There is one last thing to do when leaving the Robert Lord Writers’ Cottage in Dunedin. It’s to write in ‘the book’. This is something that you are presented with at the end, rather than at the beginning of your tenure and it’s a glorious rabbit hole of remembrance from past writers to dive down.
I recognised nearly all of them and was glad that the cottage is now equipped with double glazing and a heat pump, when reading about the battle to keep warm in an Otago winter- mostly from far north authors! This was my entry, typed printed and pasted because nobody wants to try and decipher my handwriting, least of all me!
I had all kinds of anxiety about coming to the cottage, leaving our house and ancient cat in Wellington (in the capable hands of friends of friends). We live in a big old 1910 villa, with my studio, a basement for messy work and a garage with off-street parking. The information provided was a spreadsheet of contents. How did a moustache cup relate to where we would live for 6 months? How big was the bedroom? Was there enough room in the kitchen for our sacred and necessary burr coffee grinder? Did the sofa bed in the writers’ room provide space for a friend’s bag when folded down and in use?
I searched in vain for photos on the internet and all I could find were smiling pictures of authors outside the front door, and one of the mantlepiece. I’m used to light and space, and knew I’d be cooped up in a historic tiny house with my husband. Would this be the end of a beautiful 40 year relationship?
I decided that I would take a full set of photos for the Trust to pass on to future residents.
We packed the car in Wellington with my pared down art materials, 2 computer screens, a sewing machine, clothing for multiple seasons and some odds and ends from the pantry. I threw in our good cotton sheets and steam iron; I was convinced there would be neither (there are). And off we went, waving farewell to the city of my heart and wondering what lay ahead in a city I’d only spent 2 days in (the Octagon) before.
When we arrived in Titan Street the party flat in George street was in full swing, and one boy in disposable overalls approached and asked if I would touch his bum as part of a challenge. This is the moment to laugh and rejoice the boldness of youth, so I raised my finger ceremoniously and prodded his offered derriere to the cheers of the onlookers across the road.
Then it was up to us, to greet the cottage and make it our own for the time being. I think everyone adds in some way to the place. Our contribution was to replace the lightbulbs with brighter ones and the Chinese hat lightshades with rice paper globes that let the light spread to the ceiling.
Adrian, my husband fixed the front door hinges so that it didn’t stick, and we secreted a spare key outside after locking ourselves out one day and having to call the Cottage Trust rescue brigade. A couple of wooden blocks under the feet of one side of the bed sorted out the tipsy lean. We moved some furniture around just a little; Robert smiled from his place above the desk. Then putting away some travelling boxes, we found his, in the shed. I gather it is empty, his ashes now beneath the kowhai tree, but it seemed wrong to have him out in the laundry. We restored him to the coal range where we can say good morning and he can keep an eye on us, and I can thank him.
Each day I said goodbye to my husband and walked to the University through that stunning campus to the College of Education. I would stop for a coffee at the student Union or the Polytech Hub, and write in longhand, listening and watching students in the wild. Back in Titan Street, Adrian swept up glass and picked up rubbish, to keep it tidy and full of pride and I think his example has worked on the students. He eventually found contract work and the writers’ room has been busy with the sound of a keyboard in full thrash as he delivers marketing strategy for the Otago Polytechnic.
The writers’ room has also been where we sit and drink wine, watch Netflix, entertain friends and read books. We have watched students stroll past from Fatty Alley (Great King Street) laden with takeaways. On one cold day a girl walked past wearing nothing but a towel, and on another a boy in a towel knocked on our door to ask if he could use a phone, locked out as he was from his flat.
From our cosy cottage base, we have explored Dunedin, Central Otago and Stewart Island. I have written and illustrated 2 children’s picture books (due for publication with Pukeko Pictures later this year) the first draft of a junior fiction novel and more than half of a YA Graphic novel (still a WIP).
I’ve visited schools, given lectures and been involved in the literary events of Dunedin. I buried a sketchbook in the cottage garden for 4 months to decay as part of my YA, unearthed it and it’s perfect for photographing. I dried it out on a plastic bag on the floor in front of the coal range.
Whilst it isn’t mandatory for a writer here, I got a tattoo, my first. It will feature in ‘the work.’
We have been cultural; we went to the Larnach Castle Ball as Charles Dickens and Miss Havisham from Great Expectations. I made a faded and tatty wedding dress complete with bustle on a borrowed dressmaker’s mannequin in the lounge. At one stage, wedding petticoats and a veil hung in the shed, dripping tea stain. I think this may be the only time in Robert Lord’s history a wedding dress has been made in the cottage.
We have been amused by the cottage, warmed by the cottage and sheltered by the cottage. I have learned to be economical with dishes and cooking in the tiny kitchen. I think of Robert and wonder if he was more of a wine and nibbles sort of chef. And in our final few days here, will be saddened to leave our temporary home. It has become quite a part of us. Or we of it.
I thought about all the photos I took when we arrived and how useful they might be to a new writer prior to arrival and realised that entire charm of No.3, is the unexpected. The joy of discovery; it’s the not knowing that makes this so good, so utterly special. Not knowing what you are coming to, the friends you’ll make and the work you will achieve… the ink you will get. Robert knows. What a good man.
I think I’ll keep the interior photos to myself 🙂
With so many thanks, forever
Fifi Colston (writer)
& Adrian Parkyn (sidekick)