HelenHayward

life writing

Category: Uncategorized

handyman

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His hands were rough, the pads on his fingers worn smooth. He finished off putty with his index finger, as if a tool from the hardware store. His clothes were lightly smeared with paint and putty from previous jobs. Softly spoken and willing to turn his hand to anything, Dave thought nothing of his skills – plumbing, roofing, gardening, electrics, carpentry, decorating. The only skill he lacked was self-promotion. A self-taught builder who left school at 14, over the months Dave taught me everything I came to know about renovating.

 

Around 9am for the nine months of our reno, he knocked at the front door. Rain or shine, sick or well, I could count on his knock. ‘G’day’, he said, before we discussed the morning’s work. After an hour or so I tracked him down for a chat, with a mug of milky tea and a few biscuits. Sometimes I minded having to stop and chat mid morning, and again in the afternoon. Weren’t we just passing the time of day, when there was so much to be getting on with? Until, realising my arrogance, I saw that everything ran more smoothly when he and I shared more of ourselves than was demanded by the pragmatics of renovating.

 

Working alongside Dave taught me practical skills: how to lay tiles, decorate, mix cement and plug large holes. Even more than these skills, I learned from his example that the most important thing, when it comes to renovating, is getting on with jobs as they come up. He taught me not to wait until I had everything on hand that a job required, but to start straight away and to pick up the necessary bits as I went along.

 

One morning, towards the end of our renovation, I mentioned that I wanted to fix the jasmine vine which was growing drunkenly along the fence from the front door to the front gate. I’d put off this gardening job for months, thinking it would mean pulling the vine off the fence and attaching a wooden trellis underneath. In the middle of our chat, Dave said, ‘Hang on a minute’, and headed out to his van. Two minutes later he returned with a roll of garden wire, his drill and a pocket full of screws. I held one end of the wire, which we strung along the fence in rows, like a washing line, fixing the wire with long screws drilled into the wooden fence every metre or so. Then we picked up hunks of the vine and hooked them on to the protruding screws, tucking tendrils of vine under the wire. That was it, twenty minutes at most.

 

It’s hard to describe how satisfying I found the effect of this job. Until Dave helped me to lift this vine, I’d noted its heavy drooping, like a line of unmilked cows, each time I’d left or entered the house. Countless times I’d wished that it would miraculously lift itself up. Yet I’d also turned a blind eye to it; there seemed so many more urgent things do. Until this particular morning when, after chatting to Dave over his cuppa, the vine became young again, no longer a heaving rebuke as I brushed past it.

 

It wasn’t just Dave’s flexibility that impressed me, from laying floorboards in the basement to showing me how to use an electric drill. It was his willingness, his absence of unwillingness, that struck me. Working alongside him made me realise that it was as much my dilly-dallying before a job, as the skills required for it, that had been holding me back.

 

Even after I finished renovating, and Dave became an occasional and not a daily presence, he was still with me. He was with me when I put off a straightforward job, like putting putty around loose panes in an old window. He was with me when I moved a bush in the garden, shovelled compost on to a hungry flower bed or divided a thicket of agapanthus. He wasn’t around to chat anymore, but he was there – he still is – as a guide and prompt.

 

Having Dave keep me company in my head helps with the hardest part of every job, starting. He shows me that, even in a big old house, the so-called little jobs make the biggest difference, and that these take less time than I imagine they will when I’m feeling put upon or stressed. Most practically, he helps me to break down messy jobs into steps – even if it’s only to write a note in my diary, or to take a photo of an offending gutter – and to eat the elephant that way.

 

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later

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During my early 30s I read the same story, in various magazines, about a woman with small children and a busy working life. These stories weren’t airbrushed; although, the photography was always beautiful. I felt drawn to these stories about women, only a few tantalising years older than myself, who seemed to be getting it together, life, work and family. They gave me hope. Reading them made me feel that if I ever had children, I too could expect my life to be messy but basically good. My mornings would be rushed, I’d have less time to myself, but my life would be richer for having a family in the middle of it. However I overlooked one thing. These stories were written from the outside looking in, by a journalist with her thumb on a record button and an afternoon deadline. They weren’t written from inside the mind of the woman profiled, who may well have forgotten what she told the journalist by the time the story was published. Just as the editor of the magazine hoped, I was seduced by the stylish mayhem of this particular family, captured by a photographer with a deadline of his own. A dog walking out the back door, open lunchboxes on an otherwise clear bench top, a half drunk cup of tea, and morning sun filtering through a tree by the window. There were no regrets in these photos, no toddler meltdowns, work deadlines or mortgage stress. There was no mental to-do list of what the woman needed to do before school pick-up. Instead everything was captured in that moment of domestic insouciance, that freeze frame of a day about to happen. It didn’t looked staged to me, it looked just like a life I might want for myself.

 

In many ways I have lived that life. For years I made breakfast before school in a lovely kitchen for two kids, filled lunchboxes and drank cold tea on the fly. And yet, in all that time, despite yoga classes and walks in nature and holidays by the sea, I’ve struggled to get a handle on the process by which my desire for a certain way of life has a way of turning into a set of demands, of expectations, that I’m then compelled to respond to. Daydreaming about having a family, in my early thirties, was easy; looking after what I went on to have, as days, weeks and years rolled by, has been far more challenging and time consuming. Overcoming my resistance to looking after my home, whether it’s thinking ahead about what to cook for supper, or arranging for a roof leak repair, demands a certain sort of courage. Courage may not be a quality normally associated with housekeeping, but in my experience it requires energy and discipline to care about, and to keep on caring about, domesticity; to push aside my noisy ego when I don’t feel like cooking supper, and to think ahead to the pleasure and relief that a good meal brings; and, yes, gratitude at having a family to cook for. The energy and discipline that domesticity requires from me is ongoing. These days housekeeping feels like a practice, akin to yoga or drawing; and how I think about it hugely informs how I feel as I go about doing it.

 

When I was at school, every morning at half past six, my mother would wake up, dress and go downstairs to prepare breakfast. At half past seven my family, six of us, sat down to eat. When I became a mother, rarely did I sit down to eat breakfast with my kids. There were too many other things to do: bread to toast, eggs to boil, sports uniform to unearth from the clothes basket, school notes to sign, musical instruments to find. During this period, I had yet to cotton on that there is no later. I kept a mental to-do list, and spent a lot of time negotiating with my kids and Paul for them to help around the house. I used my power over them to corral them, to emotionally complicate them, into sharing the domestic load. I might not be able to make them want to clear up after themselves, but I could glower and look fed up until they pulled their weight.

 

Until, that is, it dawned on me that there is no later. At no one point did I grasp this; it was rather a series of moments that, over time, joined up to become a clear line. When it finally sank in, I felt excited and a little scared. But also liberated. I stopped waiting for the right time to do things, and just on with them there and then. I opened mail at the front door, rather than leaving it on the hall table for fear of having to deal with its innards. I paired socks at the clothes line rather than tossing them loose in the basket. Small actions like these made me feel competent, expedient. No more was I clogging up my future with things I knew I wouldn’t want to do then either. The energy I saved on resisting household tasks had the unexpected effect of buoying me up. Feeling domestically competent gave me confidence. By dealing with things as they came up I sent myself the message that there was nothing to fear from what was to come because I was already dealing with it. By completing tasks as they came up – washing to hang, shopping to do – I crossed them off my list before they turned into chores that the mere passage of time had the effect of drawing negative feelings to them. By preparing dinner because it was 6.30pm, rather than waiting until I was in the mood to cook, I was less likely to turn cooking into a chore that my low blood sugar led me to avoid. And voila, dinner was cooked without the ragbag of emotions I otherwise overlaid it with when, in avoidance of cooking, I fell into looking at Internet news sites, or walked our dog late. There was another thing. I was emotionally dependent on my family, no question; yet in doing things as they came up, in not wasting energy resisting household tasks or nagging family to do them, I gained a degree of independence from them. Once I’d stopped expecting them to ease my load – they did their bit but that was it – it was as if I acquired my own sphere of action in which I could get on my life, domestic and otherwise, and so steer my ship in its own direction.

 

 

 

 

 

overwhelm

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Overwhelm creeps up slowly. It doesn’t happen from one minute to the next.

A few weeks ago I was in a rhythm. My puppy was in daycare twice a week for half a day. My daughter was working long hours. I had breathing space. I had a deadline for my work, but this only served to focus he time I had to myself.

 

Until twelve days ago I picked up my 7-month Lab puppy from daycare to be told, in no uncertain terms, that it was time for him to be desexed. He was humping other dogs and, from a daycare point of view, the operation that I had agreed with the vet to defer for as long as possible ‘couldn’t’, as they put it ‘happen soon enough’.

 

Just as I was hitting my stride, completing two manuscripts for my agent to send to a publisher, I was back at square one, fitting in my work around seemingly, annoyingly, more important things. It seemed fitting, somehow, that two projects which have at their heart the dilemma posed by looking after ourselves and others, should be compromised, in their final stages, by household demands.

 

My puppy knew no better. How was he supposed to understand why he had stitches in the most intimate part of his anatomy, requiring him to wear a red plastic cone whenever he was alone? How was he supposed to know that swimming and not playing with other dogs was off limits for ten days? And how was I supposed to deal with the frustration that led him to jump up and bite me when I took him on long walks to tire him out?

 

In the past, when I was under the hammer with work, I’d stay up late, drinking tea and eating dark chocolate, snoozing on my folded arms on my desk before waking up and working on. But nowadays, by the time the house falls quiet at 10pm, the last thing I feel like doing is opening up my laptop. I’ve already put in a good long day, I tell myself, why prolong it only to wake up tired?

 

Since late last October last thing at night and first thing in the morning I’ve taken our puppy outside for a wee. Looking after him in this way has top and tailed my every day. I don’t mind; I’m glad that he’s fairly well house-trained. But it’s still a thing that I do that I don’t look forward to it nor can choose not to do. And yet I’m proud that he has grown up secure enough inside to be able to rely on me for this.

 

What, really, is overwhelm? How is it distinct from the cold bug that I picked up at the same time as my daughter fell ill; the kind of bug I so often get at changes of season, as we head into autumn? Is it feeling bossed around from within by a lengthening list of Things I Should Be Doing (admin, housekeeping, writing)? Is it wanting to throw my hands in the air to make the real and imaginary demands go away, like throwing off a  blanket during the night?

 

Overwhelm feels different from stress; although, prolonged stress does seem to lead to overwhelm. Perhaps overwhelm is stress that goes on so long that it becomes a permanent overlay on awareness; such that I cease to recall what not feeling stressed feels like.

 

But I do know what not feeling stressed feels like. I felt it just this morning when I dropped my puppy off at daycare, knowing that – like a mother dropping off her toddler at creche – for the next four hours that particular demand wouldn’t be mine.

 

‘Clutter’, writes Adam Phillips, ‘is other people’. And dogs, I would add. We think that it’s the stuff in our life that leads us to feel overwhelm; that if only we could order and limit the demands that life makes on us, all would be well. But what if it’s not just other people, or our stuff, that gets to us? That creeps under our skin and ‘nets’ us? ‘I have met the enemy’, a middle-aged man told Carl Jung, ‘and it was me’. What if we can’t escape the demands that other people (and dogs) make on us because the motor of the demandingness that we feel lies in us?

 

Sadly I can’t get rid of my current stress. It has a basis in real life. For the next few weeks I have to live with the fear that two of my manuscripts that have been sent to a publisher will receive a polite rejection.

 

I don’t meditate. And, whenever I feel overwhelmed, getting to yoga becomes too difficult. For me, overwhelm is the mental equivalent of a bad cold. When I’ve got it, I’ve got it; it colours everything. Until, thankfully, it passes, like a high pressure system, such that even days later I can’t remember being in it. I hope it passes soon.

photo essay on domesticity

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where there’s smoke

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Last week my daughter, worried about bushfires, downloaded the local fire department app on to her phone. Yesterday at breakfast, before we’d finished eating, the colour of the small diamond shapes across the map of our state had changed from white to yellow, and a few to red, reflecting the danger level of the bushfires currently burning.

 

Six months ago, waiting for the kettle to boil to fill my hot water bottle late at night, I read about the fires raging across the state of California. The journalist was such a good writer that I could almost smell smoke. Yet it was sympathy not empathy I felt for Californians faced with days on end of being unable to open their windows, there being no fresh air to let in, only ash and smog.

 

When we lived in Melbourne, nearly ten years ago, bad fires and relentless summer heat were part of what led us to move south. One memorable morning I woke to a red sky. By afternoon the temperature outside was so hot that when I went out to drape a sheet over the stakes supporting our tomato plants, I heard a thud and turned to see that a possum had fallen out of a tree behind me.

 

This morning I woke around dawn to the smell of smoke. Opening the bathroom window, which overlooks Mount Wellington, I saw a sleepy suburb, street lights still on, blanketed in smoke. Forcing myself not to look at my bedside clock, I shut the windows and went back to bed with a heavy heart.

 

At 6am, when my alarm went off for early yoga, I was staring at the ceiling. The second half of yoga class was given over to partner work, which I did with a young woman who, when I enquired whether she was worried about the fires, looked puzzled. ‘I don’t really know about them’, she said. ‘I don’t read the news and I meditate a lot. I only know there are fires because a friend, who lives near one of them, is worried about her animals’. ‘Really?’ I said, impressed by her quiet self-possession, clear blue eyes, and willingness not to know about fires with a combined front of 720 km.

 

Last night, on one of the only local bush tracks not closed to the public, I admitted to my daughter that I would be glad when the next day, today, was over. And, though I’m not religious, I said a little prayer in my head.

 

*     *     *

 

Now that day is over. Though the fires were bad, are still bad, they were not as bad as they could have been. Thankfully it is possible to go outside again, though only for short bursts. The windows of our house remain closed.

 

Perhaps, like the young woman in my yoga class, it would be better to meditate than to ruminate. But it strikes me that I come from a generation which isn’t doing a very good job of looking after this planet. Our capacity for denying our collective responsibility seems limitless. I don’t like to think about how much wildlife must have fallen from trees in the path of recent wildfires, still burning across this state.

 

 

digger and me

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Our puppy is no angel, though people insist he is cute. Digger, my daughter’s choice of name, doesn’t dig the garden. Instead, on average once a day, he’ll jump up in an agitated way and bite whatever he can – clothes, my wrist, my daughter’s thighs in shorts. He also enjoys chewing library books and electrical cords. This is not what having a new puppy has taught me. What I’m grateful to him for is this. Whenever he encounters a new sight – a swarm of sailing boats on our local beach, a bird he hasn’t seen before, a dog in the distance with whom he’d like to play – he’ll stop in his tracks, sit and look. For a moment which might last up to a minute, taking in this new scene is the most important thing, the only thing, Digger wants to do.

 

I thought I’d read all the puppy books. Until, a month ago, The Labrador Handbook arrived in the post, six weeks after I’d ordered it. Pippa Mattinson, a wonderfully clear dog writer, set my mind at ease on a number of matters. It’s normal for a Lab pup to have what she calls ‘zoomies’ – to momentarily lose his mind, not unlike a toddler having a tantrum. She explained that Digger running round like a lunatic, a bull in a china shop, making a mockery of my favourite plants, flattened in his wake, was a passing phase. Rather than being surprised when he bit me with crocodile teeth one minute, and lay down in a heap the next, free of remorse, I should just accept it.

 

95 percent of the time our puppy is not a lunatic. He is affectionate and curious and demanding, and mostly a pleasure to be around. If he had his way he’d put the whole world in his mouth, the better to know it: cardboard, Christmas cards, socks, the knob off the radio. He has an uncanny ability, in our relatively puppy-proof kitchen, to suss out and chew the few stray items I don’t want him to have: a magazine on the table, a tapestry cushion on a stool, the computer charger cord.

 

Apart from food, Digger doesn’t know what he wants. A dried leaf, a hose nozzle, my apron straps, cherry stones; everything in his path is of interest, and just as quickly not. On entering the kitchen, he’ll look at me with a ‘What now?’ expression. When I upend his toy box, and feign interest in a stuffed monkey from the second-hand shop, he’ll head for the pantry, as if only I could be so dim as to think a toy monkey could compete with the unknowns of the out-of-bound pantry. Or he’ll nibble at my leather shoe straps, mocking my attempts to read. ‘What’, he seems to say as he gnaws the leg of my stool, ‘do you want to be doing that for?’

 

Digger arrived four months after our previous dog had to be put down by the vet. My daughter was desperate for a new dog, and I felt confident that she’d be around long enough to train it. Two months later, just getting on top of toilet training and slowly increasing the seconds Digger could focus on any one thing, my daughter floated the idea of a gap year to see the world. ‘What?’ I thought, indignant, forcing myself to stay quiet and in role. ‘But how could she?’ Was this a parental joke? Or, I let myself think, did Digger have something to teach me?

 

On New Year’s Day, my daughter interstate and my husband working, Digger and I went on an adventure. Driving down the coast for an hour, we stopped at Trial Bay, where once I would take my kids. I decided against the coastal path, knowing how little Digger relishes walking in a straight line, and made for the end of a new jetty jutting into the bay. Sitting cross-legged on sturdy mesh, I stared at the horizon. Digger was taken by the seaweed in the water below and by an Atlantic gull bobbing nearby. I don’t know how long we sat there, but it was long enough to realise that Digger wasn’t nibbling my arm or my shoe laces. He wasn’t interested in me. We were together yet separate for one of the first times.

 

Determined to have a cup of tea and to read a magazine, Digger sat under my table at an outdoor café where people at surrounding tables commented on how well-behaved he was. A couple of people mentioned they’d had a Lab, recalling how ‘intense’ the early phase had been, and reassured me that I’d be rewarded, around the age of two, with a calm dog. ‘Two years!’ I could hear myself shout in my head. Why did nobody tell me?

 

Yesterday, sitting reading under a tree in the park, a man with three dogs dropped to the ground for a chat. Within seconds Digger’s beef tendon had been taken off him by the man’s spaniel. The man chatted for five minutes before moving on. Though I barely recall what we talked about, I do remember thinking that it was a conversation I never would have had were it not for Digger slowing me down enough to be sitting in a park around lunchtime, passing the time of day.

blue light

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Late at night, when I should be tucked up in bed, I’d read stories on-line about the potential for harm to the retina from the blue light thrown by computer screens – particularly the way it suppresses melatonin and makes it harder to sleep. Snapping my computer shut and going guiltily to bed, I’d forget all about the blue light thrown by screens the next day. Until, two months ago, I read a fellow blogger’s post about her improved eyesight – she’s a journalist – after installing a blue-light cancelling filter on her laptop.

 

Around the age I am now my father asked me to read to him the daily share index from the newspaper, as I sat by his hospital bed after a cataract operation – months later repeated on his other eye. Cocooned by youth, never for a moment did I link my father’s eye problems with my own future eyesight. Till one day, earlier this year, I sat with my chin on a plastic shelf, looking into a new diagnostic retina camera, during a routine eye check-up, and heard an opthamology student mumble something about early signs of glaucoma to the assistant by his side. After a worried return visit, a more senior optician, who I usually see, set my mind at rest about early signs of cataracts or, worse, glaucoma – which my mother and aunt both suffered. The early signs of eye disease, picked up by the opthamology student, were shared by most people over a certain age; and, he reassured, weren’t a predictor of disease.

 

Nevertheless it was these memories that drew me to the journalist’s post about the benefits of blue-light cancelling software, and that led me to respond to the blogger’s urging to download free software. Looking at my laptop screen, after first installing this software – though I should admit that I asked my daughter to download it – made me feel as if I was wearing sunglasses inside the house. The screen had a yellowy hue. However I instantly forgave it because having it installed on my computer (and phone) lifted from my mind a weight I hadn’t known I’d been carrying. Installing blue-light cancelling software – which I adjusted to come on whenever my computer and phone is on, rather than as the sun goes down – had the immediate effect of stopping me worrying about eye disease in old age. I’m not so dim as to think a screen filter will shield me from eye problems, but I did feel that installing it was a form of insurance for my eye health into the future.

 

Three days later something unexpected, a bonus, happened. My eyes, which often felt irritated after working long hours on the screen, stopped feeling red and irritated, even after hours on the screen. Next I started leaving my glasses at home when I went out and worked on my computer. Having worn glasses on and off for years, I never imagined that I might come to need them less. Of course this software isn’t miraculous. I still read small print better with my glasses on. But I don’t need glasses the way I used to; mostly I can take them or leave them.

 

This leads me to wonder why opticians, and the media, aren’t more open about the potential benefits of blue-light cancelling software. Do we really want to raise a generation of squinty-eyed kids in need of eye surgery? Are we waiting for twenty-year controlled experiments to confirm word-of-mouth findings?

 

So here is my Christmas wish to you, dear reader. Install some free blue-light cancelling software, wait a few weeks, and see the difference!

pickles

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Watching my mother eating pickles on an open sandwich for lunch mystified me as a girl. How could she like eating something that was both salty and sweet? Yuk, I’d think to myself, as I tucked into my cheese and tomato sandwich.

 

Every year, around this time, in my part of Adelaide, home-made goodies would appear like mushrooms, tucked behind the wire screen and front door of our porch, out of direct sunlight. Pickled cucumbers with fennel, and onions stuck with cloves, were bottled and wrapped in an elaborate Christmas present exchange as complex as the bartering systems used by the Pacific islanders that I wrote essays about as an Arts undergraduate. Tiny rectangular cards with Christmas cheer would tell my mother who the gift was from, causing her to catch her breath when she hadn’t thought to wrap one for the giver. Shortbread biscuits, thinly disguised in cellophane, often didn’t make it through Christmas, pilfered by my sisters and me as they sat innocently under our decorated tree. White Christmas was another of my sisters’ and my favourites: golf-ball sized lumps of copha, glace cherries, icing sugar and rice bubbles. But the jars of pickled something always made it through Christmas untouched, before being stored, label out, in a cool cupboard.

 

The things you find exciting when you’re young often aren’t, the psychologist Daniel Goleman notes, the things that you end up liking as you get older. Yesterday, standing at the kitchen bench, eating slices of pickled cucumber, cheese and cabbage on bread for lunch, I caught my daughter out of the corner of my eye and imagined her having the exact same thought I’d had, all those years ago, watching my mother eat pickled guerkins: pickles, I sensed her thinking, yuk!

 

What we end up liking – be it pickles or botanical drawing or marzipan – generally isn’t what we found exciting when we were young. My liking for pickles – straight from the fridge with crisp vegetables and cheese – surprises even me.

 

Early this morning I caught the tail end of the ABC news on radio. As I stood in the kitchen making my breakfast, a four-boy choir, who’d just been interviewed in the radio station, sang ‘Once in Royal David’s City’. My husband was in bed in avoidance of an early dental appointment for a root canal. My daughter was also upstairs, waiting for me to leave the house with our puppy before coming down to have breakfast in peace. Rooted to the floor, I looked out the window as a 12-year-old soloist sang the first verse. By the time three other choristers had joined him I was in tears at the beauty, comfort and clarity of the impossibly high notes they were sounding, cutting through the news headlines, and my Scrooge-like attitude to Christmas, like so much shattering glass.

 

This, I thought to myself, is what Christmas is about. It isn’t about nuclear families cleaving smugly to themselves. It isn’t about fielding unwieldy emotional demands, making tasteful Scandinavian decorations, or buying guilt-induced presents. It always was and is still about transcending the ordinary. It is about living more deeply, tasting whatever is your equivalent of pickles, and giving back. Often, when Christmas carols are sung, I find myself wishing there were fewer verses. This morning, despite my hurry, I felt sad there were only four.

talking too much

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I’d often found myself sitting back and thinking that my husband was talking too much, after a glass of wine, when we had friends for dinner. Until last night when we had neighbours round while Paul was taking a course of antibiotics and he abstained from wine at dinner. Not drinking wine had nil effect on Paul’s capacity to command the conversation. The near neighbours, who joined us for dinner, have lived all over the world, in various scientific defence posts. This became an invitation for Paul to display his fluent knowledge of world history; among other things, the fate of Gibraltar and Ireland in the Brexit process, about which I know little, was a recurring theme. Like a conductor before an invisible orchestra, barely pausing, again and again Paul drew the conversation back to himself in the most natural way.

 

The day before our neighbours came for dinner I cooked a meat sauce, a Ragu, to have with pasta, thickened with a jar of canellini beans I plucked from the freezer to stretch the dish. Shortly before our guests arrived I plopped the annoyingly still frozen beans into the Ragu; assuming that, on lifting the lid from the oven, forty minutes later, the beans would have melded nicely into the sauce. At seven thirty, on the dot, our neighbours arrived with a box of dark Lindt chocolates and a bottle of wine. Paul joined us in the kitchen to exchange pleasantries, and our puppy snapped at our visitors as they leaned into his playpen where he was dozing, to pat him hello. Easing the pot from the oven I lifted the lid of the casserole to see a determinedly frozen clump of canellini beans bobbing in the middle of the sauce. With a slotted spoon I lifted the clump of beans from the pot and transferred it to the sink, hoping that our guests, who were chatting to me near the hob, would think it a crust of Parmesan.

 

Our semi-retired neighbours talked glowingly of walking the Camino Way, and of walking the French equivalent the following year: of staying in monasteries and eating at long tables and heading off at dawn for six hours’ walking for a six week stretch; something it struck me I couldn’t contemplate doing with Paul, who plays tennis daily but doesn’t relish long walks. The conversation barreled on, like an express train missing all the small stations. I wandered through the carriages, trying to getting my own word in – a common occurrence that I normally put down to being the only one round the table past nine o’clock not drinking alcohol. There in the main carriage was Paul, who I watched mostly in profile, in full conversational flight. Instead of making my usual silent complaint that he was talking too much, I decided just to watch him talk. Released from reacting to him, and from the need to get my oar in, to make my presence felt, I started to notice a similar dynamic between our neighbours. The husband was talking markedly more than his restrained pleasant wife. He wasn’t actively dominating. He seemed genuinely happy to be talking freely, excited even, telling us about drinking morning tea in Meissen china tea cups, the pride of an East German general, and, in the next breath, of sailing with his family from India to Tasmania, as a six-year-old boy, following India’s Independence.

 

That’s when it struck me, sitting back and letting the conversation swirl around me as I sat hardly speaking, staunchly remaining sitting until Paul cleared the table and brought out cheese, at which point I hopped down from my stool and put on the kettle for tea. I looked over again, just to make sure. Yes, our male neighbour really did bear a likeness to my father. It was partly his looks, only a little older than my father had been when he died; but it was also his manner. With this I stopped feeling disgruntled, my usual reaction to feeling left out of the conversation, and let the dinner run its course.

 

My husband really does talk a lot. He really doesn’t wait for a pause after someone else finishes what they have to say before leaping in with his next point, hands waving as if drawing willing listeners to his side. But talking too much, I tell myself, doesn’t make him a bad person. Akin to his appetite for food, for which he is often ravenous by dinner time, his desire for company after a day of writing has always been strong. Besides, as Paul is keen to point out if I ever bring the matter up, who is to say that he talks too much if I am the only one doing the measuring? Perhaps, he’ll say, what it really means is that I don’t talk enough. For him it’s a mystery that I might struggle to compete with him when it comes to sharing ourselves with friends round the table. Why should it be his fault that his rapid-fire conversation has the unwitting effect of dampening the uptake of mine?

 

So why exactly don’t I talk more over dinner? Why don’t I find it easier to insert myself into the tumble of conversation round the table when friends come round to eat with us? Am I shy? Tired? Polite? Sobre? Preoccupied by cooking and the dynamics of the dinner as a whole?

 

Our neighbours are sure to have noticed that Paul talked way more than I did over dinner last night. Perhaps they put it down to my being quiet; although this is doubtful because, a fortnight ago, when I spent time at their house without Paul, I had plenty to say for myself. Perhaps they’re sufficiently knowing to see a similar dynamic in their own marriage, smiling wryly to themselves. Perhaps they’re old enough to know that the dynamics within a couple, over a long relationship, obey its own laws, following its own script, and are to some extent out of the control of each partner. Perhaps, before friends come for dinner next time, I should practice my lines, just as I prepare food and warm plates in the oven.

tough love

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Given that Labradors are a large breed, I asked the breeder for a small girl puppy from her latest litter. However this was never going to be an exercise in getting what I wanted, especially as I left it up to the breeder to decide which puppy from a litter of six would be ours. Over and above any other consideration was a desire, indistinguishable from fear, not to repeat our last experience of getting a kelpie-collie from the pound who, five years later, would be put down by our vet after she became aggressive. Over and above size of dog, was getting the right temperament of dog.

 

The vet gave us a list of two breeds she advised us to choose from, once we felt ready for a new dog: King Charles Cavalier Spaniel or Labrador. My daughter sniffed at the idea of a floppy-eared Spaniel, which meant the only real choice was which colour of Lab; a choice which narrowed once we realised how few breeders were due to have a litter in our island state over the coming months.

 

During our first visit to the breeder, a day’s drive north, I had the distinct feeling that my daughter and I were being vetted as prospective owners, not the other way round. Though Lab puppies at four weeks look much the same, I took to the runt of the litter for his size and the that fact he was the breeder’s husband’s favourite (the two girl pups were already spoken for). Really the only decision, after this visit, was whether to go with a boy Lab from this breeder, or wait a few months for a black Lab with a breeder closer to home. We decided not to wait.

 

Scarred by losing our previous dog, I knew my daughter wasn’t confident about taking on a new puppy. However I also knew she would be a natural once the right puppy was in her arms. She wanted an intelligent dog, a quick dog, a dog that could do agility classes. What if we got a Lab who, in her words, ‘sat round like a fat blob all day’? I wanted a dog we could train, who was flexible with people, who my husband who is nervous around dogs would like, and who would be open to family coming and going.

 

Last Sunday, our pick-up day, came round quickly. Digger, the puppy chosen for us but named by us, jumped around under my daughter’s legs on the drive home, climbing up her jeans to bite her chin before writhing into the footwell and snoring himself to sleep. In the kitchen at home he tumbled about with no sense of where he began and ended. Standing behind an open door he froze, with no understanding of why he was stuck behind it.

 

Over the past few weeks my daughter and I read ‘The Happy Puppy Handbook’ cover to cover, and agreed to follow it as a guide. However the first night, when Digger whimpered in his crate, my daughter changed her tune. I was Bad Cop, Mrs Tough Love; the selfish one who put her needs before that of the new puppy. The breeder had mentioned that she’d purposely bred her puppies to wait until 8am to be fed, and I took her at her word. ‘Yes!’ I thought to myself. ‘I can take Digger out for a wee at 7am and then have an hour to do yoga and dress and have a quick walk, all before feeding him at 8am’. My daughter disagreed. What if I damaged Digger by letting him whimper in his playpen in the kitchen, between taking him out for a wee and feeding him? What if frustration made Digger as reactive as our previous dog had been?

 

When we saw the vet on Tuesday, for a social visit, Digger went to sleep on her examining table. The vet made it clear that until Digger’s second vaccinations, in another month, we were to carry him around for fear of his contracting a deadly canine virus. That night, at puppy school, the trainer gave us a printed list of what Digger should encounter before he reached 16 weeks, his most impressionable and undefended developmental period: skate boards, thunder, crowds, Asian people, vacuum cleaners, toddlers and babies, bin trucks, crutches, chain saws, beards, overpasses, etc. How, I wondered, was Digger, all 9 kilos of him, to encounter the human zoo and natural world without walking on his own four legs for another month? But I chose not to fuss. Contradictions like these, from the vet and the dog trainer, are, I decided, part of life; my very good life.

 

Having taken the week off work to settle our new puppy, I decide to take the dog trainer at his word. Next day, while my daughter works out at the gym, I sit outside the sports centre and invite any interested passers-by to pat Digger. People in wheelchairs, people with mental health issues, and school children stop by, patting the soft fur of Digger who sits patiently while he is fussed over. The world, I want Digger to know, is a friendly place full of all kinds of people going about their lives. Between the attentions of passers-by, I sit and wait, just like Digger; no phone, no book, no friend. Just my new puppy and whoever happens to drop by to say hi to him. It’s a long time since I sat idle for any period, and I find it reassuring and confronting.

 

I chose to get a Lab, in the end, because I knew that within a few years he would be mainly my dog. I knew that I would be left with him for company when my daughter was off adventuring and my husband spent time overseas (my son is already away). This awareness is the background to my decision to let Digger whimper in the kitchen in the early morning, while I do yoga in the bathroom above. Because as hard as it is for him to get his pudgy head around, he is not the centre of my universe, any more than I am the centre of my daughter’s universe, or my husband’s. Yes, I am selfish. I want a dog to complement my life, not to be my life; and this is the tough love Digger is now learning as he chews the bars of his wooden playpen in the kitchen.

 

Knowing that Digger and I will be together for years to come is what makes it so poignant to have him jumping up at right angles as he zooms round the kitchen after a squeaky toy and, seconds later, eats my shoelaces. Does he wonder, as I do, how he could have been mewing with his litter last weekend and chasing a goat’s horn across a wooden floor just a few days later?

 

This morning Digger saw the sea for the first time. As I sat with my bum getting wet on the sand he played around me, taking it all in – making it all worth it. The biting, the small-hour wees, the manic energy, the sudden sleeps; all of these were transcended, for me, by the sight of a tubby puppy taking in the beauty of the beach after rain.

 

My daughter puts pencil ticks in the boxes of the dog trainer’s sheet of experiences which Digger is to be exposed to before he leaves puppyhood. I have a different kind of sheet which I keep in my head. Every day – it’s day seven now – I take Digger somewhere that I like visiting; a place where he can meet people in an outdoor setting, a place where, even for ten minutes, I might lose myself in a book as he sits under the table, exhausted by too many pats. Yesterday it was the mountain, today it was the beach, tomorrow it is the farmer’s market; all of them transformed by Digger being with me.