Busytown by Jolisa Gracewood

Homing instincts

To my amazement, we bid on a house... and to my disappointment, we didn’t get it. All’s fair in love and real estate, but I’m slowly working through the official stages of grief, which are just as relevant to property as any other realm of life. You start with Denial, for which Busytot is of course my role model (“NOOOOO! You NOT take things off people like dat!”). This is followed by Anger, which in my case amounted to a week of inchoate grumpiness about the homebirth I’ll never have in that unexpectedly snazzy spa-bath in the upstairs bathroom.

Next comes Bargaining; alas, the other bidders had slightly deeper pockets, so no luck there. Then, according to the official model, Depression gradually gives way to Acceptance. Or, as I experienced it, a prematurely frustrated nesting instinct shading into a determination to be zen about the whole thing. There will be other houses, and there has to be a first lost house (and maybe others), just like there has to be a first boyfriend or girlfriend. You know, like one day I’ll walk past and think “Jeez, what did I ever see in that one?” or “Sigh. We could have been so good together.” I promise I won't idly google it, just to see what might have been.

It is pretty soon to be buying houses, as people keep reminding me. This one was not perfect, but it had personality, and something else you don’t often get in old houses in old neighbourhoods, especially in the American northeast, but that we’ve come to take for granted in Aotearoa – a smooth connection between inside and outside. The whole kitchen-deck-backyard nexus that means you can have your morning cuppa with bare feet on the grass, or shoo the kids outside while you get dinner ready, or sit out on the deck with the grownups as the sky grows dark, ducking back inside to replenish the snacks.

To tell the truth, it was the garden I hankered after at least as much as the house. There’s a difference between a yard and a garden, and this was a real garden, one to get lost in. People don’t really garden hereabouts, or rather, they don’t tend to design gardens that work year-round. The summers are short, the winters long, and deciduous trees predominate. So for a good four or five months of the year, the space out the back of the house is a big blank rectangle with snow on it, distinguished, if you’re lucky, by a stately tree or two. The bare branches are beautiful in against the winter sky, but there’s not much in the way of lush tangle and blurred edges. It’s not what you’d call cosy.

So when we saw this house, I fell hard for the hedges, the big old fruit trees, the shrubs and the dark mossy corners, the shed, the dilapidated birdbath. The back yard wasn’t a quarter acre -- more like a tenth -- but it looked like a place a city-bred two and a half year old could get in touch with his inner wolfboy. (All the while unobtrusively observed by the parental anthropologists through the kitchen window.)

The more I think about what felt good about the house that got away, the more I realize I’m trying to give Busytot a New Zealand childhood. More specifically, I want to give him the childhood I had in New Zealand: supervised access to wilderness; a place to run wild under the collective eye of the neighbourhood. It was a long time ago, in another country, and besides, the wench is grown-up. But it was an especially privileged combination of time and place. The places I grew up were indisputably alive. They had, for want of a better word, spirit. Mauri.

Both of the houses I lived in while young were what you’d call suburban, with other houses just over the fence, but both places had creeks running along the edge of the property. “Water hazard! Fence it off!” shrieks the modern mind, but we only ever lost a heavily pregnant cat and never any neighbourhood children to either creek. The creeks were alive – not just with plant life, but with koura (which we called crawlies) and eels too muddy to eat, which didn't stop my brother and his friends trying to sell them to the fish and chip shop one time.

I have no idea if there were taniwha. I suspect not; taniwha are rumoured to prefer deep pools in the bends of large slow rivers, whereas these were narrow, trickly streams, barely knee deep. Except during floods, when the water came up over the lawn, in a muddy, churning broth, which left the banks strewn with creek weed, rain-soaked debris, and the occasional eel gasping and flopping about like a fish out of, you know.

Running water brings a place to life, and trees hold it together. In Naenae we had a small grassy section but we were lucky enough to be right up near the edge of the bush. Pretty manuka and punga mingled with pines of various kinds, spreading back up over the hills like a big green blanket with ochre stripes where the fire-breaks were. Tui clonked and hiccuped cheerfully all day long, and kereru the size and approximate shape of small helicopters weighed down the branches of the big pine out the back. Always magpies, too, divebombing the cats and -- as a cleverer poet than me once put it -- glovering needlessly in the macrocarpa. Next to the vege garden, Mum and Dad planted a fast-growing gum-tree that was as tall as us one year, and as tall as the house the next.

Then in Papatoetoe, in the improbable heart of suburbia, we lived down a long driveway in the middle of the block. Native flora and fauna were not as visible, but all that land... it was like being on a farm in town. We had a vege garden again, down next to the creek, in which the four of us kids toiled like navvies, moaning and groaning about it the whole time. Now, of course (are you reading this, Mum and Dad?), I’m grateful that I know where food comes from, how to gently dig up potatoes, when to put the beans in, how to thin the radishes, when to plant garlic. I'm going to sound like an old codger -- by hokey, you youngsters don't know the half of it, when I was a lass, etc etc -- but that’s knowledge money can’t buy nowadays.

The back yard in Papatoetoe – maybe half an acre – also boasted a huge and wily willow that had grown enormous, as willows do, by wrapping its naughty roots around any water pipes it could find and crushing them slowly to death. We loved that tree and the treehouse Dad built in it, but eventually it had to come down for the sake of the local water supply.

Still, there were massive sheltering poplars on an adjacent property that snowed pollen every spring, and we had a row of prodigious fruit trees. Plum, lemon, grapefruit, and feijoa, with a passionfruit vine growing over the hurricane-wire fence behind. It’s a lovesome thing, god wot, to sit in your own back yard and eat warm fruit straight off a living tree.

Sigh. The house that got away had a pear tree.

Still, in the way of small towns, it turns out that the happy purchasers are friends of friends with a wee one of their own, so Busytot will likely get to romp in that very garden on play-dates. Now I fantasize about buying the neighbouring house so he can crawl through a hole in the hedge, Secret Garden-style, and visit the kid next door and the pear tree.

And, maybe it’s too much to ask for in cheek-by-jowl downtown New Haven, but if there were a nearby swimming pool into which to naughtily heft under-ripe fruit, causing expletive-laden consternation among nude medallion-wearing swinging midnight swimmers, the replication of my exhilarating 70s Aotearoa childhood in the garden of good and evil would be blissfully complete...