The necessary context: It’s our 15th anniversary and I forgot for the first half hour of the day, then remembered only to realise that we have no money for presents, no babysitter for a date, no time to relax, and I was going to be parent help at Rabbit’s childcare all morning. I was unhelpfully Eeyore-ish about all this through most of the day, but rallied enough to buy flowers and tuna, sweep the kitchen floor, chill a bottle of white from the “fancy” collection, and get out the flash cutlery.
I made an old and sentimental favourite for dinner, poisson cru, a raw fish salad served on rice. I should tell you how to make it because it’s a happy and bonding meal, with little heat required and not too much fuss. You start by marinating chunks of tuna in lemon or lime juice, and when I say chunk, I mean something that you can pick up in your fingers and pop in your mouth without either dropping it or doing that embarrassing thing where you can’t chew effectively and look like a gerbil until you either spit or swallow. Because that is not the look you are going for on anniversary night, or indeed on any night involving loved ones and the fancy wine. So then you have your tuna marinating for about 20 minutes and in the meantime you can put on the rice and start preparing the vegetables. I’ll leave the rice to you; we have our method and it’s foolproof, but no doubt you have yours too. I do think jasmine is best for this — you want a little bit of sticky.
Next we come to the vegetables. The cucumber is fun. I use a whole cucumber if I’m feeling rich and generous, and the first step is to peel strips lengthwise to give a stripy effect. I don’t know if that makes sense, but you’ll probably know if you’ve got it right, and if you haven’t, you’ll have something anyway and I’m sure it will be useable. Then you need to cut the cucumber in half lengthwise and scoop out the seeds. I find this easier in shorter lengths, but it might depend on your prowess with a fork. You really want to scoop with the fork rather than scraping; it’s a textural thing. Once you have your stripy, scooped cucumber, slice it into half circles, a couple of millimetres wide, again about the size you’d want to pick up with your fingers. The garlic is easy — just finely chop a couple of cloves. Tomatoes are also straightforward. Quarter them and cut out the stalky bits, then push out the seeds. I know no tidy way to do this; you’ll have to use your thumbs, so if you’re a bit on the hygiene-sensitive side like me, wash your hands first. Of course, you’ll have been washing your hands throughout this whole scenario anyway. You probably just did it, hey? Cut your quartered, de-seeded tomatoes into chunks — you know the drill. The last thing is spring onion. Slice it. Diagonally, for class.
So somewhere in the middle of all this vegetable finangling, you should have drained the tuna, tasting it first to make sure it’s “cooked” to your liking. And then you just mix the tuna and the vegetables with a can of coconut cream, decanted, aber natürlich, and then you serve the salad over the rice and pour the wine and have a jolly old time.
And that’s the context: poisson cru, fancy wine, a significant anniversary for which I am totally unprepared and under-resourced, plus (which I forgot to mention) two slightly cranky children, a not-very-pristine house, a strong desire for everyone under the age of ten to go to bed without any fuss, and actually, now that I think of it, the miracle of sharing my life from my early twenties to my nearly forties with the same long-legged, enthusiastic, kind, hilarious man. WITH TWO CHILDREN AND A CAT. Eight houses and as many gardens, hundreds of books, countless reeling conversations, walks and meals and nights and mornings and days, estuaries and mountains and beaches and cities, Paris and Melbourne and Tahiti and Dunedin, kisses and all the rest of it, collapsing laughter and tears and the occasional grump and stomp, all of those things that brought us together, that keep us together.
All of that, and at the bottom of the first glass of wine, Rabbit announces that he got himself a lolly this morning. I don’t understand; I question logistics and mechanics, get him to demonstrate his technique, express disbelief, incredulity. For the record, he pulled a chair over to the bench, climbed onto the bench, pulled down the lolly box, and extracted his prize. We watched him demonstrate; he was perfect. I still don’t know when this happened — he says this morning while I was in the shower, which seems incredible as Ian and the Cat were faffing around getting ready and the house isn’t that big and the chair takes a bit of shifting, so he must have been both quick and sneaky. Anyway, I’m trying to get my head around this small, determined, independent child, who — apparently — is mine, and so Ian tries to explain that the second-borns just are like that: they don’t need parental approval and they want to sort their own stuff out and they go ahead and do what they need to do to achieve the ends they want to achieve. And from the corner, the Cat lifts his head from his book. “Shite,” he says, “that’s so unfair.”
On the day that my nephew, the Squirrel, came home from the hospital, we came back together as a family. I’d spent a lot of time in the hospital, magical time, and we were glad to re-connect as a four.
The boys took some persuading to get out of the house, which is a polite way of describing it — actually we had to forklift the Cat off the sofa and break up innumerable squalls and squabbles and promise chocolate AND soccer — but we got there, out of the house and into the car and up the hill. Then we had a steep, calf-burning hike up a track, with the Rabbit on Ian’s shoulders and the Cat trailing behind, the city opening up behind us and the long dirt road in front.
I’ve done this walk several times before, but never with my family, and I thought I’d taken the wrong route most of the way — something about the angles and the gates and the views felt unfamiliar, so it was a surprise to get to the top and see the same electricity and phone towers, such a surprise that I thought they might be a double, a copy of the better-known set somewhere further along the hill. The track through the manuka seemed different too, more overgrown perhaps, with the shrubs forming a dense, woody tunnel for us to hurtle along. But then we got to the fence and the trees and this view, and it was all right there before us.
Some days this city is so beautiful it brings me to a standstill. It’s all just there, the hills, the water, the light. And we played then, around the sheep shit and the old stones and the long view. It felt like a blessing, that day, to be together and here. It felt like we knew our place.
How ridiculous, but wouldn’t that be awesome, right? If exercise was like a box of chocolates, full of variety and treats and dark and light and with plenty of hard caramels, I would be all in. As we’ve established, however, I’m more of a dabbler.
Still, what I am working on is variety.
I run every now and then (I might run today, and having written it, am slightly more likely to —will let you know), but running doesn’t feel very good if you only do it every now and then, so I’m going to have to make a call on that one. To run or not to run? I need to answer this question before I turn 40. That doesn’t give me very long.
I tried cycling for the first time since childhood over the summer, and I really like it. It’s time consuming, but extremely pleasant, so I think I’ll do that more. The little things trip me up, though. My partner made me shift my bike from the back porch to the garage for aesthetic reasons. So you can guess what that did for my motivation.
Yoga’s good. I like yoga. Also a time investment. And the money! Yikes!
And last night I returned to an old love — I went to an adult ice-skating class. It’s been about 15 years since I skated properly, so my brain keeps getting in my way (what? go backwards? you must be joking!), and a few muscle groups think it’s madness, but my legs remember the flick of speed and pull of an edge that had me hooked all those years ago. So, that one might stay in the mix. The rink has weekly classes and I’ve written them in my diary until July. Wish me luck. I need my brain to behave and my knees to bend.
Update: Well, I did go running. I think I feel better? Apart from wanting to lie in a small, quiet heap somewhere for about half an hour.
I’m a woman of good intentions but somewhat lazy too, until I get going, so my “exercise” is a hopeless mix of overly ambitious theory, sporadic attempts, wild enthusiasm, over-extension, and procrastination.
I am absolutely not a team sport person, but I like to move, to get my heart rate up, to break a sweat. When I go regularly, I enjoy yoga, but if I’ve been away from it too long, it terrifies me with the endless down dogs and dolphins and horrible upside-down things and all. Walking is my happy option — no fancy clothes, just a matter of proper shoes and heading out the door. And Dunedin has enough hills to make a decent workout possible, especially if you throw in a buggy, a 10-kilo child, two backpacks, a handbag, a lunchbox, and a thunderstorm, ahem, yesterday.
But the last couple of years, I’ve been feeling the need for something that pushes me harder and takes less time, so I’ve been circling the whole running thing. It freaks me out, if I’m honest. I spent my childhood and teenage years being emphatic in my non-running-ness, dedicated to the idea that I had legs that could walk, dance, ice-skate, stretch, but never and in no way run. God knows why; it was a block.
So, I’m still surprised when I start running now and manage to not stop for a while. It feels very strange, as if I have to convince myself that what my body is doing is not a betrayal of the laws of physics. But I don’t get out often enough to make it fully manageable either (see paragraph one), so the strangeness is slow in wearing off. Also, and I’d like a physiologist or a trainer or a GP or someone to weigh in on this, I tend to liberate whatever viruses are locked up in my system, so going for a run is all too often followed by getting a cold, which pushes the whole experience to the “this is crap” rather than the “this is amazing and I’ve got to do it again” end of the spectrum.
I’ve got a new trick, though. I round up the Cat and his bicycle, and we skid down to the bottom of the hill. Then he bikes and I jog alongside, sometimes behind, sometimes ahead, watching all the intersections, waving my boy across the roads, and setting little targets all the way, red-faced and puffing my way through the geography game the Cat inevitably wants to play.
And I like it.
We are company for each other, cheer-leaders too, dramatic in our falling through the door after the final push up the hill, talking big our minor accomplishments — another block without walking, up the hill without pausing, a alphabet of countries without swearing.
So that’s what we’re going to do this afternoon. I promise.
I was not at my sparkling best yesterday. I was tired from a late and stressful meeting the night before, we’re ten days into the school holidays, work is piling up, we’re buying a house, and I am completely and utterly over cooking weekday meals for five. No disasters, but not much lightness and joy either. I felt like I was swimming through concrete most of the day.
And then two sets of arms reached out and pulled me to shore. At lunchtime, the Rabbit woke from his nap and saw me looking sleepy beside him. “Let’s just sleep some more,” he said. We curled up on the sofa together and he arranged the blanket over us, carefully tucking it around my toes. Ten minutes of letting myself rest with my baby, and I had enough energy for the next bit of the day.
Then later, the Cat spotted me looking probably utterly pathetic. “You look like you need a hug, Kits,” he said. And those two boys wrapped their arms around me, and we breathed in each other’s softness and warmth, squirming gently in our little triptych. Maybe I needed to let myself be small to garner the strength to be big.
Another piece for my sporadic but fervent library fandom, geek-happy, book-philic, dance-crazy series.
But who gets to do the reshelving?
My family has a crib at Taieri Mouth; sometimes I think it’s my one true place. It’s where I go to wear jerseys and drink tea, where I go to slip into the old stories of people no longer here, of the child I once was and sometimes still am.
The house sits on the hill below the bend of the river, facing not to the light and the open sea, but upstream, turned to the dark green hills narrowing the river, to the bush and the water and the gentle birds of mud and tree. It’s a simple house, a rectangle slowly falling into the hillside, with concrete steps to a wide, dusty veranda, rugs, floorboards, speckled windows. Nothing matches much, although a faded, pinkish red seems to be a theme — the red and the deerskin brown of old wood and a limey yellow.
The house came by the river, well, the bits of it did, floated downstream on a raft from Waihola by my great-grandfather. I write that sentence and I realise that I might have all the details wrong, but I think that’s okay. This must have been before the first bridge was built. There’s a new bridge now, built in the 1980s, an efficient slice of concrete curving out of and into the road on either bank. The old bridge was wooden and as rickety as you might expect, with gaps between the boards through which you could see the slow, deep water. Things went into that river and were never seen again: crabs collected from the mudflat, an old bed, a car that would now be vintage, but then was just worn out and heavy. I think that’s what happened to the car. That’s the story I have in my head, anyway.
Dad taught us to kayak on the mudflats. When the tide was in, we had plenty of shallow water to practise in, and you could look down past your paddle to the river bed. When I got bigger, I went further up the river or over to the other side, but I always came back to the mudflats, cool and squelchy, with the crab holes opening and closing like eyes. It’s quiet out there, in a kayak on a slow river. Just the soft dip and lift of the paddle, the ripple where you trail your hand in the water. Dad built his own kayak, a sweet, sturdy craft of canvas and wood. It was just big enough for two people, two smalls or a big and a small. It’s still there, and one day I’ll take my boys out in it.
It wasn’t all good though. One day we drove out to find the house full of dead rats — in the beds, the vacuum cleaner, under the table. There’s no rustic charm in the rats; they’re plain disgusting. The possums I can handle, their scratching on the roof, their yelling in the night. But the rats are a problem.
The water is always a bit of situation too. We have rainwater tanks, and I would happily drink rainwater — two such lovely words — but the rain passes through the leaves in the gutters on the way to the tanks and then it all sits there fermenting between visits, so the water is often brown, with a pong of leafmould. We don’t drink the water, but we shower in it if it’s not too bad, and after a few days we all smell faintly of leaf, so that the first shower back in the city is a miracle of clean, white water, a bleaching back into adulthood and the everyday. I always crave that first city shower, yet it saddens me too to wash off the mud and the sand and the leaves, to stop being grubby and clearheaded and sunsleepy and happy.
Well, we’ve come a full turn. The snowdrops by the washing line are out, pale heads noodling in the shadows. The tulip leaves are fat and funnel-shaped in the ground. The camellias are in the pink, the rhododendrons a flick of white in the corner of my eye. I’ve made a new work plan, and it’s workshop season. There’s some warmth in the breeze; each day spins a little longer. Short sleeves are on the horizon.
One year on this blog, and we’re back in spring again.