A woman from another time
Rosa sat at the piano in her small Camps Bay house, her fingers running over the keys with practiced ease. The chords of ‘In the Mood’ emerged, drowning out the bubbling from the tanks of Siamese fighting fish on the opposite wall. One of her cats stretched on the sofa then rolled into a ball of cream fur, tipped with dark brown.
‘We come from a long line people who broke the rules, you know, we have always been on the outside. When I was a child in Ireland, I used to play with the gypsy children – that’s where I learnt to read the cards. I could speak Romany too – of course I’m rusty at it now. But my French is still fluent, I get to practise that. It’s like the piano – you have to keep practising if you want to be any good. That’s my advice to you, Cathleen, choose what you want to do and perfect it.
‘I studied art in London. Oh, it seems so long ago now. But instead of working on serious pieces, I used to paint sets for the theatre, and mixed with the arty crowd. One of my first lovers was a sub-editor, that’s where I learnt the phrase about blue-penciling things.
‘Has your mother told you about the Curse of the Russells? No! How remiss of her. It explains why we were able to blend in yet remain apart.
‘I’m sure she’s neglected other parts of your education too. Do you play bridge? Chess? Shocking!
‘Well the piano isn’t easy but you should have a few accomplishments. Maestro was horrified when he heard me play this – I was supposed to be practising a classical piece to play at a party. When I sit down, I appear to play effortlessly, but to do it well, you have to prepare properly.
‘Yes, a woman needs some accomplishments. I know Suzie is a career woman but I have never worked for money. There has always been an admirer to take care of me. Now it’s just me and the kitties but I get by.’
The seal point Siamese stretched and shook herself with impatience. The humans made such a noise, meowing all the time. She was a superior being, almost silent, unless she required feeding. She stalked off, leaving the two humans to their caterwauling.
‘Let me tell you about the Russells. There were four daughters and a son. The girls all made disastrous marriages. One even married an American. Imagine! And one was divorced … oh, that was a huge scandal. She wasn’t allowed into the Royal Enclosure at Ascot after that. One went onto the stage. My dear, in those days one might as well have been a prostitute!
‘The son was killed in a hunting accident. Fell off his horse at a jump. His father drank himself to death out of grief. That was the end of the line. We had been landed gentry but we fell on hard times. But we have never lost our good blood. Blood will out, you know.’
The afternoon sunshine was giving up its struggle to penetrate the dim interior of the house, cluttered with oil paintings, theatrical costumes, a chess set on a small table, fish tanks and the piano. Rosa’s hands were still on the keys. She looked sightlessly into the distance, seeing some other place, some other time. Then she blinked and smiled at her niece.
‘Time to make dinner. Do you know the difference between dinner and supper? Do you know how to cook? No! Goodness you have a lot to learn. Come with me.’
The gangling teenager followed her, overawed by the tiny chic woman who could fascinate with piano playing or with her attractively low voice. They went into the chaotic cramped kitchen and Cathleen knew she’d learn about French dishes, nothing like the sausage and mash her business woman mother produced at the end of a long day.
‘Eye of newt’ was inscribed on a bottle of cloves. It was many years later that she realised that it was a quote from Shakespeare’s MacBeth, one of her aunt’s many literary jokes. And even more years before she discovered that her mother, the indifferent cook who couldn’t play the piano, had been her aunt’s financial support for years. Like her story of impoverished aristocrats, Rosa’s beauty was now something of the past. Despite many real accomplishments, she no longer had a string of admirers ready to keep her in style.