… this house, with its ridiculous turret, its inglenook and aging roof and nighttime creakings, delighted her. It was scuffed and layered. When they stripped away the wallpaper in a back bedroom it was to find four different kinds of paper, a pale blue floral over ochre stripes over a pattern of green acanthus, and at the bottom, against the sarking, a layer of newspaper dating from 1910 with pictures of women wearing long skirts and enormous hats. It reminded her of a book she’d read as a child, about a little house that was built upon a hill where it could see the sun and the moon and stars. And steadily, season by season, the world about it changes, from horses and buggies to cars and the city edges nearer until the little house is engulfed by tall buildings blocking out the sun and the moon and stars. It becomes sad and derelict. And then a woman comes by and buys the little house and moves it on a truck far out into the country where it can see the sky once more and is happy. She’d loved that book, with its illustrations of trees in all seasons and the house whose windows were eyes and whose front door was its nose. She’d loved the idea of the building living through change.
And now here she was, living in just such a house, a place that had seen many people come and go, perched on a rise above the river. She loved it for itself. She did not want to restore it to some notion of authenticity, with flowery Edwardian friezes and lumbering antiques. She did not want to retain the off-white good taste of its previous owners. She wanted to play, fill its ample shell with colour, dress it up, a garish old lady with wonky lipstick. There was room for that here. For silliness. For happiness.
So they drink their pinot as the house settles into the dark. It is late, after midnight, when Rob reaches out and touches her hand, the way he does. It’s the familiar question to which she feels the familiar response, the bubbling excitement, and they are kissing, they are fumbling on the retro sofa and she is a little drunk, her head somehow not quite attached to the rest of her body which is tumbling somehow or other onto the mat in front of the fake fire and both of them are laughing, but quietly. Tom is staying with his friend VJ somewhere in town, but Poppy could blunder in on them at any time, in flight from some dream, so half-undressed they stumble across the hallway to their bedroom and shut the door. The curtains have been taken down and the windows left wide open to let out the smell of undercoat. The carpet is covered in drop sheets and there are ladders and trestles. It does not look like their bedroom at all. It is strange.
Strangeness has always done it for them. Hotel rooms, for example, where in hushed anonymity, several floors above a city street filled with cars driven by people they did not know, to places they did not know, it was as if they too became strangers. Rob became the man in the fantasies they sometimes murmured to one another, the man she has just met at a party, or on a beach: the one who picks her out among the crowd, the one whose shadow falls across her as she lies sunbathing naked among the sandhills. That’s the man she meets in the hotel room, not Rob who wonders if he should get back into surfing, get another job, lose a few kilos, slams in from work, rumpled and fed up, dragging off his shoes without undoing the laces, kicking them into the corner, saying, ‘God, I’m buggered. Bloody commissioners. I need a drink.’ Rooting in the cupboard above the fridge where they kept the whisky.
Not that man. On the hotel bed’s 500 thread white linen, he is a stranger, someone she picked up ten minutes earlier in the lobby downstairs.
And now, in their bedroom, their bed waits, and it too is strange, though they have made love on it on average three times a week for fifteen years allowing for interruptions following the birth of each child when she had sat in the dark, feeding, Rob passed out from exhaustion, managing somehow to sleep through the crying. She had leaned against the headboard as first Tom and then Poppy had sucked mightily, while her own body clenched the way it had previously done only at the point of orgasm. And with that clenching came such a surge of love: not the ordinary soppy Valentines card love, but an all-pervading, fierce attachment to this little creature whose steady slurping relieved the pressure that had built within her breasts. Then there was the time of the wakeful toddler clambering between them at odd hours, squirming into the nest and resisting all attempts at eviction until one of them, usually Rob , gave up and left the child in full possession, chattering away at 2am, while the adult squeezed into a vacated bed among the stuffed toys.
But that time passed. Now the children sleep alone behind doors firmly closed with signs warning off intruders and two or three times a week through the tangle of jobs and deadlines and assignments and meetings they find their way back to one another. Sometimes a brief coupling before sleep, sometimes a more elaborate business of strangers on a beach or the fiddle of the black lacy outfit Rob had brought back from a trip to Sydney, with suspenders, for gods sake. It slid over stretch marks and cellulite and the scar where Poppy had been cut from her in haste, the ring of masked faces looking down at her as she lay, high as a kite on Pethedine. The lacy outfit slid over it all and Rob ’s hand moved up and under and they were off again.
Tonight they navigate their way over the drop sheets between ladder and trestle to the bed that has been dragged from its customary place by the wall which had once housed a fireplace, long since gibbed over, out into the centre. No time nor need for fiddle, just kissing, unzipping, undoing and falling together onto this strange new bed, and fondling and sucking and her with him between her legs and he with her between his and the rhythm builds, harder, faster and the taste of salt on her lip where she has bitten down hard to stop the oh oh oh, (mustn’t waken Poppy in her room down the hall) and his face strange and inward above her and then the groan, the explosion of little lights behind her eyes, the release.
And later, parted now, each sinking on their own side of the bed to sleep, he murmurs, ‘Thank you.’ As if she has given him a present. It amuses her, these good manners after they’ve been writhing round one another, under and over, and here they are, all drying sweat and semen and general stickiness, yet from somewhere, deep in some past training of ‘Say ‘Please’!’ Say ‘Excuse me’!’ Say ‘May I get down from the table’?’ rises this muttered ‘Thank you.’
‘Thank you,’ he says, from a long way off, on his way down the steep slope into sleep. Snuffling at the pillow the way he does in the seconds before oblivion, its soft bulk clearly some primal substitute for the ample breast of his faintly terrifying mother, Ruth, who must once have sat and fed and fiercely loved, though now she exists as dotty doyenne of the Ambleside Retirement complex on Edgeware Road. ‘Thank you,’ as he passes out.
What is he thanking her for? The writhing? When you have been doing something, anything, three times a week for fifteen years, you know how to rate the experience. There is Unsatisfactory. Not Achieved, for those times when they have been too tired, too distracted, too irritable from some earlier argument. There is Satisfactory. Achieved. A little predictable, but pleasant enough. And there is Excellence, for those occasions when everything feels exactly, intuitively right and it has felt like flying, like lifting off.
And tonight? Achieved. Verging on Excellence.
Or is he thanking her for something more general? For their shared life, for the pregnancies, and the children and putting up with his mother, and listening to him moan about the council, for being his friend, his mate? Is he thanking her for being happy to spend Friday night painting a bedroom? Or is the source of gratitude a bit of all that?
‘You’re welcome,’ she says, as she rolls over, drifts out into oblivion. ‘And thank you to you, too.’
For all that. The solid structure of their lives.
Fiona Farrell is one of New Zealand’s leading writers, receiving critical acclaim across a variety of genres. Uniquely she has been a finalist in all three categories at the NZ Book Awards, for fiction, non-fiction and poetry.
Her first novel, The Skinny Louie Book won the 1993 New Zealand Book Award for fiction. Since then, other novels have been shortlisted for the Awards with four also nominated for the International Dublin IMPAC Award. Farrell’s short fiction has appeared in the company of Alice Munro and Hanif Kureishi in two volumes of Heinemann’s Best Short Stories (ed. Gordon and Hughes), while her poems feature in major anthologies including The Oxford Book of New Zealand Poetry and Bloodaxe’s best-selling Being Alive. Her play Chook Chook is one of Playmarket New Zealand’s most frequently requested scripts. Since 2011, she has published three non-fiction titles relating to the Christchurch earthquakes: The Broken Book, The Quake Year and in 2015, The Villa at the Edge of the Empire, the factual half of a two-volume work examining the rebuilding of a city through the twinned lenses of non-fiction and fiction. The accompanying novel, ‘Decline and Fall on Savage Street‘ was published in August 2017.
She has held residencies in France (1995 Katherine Mansfield Fellowship to Menton) and Ireland (2006 Rathcoola Residency). Fiona was the 2011 Robert Burns Fellow at the University of Otago. In 2007 Fiona Farrell received the New Zealand Prime Minister’s Award for Fiction, in 2012 she was appointed an Officer of the New Zealand Order of Merit for ‘services to literature’ in the Queen’s Birthday and Diamond Jubilee Honours List 2012, and in 2013 Fiona was awarded the Michael King Writers Fellowship.
Fiona tutored at the Hagley Writers’ Institute in the inaugural year and has supervised students over the years.