Comment: At the Robert Lord cottage

Novelist and memoirist Elspeth Sandys reflects on her recent residency

I am a cottage-phile. The very word cottage starts bells chiming in my head, church bells probably, since the words that come to me are Robert Browning’s “God’s in his heaven! –/ All’s right with the world”. The cottage I see in my mind has wisteria trailing over the walls, shutters on the windows, a cosy living-room with an open fireplace, a generous kitchen with an aga, a small courtyard garden, a dog, a cat … . When I think of this place, and put myself in it, I feel nothing can go wrong in my life. I am living simply, in harmony with Nature. I can pay the bills, look the neighbours in the eye, even feel a slight sense of superiority because of my total lack of interest in acquiring anything larger. Castles, palaces, manor houses, the mansions of the wealthy – these are for visiting as a tourist, or gawping at as a stunned observer, not for living in.

So when I read about the Robert Lord cottage in Dunedin (my hometown), a place for writers to live rent free, those bells started pealing. I’d met Robert – Bob – in the late 1980s in New York. Like most people who knew him, I fell under his spell. He was warm, generous and a lot of fun. He was also gorgeous. His success as a playwright in the United States impressed me. I knew how hard it was as an outsider to get work read, let alone taken seriously. His death in 1992 was tragic. He was only 46. He would have written many more plays. Perhaps that’s why he wanted his cottage to become a writers’ retreat. He couldn’t go on writing, but he would make sure others could, in his stead.

I applied for a seven-week residency and was accepted. Then the doubts set in. There’s no stipend with this cottage. The book I was writing was uncommissioned. I still needed to earn. Was I wise to be committing myself to two months away from the comforts and easy economies of home?

I arrived on the coldest day of the year. My friend Jocelyn met me at the airport. It was growing dark. We had the address, 3 Titan Street, a narrow connecting lane between Great King and George Streets. We couldn’t find it. Three times we drove down the lower end of first Great King, then George St, finally reverting to the cellphone to get instructions. And there it was. Just past the Mei Wah fish and chip shop. Trouble was, it was one way, and the identifying street sign was at the “no entrance” end.

We park in George Street and haul my heavy case – it’s full of books needed for my current project – to the cottage. There’s no wisteria, but there is a tree, a native pittosporum, in the few centimetres of garden at the front (the door virtually opens onto the pavement). There are also daisies, the variegated kind, dancing in the pale light from the street lamp. So far so cottagey.

I knock on the door. It’s opened with difficulty – a recurring problem – by Claire, there to welcome me. We walk down a narrow corridor with a front room (a parlour, surely?) and a bedroom opening off to the left. The third room, at the end of the corridor, is a small kitchen/dining-room in which, to my delight, is an original coal range. “It works,” Claire informs me, “but you’re not allowed to use it.” Two kettles, one brass, one iron, stand invitingly, but futilely, on the hobs.

I’m about to ask where the bathroom is when Claire moves to open the door beside the dining-table. “The bath is a feature,” she explains, as I follow her. She’s right. It’s a rectangle made of tin, squeezed into one side of the pint-sized bathroom. “Robert designed it,” Claire explains, “He was six foot two.” An image of Bob stretched diagonally across the tin boat in front of me jumps into my mind. There’s no way he could lie down in it. “Must cost a fortune to fill,” I murmur. Baths are where I do my thinking, but over the next seven weeks I will learn to limit this indulgence. And to make do with a bath half-full.

Back in the kitchen/dining-room Claire explains the idiosyncrasies of the cottage, one of which is that several of the shelves are out of reach to even six-foot humans, and some of the light switches can only be reached, at least by me, if I stand on tiptoe. But I like the rocking-chair, and the crocheted carpet and cushions, made, like the rugs that cover the sofa in the parlour, by Bob’s mother. Later, I will register the old-fashioned scales and mincer on the out-of-reach shelves, their function, like the kettles, ornamental not practical.

Claire tells me there’s a small courtyard at the back, but I will have to wait till the morning to see it. I like the word courtyard. I can see through the darkened windows a spreading tree, its blossom catching the light from indoors. I anticipate finding further treasures when the sun is up.

“There’s a television in the front room,” I’m told. “A gift from Chris and Barbara Else. But you probably won’t be needing it.” I nod sagely. Watch television? Moi? Like the rest of the nation I’m waiting on Winston Peters to tell us who will be governing the country. Of course, I’ll be watching television! “Can I light the fire?” I ask, pointing to the open fireplace. But that, too, is ornamental.

I’m too tired to take in much else, but I give a passing wink to the photo of Bob hanging above the desk where I will be working. He will be good company. As will the posters of his shows hanging in the corridor. I’m not so sure about the rest of the art work. Black blobs and streaks seem to predominate. One painting features two rather stoned-looking individuals with spiked hair and the words “Je suis un Kiwi”. Well, we’re a broad church, I say to myself. There’s room for all of us.

Next day is freezing. I turn up the heat-pump. It roars into life. Then it goes off. This will keep happening over the next two freezing days. I’m reminded of the bone-chilling cold of my Dunedin, chilblain-blighted childhood. I rush out to one of Dunedin’s several woolshops and buy fingerless gloves and knitted legwarmers. Then I phone Claire. She sprints into action. It’s discovered that the computer in the heat-pump is reading the temperature in the roof and not on the ground. Problem solved; chilblains averted.

The courtyard is a delight, though it’s several weeks before I can take advantage of it, by which time people are talking about a heat-wave (it doesn’t last). The blossom I’d spied on that first night falls like snow onto the mossy ground, joining the blossom that has already fallen from the neighboring kowhai tree. Birds make a jubilant sound in the mornings and evenings. I put food out on the table and make friends with a fat blackbird who allows me to come a little closer each day. We eye each other curiously. “I’m the one in charge here” is the message I’m getting.

The shed houses the washing-machine and drier, placed incongruously beside two old concrete tubs. An image of my mother, a long wooden pole in her hand, hauling sheets out of tubs exactly like these, slides into my mind. I see the blue bag bobbing on the surface of the water, turning the sheets white as milk.

A month into my stay I’ve grown used to the creaking floorboards, the student noise – exams are coming to an end: it’s party central in my part of town – the galloping clock, the rubbish-strewn gardens (grunge, so I’m told, is the prevailing student culture), and my regular 15 minute hike to the nearest supermarket. I’ve developed a bad habit of helping myself to flowers growing over fences and walls. I’ve joined a group who meet once a week for low-end dining. So far we’ve eaten Korean, Cambodian, Italian and Thai. I’ve been invited to book launches and to speak at book clubs. This is a collegial town. Conversation flows. Even the firemen, called out on Guy Fawkes night to stop the house at the bottom of Titan Street from burning down, are keen to chat. “Students!” the fireman exclaims good-naturedly. “All brain and no common sense.”

By the time the seven weeks is up, I’ve “applied the seat of the pants to the seat of the chair” – Doris Lessing’s advice to writers – for more hours than I ever manage at home. My book has grown from 50,000 to 112,000 words. And, all the while, Bob has smiled benignly down on me, God has been in his heaven, I’ve been in my cottage, and all was right with the world.

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