Pools of Belonging in the Middle of Solitude
Kathy started the morning by telling me about her ferrets. There were 4 of them, and if you ask me, that is 4 times more than the acceptable number of ferrets — and one night they went missing. Usually, they slept in a cage outside Kathy and Ray’s country home, a cage Ray built himself.
“They can be really affectionate,” my Air BnB host was telling me, while beaming solicitously, but I inwardly nursed doubts. I was later to find out that ferrets have been bred in captivity for good temperament over the centuries, and that they are in fact, not rodents.
Bella sat below the leather lounge chair, the kind that you buy in your retirement so you prop your legs up at will and on weekdays, as Kathy continued. I imagine Bella had listened to the story multiple times, so she kept coming in and out of her nap with inebriated blinks, as good-natured English Cream Golden Retrievers usually do.
The ferrets somehow managed to free themselves, and dispersed like a band of prisoners who’d escaped down the chute together, but had their individual plans to keep.They mostly proceeded to do placid things with their freedom, exploring cupboards, sofas or Ray’s underwear drawer. But one of them, Stella I think her name was, wanted more from her life.
She sneaked around the backyard, made her way over to the neighbours’ home, and slithered inside Mrs McGregor’s bed clothes, giving her the midnight fright of her life. Luckily Mr McGregor, just back from his nightly tinkle, kept his calm. He recognized Stella from Kathy’s Facebook album, fed her a midnight snack, and took her back home wrapped in Mrs McGregor’s shawl.
Kathy was now nostalgic. Ray who had been outside free-ranging his chickens, joined us — a large work hat on his head, beads of sweat trickling down his face and a grandfatherly smile when he recognized the story. Sid wandered groggily out of our room, like a toddler awakened from his afternoon nap, and partook in Stella’s adventure like it was an episode of Road Runner and a glass of cold chocolate milk.
We found ourselves leaning in towards Kathy, now buttering a croissant for Ray, rapt with attention for the ferrets. I also looked through pictures of Stella, asking if she went on to having any babies, imagining what scoundrels they’d be if she did.
When we reached Troy’s country home, he was in a beekeeper’s hat, smiling through the sun and waving us in. We were meeting him for the first time, having been invited to his home by our friend James who was helping us get settled into Perth.
Troy had moved into this home just 18 months ago, and the property that he’d bought in ruins, was now a flourishing orchard — a Victorian bird bath, small colonies of gnomes, a vegetable patch, fruit vines and a communal table suited for outdoor feasts.
Quick to make us feel at ease, he took us on a tour. He easily shared with new guests the intimate details of his framed photographs and his home, like with old friends reuniting after college.
Inside a large oak-wood cupboard that belonged to his mother, was a black & white portrait of his grandmother, bonny-cheeked and smiling; newly wed. Next to it, were a cluster of photographs of her life, all trimmed in heirloom frames. In a small enamel bowl, there were a few assorted broaches and tie pins, one of which his grandfather had won for being the best dancer at a ball. It was teal, and had dancing figurines engraved in brass, and was still in its box, pinned to a small velvet cushion.
On the counter in his kitchen, where Troy enjoyed cooking meals using garden bounty, there was a picture of his mother.
“We lost her a couple of years back,” Troy said.
He showed us the piece of land where he was going to build a granny flat for his dad. For now, it was harbouring the boat his dad built him. 73, he was currently travelling through Queensland in his Motor Home, trailing his refurbished Morris in a Hitch-and-Go at the back.
“He’s never in one place, he loves to explore,”
We inspected the pumpkins that were ripening ajar on the ground. We bent sideways and looked for blooming tomatoes, and coveted all the flirtatious figs. Later that afternoon,we all ate a meal of penne that was luxuriating in vine-ripened tomato sauce, garden salad and a crusty garlic bread.
We shared life stories, and travel plans.We spoke about how the absence of the internet made us all notice the backyard bird. Troy said it was a Grey Fantail, and it was here for a drink and dunk in the bird bath. He brought out his DVD collection, and we spoke about movies from the 80’s.We looked through his video tape collection and reminisced together of a simpler time.
Hours later, we left for home both spent and recharged, with enormous cucumbers and a couple of crooked capsicums as souvenirs.
We had Monica and Mateo over for dinner one Sunday in the fall. They were to come along with their 3 year-old Liam, who I call Gingy owing to his love of gingerbread man cookies. We were having guests over for dinner after a long time, so I made it a point to buy flowers from the pretty Korean girl who never looks up from her phone. I laid out magazines, cooked red beans in tomatoes, and stir-fried cauliflower with carom seeds, turmeric and onion.
I left the peas pulav to be made in a live kitchen once my guests arrived. I hoped they’d be wowed in the same way I was wowed weeks back, when Monica made me gnocchi in cream and salmon.
It payed off — when I opened my humble spice cabinet to make the pulav, Monica and Liam came to it like a tarot card reader to a crystal ball. Pouches of cloves were examined and barks of cinnamon were caressed; bay leaves were sniffed like they were wine glasses. To add a flourish, I opened the round stainless steel masala dabba that’s a staple in Indian homes, the one that my mum had packed first when I left. The little bowls of turmeric, chili powder, coriander seeds and fenugreek seeds kept their promise, and my tiny audience sufficiently was chuffed.
While my peas pulav cooked on a slow flame, I proceeded to finish my beer, chatting with Monica, who was presently hot for my marble mortar & pestle. I think it had been a month or thereabouts since I’d had my last beer, and it was treating me like Paris had treated Hemingway.
We were talking about Indian sweets at this point, and Mateo was telling Sid about how in Italy, everyone plays football. I thought of Indian gallis and the little boys in school uniform shorts, hitting sixers with make-shift bats.
Monica was trying to explain to me which Indian sweet she liked best.
“You know the white one that they make in butter,” she said in her beautiful Italian accent.
I was washing a ladle for the curry, a little tipsy. Before I knew it, I was saying butter just like she did.
“Oh with buddur,” I said, a rosy buzz in my head, “I know that one.”
Sid looked up from his conversation, one eyebrow higher than where it usually sits on his face. I locked eyes for a second, then looked away, unfazed. If I pulled back right now, it would dim my glory.
The rest of the evening was spent eating off the kitchen counter, scooping up obscene amounts of beans and vegetables, and occasionally copying each other’s accents.