I woke at my usual time this morning, on day eleven of lockdown, and remembered instantly that I’d gained another hour, for daylight saving has ended and tonight we will be pitched into darkness early. And so begins the long trek into autumn, the season of nostalgia with its falling leaves and low raking tawny light, its last flush of tender roses and then the move into winter with its leaden skies followed by months of rain, often torrential, that define the spring in Auckland until we’re out the other side. Aue. But for today the sun is warm, the sky down to the horizon a delicate shade of pale blue and forming a backdrop to the island in the distance, plus an outline of another island behind, small shapes, with crinkled outlines in hazy blocks of mauve and lilac. From the window where I sit sipping tea and gazing out, the sea vista is contained in a small v framed by loose groupings of trees - poplars, eucalypts, a Norfolk pine and one jacaranda. The sea at this hour is a surprising shade of deep jade.
The reading sessions with my niece, Isla continue every two days. We’re hooked into the story now. I am constantly delighted by the brilliance of the writing, every sentence a pleasure to read. I‘m noticing how reading promotes learning. Frequently there is a pause to consider, what was a beehive hairstyle? Let’s look on google images. And what is the legend of the abominable snowman? At this latest session Isla, on the screen, raised her hand like a stop sign. ‘What does scowling mean?’ Such good vocabulary too. The book title again is ‘Lenny’s Book of Everything,’ by Australian author Karen Foxlee. Lenny, short for Lenore lives with her mother and brother Davey, who has a growth disorder - he’s growing at an alarming rate - in Ohio. The book of everything refers to a ‘Build-it-at-home Encylopedia’ that arrives weekly in the post. Punctuating the story are accounts of the latest issue with descriptions of Lenny’s favourite entries. For our next instalment it will be the Bs ‘bacteria, badgers, baobab trees and birds’ with an account of the glorious colour-plates.
These sessions with Isla also provide an opportunity to discuss her life in lockdown. When we were deciding on the time of day to meet, 11.30am, we discussed her morning routine. She told me, grinning, that she sleeps in, and then she stays in bed reading sometimes until 10am, or even later. Then she makes her own breakfast. The other morning she made banana pikelets! Yummy. Another day she made ginger crunch for the family. She’s only nine years old. And yet this is how it was for her mother and me too and our cousins. Growing up we were given lots of chores and responsibilities. It was a given in a farming district and learning how to bake started early although I’m not sure I was as young as nine. Ten, or eleven maybe. Baking day was such a process. Filling the cake tins to ensure a constant supply of cakes and slices and biscuits for ‘the men’ on their morning and afternoon tea breaks. My sister, Jen Margaret has our mother‘s and our grandmother’s recipe books. Wouldn’t they smile from their graves to see Jen and Isla reviving the recipes.
On the topic of lockdown Isla was initially reserved. And then with some coaxing she said, ‘I thought 2020, because of its special number, would be the year of festivals.’ She paused, her face sad, ‘But it’s the exact opposite.’ Then she mentioned the cancellation of the Weetbix triathlon, shortly before the country went into lockdown. She’d competed last year and this January and February had been training hard. She was really, really looking forward to it and was disconsolate when it was called off. ‘Some children got to do their Weetbix triathlon,’ she said. They’d got in just in time. ‘It isn’t fair, is it.’ No, she said. ‘It will come again Isla and you’ll be ready for it when it does.’ I asked her then, whether in the time of lockdown, she’d done anything new. And yes she had. She’d been breaking concrete with her dad, helping him refashion the steps up to their front door. It’s a big job. They live on a steep Wellington hill. I’m trying to picture this willowy child wielding a big hammer.
In the last minute of our time on Skype I posed a question, ‘Thinking over the last two days, since our last session, how would you describe lockdown in three or four words? She screwed up her face, thinking. It’s a challenge for everyone, I think, but more so for a sensitive child to reach inside to find out what she is really thinking and feeling. She said slowly, ‘I - don’t - know. That’s three words,’ and laughed. ’Oh but what else, Isla?’ She thought for a second. ‘I know,’ she said. ‘VERY, VERY WEIRD.’