A man I met at a conference in Wellington invited me for lunch. He was keen on me meeting his wife, who had just won the New Zealand Book Award for fiction. When I arrived at their house, she seemed not fully awake, though it was nearly noon. Lunch was spread out on a long coffee table: some sliced sausage, various cheeses, brown bread, and a bowl of pistachios.
“Do sit down,” he said, gesturing toward the couch. Then he poured some New Zealand brut for the three of us, though his wife didn’t seem at all interested, or perhaps drinking good brut at the start of her day was routine. I wondered if the rumor I had heard was true, that she had grown tired of him and taken younger lovers. She wasn’t young looking, though she could pass for fifty instead of sixty. Her shoulder-length, loosely curled hair was an unflattering gray-brown mix, as if she had tried browning her gray hair but then thought better of it. We raised our glasses.
“That’s my cottage,” she announced, getting up from her chair to look out a window. “Are you sure it’s going to be painted next week?” she asked him.
“Yes, yes. I assure you, my dear,” he said.
“Some people think we have a curious arrangement, but we like it,” she said, returning to her chair.
He smiled tolerantly, even jovially, as if he found her amusing.
“There are my strange sleeping habits,” she said.
“She has terrible insomnia. She’s up and down all night,” he said, coming around to sit on the couch next to me.
“We tried living together. I don’t know how people do it. It was impossible,” she said.
“We have a lovely old house, don’t you think?” he said, turning to me. “It’s historic.”
Before I could reply, she said, “It’s his house. The layout is odd.”
“It’s charming,” he said. “With wood paneling and a fireplace.”
“The main room is dark, too dark,” she said.
“There is some good light.”
“It is nice to look at but not a good place to live in. And you were always putting your things in my space,” she said.
“Please have something to eat,” he said to me, as if suddenly remembering that I was there.
“I’d find your computer on my desk,” she said.
“But only when you went away,” he said.
I ate some brown bread and cheese. Then I turned toward her to try to talk about her writing, which was the reason I was invited, though perhaps he hadn’t told her. “I’m sorry I didn’t have time this morning to pick up one of your books,” I said.
He went to a bookshelf and returned with her latest novel.
“Please let me pay for it,” I said.
“No, consider it a gift,” he said, handing his wife the book to sign. “What’s the date?” she asked, looking straight ahead, as if maybe if she peered into space long enough it would come to her.
“Your birthday’s Monday,” he said.
“My birthday is not Monday. It’s more than a week away.”
“Really? Are you sure?”
“Today’s the 27th,” I said, trying to be helpful. “I can’t wait to read your book. And congratulations on your award.”
“My sister’s coming to visit,” she said, touching my arm to get my attention. “My sister’s a writer, too. Her work is all about genealogy. I think, oh here’s a letter from Fern and I open it and it’s full of genealogical charts!”
“Would you like a tour of the upstairs?” he asked with a sudden burst of energy. “I’m rather proud of my renovations.” We walked up the stairs to a lofty space: a huge room with wonderful light and good views of Wellington and the harbor beyond and a deck that looked out to a garden below. “Why this is lovely,” I said, which pleased him.
“I originally built this room for her to write in,” he said.
“He can’t see me when I’m sitting out back. The hedge hides me,” she said, looking at her cottage.
We stepped out on the deck and he pointed to a room below in the back of the house. “That’s my sleeping space.”
“My sister is going to stay here during her visit,” she said. “It’s our mother she’s coming to see. She lives there,” she pointed to a house next door.
“Yes, we’ve a whole clan here. I’m surrounded,” he said, making it sound like great fun.
“Dear, would you be so kind as to make some coffee?” he asked her when we were seated downstairs again.
“I don’t even know where the coffee is,” she said.
“I’ll show you,” he said, getting up. She followed him into the kitchen. Then he sat down again in the living room.
I ate another piece of cheese and some pistachios.
Soon she returned with three cups of coffee on a tray that she placed on the table next to the lunch.
“Well, thank you, dear,” he said with a slight smile that made me wonder if he felt he scored a point toward we-ness, as in “We have a lovely old house.” And maybe there was a slight undertone of “I’ll show her…”
I took a few sips of coffee, then put down my cup and rose to go. He walked me to the door and, with the same generous smile he used to greet me, thanked me for coming. I smiled and shook his hand, then headed down the hill, her book under my arm.
When I looked back at the house, I saw her standing in the window gazing at her cottage.