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Vita O’Brien

Eating at home

Reef Street: I’m sitting opposite my little sister Nova in our Dad’s new kitchen. It is cold, and everything looks grey – including the porridge Dad is making us because he doesn’t yet know we don’t like it. At least he already understands the value of brown sugar and cream.

In the hallway he has hung two framed pictures: one of his mother as a plump toddler, and the other of the Virgin Mary. Opposite these he has pinned up three of those odd, slightly too pink, plastic baby dolls. He was raised Catholic, but I don’t understand the point of the babies. An attempt to make the long and narrow hallway that runs the length of the apartment avant-garde?

His little black radio sits on the bookshelf that matches one on the other side of the suburb. It plays some classical music I don’t recognise while he runs the porridge pot under the tap, leaving it in the sink when he goes back to his bedroom. Nova has moved the porridge around in her bowl but hasn’t actually had any.

‘Just eat it,’ I hiss at her.

She glares back at me but takes a small mouthful and pulls a face. I do the same. I hate it as much as her, but I want Dad to think he’s done a good job, despite the chipped paint on the windowsills and gaps on the bookshelf where Mum’s books used to be.


Aranoni Street: I have eaten everything on my plate, but Nova has barely touched her spinach. Kranskys all gone but no veges. Mum is fuming. Or just desperate.

‘Why won’t you eat it? I know you do at your father’s!’

This is the way dinners go here. Mum cooks us something she knows Nova will mostly like and tries her best to hide the vegetables. But when she can’t hide them, it’s easy for the night to end in tears.

Our Sylvanians sit at the other end of the open living space, on top of a white window seat. I’ve been given a proper house recently for my birthday and it is heaven. Cream with a red brick roof. Two stories and the front swings fully open so you can look into and decorate each room. Nova and I have combined our pieces, so the house has her kitchen and lounge set and my bedrooms. When she later gets the conservatory add-on we have been lusting over for months, we add little magazines and outdoor furniture to the list.

I like the kitchen best. There is a fridge that you can put bottles of milk and fruit into and an oven with knobs that turn. We use Mum’s old Sylvanian frying pan with it. Most of my other favourite pieces are Mum’s old ones. The felt has rubbed off of those dolls from grubby, eager fingers.

In our shared room, I stick my Sylvanian club newsletters on my wall, read the stories they send me and keep my membership pin in my jewellery box next to the golden angel from my Granny. And back in the longue, our rabbits sit around their kitchen table – mother, father and two sisters. They talk about their day. Maybe this time it was an adventure on Mr Toad’s houseboat or a drama at the market, but they come home every night and eat dinner, felted faces smiling.


Woburn Road: The house is still when I get up to make us jam on toast. The kitchen here is small. Actually, the whole house is small. But the front is lined with blooming lavender bushes and for the three days a week that we aren’t here, it must not feel small at all.

Nova eats her toast still lying in her top bunk and I pull on my favourite purple dress, ripped tights and blue converse, with my own piece of toast hanging out of my mouth. Still, it’s an improvement from porridge. As I pack my bags for the next few days at Mum’s, Nova jumps down from her bunk and pulls on the same jeans and jumper combo she always wears.

See, we’re on this schedule, one we’ve been on for two years so far and will stick with for the next five to come, of moving between our parents’ separate homes, and lives, every three or so days. I guess Nova watched my bag lady routine and decided that wearing the same clothes would just be easier.

‘Come on, Noodle! I’m gonna be late!’

I say the same thing every morning. Every night, promise myself I’ll wake up a bit earlier but here we are again, running to catch the bus.

It pulls up to our stop as we arrive panting, and we’re greeted with the same smiling face of the number 23 driver. I wish I knew her name. We’ll be moving to a new house soon. Dad and Amelia are engaged, and I cried when they told me. I don’t know why. I get off at the Basin Reserve, and hug Nova goodbye as she makes her way from the back of the bus to the front. She’s only 10 and hates the last 20 minutes of the ride she has to take alone. I think Mum sent Dad a lot of angry emails over his decision to move us to a suburb an hour away from our schools. But the driver keeps her company. This little blonde girl perched on the very first seat of the bus, chatting away with this fat and smiling driver. When we do eventually move, Nova makes her chocolate chip cookies to say goodbye, and every time I catch a 23 bus, I keep an eye out for her smile.


Ashton Fitchett Drive: Rita gets up at 6.30am with the chickens. We slump downstairs a half-hour later to be fed a soft-boiled egg with homemade bread. Nova and I sit with her around the table in our pyjamas, fluffy dressing gowns and matching slippers. Mum potters in the kitchen, baking or making a pot of tea or coffee. The sun spills onto the wooden floor. Novels and records take up the shelves on the wall at the end of the table. Sometimes Mum puts on an album when we are upstairs doing homework and you can hear her dancing by herself.

Everything goes in the dishwasher and I feed the cats while Nova feeds the guinea pigs. Getting ready upstairs, I pat concealer over my spots and scars as Nova practices piano below me. She likes to play from memory and so my morning is full of the same jolting piece over and over as her fingers learn the movements.

‘Lounge’s free!’ she yells as she runs up the stairs to her room.

I look at myself in the mirror and tie my hair into a ponytail. When I pass by her room, she is standing in front of the mirror applying foundation. Now on moving days she packs as much, if not more, than I do. Right next to the mouldy sandwiches she has forgotten to get rid of at school.

Downstairs, in front of my electric-blue stand, I pull out my case and assemble the flute. It is solid, but I try to hold it like it’s floating. When you find the flow of a piece, holding it like that, playing becomes a kind of meditation. It is easy to forget about boys, homework and your family in pursuit of a non-breathy high C.


Baxter Way: We are home alone again, so I make us instant ramen. Nova leans against the counter and tells me about her day and how she is over the boy she has been in love with since Year Nine. I smile and nod and do not believe her.

When the noodles are cooked, we go downstairs to our basement bedroom and binge-watch Glee. I read recently, in some book, that basements always have a nostalgic feeling because that is where the things you no longer want in your life, but can’t yet bear to get rid of, go. When Dad suggested Nova move back to our Mum’s full-time after I left home, I wondered if we had fallen into that category for him, too.

Later that evening I wake up to Nova pacing our bedroom and shivering, not asleep but not awake either. Sometimes her night terrors are funny. Like the time she stood on her bed and told me she was dancing with Jesus on the moon (this was after her brief religious stage), but tonight it just makes me want to cry. Instead, I lead her back to her bed and quietly run upstairs to find her a glass of milk.


Bond Street: We must have first thought of the idea when we were drunk or high, but a few months later an event called ‘Bond on Bond’ is made on Facebook and the next Saturday I’m panicking about what dress to wear, a couple hours before people are set to arrive. In the end, I decide on the red dress and the black heels. Only for the heels to be quickly removed because there’s nothing better than dancing in a beautiful dress and bare feet.

In the original plan, we were going to dress up all fancy and have a feast and drink martinis. On the actual night, the only food I eat is a punnet of olives, oil dripping down my fingers as I yell over the music about how ‘damn good’ they taste.

I don’t eat in this house that often, usually having lunch somewhere in town and dinner at Ollie’s – doing the dishes afterwards to make up for the fact that I’m stealing his food. When I do though, it is midnight and I am making enough pasta to feed a family of four. I always intend to save half of it for later but eventually I find myself back in the kitchen, piling the leftovers onto my plate. Sometimes I shock myself by how easy I find it to just eat and eat.

But this night, we drink, and the boys wear suits and Paddy makes us cocktails and I dance with Nova and laugh with a handful of olives in my palm.


Baxter Way: ‘Nervous?’ Nova asks.

‘Yuh-huh.’ Hard not to be, I think.

It’s been months (an entire pregnancy and birth) since we last saw him face to face, but Dad is all smiles and bear-hugs when we meet him on Courtney Place. On the drive up to the house, we talk about school and university a bit but mostly sit in silence and it’s in that silence I remember how much I am like him after all.

The flowers in front of the gate are wild and spill over each other. Amelia stands in the doorway holding Bella and Jack pokes his head out from behind her legs. He’s an actual kid now, walking and talking, and later he takes selfies with Nova on my phone. Bella is chubby and happy. It’s hard to think of her as a sister yet.

I’m not sure the kitchen table has ever been in the same place in this house. It is, however, the one he’s always had. The one we ate porridge at.

Last time we ate here, it was in the orange room full of Amelia’s art, Dad’s figurines from India and other knick-knacks. Today it is back in the kitchen and we eat lunch. He has made koftas on a pile of couscous with dates and pomegranate seeds tossed through it. There’s my favourite dip – yogurt-based and mixed with chunks of melting eggplant and so much garlic that the taste hits the back of your throat the moment you open your mouth. It is delicious, and the kind of thing I’d only ever vaguely consider making before finding myself in the McDonalds across the street from my flat.

We don’t ‘cheers!’ our water glasses like we do at Mum’s because once, back at Reef Street, Dad told us that it was considered bad luck by the Romans. For dessert, there is some sort of lemon cake made by Amelia with whipped cream. I have a large slice with plenty of cream, Nova a sliver with none.


Ashton Fitchett Drive: ‘I haven’t purged in months’, she says, ‘And I just can’t wait to move out and for school to be done! I’m so over all the dra-ma.’

She keeps talking and I smile and nod and say, ‘Yeah, of course’, ‘It’ll be so great’ when needed, trying my best not to get stuck on that word. I am so angry at its existence, but I’m also proud of her. I know that to be able to say it out loud means that at least now she’s acknowledged it. That she knows it exists and that she’s facing it. I hadn’t done the same at 17.

Downstairs, we eat dinner and they laugh, and I wonder if I would be braver if I had been allowed the same chance at building rituals in one place. I remind myself she was asked to leave. Then I remind myself that I asked for years for a more logical life, even if it had to be somewhat separate. Disconnected from their routines together, ones that they have now had a few years of consistency to build, I find myself snapping at stupid things and making a fool of myself without meaning to. I am just so jealous.


Puketiro Avenue: Every Sunday we sleep in till 9am. Ollie has the first shower and I have the second. Standing under the water for that little bit longer. Knowing it doesn’t really matter when we leave. Ollie has made himself a coffee and is sitting chatting with Easton by the time I’ve dried off and changed. I join them at the kitchen table and write out the meals for the week – occasionally turning to Ollie to ask, ‘mac and cheese?’ or ‘flatbreads with pumpkin?’

‘Yeah, and we need more bread,’ or ‘milk’ or ‘coffee’, he’ll reply.

Once the list is done, ingredients sorted under market or supermarket, I put on my shoes as he warms up the car. Minutes later, I’ll join him downstairs, pushing the button for the door as I run through garage, ducking under just in time.

At the waterfront, we do our shopping and end up at the roti wrap stand that blares rap while an old Indian woman and two young men sweat and cook. We eat sitting behind the food trucks and talk about our plans for the day before heading back to the car and cruising the long way home. Winding around the coast, the sea glinting and the music up, to find ourselves back by eleven. Unpacking groceries and collapsing in a heap. Feeling like, at least we’ve done this today.

Later in the week I will stand in the kitchen alone and make a dough from scratch. Measure out the yeast into the warm water. Add the flour and salt. Add some oil. Stir together into a rough but combined form. Knead and knead and knead – it will feel sticky and flaky and then suddenly, smooth and slick. Let the dough sit, coated lightly in oil, in the sun under a tea towel for two hours. While I wait, I read or write or message Nova and at some point, Ollie gets home from work. He sits at the kitchen table talking with me as I divide the risen dough into six lemon-shaped balls and roll them out while heating the frying pan. When it begins to smoke, I throw in the first flatbread. Let it puff out and bubble and then flip. Serve with roasted pumpkin and a spinach salad. Smile across the table and eat.

Vita O’Brien is trying to be a writer in the hills of Wellington. Her work has previously been published by Headland and Turbine|Kapohau.