remember any women from my generation being included,’ Marion said. ‘There might not have been many of us but from reading that thing you’d think we didn’t exist at all.’
‘We hardly do,’ someone Hortensia didn’t know piped up and the conversation was steered safely away. Then, like a gift, Marion casually commented on Sarah’s Mackintoshes and Hortensia ventured to point out, in a loud enough voice to be heard by most in the parlour, that the chairs were fakes; and, without being asked, she took the trouble to explain why. Dinner parties became a place to posture. Marion once held court on the wisdom of pedestrianising Long Street. She showed her sketches (her handbag was never without a notebook and a pencil). In return, Hortensia spoke for several minutes on the error of formalising the informal.
‘If you take the cars off Long Street, you’ll take away the people. There will be too much space and too little chaos.’
Marion made snide remarks about commercialised plastic-making; fiddling with crayons and thread was her approximation of textile design – any three-year-old can do it. Hortensia mentioned the presence of one of her fabrics – a brocade – used to panel a wall in the new Cape Grace wine bar. A modest article (Hortensia kept the clippings, as she did of all her works that made the news) in the Sunday paper, decor section, on the consolation of beauty in otherwise unsettling times. Trivial, Marion said, but struggled for words when Hortensia took pains to impart her disdain for a six-year degree that teaches you to knock walls together.
‘You do realise Architecture can exist without Architects?’
Hortensia referred to the profession as one of the biggest cons and had absolutely no time for the navel-gazing self-importance and total inconsequentiality of architectural academia and their ponderous supposings. She knew a little about it as she had once been the guest of the architecture department at the University of Cape Town. She’d been invited to join a panel of external examiners on a project involving textile fabrication. She’d consented out of hubris but remained unimpressed.
‘I visited your alma mater,’ she’d told Marion the first chance she got.
Apparently Hortensia’s dislike was too much for words. She simply grimaced and walked on, leaving Marion in no doubt that her architecture school had just suffered the worst form of insult.
Other times they argued about maids and madams. It started at the grocer’s. Hortensia behind Marion in the queue. She observed as her neighbour started to empty her basket.
‘How are you, Precious?’ Marion asked the woman at the checkout counter.
‘Fine,’ she responded.
‘Truly? Promise?’ Marion asked again. ‘You usually look happier.’
The woman offered an uncomfortable smile. As Marion unloaded her items onto the counter she seemed to think it necessary to explain to Precious why she had bought them.
‘That’s for Mr Agostino. Tummy trouble. Oh, this is for my granddaughter. Fussy baby, that one. She likes this type, won’t eat any other. This is for Agnes – you know Agnes, my girl at the house. Oh, and I saw that and thought: wouldn’t Niknaks like that? Niknaks, that’s Agnes’s child. We thought of adopting her, but . . . you know . . . How much does all that come to, Precious?’
Hortensia had stared aghast through it all, in the rare position of being tongue-tied. She had a chance to set her tongue free at a gathering. Marion said that Agnes, her housekeeper, was part of the family: that the sixty-five-year-old woman had been pivotal in raising her kids, one boy and three girls, and that Marion in turn had attempted to make her life easier, sent Agnes’s kid to a good school, built her a house.
‘You want credit for that? That’s blood-money. Mixed in with missionary work. You think you did well by her, don’t you? Perhaps you’d like a medal?’
Marion was speechless.
‘St Marion. Charity-giver. My foot! You can’t buy it, Marion. You want to give something, you know what you should have given? You should have given Agnes your own house. And taken hers. Swopped suburbs. That’s what you should have done, my friend . . . Or, better, here’s a thought: Hero Marion, you should have ended apartheid . . . if you later wanted something to be able to brag about. Oh, and she is not like part of your family, she is employed by you. If she were part of your family, she wouldn’t have to clean up every time she visits.’
Hortensia made a hook with her index and middle fingers, to go with the word ‘visits’. Marion left the party.
Everything seemed to be about race for Hortensia, but Marion thought life was more complex than that, more wily.
She parked her car. As she climbed her stoep, her cellphone began to ring.
‘Darling ... why do you sound so upset? ... I’m sorry I missed Innes’s birthday . . . No, I didn’t forg— . . . No, I didn’t just not come . . . Marelena, I’ve had some issues to deal with here . . . The accountant called me, about Dad and his . . . well . . . What do you mean, am I surprised? How was I to know? . . . Your brother isn’t even taking my calls, Gaia refuses to give me her number in Perth . . . I sent her an email the other day; don’t suppose I’ll hear back . . . As for Selena, you’d think Jo’burg was the North Pole, the amount I hear from her . . . I need some help, is what I’m saying . . . Help-help. Money! . . . Zero, is what the accountant said . . . Marelena, would you please listen? . . . Marelena? . . . Yes, gone – all of it, gone . . . All . . . I see . . . Okay, Okay . . . Yes, of course you need to speak to your husband first . . . Well, will you call me? . . . Okay. Bye.’
‘Agnes.’ Marion put the phone down and arranged a chair the way she liked it, concealed from view by her row of Silvers. ‘Agnes!’ She banged against the front door. ‘I’m calling you!’
‘Ma’am.’ The woman appeared.
‘Take.’ Marion handed over her keys and committee file. ‘Put on my desk.’
Of course there were other things to be concerned about, besides Hortensia.
‘Oh, Agnes! Tea. Bring tea.’
Max had finished their money. They, Marion and Max, had had lots and lots of money. And just before he’d died he’d gone and finished it. The fool.
‘Tea. Use the china – the proper stuff. And bring the binoculars. And a biscuit for Alvar.’
Marion tapped her temple, listened to the padded steps retreating across the stoep, back into the house, up the hallway towards the kitchen.
‘Don’t break anything!’ The woman must have Parkinson’s or something. Whatever that disease was where your hands shake. Dropped the handmade ceramic antique soup bowl – blue and white. Dropped it. Broken. Irreparable.
All the same, if the accountant was right, she’d eventually have to let Agnes go. Stupid Max. Stupid stupid stupid.
‘Come here, Alvar! Come here, boy.’
Alvar was approaching two years old. The dachshund had been a gift to Marion from Marelena and her children. They’d been tactful enough to wait several months after Max had died before presenting Marion with a white wire cage, a yellow ribbon round it. But even so, the notion of a replacement could not be avoided. Her children had been raised never to talk about the obvious, never to mention the thing in the room that gave off a stench. Marion had taught them either to move or bear it, but never to let on. Pointing things out was too unpleasant.
The reality was that within days it became clear that Alvar was going to be a much better companion than Max ever was. Apart from in the arenas of passing on human sperm and earning money to keep a family, Alvar won over Max in all spheres. He had a much better sense of humour, he didn’t snore or fart in his sleep, he was always happy to see her and he came when she called. Marion named the dog after Alvar Aalto, her favourite architect. She saw in Alvar the same restraint of design (the mark of genius, surely), tasteful simplicity, an appreciation for natural materials and textures. No one else could quite see how a dog bore the same characteristics as a Master Builder, but they let it go.
Agnes brought the tea. The weight of Alvar was a comfort in Marion’s lap. ‘Wrong set. The proper one, I said.’ Marion took the biscuit. ‘And bring another biscuit, Agnes.’ Who brings a dog a single biscuit? Next chapter
Marion had been twenty-six – principal of her own firm but lonely – and there was Max at a dinner organised by business associates. Her friend took her by the elbow to a corner of the dimly lit lounge and said: this is Max Agostino, Italian and rich. And Max had ducked his head down as if embarrassed and shaken her hand. The friend (who was it?) then wandered off, as is the thing to do with such set-ups, and Max said something accommodating. Something like, ‘Now you know everything about me, let’s talk about you.’ And Marion had smiled. It hadn’t been everything about him. She, the friend – whoever it was – had left out that he was tall, that the neatly trimmed hairs along his temple, light grey, were the same colour as his eyes. He was well composed, Marion had noted, in his dark grey-suit and silver cufflinks. She teased him about it – that he wore office-wear to parties – and then noted with alarm that she was flirting. She looked at her glass, wondering how much she’d drunk, and Max, noticing it was empty, offered to refresh it.
When she asked, he explained the way he made his money, but the financial world was a puff of smoke to Marion and she enjoyed the fact that Max’s work was inaccessible, uncatchable. She made room for this bit of mystery in their relationship and it did the job of keeping him, at least some parts of him, strange to her. When they made love the strangeness was there, that he was someone she couldn’t quite get all of.
There were the little surprises. That he wasn’t circumcised, that he lowed when he came, that he didn’t mind crying in others and frequently did so himself, over simple things like a sad part of a movie or a baby being born. Otherwise Max was predictable, steady. And he loved her.
After a small wedding, they discussed where they wanted to live. Katterijn was Marion’s preferred neighbourhood but houses in the area were seldom advertised. In a moment of luck, while talking to an estate agent about another home they had viewed in Bantry Bay, the agent mentioned one in Katterijn that was about to go on the market. The news turned Marion nervous and right until they drove up to the house she carried a secret wish that, although the particulars clearly stated No. 12, the house up for sale was really No. 10. No. 10 Katterijn Avenue was a house she’d designed. Not just any design, her first.
In the time it took the agent to retrieve the keys and open up No. 12 Marion composed herself. The disappointment nestled in her belly, but she marched through the house as if she already owned it. She folded her arms at the entrance of each room, her eyes taking it all in.
‘Honey, what do you think?’ Max kept asking, but Marion ignored him, dismayed that he knew no better than to discuss impressions in the presence of the agent.
Outside she walked a few metres to the left and then to the right of the wooden trellised gate.
‘What about that house?’ she asked, taunting herself really.
‘No. 10? Oh, it’s not for sale.’
Marion nodded, she knew that No. 10 had already changed hands. The first owners, the Norwegians, had made a private sale to a corporate consultancy firm looking for somewhere to house their travelling staff and entertain their top clients.
‘Well?’ Max asked, his patience thinning.
Marion told the agent to give them some privacy so they could talk. But once the short man was out of range, she paced while Max waited.
She had been top of her class, a position she wrestled from a male student who not only found her presence in the school annoying, but her ambition and fierce competitiveness vulgar. Damon Lewis, principal of DLA, attended her final-year project presentation; he took her aside afterwards and rookie architect Marion had the heady sensation of never having applied for a job, never having sat for an interview. It pained her, though, on the first day of work, to see snot-nosed Harry Cumfred, her long-time adversary from architecture school. Initially they were set to work together, under various project architects, until Cumfred was given his own project – a bakery in the east city had burned down, a heritage job that would win him an award and a nod from Council.
Marion boiled for almost a year until she was finally given the opportunity to design her first house. It was high-profile. DLA’s reputation had been built on the quality of their residential work. The new clients were a Norwegian couple, not much English but fluent in French. Marion had taken French in her matriculation exams and aced it – she was given the job, with Cumfred glowering in the background. Marion, however, made one mistake. In her haste to prove herself she put everything she had into the design. She tucked features into the details that in truth she should have saved for her own home. By the time she’d noticed her error, the house was done; DLA could not praise her enough and the clients loved it.
The house was reviewed in one of the journals of the day. And it was during the short interview that the sense of horror began to come over Marion. Something like giving a gift to a friend and only then realising you actually wanted it for yourself, but of course not that, something much much bigger with a lot more at stake. The more congratulations and accolades the house received, the deeper that feeling had sunk.
Marion paced; unable to help herself, she looked across the low wall at the other property. No. 10 was larger than No. 12. It had a grander forecourt, while No. 12’s front door was but steps away from the front gate. Next door had subtle character (the best kind) made all the more charming by a small koi pond at the bottom of the sloping back garden. It had an oak, and hung from one of its strong branches was a swing. It was one of the largest houses in the Katterijn Estate. It stood on ground where the great manor house would have stood when the Estate was still an Estate. Max took a call from his business partner about a deal they were closing.
‘Alright,’ Marion said.
She stopped pacing and walked to the agent, who was leaning against the side of his car smoking a cigarette.
Marion and Max moved into their home within a month. By Christmas Marion was with child. She’d started her own firm with none other than Harry Cumfred. He’d suggested the alliance; we’re the best there is, he’d said, and she’d found she couldn’t disagree. She worked until the day before the birth and, leaving the child with the nanny, was back at work within a week. Her firm, importantly stationed on Loop Street, flourished, expanding to almost thirty employees including one new partner, two associates, four project architects, an army of draughtspeople and administrative staff. She brought in most of the residential work; Cumfred used his old-boy network for the larger schemes he believed would make them formidable. He teased her about her houses, although her clients were millionaires, the jobs far from paltry. Their families sometimes socialised – Cumfred had married and they’d had twins – but Marion never quite believed in his friendship. She’d gone into business with him because working together was the best way for her to keep an eye on him. She suspected he had done the same.
Marion grew another bump, disappeared for a week or so, but for the most part things stayed the same. She went through periods of ignoring No. 10. And at other times the house consumed her.
By 1969 Marion had two kids, Stefano and Marelena, and one on the way, Selena. The third pregnancy was tougher than the others. She spent many days in bed before and after the birth. When she came to and some weeks had passed, she noticed a removal truck parked outside. The corporates had sold to a Dutch family. Once more No. 10 had slipped out of reach.
It was after Selena was born, with the recommendations of the fatherly family doctor pressing in on him, that Max ventured to suggest Marion stay home; dared ask, his tone sounding so close to insistence. Marion said no – out of the question. For one thing, she had argued, I’m already doing more than my share. It was true that the thing Marion understood the least about her husband took him away more frequently than she’d initially anticipated. And she was surprised to learn she was the kind of woman who actually wanted her husband around on weekends. Maybe not so much because she missed him, but more because she needed him to be there. She found parenting hard and she wanted him to struggle along with her. The trade-off – the money and the immense comfort his job bought them – did not make up for his long absences.
Annoyingly, however, when Max was home, Marion couldn’t help noticing the ease with which he loved their children and how they all loved him back. She envied Max his tidy life, his crisp suits and business trips. How much less complicated things were for him. He didn’t seem to hear the manipulation in Marelena’s cry, the need to be stoic and wait it out. Stefano was wetting the bed; this was brushed aside. Selena’s nose was rather large, but Max found that comical. (Although he was slightly put out when he saw Marion leafing through his family albums. She pointed at his great-aunt’s nose – aha, she said, triumphant.) But, mostly these details didn’t matter for Max. Instead of husband and father, Marion had landed herself a gust of wind. A pleasant one when present, a well-loved one, but insubstantial, itinerant.
And there were other things. The fine lines of life, the careful negotiations. Once, Agnes had asked if she could bring her young toddler with her to work; the crèche she normally left her at was closed for a period and would it be okay? Marion had said no, but Agnes had cried and the baby (was it Stefano or Marelena?) had cried too – they were very attached to Agnes. And Marion had capitulated but then fretted for days. Max was away and she’d phoned him.
‘What exactly are you worried about?’
‘I just . . . don’t you understand? Must I explain everything?’
Despite Marion’s quiet resentment, they seldom actually fought.
‘I’m not trying to argue. Look, how can I help?’
‘I just feel that . . . having another . . . a young child around . . . it would distract her, I’m sure. From her work.’
Marion felt the sting of embarrassment; she couldn’t say it out loud – she didn’t want her kids to play with the black child. She didn’t want them touching. But she couldn’t say it because if she said it, then it would really be there and she wouldn’t be able to just ignore it, which was infinitely easier and, thus far, largely possible.
‘Just tell her no then,’ Max said. He was probably sitting on the edge of some hotel bed, his legs crossed. ‘Tell her you’ve realised that it won’t be a good thing after all.’
His tone was calm, he plotted out the solution as if he had more where that came from. He wasn’t someone with a whole life that he needed to constantly keep in line. His life’s borders seemed to police themselves.
Marion fought with herself, in her head. The reason she hadn’t wanted Agnes to bring her child to work was because the child would be a distraction – that was the reason. And the reason she suggested Agnes did not wash her clothes in with the family’s load was because this seemed sensible, to keep things separate. Why complicate the washing? She explained it as slowly as possible to Agnes, but checked for several weeks after to make sure she was following her instructions. And the reason (it was Marelena who asked) that Agnes had a bruise on her head was because black people were dangerous and the police had thought Agnes was one of those black people. No, Agnes was not dangerous. Yes, most black people were dangerous and they were causing trouble. No, Agnes was not causing trouble. No, it wasn’t unfair. It was in fact very fair. Life was fair.
Life may have been fair, but it was getting out of control. Slowly more and more of Marion’s energy was taken up in keeping her life in line. The more Max was away, the older the children became, the more porous those borders grew. The kids had questions. Marion was intelligent and perfectly capable, except that the questions the children asked were zigzag. Did a black beach have black sand? If that is a black bench, why did they paint it white? It messed with Marion’s mind. She still had the practice, but it became harder and harder (with Cumfred looking on) to be a normal person, with borders intact.
As a young adult she had explained her country to herself in a way her children were refusing to adopt. With all their prodding it became difficult to see only what was comfortable, to keep looking away from what she’d rather not see. It was in this battle that Marion lost all possibility for happiness. And, because it is much easier to fight your husband than the government, Marion waged a quiet war against Max and she used the love of their children as artillery. And she eyed No. 10 and she waited.
In the middle of 1994 No. 10 was sold again. When Marion pieced the story together she learned that the matriarch of the Dutch family had died and taken with her the intent to keep a foothold in Africa. Marion bristled that the Dutch never mentioned to her their intention to sell. She concluded it was out of spite – there had been enough dinner parties at which the news could have been casually thrown out, but instead the transfer happened quietly. Marion woke up one morning to a black woman, with short-cropped greying hair, hardly any breasts and a skinny waist, conducting an orchestra of movers with elaborate hand gestures. Commando, that was the word that came to her mind that cold morning as she watched this woman from behind the French doors that opened onto her north-facing stoep.
It was an insult, a black woman suddenly in a house Marion had dreamed for decades of possessing; no, a house that was rightfully hers, which other people kept taking. In addition she was some kind of minor celebrity. Marion had never heard of Hortensia but Sarah Clarke had referred to her as a design guru. This seemed an impossibility to Marion. She’d pressed Sarah for more details. Apparently a friend of the Dutch had said something about fabric design. She makes cloth? Marion had asked Sarah, too upset to veil her angry curiosity with coolness. A week later with the librarian Marion played it down. New neighbour coming, Marion. A design person like you, what are the chances. Marion had smiled with what she hoped was disinterest. Don’t be silly, Agatha, I’m an architect, she sounds more like a haberdasher.
What were the chances, though. Of designing someone else’s house as if it was your own, of living next door but never within, of becoming obsessed. And now to once more lose the elusive trophy to someone who drew squiggles and called that design. As for the woman’s husband, Marion assumed that was him (a white man, one of the longest white men she had ever seen) he was mostly out of sight that first day but appeared from time to time and trailed behind his wife offering a glass of refreshment, a cordless phone, a plate of fruit. The binoculars had been a gift from the grandchildren, but Marion had never intended to use them to birdwatch. Spying on her neighbours was much more entertaining. Except that morning was cause for upset, not amusement. Amusement would have been watching the Clarkes, who had proven themselves common because they had succumbed to trend and bought three pet pigs; amusement would have been the Von Struikers, whose arguments had reached a display of violence that could only mean they were yet again on the brink of divorce. Rich people and their dramas were amusing. Hortensia James was a thief. Next chapter
A careful balance had been messed with. On account of her walking faster than she usually did, Hortensia was out of breath. Imagine Marion thinking she could bother her with this Beulah nonsense. Except that it had annoyed her. She felt heat at her ears and along her limbs, as well as a strong burning sensation where her heart was. She stopped walking and stretched her arm out against the gnarled skin of a pine tree. The trees always made her feel old, made her feel her age. She dropped her head forward and her eyes took in thick spreading roots, fallen leaves, sodden dirt. She’d taken a step and annihilated a string of ants. They had been busy with the soggy shell of a snail. Beulah and her blasted grandmother and her stupid dead children. The anger bubbled up, the indignation, ever at the ready. Beulah and her ancestors with their cloying sentiments were as good a reason as any for that familiar feeling to stir. Hortensia let out a growl and shook her fists.
When she started walking again she looked about, glared at the pine trees. Was it a sign she was not well in the head, that she came to the trees to quarrel? To cuss and spit out the most venomous anger she could find in the pit of her gall bladder. What did the trees care? She could direct the full blast of her hate at them without having to deal with their snivelling.
She took brisk steps, pushing until her lungs insisted she pause. The tree bark had faces. She was certain the trees were looking at her, all fifty-seven of them (she’d counted). Hortensia stopped walking, leaned. Her mind was going; she was angry with trees and her mind was going. She moved on. Her walk had been the first thing to go that really hurt. A dash of grey on her head, a slight dip in breasts small enough for dipping not to matter, an extra line on her neck had never bothered her. Her eyes were good, her teeth were hers. But the loss of her walk was the first sign that time was wicked and had fingers to take things. It wasn’t just dates up on a wall, it was a war. Time took away her walk. She awoke one morning with the left leg aching, a throb that would come and go but never permanently leave. So now she lumbered, she limped; many times she sat, but since she’d reached sixty-five she hadn’t sauntered. When you’re Hortensia James and you have pride but no walk to saunter it with – well, life is difficult.
Hortensia counted the trees. She counted to feel human again, to come down from being a spitting thing to simply being her regular normal pissed-off self. She counted. The trees had been planted in a scattered fashion but since her first visit here, almost two decades ago, she had worked out a way to navigate through them, counting them, as if the numbers were the notation of an angry prayer. Ten. She’d grown accustomed to favouring the right leg, refused to go to the doctor and find out what exactly was wrong with the left. Fifteen. The ground was wet from yesterday’s rain, the leaves shiny and green. Hortensia ensured her Pumas made contact with the ants; she didn’t just trample the creatures by accident, she sought them out. Her regular normal pissed-off self. She tightened her lips. Twenty-five.
At thirty-five she stopped to catch her breath. She began again but then stopped at the next group of trees, leaned against a trunk, sighed. From where she leaned she could see the tops of most of Katterijn’s properties, including hers. Hortensia pushed off from the tree. A nip came and she pulled her zipper higher, dug her hands into the velvety pockets of her tracksuit bottoms and moved along.
She took the long way home, circling all of Katterijn, along a road her neighbours referred to as the Noodle, but she called the Noose. She looked up to try and gauge when the rain would start again. She passed a few neighbours walking their dogs or pushing the grandkids; some younger couples, new to the suburb, holding hands. When was her life ever simple enough for someone she loved to want to hold her hand? As she walked, Hortensia looked through people. If someone waved she looked away. When she turned the last corner even her sore leg appeared to perk up at the thought of the ottoman in the lounge and a hot chocolate. But there, standing outside No. 12, with arms akimbo, was Marion Agostino.
Because of her special hatred for Marion, Hortensia stopped to address her.
‘Marion,’ she said. Their eyes met for a few seconds and then Hortensia carried on. She limped to her gate, aware Marion was watching her, picking her apart in her mind like carrion. She searched for her key.
‘Hortensia.’ Marion approached as Hortensia stood and fumbled with the gate lock.
Hortensia closed her eyes, which was the closest she’d come, in the last decade or so, to prayer. There was a time when she actually did pray – Oh God, and so on – but these days she figured she was old. These days she dropped her eyelids for a few seconds and then lifted them, relying on God being all-powerful and getting it. Getting something to the effect of: help me be rid of this woman, make her mute, maybe paralysed from the neck down; make her forget I exist, take her away, dear God, Amen.
‘Yes, Marion.’ Hortensia gave the gate a slight push and it swung open (Hortensia James’s gate did not squeak or squawk or make any other unbecoming noises). She waited for what was coming.
‘You can’t ignore the Gierdien request.’
‘Yes, I can. Goodnight, Marion.’
‘Wait . . . I was also . . . We can discuss the matter at the next meeting, but I also . . .’ She made her face sweet and Hortensia felt sick. ‘I was thinking just now. How is Peter? Good?’
‘Peter is dying, Marion. Anything else?’
‘Yes, afraid so. Goodbye, then.’
Hortensia had already closed the gate behind her when Marion issued her next shot.
‘And how’s the leg?’
Marion, despite being white and dressing only (as far as Hortensia could make out) in khaki pencil-skirts and peach-coloured shirts, despite being fleshier and a fervent dyer to blonde of her grey hair, reminded Hortensia of her mother. Here were two women Hortensia knew who asked only questions with bad-news answers. Marion, for instance, would never ask how House of Braithwaite was doing, because she knew it would be good news. Marion didn’t ask how the shoot with Vintage Magazine went, when they came to interview her and photograph the interior spaces of her home. Marion never asked what Hortensia’s bank account looked like or where she’d put her trophy for Best Christmas Lights from last year’s neighbourhood contest.
Hortensia popped the key back into her pocket and climbed the steps. She stopped and, using her good leg, shoved one of her garden pots into position. Her mood was spoiled. Spoiled so that no ottoman or mug of hot chocolate could repair it. She’d have to sleep, wake up into another day.
As for her mother, Hortensia thought, now savouring the bitterness on her tongue, liking the way it curled right there on the very tip – that woman, while she lived, had only one question to ask Hortensia, year after year of her marriage to Peter: when are you bringing me babies?
Hortensia let herself in. The nurses hadn’t bothered to turn any of the downstairs lights on. She slammed the door, which saved her having to announce her presence with words, and meant by the time she’d shrugged her jacket off and put on her house-slippers, the women would be stepping down the stairs with their bags and nurse- things. A few words of instruction for the night and they’d be gone, giving her, Hortensia, some peace and allowing Peter to progress towards his death unhindered. So much dignity had been sucked out of death, Hortensia thought, now looking forward to hot chocolate again, her ears attuned to the unmistakable sound of nurse-shoe on stair tread.
‘Mrs James, that you?’
They’d become a part of the house. Since he’d stopped talking and all movement was an act of persuasion, the hospital had dispatched two nurses daily. Hortensia had resisted when a night-nurse was suggested. Not the nights too, she’d said. She’d even said please.
‘In here.’ She preferred not to talk to them but they insisted. In general, people like to talk to old folk.
‘Nice walk?’ One nurse – their names came in and out, like breathing – stood at the doorway of the coat-room.
Hortensia chose to ignore her question.
‘Anything I need to know?’ she asked instead, balling her socks into a squat brown basket.
‘He’s fine, sleeping. Medicated for the night. Nothing to worry about. We’ll be back bright and early.’
Hortensia watched the pep in this woman bounce her down the hallway; her colleague joined her and out they went.
Bassey knew to leave the tin of hot chocolate out before he left for the day, as well as her favourite mug, blank of image or text, a chalky sea-urchin white. Hortensia stirred, liking the feel of the grooves on the 1942 miniature silver spoon. She remembered a long-ago friend and his anecdote about his uncle, who was a chef. The man was known for eating a cut tomato and being able to tell whether it had been sliced with his silverware or just some normal run- of-the-mill knife – he could taste it. Hortensia took a sip, flipped the light and headed for the ottoman. Her life was burdened. An expert appreciation for beautiful things, right and proper things, was her only remaining comfort.
When Marion realised she was staring bankruptcy in the face her first thought had been: how do I get out of this? Max had been the one with the loopholes. Look where that got him. But then she’d thought of the painting.
Marion gave Agnes the morning off, ignoring the look of shock on the woman’s face. She wanted to search through the house without Agnes watching, being suspicious and asking questions. The first wave of debt collectors would come within the next few weeks, Marion’s lawyer had told her. He’d staved them off for as long as he could.
Marion climbed the stairs to the attic, holding onto the banister, not liking the strain in her Achilles heel. They’d want the house. She cracked open the swollen door. Swollen because of the leak – the rains in ’98 that weekend they’d gone away and come back to ruined carpets. Cobwebs stuck to her cheeks and she tried and failed to get them all off.
Only desperation could have brought her up here. A shaft of light felt palpable, like a witness. Marion saw the gleam from the gilt frame of a small portrait she’d hidden away. Her parents in wedding clothes, posing in the manner of people who are scared but have learned to pretend. When she’d packed up her mother’s room (her father had already been dead ten years) she’d been surprised to find the portrait preserved, challenging the reality of their divorce. Why had her mother not got rid of it? And then she, Marion, had discovered her own inability to throw the picture away. As if the photograph, this record of the past, had some magical power.
Marion glanced at the faces, grimaced. This was going to be hard. Best to avoid as much as possible. Gosh, there was the valise full of Max’s suits. Marion teetered in the tracks of space left between the many things she’d stored away over the decades. There was only one thing she really needed. She moved towards a wall of boxes, certain she had hidden it behind there. A scratching noise gave her a jolt. She was relieved she’d closed the attic door.
‘Alvar! Stay out.’
He scratched some more and then she heard him skitter down the stairs. She’ll feed him later.
All the while worrying about being found buried underneath boxes and photographs of frightened people, Marion made a path to the back wall. There it was. Muscles she hadn’t known were tense eased up. She’d been careful to bubble-wrap it, but even so she realised she’d been careless to leave it here and felt lucky to find it undamaged. If Max was right, the painting would fetch enough to last her till she finally died. But she’d need to hide it for the next few months, or however long the scavenge would go on for. The hunt. She lifted it and found it light enough to carry. She moved back towards the door, averting her gaze from her parents, her cheeks pinked with shame.
Back downstairs, she sensed the commotion rather than heard it. Out on her stoep Marion watched the ambulance park alongside No. 10. Had the man finally croaked? Alvar curled in her lap. She watched the activities, half- distracted. She was thinking about the painting. About hiding the painting. A stretcher was carried out of Hortensia’s home. On it was a covered body. Marion felt too harassed by bankruptcy and lawyers to enjoy her neighbour’s misfortune. The ambulance drove off, Hortensia trailing behind in her car; she’d looked more irritated than worried.
‘Oh my goodness, Agnes, you gave me a fright. You’re back early.’
‘Sorry to scare you.’
Marion noticed Agnes eyeing the dusty bubble-wrapped parcel by her side.
‘Well, never mind. Continue with your work.’
Once Agnes was safely occupied in the kitchen, Marion dragged the painting back upstairs and leaned it against the wall in her bedroom. But it looked at her. She wanted it close but out of sight. Underneath the bed. She got onto her knees, pushed aside her bedroom slippers – always ready, to attention. She knew it was stupid to keep the painting around. The whole business could get quite nasty, her lawyer had warned, especially if you’re suspected of circumventing the law. As she leaned and slid the painting underneath the bed, her brow creased. She had to hide the painting away somewhere no one would suspect to look for it. When the creditors came with their investigators, prying and questioning and . . . investigating . . . where would be the last place they would think to look? Marion had to restrain herself from calling Hortensia immediately. Despite her excitement about this new solution, she had the presence of mind to know such an action would be inappropriate. She’d have to wait a bit, although time wasn’t something she had in abundance. And she’d have to cajole Hortensia, somehow convince her and avoid suspicion – even with a newly dead husband, the woman would be sharp as a needle.
Too excited to feel foolish, Marion carted the painting downstairs, yet again, and set it by the front door. She made herself tea and allowed the taste of the idea to sink in. A perfectly good idea. And of course she won’t mention the bankruptcy – Heavens, no. Pretend the alarm is broken or something. Hortensia, can you help me keep this? It’s the most valuable thing I own . . . would be terrible if something happened . . . if someone broke in and stole it . . . Won’t you . . .?
Yes, they argued but there had been some favours over the years. Precisely three. Peter had asked Max’s advice and Max had whispered to him about a particular stock. When the price tripled Peter gave the Agostinos half an impala. He’d killed it himself. Marion was horrified but eventually had to concede the sweet tast of Karoo meat. Before his death Max had offered another financial tip that paid off. How is it her husband could help others make money but lose all of his own? Anyway the point was the Jameses owed the Agostinos. It was time to call in the favours.
The thought seemed to settle Marion, bring a calm she hadn’t felt for months, not since Max’s financial acrobatics had become apparent to her. The inevitability of bankruptcy had surfaced the way the ghost comes only after the body is dead and buried.
Of course she would now need to swallow her pride to ask Hortensia for help, but that wound would eventually heal. It would be a small price to pay for a chance not to die a pauper. Marion rehearsed the words she would use and looked through her binoculars across at her neighbour’s house – No. 10 Katterijn Avenue. The words were hard to form. Since the first lines she’d scratched on tracing paper over fifty years back, No. 10 was hers.
Corbusier claimed a house was a machine for living in. Marion, to her studio master’s amusement, explained her position. Didn’t we have enough machines? Did everything have to be likened to cogs and wires in order to make it worthwhile? A house is a person, she’d argued, to the sound of guffaws from the rest of the class. But she’d pressed on and turned in her essay. What was house design if it wasn’t the study of armour, of disguises, of appearances? The most intimate form of space-making, the closest architects might ever come to portraiture. Interesting, interesting, the teacher had said, but not substantiated enough. Marion thought him an idiot with a mind as narrow as a pin and did not allow his tepid response to dampen her own enthusiasm. She’d wanted to design houses the way other girls her age wanted babies.
How do you go to someone who has taken your baby and ask them to help you with something delicate? The pleases and thank-yous. Marion tried them in her head; they wouldn’t come. Not even slowly. Unless there was some other way to do it . . . She could go to the funeral, for instance, play up a bit. Marion’s mind moved through the steps. The phone rang.
‘Yes, darling . . . Yes, I wondered . . . I see . . . I wasn’t asking for that much money, Marelena. I didn’t even mention an amount. I just needed to know that in the event . . . Well, tell your hubby I don’t need his money, then. I have an idea anyway, so maybe I won’t need your help after all . . . I’ll tell you when I’ve worked it all out . . . What do you mean, why am I being so . . . I realise that, Marelena . . . Yes, you too . . . okay. Bye.’
Marion eyed the painting. Send flowers, go to the funeral, then wait some days; at the right moment, strike. Worth a try.
Back on the porch, Marion drank her tea but it was cold and she could only taste bile. After No. 10 was complete and the Norwegians living in it, nothing had alleviated that sunken feeling in the bottom of Marion’s belly. Not a marriage to Max, not one child after another. Not starting her practice. Nothing.