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Image: Getty Images, additional design by Archi Banal
Image: Getty Images, additional design by Archi Banal

SocietyJanuary 16, 2022

On turning 73

Image: Getty Images, additional design by Archi Banal
Image: Getty Images, additional design by Archi Banal

A birthday in Wellington, on a good day.

I turn 73. This is ridiculous. When my mother was 73 she put biscuits in the toaster and coleslaw in the freezer and when I said “You can’t do that”, she said, “Why not?”

Wellington on a good day is such a cliché, cringe-making in its self-deprecation. But it’s the most beautiful day. It feels like the south of France. At 73 we’re into nursery tea. Our local kids and grandkids who were going to join us might have Covid, who knows, and are staying at home so at 5ish we drive down to the waterfront and park the car on Jervois Quay and type in the number that is on the little plaque by our car. I touch the machine with my credit card and it asks us if we want a written receipt and trustingly I press no, and we marvel yet again: what would our parents have thought of this? 

We’re off to Crab Shack. You can take dogs if you sit outside. I’m not so interested in food lately but the one thing that gets me salivating is fish. And Crab Shack’s is so fresh.  We usually get their fish taco at lunchtime but in spite of the hour, this is dinner, so we think we’ll share what they, with heavy-handed cuteness, call their fush and chups. We’re a beer and a pinot gris. We are elderly Wellington, with a dog, on an outing on a good day. It is so warm that we can sit outside, our dog flattening himself into a dog-fur rug at our feet, peering out from under his fringe with damaged suspicion.

How many types of people are there? I like that in Wellington, types are expanding. Once there’d have been five or 10, now there are 15, 20? I see Peter Wells, who I knew, and Raybon Kan, who I don’t, but these versions are a few decades younger. The numbers on our fresh vax passes show we were born in the depths of last century. Some rage against their details being so visible but that day I’ve had lunch with a friend and as I pass over my card, the young woman scanning it says “Happy birthday, Linda!” I feel a brief flash of amazement, how did she…? It’s no more genuine than Facebook‘s greetings, but still.

Young Wellington, in their corporate clothes, and studied hairstyles, their loud conversations, their tattoos and their casual acceptance of their body shapes, their glossy good-naturedness, are pouring past. Two helicopters land. Their job is to rescue you or to take you for a spin around the harbour. Even on a good day Wellington doesn’t lend itself to private helicopters.

When my father was 73, Mum, who was eight years younger, filled the fridge with food and flew down to us in Palmerston North for a short break. Mum said the doctor had told her in private that Dad was “a tired old man with a tired old heart”. She’d had to take over wheeling the bin to the curb.  Dad roused himself from his seat in front of the cricket on television and dragged himself the kilometre to the Bayswater shops to buy himself some cigarettes. It was two years since he’d last had one. He didn’t bother too much with the food she’d left; he’d always said he could live on bread and cheese.

Badger, our löwchen, little lion in German, was groomed on my birthday morning. We have allowed his bounteous fur to matt. We’ve had to admit this to his groomer. She tells us this is because we cuddle him – more specifically the way we cuddle him. Rub tickle rub. Just stroke, she says. We’ve tried to comb it out, but ineptly. I’m reminded of the pain each morning when my mother combed out the sleep-knot that formed on the back of my fine hair. If we were dogs we’d prostrate ourselves at her feet; if we lose our groomer it could be years before we find another. All those Covid puppies. The names of possibly available groomers are murmured at dog parks, more valuable than bitcoin. After two hours of being combed, shaved and clipped and having his remaining fur rearranged by hairdryer into a comb-over, he’s been picked up trembling, suffering from PTSD.  When we arrive at the groomers he stands in a harness on a table, a public-school Tory in the thrall of a dominatrix. In recovery, he lies between us on the warm ground outside Crab Shack, and he has no idea how he looks. He’s used to being cute. Now not only parts of his legs and his chest have been shaved but also his bottom, a piece under his ear, as if he’s a five-year-old with headlice, nits. Lying under our table he barks hopefully at the people who settle near to us, and I say, he only wants you to say hello. Hello, they say, as if we are nuts, and we might well be. They look at his bald bottom and back legs, his guileless face, and laugh. But affectionately; everyone likes a shaggy dog.

One of them says to another, “They’ll miss you at Treasury,” and they all roar. 

A couple of decades ago when I first started writing books, a woman from an impressive literary agency in London wrote to me saying she wanted to represent me. Someone had sent her my first novel Between Friends. She thought I could do well in England, writing as I did back then about midlife. The provincial university town I set my novel in, she said, could be any such town in the UK, in the US. I was, she said, like Anne Tyler and Fay Weldon. Fourth Estate, she said, were interested. Dear India, she wrote, just a typo, and I thought how different my life could’ve been if I had the sort of parents who’d named me India, rather than the second-most popular – pipped at the post by Susan – girl’s name the year I was born. My father, slightly uncomfortable with the transient fashionableness of my name, told me I could always use my second name, Elizabeth, which he’d chosen. I briefly considered trying it the year I went to university. I wanted to be Libby back then. But it would never have been me.   

Our mothers, who loved popular names, though Robert’s mother had been more traditional in her choice, had a handful of repeated recipes. It’s always been me who cooks, there’s a useful myth that I’m good at it and like doing it. With the world’s food to choose from, I range through the possibilities and they are endless. Endless is too hard, when all I want is a piece of fish. Which is why we’ve gone out. Today’s fish when it comes in its delectable batter is, they say slightly cautiously, hoki. Just like I used to think all potatoes were just potatoes, I used to think that fish was just fish. Unlike blue cod, gurnard, tarakihi, snapper and John Dory, hoki is meaty. So, in spite of the batter, it’s marginally disappointing. The chips are such good chips. The chips are perfect. I’m guessing agria. Not nadine, that’s for sure. Now that’s a name that wasn’t round much mid-century. 

There’s a dalmatian who lives on the boat that, when there used to be tourists, went out on harbour trips. Like the Bernese mountain dog who lived at the Freyberg pool and rambled along Oriental Parade, the dalmatian is a Wellington icon. He strides past. He’s off lead and he’s looking for his person and he’s edgy.  Badger reaches up to give him a needy kiss but the dalmatian has seen who he’s looking for and is off before Badger has even a second to sniff the real prize, his bottom. Badger slumps again at our feet and we drain our beer and our wine and say no thanks to anything else and it’s still not even tea time.

Robert goes in to pay and I’m still listening to the next table and I quickly type a note to myself on my phone. Days later I read it. I’ve written:  “A shame about a few of the oldies (Luxon’s takeover) – who even said it?” What on earth could I have meant? What had I overheard?  How can I not know my own shorthand? 

Three days later, our Covid-free local family say come on, and with their dog and ours safely left in their own homes, they take us back to Crab Shack and the miracle is they’re old enough to pay for us. And this time it’s snapper. But meanwhile, it’s still my birthday. We get in the car and drive home with Badger curled in the back, eyes resting balefully on his paws, with one shaven knot-free knee, and one still fluffy. Brush every day, we remind ourselves. Every day. 

Every second car on the way to Kelburn’s an aggressive SUV. It’s my birthday. I’m 73. I can’t help but notice.

Keep going!