One fish, two fish, big fish, no fish

One-fish-two-fish

Our boys do pine a little for life in their leafy city suburb by the sea – mostly for a few particular friends, their cousins and their cricket club – but they’re the first to admit that they love their new country life too.

For a start, they’re loving the big-fish-in-a small-pond experience. Within days of arriving they were recognised and known by name wherever they went. In a school of just 150 kids, they both regularly get chosen for privileges and responsibilities: doing speeches and presenting art works at assembly, ringing the huge ancient brass school bell, attending extension and enrichment programmes. Number Two Son finished in the top 10 in the junior school triathlon; Firstborn’s fast bowling became instantly legendary among the playground cricket set (and staff). Both boys picked up red first-place ribbons in their respective categories of the Upper Clutha A&P Society Sir Tim & Lady Prue Wallis Lego Sculpture Competition.

To the chagrin of his stitch-crippled brother, Number Two Son also won the silver age group medal in their kids’ adventure race on Northburn Station, the high-country farm of Icebreaker merino fame. (The 1.5km circuit would send OSH into a lather: traversing a river valley of manuka bush and thorn thickets, fording thigh-deep streams, scrabbling up steep cliff faces of loose shale and prickly scrub, over a rocky ridge and a final sprint down a steep unsealed farm track.) To add insult to his brother’s injury, NTS also won a spot prize for the best Gangnam Style moves, the lasso-move tie-break nailed by the sneaky insertion of some killer foot-slide action.

As well as the chance to shine on the community stage, they’re enjoying an unprecedented degree of day-to-day freedom. Liberated from after-school activities and weekend sport, they roam the neighbourhood for hours, playing complex spy/survival/combat games with their mates in the long grass of the vacant sections, building ‘huts’ and maimais from broom scrub and driftwood. They play night tag armed with torches and sleep out in a tent pitched in the shelter of the pine trees.

They ride their bikes down to the first intersection of Hawea Flat and around the nearby cul-de-sacs, where their neighbours have built a series of satisfyingly dangerous jumps. Mysterious feuds play out between the Charles Court and Lichen Lane street factions, between older and younger, boys and girls. Engaging with adults, the local kids are exceptionally well-mannered, deferential and considerate of each other and younger children. Left to themselves, and accustomed to far less daily oversight than city kids, it’s shades of Lord of the Flies.

The school bus is a hotbed of intrigue and dirty talk (‘You’ve got a girlfriend’, ‘You go on dates at lunchtime’) as well as misinformation (‘It is actually illegal to put your tongue in someone’s mouth when they’re kissing you. True life!’). With only the sketchiest discipline enforced by the long-suffering retirement-age driver, name-calling, hat-stealing, bag-emptying and book-mocking are rife. Accustomed to a strictly administered values-based code of conduct at their city school, the boys are initially nonplussed, but soon learn to give as good as they get.

The radical reframing of family life and improved quality of adult input have noticeably affected them; they seem more relaxed, less clamorous and demanding. The new parental refrain, “Sorry, darling, we don’t have money for that right now” seems to be easier to swallow than the old, “Sorry, darling, we don’t have time for that right now.” Lack of time used to translate into parental guilt, but ‘lack’ of money so far hasn’t.

‘Lack’ in inverted commas, of course; we’re just play-acting at being poor. We’ve still got all the nice things we bought before austerity ruled; we still eat well; when the boys’ twice-patched jeans finally give out there’ll be others from somewhere. We’re never more than a phone call away from a well-paid contracting job or a well-heeled family bailout. A recent family bequest delivered the bike upgrades the boys were craving, plus a comprehensive kitout of ski gear.

My pangs of anxiety at the realisation that the boys haven’t eaten fish since they left Auckland are entirely bourgeois. (Despite being right next a lake famed for its salmon and trout, there is scant fresh fish at the supermarket and no fishmongers between here and Queenstown. We haven’t eaten fish and chips, or indeed any takeaways, since we left Auckland; sushi and smoked salmon – their staple sources of fishy goodness in the city – are out of budget range.) I worry about their declining Omega-3 levels and debate whether I should start force-feeding them processed fish fingers or just slip flax seeds into their flapjacks.

Instead, they have an abundance of parent time, and access to the spectacular outdoors is free. We go for family bike rides and walks, visit the lake, the skate park and the BMX track, play tennis and cricket, shoot hoops. Because they’re so independent of us when we’re home, wandering in and out of their friends’ houses, their friends wandering in and out of ours, busy and engaged and entirely uninterested in us, it enhances our own sense of freedom, and the time we do spend with them is willingly and gladly given.

An absence of fresh salmon nigiri notwithstanding, life here for the boys is good; very good. And they haven’t even got to the best bit yet: being let loose in a paradise of snow.

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