Painting the front fence started well. I hired a belt sander at the start of the first week of the holidays and got most of the flaking old paint off the front face of the pales in a day. Looking back at it now I think it was the quick success of the sander that gave me a false sense of hope, and led me to talk boastfully in front of Cathy of how much I would be achieving in the holidays. This was hubris.
At the breakfast table on the final Friday morning of the holidays – fence still in progress – Eleanor quizzed me on a few facts.
“What’s your name?”
Rosamund looked up from her Ricies and yoghurt: “Daddy,” she told Eleanor.
“My name is John-Paul,” I said.
“And what is your favourite colour?” Eleanor continued.
“And your favourite number?”
Eleanor thought for a bit. “So that means you are J-Blue-24.”
Rosamund went back to her Ricies.
I don’t have a favourite colour or a favourite number. Why would you? I had forgotten that this is important when you are a kid. When Eleanor first asked me I said I didn’t know and I got the same look of irritation I get from my students at school when they ask me who my favourite singer or actor is and I shrug. I think that the last time I had a favourite number it actually was 24, but I’m not sure why. Blue is a bit conventional but I like the sky in summer.
Eleanor moved on to Rosamund.
“What’s your favourite colour?”
“Pink!” Rosamund thought on this and then added: “and white.”
Then, “and red.”
“What’s your – ”
” – and purple.”
” – your favourite number?”
can count up to about six make the sounds of the numbers from one through to six in the correct order, but doesn’t really know what numbers mean. After a pregnant pause which gave birth to nothing I made some suggestions:
“One, two or three?”
“So, you’re R-pink-white-red-purple-two.”
Although Rosamund nodded I don’t feel that she was as impressed as Eleanor was hoping with her new name. Eleanor pressed on to what I suspect was the point of the whole exercise.
“I am E-blue-green-19.”
“Actually light blue-green. E light blue, light green, 19. Or bluish-green 19?”
I took a sip of my coffee.
“Why do you like 24?”
“I’m not sure.”
“I like 19.”
After this excitement we had to clear up, get out of our pyjamas and into something else, and brush our teeth all with somewhat aggravating interjections from My Little Pony dolls who are small but appear to have opinions about everything related to clearing up, clothing choices, and teeth brushing. Eventually we made it out of the door only a little late for day care and ballet practice.
Probably on the second day after the belt sander triumph was when I sensed trouble. Getting all the flaking paint of the front of the pales was one thing; getting it off the sides of each pale was another thing. A thing that involved a putty knife and endless scraping. Since that moment Cathy has been drawing unflattering comparisons between my work speed and the amount they seem to get done every episode in The Block. I feel that I could make a series of valid counter arguments to this observation but I have learnt that it’s better just to sulk manfully while doing the washing up.
In the evenings after a wine and a sulk I have been reading Alice Munro stories again. The last time I read Friend of My Youth by Alice Munro was in 1995. I was introduced to her in an honours paper I took on the short story. It was the most laughably slack course I took that year; essentially revolving around the avuncular lecturer who delegated us each a book on the course to lead a tutorial about (and a request for home-baking to be provided), and then sat back and mentally put his feet up for the rest of the semester. The course did, however, introduce me to Angela Carter and Alice Munro, and – I should add – to Cathy.
I have no idea which short story collection I had to lead the discussion on because what turned out to be the consuming mission of that course was providing some quality home-baking. My effort was date scones. Those date scones were almost the end of me. I had to throw out a batch, and start again. There were tantrums, and sulks amid the mixing bowls and measuring cups but date scones were damn well made in the bloody end and at half time in the two-hour tutorial the following day the baking was presented. I revealed my scones and left the room to go to the toilet (actually to hide… baking performance anxiety). When I came back Cathy and her friend were standing by the door with scones in hand. The first thing my future wife said to me was something like, “nice scones”. This, I felt, was encouraging. I had been thinking about asking Cathy out for a while, and what more encouragement does a man need than a compliment on his baking? Little did I know, but Cathy was standing by the door because she hates dates, and she was picking them out one by one and dropping them in the bin. Her “nice scones” comment was a ruse to distract me. It was a pretty successful ruse.
Painting the fence has allowed me to observe the life of the street that I live on. On the whole this is not very interesting. Every now and then a bus drives north down into the city, and every now and then one comes back up the road south and into the hills behind the zoo. My street is very long; starting at the Newtown shops and ending a few kilometres later at an infrequently used set of playing fields. The houses are mostly old, single storey houses made of wood with shallow front gardens and a bit of space at the back. The streets are a little shabby: always a bit of litter blowing about, or stuck in a tree, and tagging across the roller doors of shops and bus stops.
My neighbours come and go with surprising regularity during the day and because it is the school holidays they are often looking after grandchildren, or nieces and nephews. People who walk past frequently make a point of telling me that I am painting a fence. Small children like to do this and then run up and touch the fence. I probably could shout a warning, but I feel the wet paint teaches a better lesson (and provides me with a diversion in the long, tedious day). Occasionally one of the Somali women who live in the flats up the street shuffles by in a long gown with the stately pace of a monarch or someone with arthritic ankles.
A surprising number of people have stopped to talk to me. The lady who delivers the Wellingtonian on our street stopped to ask me if I had a cat. My cat was sitting in the hedge in front of me at the time so I said yes and pointed to it. Unfortunately the woman was at the wrong angle to see the cat and saw instead a Camellia. Whether out of pity or kindness she fished four giveaway packets of Friskies out of her plastic shopping bag and then gave them to me. There was part of me that wanted to call her back and show her the cat, but it was a very small part.
Another woman – actually they have all been women – seemed to appear behind me out of nowhere holding a shopping bag and a bunch of flowers. “I’m looking for 105” she said to no one. As I was there I said that it must be back down the road quite a way. She looked at my letter box and agreed with me. “Are you odds or evens?” she asked having clearly not read my letterbox. I said we were evens. “So it will be on the other side.” I agreed that it would be. She wandered off trying to shield the bunch of flowers from the wind.
On last Thursday evening, after nursing my stiff and aching body with a glass of wine, the phone rang. It was the Green Party. They have been very active on the phones of late. I’m not one for phones in general, but I am a member of the Green Party so I was polite. One thing the Greens have on their side is that their callers are amateur volunteers who are a bit awkward and clumsy. This makes me much more sympathetic. The young woman who was reminding me to vote in the council election, and then reminding me to vote in the referendum, was also asking me for money for the 2014 election campaign. I’m not very encouraging on the phone. I sound either like I am ill, asleep, or heavily drugged, and as the woman went through her spiel I could sense her becoming more and more uncertain and nervous. When I said that yes I would be happy to pay $15 a month to the Greens to help with the election campaign her cry of disbelief told me a lot about how many people she had called and how many of them had said no. After the initial burst of joy she calmed herself down and tried to sound less surprised.
Her surprise worried me.
After breakfast and getting ready on Friday, R-pink-white-red-purple-two and E-bluish-green-19 and I went down to Rosamund’s daycare where I had to enter into careful negotiation to get the My Little Ponies back into Rosamund’s bag so that she wouldn’t lose them. It was a hard-fought thing but achieved with the help of Rosamund’s favourite teacher.
Ballet. Eleanor and I caught the bus from outside the WINZ office in Newtown, and got off on Adelaide Road. With a certain amount of running we made it to her ballet practice on time. Eleanor has had ballet every morning this last week as she is preparing for an exam. I was dubious about last year’s exam – the first one she had – but when we got a fancy certificate and a nice, old fashioned badge I was sold. I am still wondering what you do with a ballet badge. Is there some kind of meeting you can wear them to that I am not aware of?
I left Eleanor at the ballet. Granny was going to pick her up and take her to lunch. I found myself walking down the street holding Eleanor’s pink Razor scooter and feeling like a tool. When I end up walking down the street carrying a doll after a fight at day care with Rosamund I think it’s clear to people passing by that I am either (a) insane, or (b) carrying my child’s toy. With a pink Razor scooter I think things are more ambiguous. I could just be one of those lame middle-aged men who ride skateboards. I decided to catch the bus back home in light of this.
The bus stop was liberally tagged and covered in graffiti. One of the pieces of graffiti said “I like pussy, 11-08-13.” I think it was the date that made me smile. It gives a different tone to the sentence; kind of like: “I like pussy as of 11 August, 2013, but I can’t say more than that. By 12 August I could be into cock.”
It’s Saturday morning now and I had better go and paint the fence. Things haven’t gone well. There was rain yesterday after I started painting. I haven’t been able to face the fence since. The street on Saturday will probably have a different pace to it. Yesterday Alice Munro won the Nobel Prize for literature. It’s just one of those things: picking up a book you haven’t read in 15 odd years and the author – who is never in the news – suddenly winning a major award; like the rain unpainting your fence, or seeing your teacher walking down the street holding a pink Razor scooter.
Whatever life is, it is not without a sense of humour.
My Twitter account has been suspended for reasons that are very unclear to me. I have “appealed”. I’m sure the guys at Twitter are all over this and will get it all sorted by June next year.