Contents and discontents


So, our Hawea house is perfectly nice, but the contents… well, not so much. Unsurprising, of course, for a cheap rental with a high tenant turnover.

When we arrive, the airing cupboard is stuffed to the ceiling with musty duvet inners, stained mattress protectors, fraying towels and mismatched sheets and pillowcases in an assortment of prints from the 70s, 80s, 90s and today.

The kitchen cupboards are filled with the relics of households past: the kind of completely useless kitchen paraphernalia that gets sent to flats and baches to die.

It takes me the best part of a day to haul out a mountain of what is effectively rubbish, and laboriously tick it off the inventory, lest we be held liable for the disappearance of the three-part yellow Tupperware microwave vegetable steamer last used around 1987.

There’s an awful lot of aluminium – jelly moulds, gem irons, steam pudding bowls, pie slices – and bulky plastic overly-specific appliances that were briefly fashionable until people realised they took up more cupboard space than they were worth and did nothing a pot with a lid couldn’t do. Novelty cheese knives, novelty drinking glasses, strange-shaped mugs branded with the names of small local businesses. Not, however, a functional tin opener, fish slice or ice cube tray.

Then there are the accretions of successive tenants, the unloved items probably gifted to those passing through and then abandoned, never added to the chattels list. The Tullamore Dew china jug; the curlicued cast-iron candle holder with its dusty fly-embedded never-lit candle; the Christmas gnome ceramic nut bowl; the defunct and frankly inexplicable toad-pocket watch plastic ornamental clock. Six large boxes get consigned to the thankfully roomy garage.

The fridge turns out to be a grumbly old tank of a thing, probably a contemporary of mine but wearing its 40 years a little less lightly (so I’d like to think). It has no freezer compartment but runs on a curious system whereby freezer plates at the top cyclically ice up and drippily defrost, so that anything placed on the top two shelves is liable to freeze while stuff at the bottom remains marginally sub-room temperature. The freezing air is supposed to drift downward through the interior, or so the technician I called in to assess this apparently faulty appliance informs me, a little tersely. He recommends I keep beer at the top and tomatoes at floor level.

Its sister appliance is in the garage: a vast chest freezer big enough to hold a roughly dissected cow or two. Any shelving that may have accompanied it in 1975 has disappeared, so that items placed into its as-yet-empty interior need to be retrieved by someone 5’3” through a process of upending herself head-first into its interior, and then flailing her legs to obtain the necessary leverage to hoist herself back onto solid ground, clutching her tray of sausages.

The kitchen does yield one treasure: an antique Soda Stream, whose gas canisters are many years past their sternly advised use-by date, but which nonetheless remains fully functional. The boys are delighted, taking turns to make it fart and preferably squirt everywhere, and chugging glass after glass of carbonated water. We haven’t enlightened them about the traditional addition of syrup.

Elsewhere in the house, there’s an elderly sagging sofa bed in the kind of amorphous print in shades of purple, brown, blue and ochre so beloved of Hallensteins shirt designers circa 1986. There are plenty of beds and built-in wardrobes, but for the bedrooms that’s pretty much it. No shelves, dressers, tables, drawers or desks, and just an assortment of small wobbly stools for bedside tables. Which makes unpacking challenging, when there’s nowhere to put anything that can’t go on a coathanger.

We head into Wanaka and raid the Salvation Army Family Store for a grimy old plastic-woodgrain table for Hapless to set up as a desk. This is a priority, because the trickle of part-time work for his Auckland clients is what will keep us in charity-shop furniture.

Next stop is the Wanaka Wastebusters Recycle Centre, basically the retail arm of the tip, which is a goldmine for resurrectable rubbish. We find an excellent little wooden desk for $8 for Number Two Son together with a classroom chair liberated from some school somewhere, and a dirt-encrusted bucket that cleans up beautifully. We eye up some lengths of timber as possible bookshelves but decide we need further foraging for crates/bricks/blocks first.

It’s satisfying, casting a critical eye over the junk, applying strict value standards, seeing the gleam of potential, making the triumphant pounce and bringing away the latest ‘find’ in a virtuous glow of thrift and utility.

There’s plenty of evidence of the region’s frontier heritage – old goldrush towns, staging posts, schist taverns – and I imagine myself a pampered suburban version of the pioneer wife, 20 minutes from the nearest supermarket, heroically making do with my handleless pot lids and my rickety undersized clothesline, mashing potatoes with a fork and stocking up on UHT milk, fashioning a subsistence household on the cusp of a brave new world.

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