Writing 101: My Sleep-Out in the Wop Wops, or The Spiders Have Grown Territorial

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If I were to be asked where I would go if I could travel anywhere I wanted to right now, the answer would be that I’d like to go to a place that doesn’t exist at the moment: it’s quite simply a place that I could call ‘my own home’. I’ve led a wasteful, rubbish, itinerant sort of life and I’ve almost always lived in rented accommodation – some rooms nice, some not so nice – and, except for a brief six-month period during my first marriage, I’ve never been a homeowner. So, the place I’d like to visit – my own home – is distant in terms of time and possibly space as well, a place that may or may not exist at some point in the future. Now, I don’t want to go all A Room of One’s Own on you – that’s been done before anyway – so what I want to do in this post is to write about one of the more interesting places where I’ve lived in the past, because I think that’s preferable to writing a dribbly fantasy along the lines of ‘I want a library with a spiral staircase and a music room and a utility room with a dishwasher’ etc. (I do want all those things. I just don’t think anyone else will be particularly interested in my Wish List.) 

I lived in the township of Cheviot on the South Island of New Zealand for three years and a bit from 2004 to 2007, and while I was there, I worked in the local area school as an English teacher. I looked up Cheviot on Google Street View yesterday and although there aren’t any actual street views uploaded yet, I could clearly see McQueen Road, where I lived with my ex-husband in a house that had been officially condemned. 

I should probably explain that in New Zealand, at least on the South Island, area schools are in the middle of nowhere – ‘out in the wop wops’, as they say – and from Cheviot it was at least an hour’s drive to the next nearest township. Teachers who work in these area schools are provided with accommodation because there aren’t really very many houses to go around in the townships. Hence the school usually has ownership of various properties which are rented out to the teachers at very low rates. There was one teacher who tried to commute from where she lived in Christchurch, but she fell asleep at the wheel one day while driving home exhausted and resigned shortly after that. So, with a shortage of local housing, everyone swaps houses on quite a regular basis and I met several people who had once lived in my house on McQueen Road, including my MA supervisor at the University of Auckland whose father had once been the Principal of the school where I worked. Worlds really don’t come much smaller than this. 

Anyway, the houses provided for teachers are, or at least were, fairly ramshackle affairs. Houses in New Zealand are not houses at all, but bungalows – in all my time there, I only visited one house that had stairs – but I’ll continue to use the word ‘house’ because that’s what the New Zealanders call them. Their houses are made of wood and they have no central heating: most are equipped with wood burners which provide warmth and heat the water for you. We had an open fire too, but we didn’t use it very often. Such things are incredibly wasteful and inefficient, to be honest – we’d have to burn most of a tree to heat one room and even then, the warmth would disappear as soon as the fire burned down. None of this was very satisfactory to someone used to central heating. I could never feel easy knowing that I was building a fire in a house made of wood that was full of books. And the winter months went on forever, it seemed, because I just couldn’t get warm, even when I was indoors. I’d build a fire in the wood burner as soon as I got home from work, but it would take hours to get the place warm, by which time the chill had entered my bones. It wasn’t sensible to leave a fire burning at night, so we used oil heaters in the bedrooms. This was expensive, but it was that or lie awake with your teeth chattering from the icy cold.  

The house was quite a large one which also came with an acre of land because it had originally been designed as the residence for the school’s Principal. Our Principal chose not to live in it, however, so we took it as soon as we learned that the house was up for grabs. The property had been condemned, as I say, but our rent was so cheap – fifty quid each per month – and for this we got a three-bedroom house with an extra room that New Zealanders refer to as a ‘sleep-out’. This is a smaller room located outside the property, sometimes attached to the main house, sometimes not, but essentially it’s there for guests to sleep in. The sleep-out was my study and I made it as habitable as possible by installing an oil heater and hanging up some heavy curtains to keep out the cold. I loved it in there. It was where I did my work, and I’m a firm believer in having a separate place to work. This is a very simple psychological trick that is extremely effective: if you always work in the same place, then whenever you go into that place, you will feel like working. I spent hours in there taking notes and writing drafts and I often think fondly of that sleep-out. 

98 McQueen Road was in an appalling state of repair. It was cold, damp, impossible to keep clean, the toilet ceiling collapsed after a particularly boisterous storm, and the whole house was seething with all kinds of wildlife. The wooden surfaces and frames were riddled with a wood-boring worm: there were little holes everywhere and a slithering movement at the edge of my vision every time I opened a window. I shuddered and ignored it. There were rats living above the ceiling – I could hear them scampering about at night – but I just shuddered and ignored them. Something died somewhere under the floorboards behind my wardrobe and it stank for a few days, but I forgot about it once the smell died down. There were lots of spiders – or at least those harvestmen creatures that New Zealanders call Daddy Long Legs – but I learned after a while just to shudder and ignore them. I was warned about the venomous bite of white-tailed spiders, but I didn’t know how seriously to take these warnings because I heard everything from ‘Oh, it’s just like a bee-sting’ to ‘You’ll be dead in seconds’. Essentially, it all comes down to a simple piece of good advice: don’t play with the spiders. Leave them alone. This is easy advice for me to take because I really, really don’t like spiders. Most people in Cheviot arranged to have their houses sprayed with a chemical spider-repellent: we did this too, and considering how rural the area is, we didn’t get too many spiders coming indoors. There were flies. Lots of flies. Millions of flies and they were all massive. Sometimes, when the wind was about to change direction, the house would suddenly fill with these horrendously noisy insects: they would stream down the chimney and pop through the many cracks and crevices in the wooden frames. If you opened windows to let them out, more would come in, so you just had to sit it out until the madness had passed and then reach for the fly spray to effect a massacre. We had fly papers hanging up in the kitchen too, but I didn’t like them much; when a stuck fly was about to die, it would make a loud buzzing in its final attempt to free itself and then fall silent. It made me feel bad. But I’d found a maggot or two on the kitchen floor, so fly papers it had to be. 

We had mice too. I shuddered but couldn’t ignore the scrabblings in the butter I’d left out by mistake overnight, and then when we found mouse poo in the kitchen cupboards we decided it was time to get a cat. I don’t like traps or poison and I was hoping that the smell of a cat would drive most of the mice away without there having to be too much slaughter. Luckily, one of my students was looking to find homes for some unwanted kittens, so we took the one that was about eight weeks old and had already killed a bird. This was Machiavelli, or Macky for short.

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Macky was the best hunter. He got rid of our mice pronto and also killed just about everything else within a mile’s radius. From the moment we brought him home, I had to deal on a daily basis with the mutilated corpses of mice, birds, bunnies, skinks – he did well to catch the latter because they are preternaturally quick – and once Macky even chased a huge dog out of the garden. He didn’t like hedgehogs though. He’d circle them for a while and then back off. And he didn’t manage to chase away the neighbour’s horses when they broke out of their field and wandered idly into the paddock behind our house. We had to leave Macky behind when we left New Zealand and we saw him settled into a new home a month or two before our flight back to England. It was the only thing to do, but I hated giving him away. Ex-hubby got huffy and said ‘You didn’t cry this much when we got divorced!’ 

I think I’ve probably gone on long enough now. The only thing I would add to this post is a note about the photograph at the top: this is me in the Gemeentemuseum in The Hague. I’ve fiddled with the original photo, of course, and what it’s supposed to be saying here is something about spaces and how human beings fit into spaces that they create for themselves – or how they can become trapped by spaces. Perhaps having lived in a house that was more or less a zoo of beasties and creepy crawlies, I’ve been made to consider the artificiality of our living spaces, the false sense of security they create, and how quickly nature can reclaim those spaces once the edifice begins to crumble. I’ve pretty much lost the wanderlust that used to make me fidgety in my twenties and early thirties, but I wonder sometimes whether the home I yearn for won’t turn out to be a gilded cage after all.

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