A Finalist for the International DUBLIN Literary Award • A Finalist for the Hurston/Wright Legacy Award for Fiction • Longlisted for the Bailey's Women's Prize for Fiction • A Finalist for the Barry Ronge Fiction Prize • A Finalist for the Aidoo-Snyder Book Prize • A Finalist for the University of Johannesburg Main Prize for South African Writing • One of the Best Black Heritage Reads (Essence Magazine) • One of NPR's Best Books of the Year • One of The Millions' and Refinery 29's Best Books of the Year (So Far), from One of Publishers Weekly's Writers to Watch
Loving thy neighbor is easier said than done.
Hortensia James and Marion Agostino are neighbors. One is black, the other white. Both are successful women with impressive careers. Both have recently been widowed, and are living with questions, disappointments, and secrets that have brought them shame. And each has something that the woman next door deeply desires.
Sworn enemies, the two share a hedge and a deliberate hostility, which they maintain with a zeal that belies their age. But, one day, an unexpected event forces Hortensia and Marion together. As the physical barriers between them collapse, their bickering gradually softens into conversation and, gradually, the two discover common ground. But are these sparks of connection enough to ignite a friendship, or is it too late to expect these women to change?
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The Woman Next Door
By Yewande Omotoso
PicadorCopyright © 2016 Yewande Omotoso
All rights reserved.
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.'
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.
* * *
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.
Excerpted from The Woman Next Door by Yewande Omotoso. Copyright © 2016 Yewande Omotoso. Excerpted by permission of Picador.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
It is well written and I do like the subject and main characters. The first half had me hooked but then it did not keep my attention. I only finished it hoping it would get better.