This house, this outlook, this routine. A parallel universe, governed by subtly altered laws of physics: a life both recognisable and profoundly different.
The most obvious recalibration in this looking-glass world is the perfect inversion of the time-money equation. Miraculously, there’s time if not quite for everything I want to do, for everything I feel I need to. I’m not exactly catching up on my reading, but reading more than I have for ages. I’m writing, a bit; I’m doing adequate amounts of exercise. There’s a total absence of a social life, of course, which frees up lovely amounts of time.
I’m in the kitchen at 3pm getting afternoon tea ready when my boys fall through the door, clamouring for the refilling of their physical and emotional tanks. I can sit down beside Number Two Son when he’s fried from school and play Lego silently until he’s finished decompressing, averting being called a ‘fucking arsehole’ and having my shins kicked in the process.
Stress is my phantom limb; I find myself probing the wound site, trying to elicit the old response. Sometimes I forget to breathe, just out of habit. The old timesheet-reflex dies hard, too: I glance automatically at the clock whenever I begin or complete a task, ready to round to the nearest 15-minute unit for billing purposes.
“Just you remember, you’re in recovery,” says my mum on Skype, and the amounts of time I’m spending in the kitchen do feel like occupational therapy. With this new richness of time, there’s the opportunity for some of the more elaborate cost-saving measures.
The airing cupboard becomes a yeasty, probiotic laboratory of fermentation and experimentation. My early trials in yoghurt-making are slightly disappointing, yielding something syrupy and mild, pleasant on cereal but with none of the voluptuous creaminess I’d fantasised about. Subjected to cheesecloth, though, it’s magic. My first bowl of strained yoghurt is a thing of beauty, a bowl of thick virgin curd that stands in soft furrows when I run my finger through it.
I save the whey and use it for – of course! – baking bread. Whipping up loaves of ‘No-Knead Bread – So Simple a Four-Year-Old Can Make It’ becomes part of our weekend ritual. “Mummy!” cries Number Two Son. “We don’t have to buy ciabatta any more – we can make it ourselves!” (You can take the six-year-old out of the city…) And indeed, the crusty, chewy, holey loaf does do a passable imitation of the boys’ favourite $8-a-loaf deli bread.
Our herb garden, planted in an assortment of old chilly bins and buckets on the deck and watered diligently, within weeks yields enough foliage to make our own pesto and tabbouleh. We discover a wild apple tree, laden with fruit, on the side of a farm track off Hawea Back Road. We forage kilos of the things – crisp, tart, with tough, golden, pear-like skins – and discover they stew up beautifully.
I play with flapjack recipes, formulating an acceptable substitute for our beloved, now carefully rationed, Cookie Time Bumper Bars. I make muffins sweet and savoury, and allow my inner domestic goddess a smirk as the kids go off to school with lunchboxes exceeding the RDIs for virtue.
So here I am, constantly pottering in the kitchen, a solitary paragon of domesticity. Wondering how long it will be before I start to crave adult company. There are plenty of friendly strangers around, but no one we’ve yet recognised as kindred spirits. When it comes to shooting the shit, it seems, we’re still Auckland wankers at heart.
After several weeks of the no-conversation diet, I buy Hapless a $10 bottle of wine and one Saturday night force him to turn the TV off. He’s bemused but obliging, rising manfully to the challenge of making small talk with his wife. (I make a note to include $10 a month in the budget for wine, line item ‘Marital Aid’.)
Washed up here on my fantasy desert island, I’m not sure if this much solitude is entirely good for me. Eventually I’ll want people to snap me out of my introspection when the writing isn’t going well, to drown out my internal monologue, to make me laugh.
Also, to encourage me to wash: in this eternal-leisure mindscape, holiday hygiene standards rule. I can go literally days without coming face to face with anyone but my children and entirely oblivious husband; I find myself going slightly feral.
I stop showering daily, deterred by the cold mornings and by the coffin-sized shower stall with its skittish temperature control, disobliging water direction and risk of bruised funnybone every time you lift your arms. (A masterclass in poor design, rolled out a thousandfold in cookie-cutter houses around the country.)
I wash my hair less and less often, though I do get it cut for the first time in eight months. (Ali Barber’s Saloon (sic), the barbershop on the main street in town, which rumour has it does the cheapest ladies’ haircuts in town. The barbers themselves refuse to touch my split ends but book me in for the one day of the month when a female hairdresser, Birgit from rural central Germany, comes up from Dunedin.)
I wear the same clothes for days on end – because washing them just wears them out, right? And this house will never be beautiful – not with this motley assortment of chattels – and there’s plenty of space, so seriously, why tidy?
Two steps domesticated, one step feral. Still, probably, a step in the right direction.