On my first afternoon in the Butterfly House, I take my customary let’s-scope-this-place-out walk. I head down the hill towards the foreshore and find myself passing signature bayside boathouses. It’s school holidays. There are kids and dogs at the water’s edge. I ignore the kids and try to connect with the dogs. I’m already missing mine, and it’s only day one of what is to be a fortnight’s retreat. As I make my way back towards the hill, I pass an area of beach that has been cordoned off. Apparently a big old seal has been resting here these past couple of weeks, so the local beachwatch squad has made sure she can rest undisturbed.
There’s no sign of her today; just a square of sand, reserved for her use. A patch to park herself on, should she need to do so, as she recovers and gets ready to do whatever it is that seals do in springtime.
I feel like that big old seal. The Butterfly House is to be my sanctuary, my square of sand, and it’s mine, all mine, for two whole weeks and no one else may venture near while I’m within. I do not need to attend to another creature’s needs – no dog’s, no human’s – only my own. I cannot begin to describe what luxury this is.
(Of course, this is not entirely true. I am not truly alone. In the corner over there near the iconic 1950s fruit bowl is a far from complete draft of my dissertation. I won’t go so far as to say it’s glowering at me, but let’s just say that it is emitting a low and menacing pulse, there, beside my oranges and apples and bananas. The thing is alive, and if there is anything within coo-ee that needs feeding, that’s it.)
I ignore it. I concentrate on settling, nesting, soothing myself towards that strange state of angst-free aloneness I will need to inhabit, if I’m to do any meaningful work. This means cooking, walking, waiting. The first few days are all about this. About finding daily rhythms. About comforting myself with complicated meals served on fabulous plates. About growing accustomed to the sounds of the house, to the early morning birdsong, to the thump of wind and rain against the windows in the night. It’s a wild week on the weather front.
By day four I’ve made beelines, inside and out. There’s a shorter local circuit I do that spares me the ^&%# hill, and takes me past wild freesias and houses with lifebuoys on their brick veneers, and names like NODRAMA – this is an anagram – and DIDYABRINGYAGROGALONG.
No drama, indeed. By day six I’m on cheery wave terms with the neighbours and first name terms with Mimi, a local Border Terrier who looks like my dogs. I’ve spotted a waratah in full bloom around the corner. As a native New South Welshwoman, this floral oddity makes me feel more at home.
And now that I’m feeling more at home, the work is less frightening. I don’t need to circle it, or prod it with a big stick. I can invite it to sit with me at the kitchen table. When the words won’t come I stare out across the bay, and watch the ships, their patchwork containers piled high. I walk and walk; buy avocados for two dollars – it’s an honour system – from someone’s front yard; see young couples on newly-purchased blocks of land, scoping out the build; pass an amiable gent in his jocks, working away in his carport with an angle grinder. ‘My jeans are in the wash!’ I meet more dogs and learn their names.
Days pass. I keep odder and odder hours. Mealtimes mean nothing. I sleep in bursts. On Friday, for the public holiday, there’s sunshine at last. I tramp the shallows again and see that old seal afloat on her back, flippers rampant. My work is humming now. I want to give it my all, but I’m distracted by good weather and the football. What choice do I have, with the Doggies in the grand final? When the big day rolls around I cook a BBQ for one, pour a respectable glass of red wine, and Skype home for the fourth quarter. By game’s end I’m weeping and whooping in the Butterfly House.
Four days to go. The last bit is a blur. There’s only the work, and an occasional walk for fresh air. Putting this PhD together has been like doing a new kind of puzzle, but I’ve cracked it now, I know what goes where. There are still holes, but the structure, I think, is sound, like this house, and besides, there’s a deadline looming. With a day to spare, I declare the draft done, and take myself down the hill for a glass of local sparkling and a plate of prawns.
Back at ‘Larrakeyeah’, the iconic fruit bowl is almost empty. I’ll have the last apple with cheese for supper, and the orange in the morning. There’s an Officeworks in Mornington where I’ll print the beast off tomorrow, and feel its weight. That will be a moment to savour. Then it will be time to load the car with my books and papers, and pack away the ‘hobo’ trousers and flannelette shirts I like to wear when I’m working hard. I buy fresh fish from the old guy at the local servo for a celebratory meal, then motor home to Melbourne, to my partner and our two brown dogs.
Two weeks of work in The Butterfly House equals about two months work anywhere else. It’s a lepidopterarium, but for writers, and it does magical things to time. Thank you, RMIT non/fictionLab for the gift of this residency. Peta Murray, October 2016