Writing

29 Nov “It’s Beginning to Look A Lot Like Christmas” aka “Didn’t Put The Lights Away Last Year”

First published in the NZ Woman’s Weekly 29 November 2021

 

Outwardly, it looks a little bit like we are ready for Christmas because the deck of our house is festooned with twinkly lights. Our neighbours, however, will attest that these lights have been up the whole year, forced to work the kind of overtime on long winter nights that New Zealand-based Christmas lights should not have to face. 

Three reasons – and thanks for asking. One is that there was a bit of drama putting them up. They were in fact the second set of Christmas lights purchased. The first set lasted only a couple of days and then needed to be unwound and returned to the store which had since run out of stock and I don’t know if you’ve tried to arrange a credit note in a store in the mad lead up to Christmas but it wasn’t a good time for anyone, least of all the man at the counter who suggested I’d put the solar bit in the wrong place and my face went a bit “Karen”. And then I had to find another store and buy a completely different brand of lights not previously tested and recommended by trusted friends so I was pretty much flying blind.

And the second reason is that I might not have liked the way my husband spaced the new lights out after he’d spent a hot afternoon wrapping the long and quite tangly bundle around the deck railings, and there might have been cross words followed by a very loud silence.

So yes, no one was in a hurry to repeat any of this in 2021 so you might as well leave them where they are. Also three, I just like them. I’m prepared to argue that fairy lights are forever, not just for Christmas.

And that’s about all we do have ready. After two years of watching things disappear from our diaries it is hard to believe anything written there and we’re not entirely convinced family will be allowed to travel here, which makes it hard to order a ham.

Though that’s the thing about Christmas – immutable, immoveable and non-negotiable, it turns up ready or not. No one has ever successfully argued for an extension as far as I know – it’s one of the few hard-and-fast deadlines. Even the IRD can occasionally show mercy, shifting a date and waiving a penalty, but Christmas? Ho-ho-ho no.

One friend suggests this particular Christmas might be the most relaxing yet. They’ve decided their home will only be open to people who are double-vaxxed – they have someone who is high risk and needs protecting. Instead there will be a jolly and festive video call with relatives of the other persuasion.

Just quietly, my friend says the Venn diagram of “people in her family who hold a different view on vaccination” and “people in her family she is never in a rush to see” is pretty much one perfect circle.

If you can’t quite get into the swing of Christmas, you could try telling the kids that Santa is stuck in MIQ for two weeks and the presents will arrive depending on the results of his Day 3 and Day 5 tests. You can then take advantage of Boxing Day sales and re-gifting on TradeMe, waiting at home for delivery and saving yourself a bundle.

But don’t do that – if we’re a tiny bit short on social cohesion in these trying times, then all of us committing to one day of overindulgence (champagne, trifle, tiny pies for breakfast!) could be the glue that puts us back together.

 

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22 Nov In Need of An Exploding Advent Calendar

First published in the NZ Woman’s Weekly 29.11.21

 

Don’t ask me what week it is, or when something happened – I appear to have lost my grip on time. Christmas is apparently on its way but I will need some kind of exploding advent calendar delivering an urgent daily warning before I feel like I can measure this as a real thing.

I’m not alone in this – friends also report being unable to say whether something occurred last week or last month (or last year) and forward planning feels weirdly abstract.  “COVID-brain” we’ve been calling it – the effect of living through something so extraordinary, it bends and frays our built-in sense of “how long until” and “how long ago”.

I haven’t worn a watch since August, though we can’t blame it on that. There’s no need for a watch when you’re at home with clocks and on the odd occasion you go out you have your phone constantly at the ready for scanning and it lets you know in passing what the time happens to be on its digital face.

I like watches, though. Getting my first one as a kid was one of those rite-of-passage moments that says you are being trusted with something grown-up and expensive, and also it suggests you might be old enough to have somewhere to be, and to be in charge of getting there and back.

It may sound old-school, but a watch is an essential tool still for the work I do which is time-sensitive – get the next guy on stage, wrap it up, get everyone home in time for the babysitter.

When I reached into the drawer for one yesterday I found that all but one of them had stopped. Fair enough. Not a tool I’ll be needing for a bit – currently about as useful as a lawnmower in August – but the idea the watches had also given up trying to measure these days and weeks felt symbolic enough to make me roll my eyes.

Even the seasons seem confused. Spring came across a lot like winter round these parts. Possibly I started the confusion, because it was back in winter that I embraced spring cleaning with gusto, what with it being the beginning of lockdown and not much else on. Slightly regretting all that effort now of reaching into corners – we’ve been home so long it’s starting to look like it will all need doing again this summer. So there will be two spring cleans in 2021, neither of them taking place in the correct season.

Sometimes it feels like we are slipping a long way back. I wrote my granddaughter a letter – a letter! – for her birthday and then pictured her checking the letterbox each day the way I did once. On the other end of the surprise, I waited for her to phone me – phone! – to say it had arrived safely and to say thank you because she is well brought up and I blame the mothers.

Best of all there have been books read at bedtime over FaceTime and the moko get to choose their stories from my shelves, and sometimes they read them to me instead of the other way round. One night they chose “Green Eggs and Ham’ and I showed them the inscription which says,  “To Michele & Stephen, From Sandra & Keith, Christmas 1964” and we all marvelled at this but me mostly because, to be fair, I’m the only one who can accurately measure how long ago 1964 is.

 

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16 Nov Stuck on FaceTime, Staring At The Toast

First published in the NZ Woman’s Weekly 22.11.21

 

A couple of days ago, I spent half an hour accidentally eavesdropping on my daughter and grandchildren. It was less a “fly on the wall” situation than a “phone on the table”.

With the border shut tight between where I live and they live, FaceTime and Zoom have become our way of talking. It is all very casual – phones will be propped up in bed, or in the kitchen, or at the dining table, and people will get on with whatever they might have been doing before the call came through. Kind of like we have actually dropped round to each other’s house – I will put the kettle on, or my daughter will make the kids some toast, and we chat happily while we get on with the ordinary things.

Which is all quite different from the long phone calls my mother used to make when I was a kid. These would be focused events that were planned and prepared for – coffee would be poured, lipstick would be applied and children would be hushed or chased outside.

This is decades before phone calls came with pictures – our green rotary-dial phone was the sort you see now in museums and our phone number was four digits – so the lipstick was about feeling right, not looking good.

Once you were on the call, you were stuck right there in one spot with the built-in telephone. My brother and I would be alert to our mother’s little mimes indicating she would like another coffee. If you had a hankering for something – a pair of Levis or maybe Bata Bullets – and had been told “we’ll see”, you might earn yourself some better odds by bringing the next cup of coffee without being asked.

But that’s a big kid’s trick, and my daughter’s kids are still little. Last Sunday’s call started out in bed – me with my cat, her with my grandson. When he needed the loo, she took the phone elsewhere (good manners, well brought up) leaving it (and therefore me) in the care of my granddaughter.

Which is how I ended up propped on the dining room table with a view of a plate of Nutella on toast while life went on out of sight. I mean, sure, we had a good chat first – school is great, yes, her teacher is nice, there’s a Lego set she’d like and she will send me a screenshot – but then she needed the loo (it was that time of day) and I was left on the table with the toast. 

I promise this was more delightful than you’d think it would be – almost exactly like an actual visit where I might sit in the kitchen and listen happily to my family’s life going on around me.

In many respects, things are very different now but also not. By the time you read this it will be my granddaughter’s birthday – only the second one I will have missed since she was born 8 years ago. I mean, the birth was a close-run thing – I flew to Australia just as my daughter’s waters broke and then got stuck in a lift at the maternity hospital, but I was in the room when my mokopuna arrived.

This year she will experience an old-school birthday – cards will be written and packages will arrive in the letterbox from people far away, and Happy Birthday will be sung down the line, and I hope someone leaves me on the table by the cake.

 

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11 Nov Pockets Are A Feminist Issue

First published in the NZ Woman’s Weekly 15.11.21

 

Pockets – and I mean this most sincerely – are a feminist issue. Indeed, pockets were on the women’s rights agenda as far back as the 1800s, right there alongside the demand for the right to vote.

So at the same time as lobbying to participate equally in democracy, campaigns were led by the Rational Dress Society to fight for women’s clothing to be equally functional. Amid cries to tear off your corsets and let a sister breathe, instruction manuals were distributed on how to sew pockets into your skirts which proved wildly popular.

The argument went that if women were to have their own money, hold property and choose their government, they’d need somewhere to put their wallet and keys and pens. So pockets became a symbol of independence – in Britain in 1910 the ‘Suffragette Suit’ was all the rage, sporting no less than six pockets.

A conspiracy theorist might find it interesting that the Suffragettes achieved one goal (the vote) but not the other (pockets). I’m not saying there was a backroom trade off, but there might have been a backroom trade off, right?

Either way, it is high time the pocket was firmly back on the feminist agenda because here we are more than one hundred years later with our too-small pockets, fake pockets, and stitched-closed pockets. Even when we are allowed them, research tells us the pockets in women’s jeans are 48% shorter and 6.5% narrower than men’s pockets, and yet our phones are the same size and none of this feels like equality.

It started out kind of equal in the Middle Ages. These were pre-pocket times – instead, women and men kept their bits and pieces in pouches which hung from rope – think an early version of the bum-bag. Quite a few bits and pieces, too. Historians list pincushions, thimbles, pencil cases, knives, scissors, keys, spectacles, watches, diaries, combs, mirrors and (naturally) snacks.

For security purposes, people started wearing these pouches inside their clothes with slits made in the top layer of their garments for easy access. Then somewhere around the 17th century, the pouches began to be sewn inside men’s jackets and trousers and – voila – the pocket was invented.

But not for women. The ladies were left still slinging their pouches amongst their many layers of petticoats and skirt. Then as our clothing became more figure hugging, the pouches got smaller and eventually disappeared, and you ended up with Christian Dior allegedly insisting in 1954, “Men have pockets to keep things in, women for decoration.”

Which is kind of rude in that it suggests men do stuff and therefore need somewhere to put the stuff they do it with, while women are only about looking nice, with nary a nod to functionality. Can’t help noting that Dior also does a nice line in expensive handbags which is what you could be convinced to buy after several centuries of not being allowed a pocket.

So this is my call to arms for pockets. Pockets for our hands when they’re cold, or awkward, or to carry whatever we want – a phone, an eftpos card, some tissues, maybe a lippy, definitely a snack, and now I’m intrigued by the idea of carrying a thimble. All tucked neatly into a magical side-seam cache, leaving us joyously hands-free and able to embrace the world about us.

Demand pockets of manufacturers, and reward clothing designers who know women well enough to give us a pocket. Though we will definitely keep the voting thing, too.

 

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01 Nov When Personal Grooming Goes DIY

First published in the NZ Woman’s Weekly 8.11.21

 

For someone raised in a country that prides itself on its DIY attitude, I am shocked to realise how much of my personal grooming I’ve been outsourcing to other people.

It started innocently enough – I can trace it back to going to the hairdresser as a kid. I grabbed every possible chance to accompany my mother to Mrs Gilroy’s salon, to watch the cutting and curling and drying under space-age-looking helmets, and to breathe in complicated cocktails of perming lotion, hair dye and sticky sprays.

And to have my own turn, sitting high on a pile of cushions while Mrs Gilroy directed an apprentice to give me a trim. My hair then was always much shorter than I really wanted because I could never say no to being combed and pampered, so it barely got a chance to grow.

Before we all had blow-dryers at home, you relied on a wet comb in the morning or a curler overnight, and how your hair turned out was partly skill, mostly luck. So the hair salon was the only place you got the look you wanted.

Though even then… I recall once waiting for my mother’s set to take and watching one of the big girls from school getting a fancy do for a beauty contest. She had a photo in a glossy magazine for the stylist to copy and it sat in her lap for reference the whole afternoon. But after the curlers and the comb-out and the clouds of hairspray were done, it became clear the stylist had replicated the picture on the left page, not the one she wanted on the right. “Oh, well,” he’d said, “what the judges are mostly looking for is clean hair.” The whole salon tried to sound convinced, but you could see her trying hard not to cry. I’ve never been a fan of beauty contests but I’ve always hoped she won, and that the wrong style fitted perfectly under a crown.

Outsourcing your hair to a professional is tremendously sensible – the cut, a colour – these are things people train to do properly for years. Also, in recent times I’ve found a fabulous young woman who does my eyebrows – it’s become nye on impossible for me to see what I’m doing once I take my glasses off, so you might as well hand it over to a professional, right?

Over time, the outsourcing has spread from personal grooming to domestic care. We’ve got Graeme trimming the (actual) hedges and cutting lawns, and we’ve had nearly a decade of Howard and Eli giving the indoors a jolly good seeing to once a fortnight (she cleans, he sings, perfect pair).

None of which – and this is why I’m thinking about it – we can do right now, thank you Covid. So it has all gone madly DIY here, with boxes of dye and pots of wax filling the bathroom shelves for all things hair-related, much of which is done while squinting into a magnifying mirror with fingers very crossed. There has even been a fringe cut out of desperation this week – surprisingly successful and it might become a thing.

Though I worry. One of the reasons house sales boomed post-lockdown last year was that vast swathes of people had a crack at home improvements and when it turned out badly, they just decided to sell up. I’m not sure that’s going to be an option if things don’t go well with my personal DIY. Keep an eye on TradeME

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25 Oct Making Sport Out of Arts Funding

A version of this appears in the NZ Woman’s Weekly on 1.11.21

On a pretty regular basis, people who aren’t arty-farty creative types like to have a crack at the people who are. They almost make a sport of it – though not an actual sport because when sport gets funding people don’t complain.

I’m talking about actors, writers, dancers and musicians who might apply for grants to create a thing – a show, a play, a novel, a dance – and then that proposed thing is loudly poo-pooed as a waste of taxpayers’ money. The poo-pooing is often predicated on a brief description of the creative endeavour which, if you’re short on imagination, might sound a bit lame.

Indeed, there were questions in Parliament recently about our national arts development agency, Creative NZ, funding a novel about the collapse of democracy in an association of alpaca breeders. I don’t know about you but that’s the kind of allegory I’m totally up for and, when you learn the writer is award-winning novelist and screenwriter, Duncan Sarkies, you’d be wanting to get your pre-orders in for Christmas.

For sure, it’s not hard to make artistic projects sound lame if you want to. Try this: “A comedy about gender fluidity and what that means for personal identity and sexual orientation, plus a look at the mental health consequences of workplace gaslighting.” You would be hard pressed to find a talkback radio host who wouldn’t deride that proposal as “woke nonsense”.

Or this: “A powerful patriarch with anger issues and zero self-awareness suffers a breakdown and goes bush with his mates. The vacuum created by his absence leads to murder and suicide amongst those left behind.” Far-fetched post-modernist tripe, surely.

And who would fund a play about a misogynist who goes through a messy divorce, starts a cult and secretly marries a woman he meets at a party only to have a daughter who then goes on to become a global leader? Feminist claptrap, thank you caller.

I am, of course, describing “Twelfth Night”, “King Lear” and “King Henry VIII” the way I would if I was in the business of making Shakespeare sound silly. Though now I’ve said it, I’d be keen to see a production where Viola fully investigates gender identity and Olivia explores her sexuality. But I digress.

The easy derision of the arts and artists boils down to not really believing that creative work is “work”. Every kid played Pretend and Dress-Ups and we still secretly believe we could have been a movie star if things had panned out differently.

We also drew pictures that were good enough to be exhibited on mum’s fridge, and we’ve see paintings we’re pretty sure we could do if we had the paints and the patience. And writing? We wrote a poem once that the teacher made us read out to the class, and we’re pretty sure we’ve got a book in us if only we could find the time.

That arty stuff looks like the kind of fun and games we’d do for free in our spare evenings whereas we tend to think of “work” as stuff we’d only do for money because it’s boring, dirty, or dangerous.

And yet. In 2019 the arts/creative sector contributed 92,000 jobs and $10.8 billion to our country’s GDP – about the same as agriculture. And right now the creative sector, which largely relies on humans gathering together in one place, is bearing the brunt of Covid 19 restrictions.

Meanwhile, most of us are surviving the pandemic by reading, watching and listening to creative work. Best we keep supporting those arty-farty types.

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18 Oct Playing It By Ear

First published in the NZ Woman’s Weekly 25.10.21

 

The label on one of the pills I’m taking says I’m not to operate heavy machinery but I’m not sure if my laptop qualifies as “heavy” so I am diving in regardless.

Also, full disclosure, two of the medicine labels warn drowsiness is a risk so forgive me if I wander off mid-thought. Though wait! We’re not doing this in real-time so I can go back and fix things before you read it, right? I’ll just keep in a stream-of-consciousness moment for effect. There, that one will do.

I had a spot of ear surgery a few days ago – initially delayed by Level 4 Lockdown then rescheduled at Level 3. By now I expected to be firing on all cylinders but I’ve done that thing women often do which is to underestimate the gravity of a personal health situation. You’ve probably done it yourself – waved some procedure off with a cheery, “I’ll be fine, it’s nothing!” and then found yourself stuck in your pyjamas days later with your head fairly nailed to the pillow, while people with expectations (and let’s be fair, expectations based on information you provided) tap their watches and ooze impatience.

I can report that a hospital at Level 3 is even more like itself – staff only, all masked all the time. No visitors looking lost or delighted or anxious in corridors because there are no visitors at all. My husband and I had waited in the carpark at dawn for the “Come on down!” call from reception and waved each other good bye.

So it’s all business, but they cannot be kinder, and that’s the usual thing we say about healthcare people but I’m still saying it here because we should remark on remarkable things. They let me make jokes and make some of their own, and one of the post-op carers says when she sees me stand up for the first time, “I thought you were taller – you have a tall personality” and without wanting to disrespect short people everywhere I take this as a massive compliment.

In the operating theatre, a nurse tells me her kid was at school with my daughter 20 years ago and suddenly this gathering of surgical staff feels a bit like a school fair and we get so chatty the anaesthetist says something old-school about women talking and I suggest the only way he can shut me up is to drug me, and he does, and I drift off wondering if that was a terrible thing to say and it probably was.

I don’t know why I am surprised that, after someone has been tootling about in my head with a drill for three hours, I wake up feeling a bit sore. It’s like that time I had a baby and had focused so much on the birth that I was surprised this wasn’t the end of the event, just the very beginning, and I think that’s what the Day Three Blues can be about sometimes but I’m not actually a doctor.

The people who are doctors are very pleased with my ear, and now that it is over I am reading up on the literature and I am impressed with them, too. Mostly, though, I am enchanted by my bandages which come with a bow set off to the side, giving me a flapper-vibe which goes nicely with the white compression stockings and honestly if I could stand up I’d do you a Charleston but right now it is time for nap, normal transmission will resume…

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11 Oct This Pandemic Has Turned Me Into A 1950s Housewife

First published in the NZ Woman’s Weekly 18.10.21

 

Shortly after 6am last Saturday, you would have found me in my kitchen with the entire contents of the fridge laid out on the bench. Not because I was hungry and about to whip up an omelette at dawn. Nope, this was me pulling out all the shelves and fittings to wash them down, and checking use-by dates on forgotten jars of chutney.

I’d woken early – a thing I do now I’m not working at night – and rather than reaching for a book, I’d decided to get up and get on. I have new microfiber cloths I swear by, and I’m trying a different brand of thick liquid cleaner. I hardly know myself.

On Sunday morning, you’d have found me on my hands and knees washing the floors, scrubbing skirting boards and – if you’d timed it right – shutting myself inside the pantry so I could wipe the inside of the bi-fold door which no one can see unless they’ve shut themselves in the pantry. No one, of course, has ever shut themselves in the pantry until now. 

I am all about the cleaning and cooking, and shopping from brochures and dreaming of evenings out. Recently, I heard myself say, “I feel like an adventure so I’m going to the supermarket, bye!” This pandemic has turned me into a 1950s housewife, and I’m not sure how I feel about it.

I suspect my mother would have approved. As much as she enjoyed the work I did out in the world, I know she felt my housekeeping could be a little lax. She rarely mentioned it, but on the odd occasion I polished the silver water jug (wedding gift from her) turning it from tarnished orange to mirror shine, she might say a little tartly, “Is it Christmas already?” Meaning I must be doing this for other eyes, as mine clearly hadn’t noticed it for months. Still, she could see I was pleased with the sparkle of it and she would exhale a little, and smile.

It is true that, back when I spent a lot of nights in hotels – like, you know, in July – I tended to treat my home like a hotel, too. Sleep, eat, do some work, pack a suitcase and go. But I’m here now, noticing tops of doors and finger marks on light switches and suddenly curious about what is stuffed under the spare bed.

I am also – I’ll be honest – going slightly mad. Thank goodness I was born in the sixties because I couldn’t have done the 1950s for more than a few weeks. Much more of this and I will either be burning my bra or getting an online prescription for Mother’s Little Helper, or both.

And yet I will also confess there is pleasure to be found in the sparkling insides of a clean fridge and a well organised drawer. Also piles of clean laundry. I am a feminist, yes, but I prefer my bras washed, not burnt. I mean, have you seen the price of them? And smell the fabric softener on this one.

I have taken to stewing fruit. Sometimes I don’t even plan it, I’ll just be walking past the fruit bowl and suddenly find myself at the stove with its contents. I notice that, as I slice quartered apples into the saucepan, my hands look like my mother’s hands, and they move the same way. You might notice me exhale a little in moments like this, and smile.

 

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04 Oct Learning to Live with Covid

First published in the NZ Woman’s Weekly 11.10.21

 

It has taken a while but I am learning to live with Covid-19. By which I don’t mean I have decided to give up on lockdowns and staying home and saving lives. “Learning to live with it” for me means I have accepted that, for the foreseeable future, my life will be very different from the way I would like it to be.

What I’d like to do is go back to work, do some shows, earn some money, see my daughter and grandchildren, and have enough certainty to plan things to look forward to. Instead, here I am in my trackpants, consciously seeking out reasons to be cheerful, applying for government support and very much learning that there are things I cannot control.

This is a whole different “learning to live with Covid” from the version you might hear touted on talkback radio or in newspapers. That’s the one where we let the virus into the community the way they have in other parts of the world where, if you don’t talk to overwhelmed nurses or traumatised survivors, you can pretend for a minute there isn’t a pandemic raging and “they’re getting on with it”.

I hear the argument – made with varying degrees of subtlety – that we should allow the virus in now, and let it take the old and the weak. “The ones who were going to die anyway,” I believe is the phrase. A woman in a bar (back when we did that sort of thing) tried that line out on me a few months ago. She wasn’t sure Covid was much of a thing, she’d never met anyone who’d had it. I told her my husband’s grandmother had just died of it in Canada. But, she argued, his grandmother would have been old, so she was going to die anyway. When I miss the conviviality of being in bars, I think of this stranger and get over that quite quickly.

Here’s a thought experiment. Imagine that the virus is a killer (it is) but picture an actual person with a gun. Imagine this gunman runs rampant in a retirement village and shoots everyone over 90. Some people say this is a tragedy and the killer must be stopped but others say, nah, it’s not that tragic, they were all going to die anyway.

Honestly, that’s the kind of thing you only say when you’re a long way from 90 and don’t have much time for anyone who is.

Part of the problem is that when someone says “the old and the weak” – or, less emotively, “people with underlying health conditions” – it is easy to picture the generic nana of someone you’ve never met. But really, what we are describing is New Zealand’s vaccination Group 3 – people at risk because of diabetes, heart conditions, asthma, pregnancy, or auto-immune and other diseases. There are 1.7 million of them and you won’t be able to see them all with the naked eye. They’re staffing our hospitals and supermarkets as well as every other sector, and I’d generally want to wish us luck keeping businesses going if we’re going to wilfully put what amounts to one-third of the population at high risk.

Soon – once we’re all double-jabbed – by all means, open the borders and try moments of what looks like the life we’d like to have. But also be ready to lock it down again if we have to. Learning to live with it in a way that lets all of us continue to live.

 

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29 Sep Lockdown Lemons

First published in the NZ Woman’s Weekly 4.10.21

 

Some people make staying home look good. I have friends who are highly skilled at nesting indoors or who potter round the garden happily for weeks. A few have always been like this, and others just gave it a red-hot go at the beginning of the pandemic and totally nailed it. Now they make staying put look like the most natural thing in the world.

I am not one of these people. Sure, I like my own company and I can hunker down, clean out a cupboard or read a book, but I am a traveller at heart and home is the place where you rest between adventures.

My husband – even keener on getting on a plane and having his passport stamped – has managed with more grace than me, I think, to embrace staying home and saving lives. Give him lockdown lemons and he will make you a lemon tart. Also banana bread. Sometimes – don’t tell him – I buy bananas on the turn just to nudge him in the bread-making direction.

But the people who really nailed “staying home” were our 2020 lockdown neighbours, gone now but remembered fondly. They were in the new house over our back fence, built where the orchard used to be before a previous owner subdivided.

It’s a 5-bedroom rental property with a rotating cast of characters.  Sometimes we barely get to know them, other times we have long chats over the fence about the weather or our pets or who might be planning on playing loud music a bit later and would that be a bother to anyone if it was all done by midnight.

When Level 4 arrived in 2020, the house belonged to the most vibrant bunch yet. The languages wafting over the fence included Portuguese definitely, possibly Spanish, plus a lot of something Eastern European. They barbecued, and played long games of cards at the kitchen table, and had their very own karaoke machine, and danced to Polish techno.

I found it remarkable at first that, each week, they had a birthday to celebrate. Ten flatmates suggested a birthday a month-ish, but every weekend the gold balloons spelling out “Happy Birthday!” would appear in the living room window and a party would ensue.

Over here in my bubble of two, I had questions. First, where’d they get the balloons? (And how tremendous to have them on hand when lockdown hit!) Also, where did they store them Monday to Friday? (They were very big and appeared quite floaty.) And this rash of birthdays – had they got together as flatmates because the thing they had in common was their star sign? And supplementary question: who knew people born under Aries and Taurus would get on so well?

By the time we’d got to Level 2 I suspected those big gold balloons were a ruse – that maybe (odds are) there were some actual birthdays involved but they’d just decided to throw a party each week and the balloons helped set the mood.

I found it all very uplifting – all that conviviality and human interaction when the rest of the world was about social distancing and isolation. It reminded me of what we all had to look forward to on the other side if we keep doing this right.

Meanwhile, there’s a superb lemon tart in our fridge and some of my cupboards are very tidy. And if staying home is the hardest thing I have to do this week, I’m pretty darn lucky.

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