During the drive from Dunedin to the Marlborough Sounds I wonder if I have sufficient food, wine, books, fortitude, to spend six solitary weeks writing at Waterfall Bay, a place I have only seen on Google Earth.
Late afternoon I reach the imposing wooden gates where the gravel road runs into a rutted track that hugs the glistening blue bay, tide on the turn. I am enchanted to catch glimpses of fuchsia, clematis and flax through a stand of beech.
Scotty is waiting to show me around the cottage where I will stay. I choose an upstairs bedroom with a view of the sea and bush-clad hills from a window I slide open and seldom close. Left alone, I unpack and settle in. To celebrate my arrival I prepare a whitebait supper and pour a glass of pinot noir.
A cloudy, soulful day. It brings to mind a large framed black and white photograph displayed in a room downstairs. Two children, eyes downcast, stand together. At first glance the boy seems intent on teaching the girl to hold a bow and arrow. But, when I look closer, I see vulnerability and aloneness, also loss. This compels me to put aside the short story I started yesterday. I work instead on my new novel, set in Naples and London in the 1950s, and tracing the disintegration of a couple with children similar in age to those in the photograph. Eerily this cottage is furnished in the style of that era. Words come faster than I can type.
Emerging from a writing frenzy, I go for a walk. Midway across a wooden bridge I recall last night’s full and resplendent moon. I had been upstairs reading Shirley Hazzard’s The Ancient Shore in which she describes her Neapolitan years when incandescent light glinting on the sea made me think for a moment that I was witnessing hundreds of fish fins dancing on the surface.
Scotty and three Woofers are here, mowing lawns and weeding. I stroll down to Onahau wharf and sit in the sunshine mulling over why I agreed to write an article about creative writing for an academic journal. The deadline is approaching. Lacking inspiration I walk to Mistletoe Bay and take the circular peninsular walk. While I’m on a ridge looking across to Waterfall Bay an idea for another short story arrives unbidden. I write down its bones as soon as I return to the cottage. Then I write the article.
Torrential rain keeps me indoors. I work on the novel. Late afternoon, I read passages from Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend about a childhood amongst the Camorra in Southern Italy. Towards midnight I watch an episode of the Sopranos on my laptop, a series I avoided back home because of the violent content. My altered stance intrigues me. Perhaps framing it as research has shifted the angle from which I look.
I am shaken awake at 5.30am by an earthquake, 4.7 according to Geonet accessed via my iPhone. The castors on the bed shunt me back and forth across the wooden floor. By the time I decide (calmly to my surprise) what to put in my daypack and whether to contact anyone, the jolting stops. I am no longer against the wall, but I am safe, and daylight is appearing.
For company I have four young goats, a flock of ducks, and a one-legged weka that cleans up the scraps I offer him from a tin of salmon I had on crackers for lunch.
My days have taken on a pleasing rhythm – wake, wash, eat, write, walk, think, eat, read, write again. Most evenings I listen to podcasts (sometimes music but usually BBC 4) and enjoy a glass of wine with dinner, mostly pasta or couscous or an omelette. Tonight it’s the latter. I forage for herbs to improve the flavour. To my delight I find a parsley patch amongst sweet-scented garlands of jasmine.
No dallying downstairs tonight. I’m eager to tumble into bed and read more of Pereira Maintains by Antonio Tabucchi, a novel that grips me for reasons I cannot yet identify.
Stars as big as jellyfish float in a navy sky.
There is no sound apart from the turning of pages.
Today the sea is the colour of leek soup. Yesterday it was mustard yellow. Rainclouds threaten. I chop kindling and light the fire. Shadows flicker, briefly forming a cross on the far wall.
I write for hours without stopping for anything but coffee.
Early evening I turn on the radio, wanting to catch the news, but the first two items are about badly behaved politicians, and I turn it off.
In the kitchen I heat last night’s leftovers on a plate on top of a pot of boiling water and mete out a Portuguese port for afters.
Day 28 (Sunday)
I am aboard the Nukutere with Scotty. There is a winemaker and an assistant chef with us too. I listen to a story about a woman with a large family who half a century ago lived in a nearby bay and regularly rowed a dingy to Picton for her groceries.
Winds a hundred and twenty kilometres an hour lash the bay, pull curtains of rain sideways, topple trees. Thunder rumbles in the distance. A winged creature soars back and forth in front of a pane of glass, a ghostly sight that causes me to stray from my usual genre and write a poem.
On the cusp of dusk power goes off at Waterfall Bay
I find a torch and from my topmost window
observe the wind’s bloated fury
dampening the glow on the lip of the sea
forcing the bush to open its moss-green mouth, and release
a feast for a bird of prey, a Harrier Hawk
twice displaying his buff underbelly through misted glass
as he wheels north along the ink-blue rim of night.
I spend the rest of the evening reading Neruda’s sea poems. Towards dawn I pick up Barbara Grizzuti Harrison’s Italian Days, and find a snippet to include in a particular scene in my novel.
Day 35 (Sunday)
Another adventure on the water, this time I’m aboard the Winsome II, a supply boat during the Second World War. We strike lumpy water in the Tory Channel but encounter calmer stretches at Endeavour Inlet and Resolution Bay. On the way back we trawl for scallops, filling a bucket and a chilly bin. The day ends with wine and nibbles on the deck at the cottage.
Day 42 (Sunday)
I spend part of my last afternoon on Lola, a classic Italian motorboat that started life on the Riviera. Coffee at Lochmara Lodge follows, and then drinks with new friends, and a fine dinner for four.
Postscript: Other than three Sundays on the water with company I have been alone in the wilderness. A little feral, really. But I have been productive: seven draft chapters of a new novel, three short stories, and a poem. A rich haul for my six-week residency.
These reflections were initially published in Landfall 227, Autumn 2014.