Concerning Nell: the concrete house

The family lived in a tiny cottage nearby while the house was built.

Our grandparents built one of the earliest concrete houses, in the late 1920s. I shudder with cold to think of those dense walls deep-chilled by the Maniototo frost. Here it looks about half done.

As I write this, two (or is it three? they’re ubiquitous) electricians are going from room to room opening plug outlets and light fittings in order to replace the old wiring in our 1915 cottage. To avoid their ever-changing workspace, I likewise go room to room, with the laptop. Doing my best in spite of disruption. I can’t imagine the long disruption of building a whole house. I wrote a scene in Nell from the planning stage:

‘We can make of it what we will,’ Herb tells her. ‘It’s only lines on paper. Look, I’ll spread the plan out. Pencil.’ He waves one at her. ‘Make your adjustments.’ He takes three strides into the centre of the concrete slab and unrolls the plan, pegging it with his glasses case and, after casting fruitlessly around, his hat.

            Nell stands frozen on the edge of the slab. She eyes the car where baby Adam is, thinks of its warm, leathery fug, out of this cutting wind. … Herb wants her to walk about her new home, to envisage their future family eating, washing, playing and bedded down a few inches above this square of concrete. And when she has decided – or agreed, and agreement is what he actually wants because changing the plans will cost precious money – on the layout of its rooms, slab will be added to slab and their concrete house will rise on the rabbity expanse of paddock surrounding it.

            Her breasts are hard: Adam has been asleep for almost three hours and at the thought of him they tighten further and out the milk spurts, filling the folded handkerchiefs in her brassiere.


            Nell pulls her cardigan close and presses with her forearms. He’s not awake yet; she’d hear him wailing through the open car window. So, she goes over and uncurls the bottom of the plan with the tips of her shoes.  Elbows to knees, she bends close. She sees at once that the kitchen is too small, and why must the laundry’s only door be to the outside? She draws another into the adjoining hallway. Her pencil seizes a yard and a half of the generous living room for the kitchen. It enlarges windows to the north and west. Her nose drips in the cold and her finger, on wiping the drop, opens a kitchen wall. Why not? She draws in a door (sliding, she writes) and adds a small square onto the large square of the house: a walk-in safe and pantry. Nell arrows the coal range toward an interior wall and adds another kitchen window. She’ll tolerate the lavatory being far closer to the children’s rooms than to her and Herb’s, but she pushes out the corner bathroom’s walls so that the bath can stand free, so that there’s room for a table, a towel rack, a cupboard and children.

            Herb has been pacing out garden fencing and gates. He comes and sketches onto the plan, then peruses Nell’s markings.

            ‘Pricey,’ he says, ‘especially these.’ His forefingers press on the pantry, the enlarged bathroom. ‘They’ll need further foundation.’

            A thin wail comes from the car, then the full bellow.

            ‘If you want me living here,’ Nell’s glance takes in the trampled ground, bulky clouds hiding the hills, her hands chafed and white with cold, ‘these are not for negotiation. Nor the larger kitchen. Nor light from the north.’