Authors: Yewande Omotoso
Hortensia James and Marion Agostino are neighbours. One is black, one white. Both are successful women with impressive careers. Both have recently been widowed. And both are sworn enemies, sharing hedge and hostility which they prune with a zeal that belies the fact that they are both over eighty.
But one day an unforeseen event forces the women together. And gradually the bickering and sniping softens into lively debate, and from there into memories shared. But could these sparks of connection ever transform into friendship? Or is it too late to expect these two to change?
Yewande Omotoso was born in Barbados and grew up in Nigeria, moving to South Africa with her family in 1992. She is the author of
, published in South Africa in 2011. In 2012 she won the South African Literary Award for First-Time Published Author and was shortlisted for the South African Sunday Times Fiction Prize. In 2013 she was a finalist in the the inaugural, pan-African Etisalat Fiction Prize. She lives in Johannesburg, where she writes and has her own architectural practice.
For Emily Doreen Verona Atherley and
Percy Leroy Rice
For Ajibabi Daramola Oladumoye and
Gabriel Omotoso Falibuyan
The wall is the thing which separates them, but it is also their means of communication.
Gravity and Grace
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 flat 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.’