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Sarah Britten

@ Sunday Times Books LIVE

The investment of meaning in things

On Saturday morning a friend sends me an SMS. The house I renovated with my ex-husband, the architect, will be on show the next day. The friend is looking for property, which is why he spotted the ad. He only knows the number of the house I used to own because he was looking at a house in the same street where I lived, and I mentioned the address in passing. If it were not for all of these small coincidences, I would not have known about it.

I get hold of a copy of the Saturday Star, yank the property pages free of Personal Finance and Travel, scan the pages for Parkhurst. There it is, a small photo of the pool deck taken from the lounge, with a description. “Architecturally executed,” reads the blurb, “this inspirational home has excellent elevation and flow.” It’s not the worst I’ve read, I suppose. I’ve always hated the way estate agents describe things: the clichés they use, the lies they tell. Everything is spacious, everything oozes charm (is this code for rising damp?) everything is north-facing even when it isn’t.

Obviously I have to go and look. How can I not take advantage of such a rare opportunity? The timing, now that I’ve found most of the scattered bits and pieces of my post-implosion self, is perfect. This could be the closure I seek (closure: a concept that South Africans have embraced; even the police talk about closure), the therapeutic intervention I need. Will I be overwhelmed by memories and scare off prospective buyers by sobbing in front of the gas hob, tears dripping onto the screed floor? Or will I shrug and smile, round and smug in my indifference? At the very least this must be good for a blog entry. The prospect of crafting a bleakly eviscerating exercise in navel-gazing pleases me no end.

Also, I am curious. I have to know what the people who bought the house from us have done with it. Have they filled it with ghastly furniture? Painted the walls questionable colours? I know already from having driven past it before that they’ve changed the street garden, ripped out all our Tulbaghia and replaced it with roses and lavender. Whenever I go to Parkhurst to meet friends, I drive down that street, even though there are twenty-one others to choose from.

I’m not entirely sure why I do this.

My mother thinks that going to look at the house is a horrible idea. “Oh God,” she says, “What for? I couldn’t do it. I’d just see him.” By him, of course, she means my ex-husband, who is now living on the other side of the planet, in Sydney, where I used to live when he was here in Joburg, in that house. It’s complicated, as they say on Facebook.

On the drive over I turn the air conditioning on full blast and listen to Murray Perahia playing Bach while I weigh up the notion of rededicating myself to cynicism. This is something I do regularly, usually when other people are involved. After the Alliance Française debacle last year I’m wary: I know that I’m allowing myself to become vulnerable, and being vulnerable means being hurt, again. I want my mushy pink self to become calloused and crust over. There’ll be no stepping within a mile of that cliff, oh no. I won’t go over it again.

From First Avenue West I turn into that particular street – what used to be my street – and head down the hill, exquisitely civilized music filling the cool air in my hermetically sealed mobile world. There’s space to park right next to the house: I cannot think of a more compelling sign that I am meant to be here. The pavements are cluttered with luxury German automobiles of various types so I’m glad I’m driving the Freelander; at least I look as though I might be able to afford to buy at offers from R3.499 million, which is rather overpriced in a difficult market. If they get that, I’ll be surprised.

The property across the road still looks like a dog’s breakfast; some things have not changed.

Before leaving the sanctity of the car, I type out a quick tweet speculating on the possibility of a meltdown. Tweeting is essential at times like these, when there is an element of suspense. I’ve already updated my Facebook status and several of my online friends are waiting for the report back. Life online is a perpetual performance and I’m very aware of my responsibility, which is to be entertaining.

I gaze up at the late February sky. Let’s do this, I mutter.

First impressions are good. We had Zimbabwean stonemasons clad the perimeter wall in rock back when everything was clad in rock chopped from some formerly pristine granite koppie. The electric fence came later, after we were burgled while we were at a friend’s house for dinner. ADT called just as we had finished dessert and they were waiting for us outside when we arrived to discover that our bedroom cupboards had been ransacked. I was glad to go back to Sydney after that.

I step through the door in the wall into a world that once was mine. The garden is different, much sparser than it was when we left it, and the guardrail that my ex-husband went to such trouble to put up next to the pool is gone. Everything’s vaguely Frenchified, in contrast to the African-eclectic style we cultivated.

Walking in through the front door is a little harder, and requires an extra intake of breath. I’m feeling self-conscious and I don’t want to talk to the estate agent, so I’m suddenly fascinated by the burglar bars on one of the windows to my right, the same window the aforementioned burglars used to break in and, presumably, the same route they used to remove our valuables. Miraculously, they never found my wallet, which I’d hidden under my bedside table on the assumption that it was safer to keep it at home than risk being hijacked while we were out. Swings and roundabouts, I suppose.

I can’t complain about the way the new owners have furnished the place. It’s all terribly tasteful: muted tones, Persian rugs, mismatched wooden furniture bought from quaint, expensive shops of the sort that cater to what the Australians dismiss as latte drinkers (apparently, a fondness for milky Italian coffee correlates directly to gentrification, homosexuality and soft-left politics). Casting my gaze across the built-in bookshelves I observe copies of the Stieg Larsson trilogy, décor tomes and their CD collection. When we lived in it, this house heaved with things gathered over the years – books, carvings, Carrol Boyes – and these people clearly have a much healthier relationship with clutter.

The agent is trying to make eye contact, so I flee outside and retreat to a corner from which I can view the pool area to one side and the neighbouring property to the other. The house next door is now double storey and aggressively trendy. One corner is walled entirely in glass, so I can see inside to the stairs and a wall covered with photos of what I assume are members of the family. If I’d brought binoculars with me I might have been able to tell whether the house still belonged to the woman who was once my boss (just my luck, that she should move in next door) and who during an appraisal once told me to leave my husband because she could hear the way he spoke to his mother – but I didn’t, so I can only speculate on the identity of its occupants.

Back inside, I take a proactive approach to the agent and ask him why the owners are selling. He is very well-dressed and very gay (are all male estate agents gay, is this a rule?) “They’re building in a golf estate,” he says, “can you believe.” Then he asks what I am looking for and, not feeling up to pretending to be anything other than what I am, I confess: this house used to be mine. I offer a rambling, somewhat incoherent explanation involving architects and divorce and houses as substitute children. He asks for the name of the architect who designed the house. “You won’t have heard of him,” I say. “He’s in Australia now.”

Then I add, “I’m here because I’m nosy,” and I laugh to hide my discomfort. The agent probably thinks I am barren and bitter, here to fill the rooms with bad ex-wife juju. Maybe he’s right.

I duck into the main bedroom and am disappointed by the lack of effort that has gone into furnishing it. The bathroom looks beautiful and serene though, its monochromatic calm broken only by the shrill magenta of a phalaeanopsis orchid. It hasn’t dated at all, and I really do have to compliment my ex on his choice of finishes. He always did have excellent taste.

I don’t spend much time in the second bedroom, where my mother-in-law died surrounded by paramedics one Friday afternoon, though I do note that removing the beautiful 50 year old pomegranate tree that once grew in the courtyard outside has brought the sun in to what was once a rather gloomy space. The new owners really have brutalized the water-wise garden we worked so hard to create, replacing the indigenous plants I loved with roses and lavender. Only the star jasmine survived the purge.

A matching fat youngish man and women walk through the front door. “This is stunning. Absolutely stunning,” says the woman and I feel just a little surge of pride in our creation. This is the first time I have felt any positive feelings about the decade I spent with my ex-husband – or, indeed, consciously evoked any memories of that time – so perhaps this is progress.

The study (which could also work as a third bedroom) is light-filled and lovely. It has been turned into an art studio for the wife, who uses oil pastels and is recreating a Toulouse-Lautrec. I met this couple after we sold the house to them, just after I returned from Australia. They were younger than us, cash buyers forced to return from the US because their work visas had been cancelled thanks to the recession. They were very nice, they really were, with their matching golden retrievers and Audi Sportbacks. While we were going through the divorce, my ex-husband talked about how he had fantasized about having a revenge affair with her. She was very pretty and very sweet, so I could hardly blame him.

I wander through the patio at the back of the house, past an African Grey parrot that eyes me sardonically from its cage, and step into the Large Double Storey cottage or work from home, as the ad suggests. Here the memories have seeped into the walls like cooking fat. The floor made of slate roof tiles I found abandoned in the park across the river; the whitewashed wooden ceiling that vaults above the double-volume kitchen. The ex and I renovated this cottage long before we bought two thirds of the house from his mother, and for years this was my real home. It still evokes cramped dinner parties, evenings watching Magnum PI reruns, hours and hours discussing the houses we dreamed of building. We were obsessed with houses; fantasies of their construction annexed our imaginations to the point where we thought of little else. We lived here in a state of limbo, never moving because we were always going to emigrate: first Canada, then New Zealand, then Australia. Our lives failed to grow to their natural size in this confined space, and became misshapen.

I climb up to the bedroom. It smells the same, the stairs creak in the same way. There are two beds on the mezzanine where we used to sleep and my ex hunched over his computer designing houses for his clients (and downloading internet porn, which is why, as he later explained, he was always having problems with viruses. I never suspected a thing). Otherwise the place is unfurnished; such a contrast to the chaos we managed to cram in here. I gaze out of the window over the rooftops and the satellite dishes, and am struck by a powerful sense of relief that this is no longer my home. I was trapped, but I escaped.

We both did.

I return to the corner from where I can view the pool deck and reflect on what I have seen. I have not had a meltdown, but coming here has affected me more than I thought it would. My share of the proceeds of the sale has long since been sequestrated into a bank account overseas, where it sits, taxed every month by the Australian government and where, for the moment, I am unable to access it. Will I ever own something like this house again? Will I want this ever again? Once I was anchored to a life by a house in the suburbs; now the only thing that tethers me to the future is a car.

The fat youngish couple appear. “And outside the main bedroom we find someone SMSing,” says the man, jovially. “No,” I smile, “I’m tweeting.”

It has been a little less than two years since I last stepped inside this house. Not a long time, all things considered. So much has happened since: the divorce, the hot thirty-something aerobics-teaching retired psychiatrist, the frenetic internet dating, the weeping in the toilet cubicles at work, the cancer scare, the Land Rover campaign and, of course, the Land Rover itself, the one parked in the street outside. In my husband’s case, the new Australian wife and their son born less than a year after I moved out of our rented townhouse that evening, my throat raw and cracked from screaming. I wonder if he ever thinks about this house or whether he is so head-over-heels in love with his new life that it ever occurs to him to think of the past at all. Probably not: he has left behind his history in a country he hated and always dreamt of leaving. At last, he has the life he wanted.

(I’m still working on it.)

My friend calls to tell me that he likes the house. He’s considering putting in an offer on it, he says. “Don’t let me put you off,” I tell him. “It’s important not to invest too much meaning into things.”

This is true. We are the ones who hold our memories, not the walls we leave behind. I know this, and I know also, deep down in my marrow-self where the dark secret stirrings of cells first emerge into being, that in standing there in that house, I have embraced it and let it go.

I am not free, not yet. But I have moved on, and that is a start.

 

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