The African Library: Entry no 132
Yewande Omotoso: The woman next door
Some readers might have formed a mistaken superficial impression of this impressive novel, based on brief reviews. Yewande Omotoso’s 2016 (second) novel is by no means a comforting or a sentimental “Rainbow Nation” or facile Truth and Reconciliation text; nor is it “chick lit” for old ladies, despite the fact that (as all the reviews seem to mention) it concerns two elderly neighbours who are both women and who are at loggerheads. Omotoso initially conducts the reader gently into the not-so-genteel interchanges that occur mostly between the neighbouring women. The narrative switches expertly from one to the other. Gradually, however, what might seem to be fairly light social satire begins to darken and deepen. Omotoso’s novel probes deeper and deeper into the origins of these two women’s unattractive and unpleasant attitudes, and the reader is faced with a narrative refusing to sidestep the most challenging racial-historical questions and the most private issues of intimate commitment, betrayal and hurt.
Since the women detest each other, they meet mostly at the once-a-month gatherings (by virtue of being homeowners) of the Katterijn committee – Katterijn being the name of “an enclave of some forty houses within Cape Town’s [ultimate, leafy] suburb of Constantia” (4). The committee founder is one of these wealthy women; only women seem to attend the gatherings – usually ten or so of them. Readers first encounter the only black inhabitant, Hortensia James; Barbadian (Caribbean) by birth, she is what is known as a “difficult” woman, because she is fearless in speaking her mind and airing her all-too-frequent complaints about what she perceives to be the irritating foolishness of most of the rest of humanity. Nothing raises her ire as much as the hypocritically “disguised” racism and posture of self-importance of Marion Agostino, her neighbour who started the committee – which Hortensia joins to help pass time. Her husband is seriously ill, but the childless couple can easily afford to pay for the two nurses who look after him. Both women were high achievers professionally; Marion (born a Baumann) was one of the two partners heading a highly regarded firm of architects, until the needs of her four children (with only one of whom she is still in fairly frequent, but strained, contact) required her retirement. She specialised in home design, and regards the beautiful home next door (no 12) to her own at no 10 Katterijn Avenue as her masterpiece. Marion had always wanted, but never managed, to buy it; Hortensia’s ownership of this very property (since 1994) is, of course, the original impulsion for Marion’s resentment of her neighbour – a feeling soon intensified by Hortensia’s biting, scoffing remarks usually directly addressed to her. Not one to wait to be invited to join the Katterijn group of homeowners, Hortensia had simply marched over to Marion’s house and announced that she would be joining the committee and attending meetings.
The novel opens with Hortensia both reflecting on her habit and undertaking one of her solitary walks up the Katterijn “Koppie” (the only hill in the area, without buildings or other walkers) – despite her bad leg. She is 85, but only when she spontaneously undertook her first walk up the hill did Hortensia discover “the meditative power of walking”. She used to drown out considerations of the disappointments and losses of her life and marriage by the work of design that she did for her own company, the House of Braithwaite, which brought her international fame, but now she has found that “if she remembered while walking, the memories were bearable” and she can cope with the deep “resentment” that plagues her (3). At the first meeting of the Katterijn committee that readers “witness”, the two main issues for discussion involve a resuscitated land claim by a family named the Samsodiens on the only piece of farmed land in Katterijn. It is a parcel of land named “The Vineyard”, which contains the home and winery of a Scandinavian couple, who acquired the land (now worth many millions) from the at-the-time needy family, for a song, in the sixties. Marion supports the European couple (whom she dislikes) who will oppose the claim, if necessary, in court. The second issue is a request – not a land claim, but also from a non-resident, non-white family, the Gierdiens – to bury their grandmother’s ashes next to a silver tree on Hortensia’s plot, where the deceased woman’s first husband and two of her children were buried. Marion recommends that the request be granted, but Hortensia, as the concerned homeowner, bluntly refuses it. She labels the desire of this family (of slave ancestry) “sentimental claptrap” (18). Of course, her refusal comes across as profoundly mean-spirited, and is quite possibly uttered mainly to refute Marion’s suggestion, since she interprets it as embodying yet another example of her despised neighbour’s hypocritical posturing.
For all the apparently “liberal” position Marion assumes concerning the Gierdiens’ request – one that required no land restitution or effort on her own part, and supported by her, of course, largely because it would possibly inconvenience the detested Hortensia – we soon see how she engages with her long-time housekeeper, Agnes. Omotoso does equip the reader with the knowledge that not only is Marion riled by Hortensia’s constant challenges to her (assumed) authority, but that her recently deceased and initially extremely prosperous businessman husband, Max, has left her not only penniless, but deeply in debt, to the point where collectors will soon arrive to strip her home of all its valuables and even require the sale of her house itself at an auction. Nor will she be welcome to live with any of her children. Prior to the meeting, Hortensia has overheard Marion (at the local grocer’s checkout) bragging to the till lady – in the expression white employers are fond of using – saying that Agnes (her housekeeper) is “part of the family”; that she and her late husband had (appallingly, to Hortensia) “thought of adopting” Agnes’s daughter, nicknamed Niknaks; that they had paid for a good school for the girl; and that they had “built [Agnes] a house” (22). The house (as we see much later) is a tiny and typical township dwelling – clearly not engaging any of Marion’s acclaimed architectural abilities. At the next Katterijn meeting, Hortensia savagely rebukes Marion by saying that she has nothing to be proud of about Agnes – genuine anti-apartheid restitution would have required exchanging their home with Agnes’s – adding that no “family member” can be an employee or come to Marion’s home only to clean it. Plagued by an unpleasant telephone exchange with her daughter, Marelena, about her own imminent destitution, Marion is shown – without authorial comment – taking out her anxiety and consequent bad temper on Agnes. She discourteously shouts at her to come to her, to “[t]ake” [her keys and committee file] and “[p]ut [them] on my desk”, and then to “[b]ring tea”, to “[u]se the china – the proper stuff”, and to bring the binoculars, with which she spies on her neighbours, and a biscuit for her dog. The series of abrupt orders is without a single “please”, followed by Marion’s unpleasant, shouted caution (as if to an imbecile): “Don’t break anything!” (24). All this is followed by the information that in view of Marion’s bankruptcy, Agnes will soon be out of a job, concerning which Marion has not seen fit to warn her housekeeper. Later, we learn that when Agnes initially begged to be allowed to bring her little daughter with her to work – because Niknak’s crèche, at one point, had had to close for a period – Marion did not like the thought of her own children playing with or touching the other child, despite having no problem with Agnes herself working as the other childcarer in her home and, no doubt, bathing, dressing, feeding and minding them. She is, at a later point, found out (as in so many white households) to have allowed Agnes only the use of her “own” cutlery and crockery for eating – even providing her with her “own” (inferior) brand of toilet paper. To their credit, her daughter and, especially, her older granddaughter were scandalised by this discovery. It is exactly such racist attitudes that drove the final wedge between Marion and her daughter.
Hortensia’s foul temper, in turn (intensified by the clash between the women at the Katterijn committee meeting, her fury at her sense of Marion’s gloating about the Gierdiens’ request, and her own increasing loneliness), is likewise taken out on an innocent victim. In Hortensia’s case, this is the column of ants that she deliberately squashes during her walk up the Koppie – “she didn’t just trample the creatures by accident, she sought them out. Her regular normal pissed-off self” (38). Soon after this, when her husband, Peter, dies at their home, she appears, at first, to take his long-expected demise coolly in her stride. Even at the undertaker’s, when Hortensia is granted the customary time to sit with and view the corpse in a private farewell, she decides that this is “not the time for tears” (50). Still, it is as she sits with the body and finds that in death, Peter looks different (as she believes everyone does), that she realises that when she herself lies in her casket, there would probably be no one to think this about her. When Hortensia ventures to touch Peter’s wedding ring, “she sucked her tongue to distract herself” – for “what was the point of crying now?” (51), she asks herself. A brilliant touch in the conception of this delicately evoked scene occurs when Hortensia (ever the designer) is shown (probably subconsciously) associating her dead husband’s grey-green facial colour with the colour of specially made-to-order garden pots, promisingly named “Magic Teal” – the suggestion of which fails to accord with their actual appearance, and so making her feel “cheated” (50). For Hortensia, one later learns, this word carries a burden of marital associations.
Slowly, Omotoso peels away layers of her characters’ past experiences and situations to allow us to see the experiences that hardened both of these women to the point where (as octogenarians) we first encounter them. In Hortensia’s case, it was as a design student in Brighton on a coveted British Council Art Scholarship (their family had earlier moved from Barbados to the UK) that Hortensia first became conscious of “what she called ‘the freeze’” (66): signs of racially tinged and class disdain and mockery directed at her for being dark-skinned and the daughter of a postman (her mother took in washing and drove trains for London Transport). These were not always subtle, even; for example, people made chimpanzee sounds when she walked past them. But it was here that she had met and fallen in love with (slowly and carefully) her tall, handsome British husband-to-be, Peter. When the love was declared and reciprocated and the respective surviving parents (Hortensia’s beloved father, Kwittel, having died in the meantime) informed of their decision to get married soon, Hortensia’s mother raised no objection, even though she’d have preferred her talented firstborn to have married a fellow Barbadian (or Bajan). Peter’s folks, however– without crude displays of racism – felt it their right to ask subtly but deeply insulting questions, such as whether the younger couple intended having children, as if apprehensive of what effect “mixed-race” children would have on their personal reputation in their social circle. At that stage, Hortensia was not yet tough enough to respond with a suitably sharp answer. Nevertheless, her in-laws’ attitude to their marriage was possibly a factor in Peter’s decision (with Hortensia’s approval) to accept a long-term posting to Nigeria, where (along with a local partner) Hortensia soon opened a new, flourishing boutique.
Marion, for her part, grew up in District Six to begin with; her parents, the Baumanns, were Jews who, having fled the Holocaust (not a word they ever used or a history that they ever explained to Marion), hid their terrible background in the interests of their slow upward social mobility in South Africa. They also embraced the racially discriminatory apartheid system with complete endorsement, as this put them firmly into the ranks of privileged whiteness. Marion, having imbibed these parental values, likewise adopted their ethos of never speaking of certain awkward matters, such as racial injustice. When Marion, as a little girl on the occasion when her parents were hosting one of their first dinner parties, blurted out the way her mother had taught her to understand and justify apartheid (by using the ugly racist terminology of the time), this spilling of family and social beans profoundly embarrassed her parents and earned Marion a hiding from her mother for what was, after all, mere childish candour.
Both women’s marriages began happily, but both these core relationships deteriorated – in a more sudden and shocking way for Hortensia than for Marion, the older woman having discovered that her husband, Peter, was having an affair. Initially, this was just something that she sensed; “she simply knew, from a smell, from a frown or a smile that hung out of place” (62). The agony the discovery caused Hortensia is never explicitly stated, but it is conveyed to the reader as clearly as if it had been said. As memories from their early married life, more recent ones and the shocks and practical arrangements resulting from Peter’s death arise, recur or intertwine, one recognises Omotoso’s artistry and empathy in portraying this fiercely proud and passionate woman’s earlier and present life. Hortensia, feeling she had to know more, followed Peter and his lover. (Like Peter, she’s white and British, and visits Nigeria annually for long spells.) Hortensia followed them in disguise – both so as not to be “caught out” in her detective efforts, and in order to hide her feelings as she witnessed the two of them embracing, kissing, laughing and playing – intimate activities that have now disappeared from her marriage. Hortensia learnt to lie like Peter did about having conferences or work meetings to attend, but in her own case the stratagems were inspired not by an irresistible desire, but by the undeniable compulsion to know the full and – to her –agonising extent of Peter’s love for the stranger. She even spied on their lovemaking – dressed in a burkha. All these memories come flooding back in full, painful detail when Hortensia learns that, during a brief, final lucid spell, Peter employed a young lawyer to write a will in which his wife was no longer either his executor or his main beneficiary. The lawyer is now Peter’s executor (in the first distressing point, the hapless fellow is forced to inform Hortensia of this), and (much, much worse) the new will specifies that Peter’s new chief beneficiary is a daughter whom he never knew (and of whose existence Hortensia has, of course, been totally unaware). The woman – who is 47 years old and is named Esme Weathers – lives in the UK, and the person who must inform this unknown woman that Peter was her father and that she (Esme) will inherit the bulk of his estate, is Hortensia – who must then meet this stranger after she has flown to South Africa on a ticket provided by the estate. The worst point is that, if Hortensia fails to contact Esme and meet with her, the will lapses. Peter would then be considered as having died intestate; the British woman (who is not a named beneficiary) would not inherit anything, the state would take a great deal of Peter’s inheritance, and Hortensia would receive merely her beneficiary’s share. This would be less than if the will were to be operative. The issue for Hortensia is not the size of her inheritance (she is a wealthy woman), of course, but the bitterness and humiliation felt at the shocking revelation and the difficulty of interpreting Peter’s motives.
Hortensia declared to herself, while initially witnessing Peter and the woman’s shared tenderness and their delight in each other, that she wished to see “everything”, calling her own conduct a “task” and a “job” (186). However, the details revealing that after her all but sleepless night keeping watch on them, she went to her rented truck and “rubbed hard at her vagina until she thought it would catch alight”, and then “lurched out” from the vehicle and “threw up into the grass verge”, betray her pain and longing. The narrative voice (probably mimicking Hortensia’s) pronounces solemnly at this point that, “at the age of thirty-one, Hortensia James started to hate” (187). But the betrayed wife’s body language clearly tells another story – one of a deep, enduring but thwarted love and desire gone bitter as gall.
This longing slowly left her, though. She went from resenting just Peter, to the housekeeper, the driver, the market woman. People were slow, simple-minded; they all harboured ill intentions, seemed determined to be unhelpful, especially when their jobs required being of service. They didn’t answer questions properly, spoke as if they had been trained all their lives to frustrate whoever addressed them. Hortensia’s foul temper kept her mouth in a line, her brow knit, her teeth pressed together and her eyes cutting. She became good at chopping the legs off people, with no knife, with only words. She was always angry, and while, initially, she noticed it (worried that it shouldn’t be there), it slowly became what was normal. (187)
As usual, in such situations, Hortensia suppressed all knowledge or acknowledgement of the extent of her own responsibility for the souring and emptying of her and Peter’s marriage. She, instead, allowed her bitter fury and resentment to “drag her down. Hating, after all, was a drier form of drowning” (188), she decided. “Over time, over the years that the affair continued, Hortensia stopped seeing life as a good thing. In a cold church in London she had said yes to [Peter], to be the only one person always there to be safe with, to bear the weight of her when her weight needed bearing, to respond to questions that no-one else would care to.” She had seen in Peter “[s]omeone to say the unsayable, to be scared with, together. And here she was, scared alone.” She adds: “Night was the real measure of love. … Anything can sparkle in the daylight” (198). Noticeably, Hortensia, in her role of the betrayed woman, refused to ask herself what failures or lack of love and care towards Peter, on her side, drove him into another person’s arms. For the narrative makes clear that Peter was no cad and, for all his failings and despite his betrayal, retained a sense of commitment to Hortensia that long outlived his extramarital relationship, which ended when civil war (known usually as the Biafran War) overtook Nigeria, and Valerie (Peter’s lover, whose name Hortensia later found out) apparently left Nigeria, never to return on another visit.
Marion, caught in the toils of thoughts concerning her rapidly declining financial situation, recalls the secret or hidden landscape painting, bought years ago by her and Max as a wise investment, probably worth a sizeable sum by now, since it is by a very highly rated South African artist (Pierneef). This work of art, if discreetly sold after a lapse of time, might just allow her to acquire a modest dwelling and be enough to live on frugally during her remaining years. The many claimants on the bankrupt estate are unaware of its existence, as the acquisition has never been noted in any documents, nor has the painting been displayed in the house; it has, in fact, been hidden in their attic. If it were to be sold, this would have to be done secretly, too, and the painting hidden somewhere safe (till its sale), where the claimants would not find it and would never guess it existed. Marion devises a plan to request (of all people) her neighbour’s permission for the painting to be kept at Hortensia’s house until the coast is clear. Her reasoning is that Max had, on two occasions, given Peter lucrative investment advice, and that this could, therefore, be considered Hortensia’s opportunity to return a favour. Marion would not be able to say this to Hortensia, but – since from her girlhood she had “wanted to design houses the way other girls her age wanted babies”, and since the house at no 10, where Hortensia lives, is her firstborn and dearest “baby” – it would be a highly humiliating but unavoidable necessity to go and plead with the “thief” to do her this favour that she believes she is owed. The plan may seem bizarre, but Marion is driven by desperation and cannot share information with her unsympathetic daughter, Marelena, who already begrudges Marion the money she has had to provide to assist her now needy mother.
There is a fateful intervention that will radically affect the course of events. Partly to take her thoughts off her marital regrets and Peter’s death and the demands of his will, and also, to some extent, to provoke Marion (whose obsessive feelings about what is now Hortensia’s home are well known to the latter), Hortensia has engaged builders to make a few alterations to the house – such as putting in windows where she wants a view, and so on. On the first working day for Hortensia’s builders, there is a serious accident. A crane slips its brakes, knocks over and injures Hortensia and bashes down the whole front facade of Marion’s home, about to be put on auction to recoup her debts. Hortensia has a broken femur and several gashes; Marion is not physically injured, but the damage to her house is extensive – it will remain uninhabitable until repairs are undertaken and insurance matters sorted out. Much more concerning to Marion, however, is that in the commotion (while she was holding the Pierneef painting) when the accident happened, during which she fainted, this single asset now remaining to her has vanished. She asks her daughter to go hunt for “a painting”, but it cannot be found.
Hospitalised after the operation her leg injury required, Hortensia gets a visit from the operator of the crane that knocked her down. She has cancelled the building alteration plans. This driver’s “apology” is entirely lacking in remorse or acknowledgement of his responsibility for Hortensia’s pain and the inconvenience he has caused her. A woman of honour (after all), Hortensia knows that she owes Marion a serious, proper apology (apart from paying her share (through insurers) of the repair costs to her neighbour’s home), and mulls over a suitable way to convey such an apology against the background of their decades-long animosity. Marion, in the meantime, is accommodated in the rather ghastly neighbourhood guest house (her daughter has to pay, for the time being). Unable to recover the lost painting, Marion reflects with some bitterness on living longer (at almost 82) than her parents did: “What was the point anyway? You can’t die, but you haven’t got the money to live properly, the money to act as balm to your misery” (93). We get a few glimpses of Marion’s parents and her childhood as she reminisces with a kind of melancholic bitterness at the sight of a photo that has shown up from the ruins of her damaged home, deciding that “she’d made them weary” (94) and that she “undid her mother” (95), in particular, by never being the proper, “girly” middle-class girl her mother had wanted her to be. Her parents never touched her affectionately or even playfully; she pronounces them both “uptight people”. Moreover, Marion had to “spen[d] her childhood managing herself”; it is only when she remembers how her parents, divorced by then, would tell the same story about her childish ambition to be “a human house” (96), that she identifies the shy pride in her that the little tale reveals as “a deeper kind of touching” (97). Such memories bring but slight comfort to an octogenarian on the precipice of destitution: “She slept curled with a hand on her face, turned upward. Parrying what, she couldn’t say” (100) – another deft bit of body language deployment on the author’s part.
With the duty to apologise to her neighbour for the damage to her home looming over Hortensia, she learns from her housekeeper, Bassey (perhaps Congolese, a most discreet and dignified person), that Marion is not staying with any of her children while her house is repaired, but in the rather dreadful Katterijn guest house. Bassey explains (in response to Hortensia’s query) that Marion’s is not a loving family, and that Agnes (Marion’s housekeeper) has told him revealingly: “[Y]ou need Jesus in your life if you’re going to work for the Agostinos” (101). Having at last – and with some agonising as to how her note will be received – managed to write an apology to Marion, with a request that the slightly younger woman visit her (Hortensia being bed-bound, though home, after her operation) because Hortensia feels that only a face-to-face apology would be proper, Hortensia can only wait. The note is delivered through Agnes, and Marion actually replies after a few days that she will come, showing up abruptly at her neighbour’s house afterwards. Hortensia, in the meantime, has continued to terrorise and antagonise every single nurse sent to her house (usually they are white), often by mocking their “kind of PC-diarrhoea”, for example, in referring to a black person with whom they have superficial dealings as a “buddy”. There is, in Hortensia’s well-founded comment, no “shortcut” (108) to racial reconciliation in South Africa.
When Marion arrives and Hortensia apologises “with integrity”, it actually angers Marion – which Hortensia meanly (and without full knowledge of Marion’s situation) decides constitutes “a double victory” (111). Yet, when Marion goes off in a huff, after adding the detail that the Pierneef painting (without divulging that her future upkeep depends on this item’s recovery) went missing in the commotion, Hortensia is left (unusually) “with a strange sense of longing that she had nowhere to put” (112). A few days later, after a visit from the gracious, courteous Agnes (the end of whose long employment Marion cannot even bring herself to articulate with suitable gratitude and apology), who has rescued a valuable, heavy gold chain and a sapphire from the rubble around the Agostino residence and now brought it to the guest house, Marion (still harping on about the painting) is left feeling “inexplicably angry” and “shaken” (130) – perhaps feeling “shown up” by Agnes’s composure and her courtesy (she – Agnes – will be welcome, though also “useful”, at her daughter’s home). Going back to her home to speak to the builder undertaking the repairs, Marion encounters another incarnation of courtesy and competence in a black person. Marion feels envious of this confident man who runs his own business, thinking back longingly to her own days of independence and success. When, in the middle of her discussion with the builder, Marion gets yet another unfriendly, irritated, unsympathetic phone call from her daughter, the usually tough woman breaks down in a lengthy if silent bout of weeping. Hortensia, bored and peering through her window, sees to her shock that “Marion the Vulture” (132) – as she privately refers to her – is crying. She consults Bassey, and he tells her just enough: that “there have been some … difficulties” – “[f]inancial and what-have-you” (132). Hortensia devises a plan; feeling compelled to alleviate Marion’s now evident plight, she will ask Marion over and make a “forceful” offer that she come to stay in Hortensia’s house while the repairs are being undertaken, and ask her to consider this possibility over the next few days – making clear that this is not an offer of friendship. And the plan, of course, has another crafty side to it: Hortensia hopes to persuade her physician (Dr Mama, “inherited” from the late Peter) to allow her to kick out the nurses who so irritate her, since Marion (especially at night, when Bassey goes home) could assist in any emergency that might arise, and still remain close enough to oversee the repairs to her own property. What does the trick is that Dr Mama (when Marion, as it were, accidentally meets him while he is visiting his patient) is a handsome and urbane man who immediately charms Marion – Hortensia teasing her afterwards that the physician is probably the “first darkie [Marion] had ever had the hots for” (211). Despite Hortensia still nastily refusing the Gierdiens’ request to bury their grandmother’s ashes under her silver tree, a few small rapprochements happen between the two elderly women now living together. Firstly, Hortensia allows Marion to clean a stain on the wall of the downstairs study where she is sleeping while recuperating; Marion requests Hortensia’s permission for her twelve-year-old granddaughter, Innes (seemingly the only family member who is fond of her), to visit at no 10, and Hortensia is extremely gracious in her behaviour when the girl comes over. Still, after referring to Innes as “a lovely little girl”, she cannot resist adding: “If not that she calls you grandmother I would never have imagined a familial connection” (157).
As a telling contrast to the two ageing women, Bassey earns some of the most memorable and vivid lines of the text in a brief description of why Hortensia employed him. She refers to what she saw as a “discreet weariness in his eyes like a tired king”, and states that Bassey (who appears to be from a francophone region, never specified) “spoke as if his words were precious and he knew the person he was talking to couldn’t really afford them” (152–3). Sentences like these compellingly prove Omotoso’s immense talent.
To indicate that Marion’s misfortunes are beginning to open her eyes to her country’s tragic past and to other people’s sufferings, Omotoso depicts her “research” (a brief paging through the many dusty pages of evidence about Katterijn’s past, gathered by the librarian, Agatha), a task undertaken on an assignment from the co-owner of The Vineyard (Ludmilla von Struiker) to establish how firm the land claim on The Vineyard might be. When Marion, in her reading, discovers the area’s history of torturing slaves, she finds the evidence so horrifying that she more or less flees the library. Agatha has commented ominously: “There’s blood here, Marion” (169).
The narrative returns to Hortensia’s past: readers may feel she misjudged Peter’s feeling, on waking up the morning following their wedding night, as “coolness” – in view of what she acknowledges as his “intense, studious, quirky and warm” as well as “ardent” behaviour towards her, and his evident happiness, in the early years of their marriage. She herself had relished her early textual design successes and the public attention they had brought her, and her hurt at Peter’s initial inability to grasp the nature and scope of her talent was possibly the oversensitive response of a woman not yet as confident of her art as she would become. While “it saddened her that what she considered the best thing about herself was a puzzle to her husband” (173), it is quite likely that he loved her for the many other aspects of her being that she believed (mistakenly?) were of lesser worth. Five years into the marriage, and Hortensia’s womb apparently impervious to pregnancy, their arguments started. Over time, “the gap between them widened” (175). When Hortensia, in later years, asks herself the difficult question, “What happened?” the main reason seems to be that they allowed “corrosive silences” to occur between them, silences that continued for weeks (176). When they did make love, which gradually became an occasional event, “it was a duty”, even (in Hortensia’s awful description) “a domestic task to keep something from rotting” (177). Later, when Hortensia discovered the affair, she attempted to bridge the gap and overcome the silence by telephoning Peter, requesting that he join her for dinner, but in the awkwardness that had overcome their relationship, she was unable to articulate the desire to mend fences by speaking openly about how they might restore their formerly close connection. One night, Peter, too, very drunk, possibly wanted to speak openly to his wife, but Hortensia feigned deep sleep and refused to give him the opening – whether to confess the affair, to ask her to grant him a divorce or to plead with her to heal their rift, she would never know.
Marion brings up her own memories from further back in her life, recalling as significant her history teacher, Miss Siebert, a conservative dresser who worked the occasional racial-political detail into her classes – references to the early history of the Cape Colony, and so on – before she was fired from the girls’ school Marion attended. A classmate later boasted to Marion that she had reported Miss Siebert’s recommendation of a banned book, speculating about Miss Siebert’s Communist Party membership. In the final class, the teacher had told them that their history textbook was “not really history” (179). Like her classmates, Marion stuck to the apartheid line. Remembering her own refusal to face the difficult question about the role and place of whites in South Africa now makes Marion conscious of “shame”, but she still fends off acknowledgement of her and her parents’ conduct (it was they who taught her to think and behave like this) as shameful, because (as she now insists) it is an “unproductive” emotion (214) – which, of course, is self-justifying thinking or avoidance. Hortensia immediately senses that Marion’s preamble in a fumbling attempt to open a conversation with her fierce, temporary “hostess” will lead to a rationalisation. So, when Marion starts by saying, “I know I’ve made bad choices” (evidently, these words would be followed by a “but” – if Hortensia allowed her to proceed), she cuts her off short. Nor will she allow Marion’s “I thought we were becoming friends in a way” to blackmail her emotionally (215). Prying the claim “I think I’m not bad, that I’m okay” out of Marion, Hortensia tells her that not only does she believe she cannot say this of herself, but she does not think Marion can, either. “I just think you’re a liar,” she says, and says that she does not want any “kinship” with her (Marion), a “conversation” (if it can be so described!) that “made Hortensia feel at home again” (216). However, when Marion tries yet again to persuade Hortensia to allow the Gierdien family to bury their grandmother on her land – weeping as she does so – and explains that she, too, would have refused, but wanted Hortensia to “be better” (presumably both better than her, and a more moral person), Hortensia at last relents – even though she looks “ashen – and annoyed” and has earlier “ground her teeth” at Marion’s “snivell[ing]” (239). The gathering (for the burial) is fairly small, and very dignified. Both white women attend, although Hortensia excuses herself as soon as the ceremony itself is over. As Marion lingers to eat and chat a little to the lawyer granddaughter of the just-buried woman, she is subjected to an expanded history lesson when the young woman tells her that she heard from her grandmother that many (coloured) people died when the Group Areas Act ousted them from Constantia, while others barely survived, “broken-hearted”. She adds that “it was a wicked thing – scattering people like that. It undid a whole culture of people. Made pride difficult.” She tells Marion that her grandmother insisted on not forgetting this history, and then refers to the torture “wheel” that was used on runaway and other slaves – a machine contrived to break and crush their bones. Marion knows this was so; she has seen the image in the library archive. Overcome with the horror of this fact, Marion rushes away after excusing herself (241).
Later on, Marion will, in her new state of unforgiving candour, acknowledge to Hortensia that she was and even is “a terrible mother”, ie that there are reasons why none of her four children want to see her. She also knows that it is too late; “there’s no fixing that” (247). Earlier, Marion ventured to suggest to Hortensia that she was (at that point, still) refusing to accommodate the Gierdiens’ wish to bury their grandmother’s ashes on her plot because what Beulah (the lawyer granddaughter) was asking had so much to do with family, with having many children and having closeness as well as lasting affection and loyalty – in other words, the blessings on which she (Hortensia) had missed out, and which she envied – and that she was begrudging the Gierdiens these experiences. So, later on, when Marion is bewailing her poor relationship with her offspring, and Hortensia tells her, “Face your children. Face them!” Marion is unable to stop herself retaliating by saying that Hortensia is the last person in the world who should be lecturing anyone on family ties. Hortensia snaps at this and slaps Marion in the face, and Marion, horrified, immediately leaves Hortensia’s house – “not even bother[ing] to say thank you and goodbye” (248), as Hortensia has the audacity to think to herself at this moment.
Yet, Hortensia has, in fact, taken herself by surprise at her own violent act. When the news comes from Bassey that Marion’s housekeeper, Agnes, has been diagnosed with terminal cancer and is in hospital, Hortensia joins him on a visit to her. She runs into Marion in the hospital room, where Marion is sitting at the bedside, having been notified by Agnes’s daughter, Niknaks. When Niknaks arrives to see her mother, the other visitors leave. On the way out, Hortensia asks Marion whether they could have tea together in the canteen. She apologises humbly for having slapped Marion, while Marion, who earlier privately acknowledged (in a startling yet apt phrase) that “she had teeth in her heart” (248), is sufficiently gracious to accept the apology and to allow Hortensia to explain her startling act as resulting from her mulling over her marital past and the attendant regrets – even thinking that her childlessness (and the effect this probably had on their marriage) was a form of poetic justice, because she lied to Peter about aborting their first child. Still, no one has ever previously thrown her failure to have children in her face as Marion had done, “not even Peter at his most nasty”. Now, Marion, in turn, apologises, acknowledging that her own insensitive, self-defensive remark was “cruel” (254). Perhaps, this is the true reconciliation moment in the narrative; difficult as the encounter is for them both, they have both perhaps, to an extent, been cured of their usual (prior?) arrogance by their more recent humbling experiences. Marion hears from Hortensia that she has, at last, brought herself to telephone Esme Weathers, Peter’s secret daughter (as one might call her), and that Esme will be coming to visit Hortensia. Omotoso again uses her fine eye for body language, describing how “Hortensia brushed her head with the palm of her hand”, and stating that the two women drank their bad tea “as if it were gin, their teeth bared, the muscles in their necks tensed” (254–5).
A phone call comes to Marion, now back briefly in her own home, from Niknaks. Agnes is asking her to come and see her again, at her home. When Marion stalls, embarrassed and anxious about seeing the woman she exploited and emotionally mistreated for years, Niknaks calls Hortensia to help her to pressurise Marion to visit; Agnes is evidently importunate about speaking to Marion, probably for the last time. Hortensia goes along with Marion, having twisted her arm to go on the visit to Khayelitsha. They get a bit lost when actually close to the small house. Beset by racist nervousness about asking any local for directions, Marion refuses to stop to do so. Again, Hortensia forces her to act, and a kindly young man puts them on the right route. Hortensia leaves Marion to go into the bedroom by herself. Agnes speaks to Marion about the past years, telling Marion that she has been a “hard woman”, and that when she (Agnes) “was still young and new” to the household, “she used to weep”. Later, Marion tells Hortensia that Agnes pointed to a cupboard in which (it turns out) the wrapped Pierneef painting had recently been kept. It had got there by mistake, when Niknaks brought the boxes with her mother’s belongings back to Agnes’s home. When she had discovered it, Agnes said, she was initially still so angry with her unpleasant former employer that she did not feel like returning the painting to Marion, but then added that, whatever happens, “a person should be true” (260). At this very late moment, Marion gave Agnes a long overdue (and by now, of course, useless) apology. Hortensia agrees grudgingly to allow Marion to keep the precious painting at her home. Marion will be staying with Marelena while a discreet buyer for the Pierneef is searched for; on the proceeds, she hopes to buy a small flat and even still afford a weekly hairdo and pedicure.
Marion visits Hortensia, finding her nervous about Peter’s daughter’s pending visit. She now allows Marion the intimacy of assisting her in getting knots out of her hair; those in her tummy she has to deal with herself. Esme calls one more time before boarding to warn Hortensia that she is blind and needs her guide dog. Somehow, this makes Hortensia less anxious – that she will not be physically visible to the younger woman. But Esme is the epitome of graciousness from the moment she arrives – putting Hortensia wholly at ease. She “seemed, by some magic, to have retained all the really great qualities of being a toddler” (264). Hortensia feels a deep sorrow – probably for a combination of complex reasons – in the visitor’s presence. As they walk towards Peter’s tombstone, which the dying man had himself commissioned from a stonemason without Hortensia’s knowledge, she reaches for Esme’s hand. Esme gives her hand willingly, telling Hortensia that however “surprising” she finds it all, she is happy to have come. Hortensia describes the tombstone to Esme, including the strange (to her) detail that its surface is covered in carefully arranged dots. When Esme goes forward and feels these protuberances with her hands, Hortensia at last realises that Peter, who never made contact with Esme, instructed the stonemason to leave a message, or letter, in Braille to Esme on his tombstone. Afterwards, Hortensia hears from Esme that her mother married in the UK when she herself was a few months old (this would have been around 1967, one presumes). Esme’s mother wrote to Peter for the first time, she told Esme, when the latter was around ten years old, and when Peter and Hortensia would still have been in Nigeria, where they remained until 1994, then moving to South Africa. Her mother never received a reply to this letter. Valerie, being divorced by that time, wrote to Peter twice more, telling him about their daughter, providing their address and telling him that she still loved him and wanted him to join them. The absence of a response perhaps means that Peter chose to remain with Hortensia instead. Esme senses that Hortensia wants to apologise on Peter’s behalf, perhaps, but reassures her that she and her mother “didn’t suffer” (267). When Hortensia remarks that Peter at least “found” Esme “in the end”, she responds by saying that the tombstone inscription must, indeed, have been his way of “finally writing back” – even if this was “much, much too late” (268).
Marion visits Hortensia after Esme’s departure, and it emerges that Agnes, whom Marion has intended to visit again, would (naturally) prefer not to see her. When Hortensia enquires whether the dying woman blames her former employer for not having had a more fulfilling life, Marion insists: “she doesn’t blame me” (268) – as if Agnes’s concentration is elsewhere – but Marion says she fears Agnes will haunt her. The formerly racially ironclad Marion has, at last, accepted her guilt in ill-treating this talented, principled woman. In something of a parallel, Hortensia expresses her surprise at Esme being as “lovely” and free of reproaches towards her and Peter as she is (269). Esme even phoned Hortensia, graciously, to say that she’d arrived home safely and thanked her for the visit. The two oldies decide that the two of them are probably headed for hell, given the quality of their past lives – observations that are probably only partly jocular. In a final little twist to Hortensia’s (part of the) narrative, Peter’s young lawyer arrives with a letter from her late husband; it is dated in a shaky hand and probably written very close to Peter’s death. But the letter contains no legible writing, only some illegible “scratches” (273). Hortensia, who, during Peter’s last days, on a few occasions just curled up next to him and held him for (probably mutual) comfort, recalls that he tried, but was unable, to speak to her audibly; so, she understands that the “letter” was quite likely intended to function as the equivalent of the Braille “letter” to Esme on the tombstone – a final expression of his feelings to his wife. Hortensia phones the lawyer to inform him that the letter fails to communicate anything, but, desperate for articulate clues to Peter’s emotional orientation towards her in his dying days, asks him what her husband might have said to him about her. Somewhat reluctant to reveal Peter’s remarks (both in terms of client confidentiality and presumably in view of Hortensia’s biting tongue), the lawyer says he spoke of her as a talented designer and a woman fond of gardening, and then, prodded by Hortensia, adds that Peter – at their last meeting, when he had had a few drinks and seemed “very sad” – said to him: “My wife, I love her very much, but that’s the easy part” (276). Perhaps “all the rest” was hard, Hortensia surmises, and thinks of Peter in exasperation and love, for – as her whisper, calling him a “foolish man”, and her wish that she could have slapped him on the wrist and “embraced” him, show – her love is still strong (and her temper fierce). The novel ends with a surprise dinner for two, to be cooked (at Hortensia’s) by Marion, at the latter’s insistence.