The clever Ms Koea
On a back section, down a driveway in Bayswater on Auckland’s North Shore, sits a bijou box disguised as an ordinary house. Peek inside and you’ll spy its many and various treasures which include a piano with secrets, a chair so famous it’s in a book and so many dazzling tapestry cushions the interior resembles a gypsy boudoir.
Also sequestered here are two cats, Mr Grey and Maisky, lounging on mini electric blankets, and an owner who looks like a gypsy. But novelist Shonagh Koea is more than just an owner. She is both the curator and creator of this bijou box where she crafts her words as well as her world.
What the clever Ms Koea can do with a square of pretty material is remarkable. She might have it photo-copied to cover a book or use it as wrapping paper or a shower curtain. Other embroidered swatches have second lives as cushion covers, throws or bedspreads or are pinned onto her sofa, covering patches of wear and tear. This writer is a gifted recycler.
Shonagh says nonsense. Really, she’s not so very skilled; she sews only square things – bags, pillows, cushions, coat linings and the like. But her face lights up when she brings out her box of toile scraps and talks about how she found them and where they might end up: “Oh, I’m very good at entertaining myself.”
For a start, every day she does her practice on “the piano with secrets” – so-called because the 1870 burr walnut boudoir grand once lived in a house where a tragic shooting took place. The crime was never fully solved, but Shonagh thinks the piano knows what happened.
She also likes to do a spot of laundry in a proper laundry with baskets and wooden pegs that require washing twice a year. Plastic pegs are much more practical, she agrees, but not nearly as nice. In fact, a great many things could be more practical in Ms Koea’s house but then they wouldn’t be as nice.
For instance she could have just one working clock instead of two old ones she’s spent a fortune restoring. She could get rid of some of the many treasures she trips over and hits her head on (the Chinese lanterns in the kitchen come to mind) but then her house would not be as nice.
The same goes for the colonial chair in black tapestry. She could have sold it to William Cottrell, the restorer who so dearly coveted the chair when she brought it to him covered in tatty padded fabric. Surely the money would have been nice? But Shonagh refused to sell, so Cottrell got to work restoring and rebuilding. He could tell from the Australian cedar legs that the chair must date back to the 1840s.
Fortunately she’d bought the chair for very little because several thousand dollars changed hands before it came home again. The chair now features in William Cottrell’s book Furniture of the New Zealand Colonial Era: 1830-1900, as do two of her three William Sanders chairs. No doubt her Georgian Pembroke table and Chippendale chairs are feeling left out. They’re also out of fashion, adds Shonagh.
She does not buy reproductions. Why? “It’s a waste of money,” she says, scandalised at the very thought.
“A reproduction won’t hold its value. A long time ago when I was young and first married, I couldn’t understand housework because you had to do it all again the next day. I got the idea that it was a total waste of time unless you were looking after things that were of intrinsic worth.”
She dusts in between other tasks, such as waiting for dinner to cook or during the television ads. And she’s a skilled stacker, something which makes a house with a lot of things look almost tidy. She likes books but rarely buys them. “Why would I? I write them.”
She likes reading interior decorating books and magazines and wouldn’t have minded being an interior decorator, but only if she could do every decorating scheme her way. She’s also rather adept at writing about decor and clothing, as any readers of her novels will know.
“Oh yes,” she agrees. “I would sometimes use some of my own clothing for those descriptions, but I don’t do that any more. For instance, I used to have these beautiful little blue grosgrain beribboned espadrilles. I had someone in a novel with them on. Once, when I was out and wearing the espadrilles myself, I heard someone say, ‘See, it’s all true. She’s wearing the shoes.’
‘“The descriptions of interiors in my books often have horrible significance in terms of the story. And often what the characters are wearing has significance in regard to what horrors they are dealing with.”
She doesn’t like parties but, when she’s in the mood for one, she goes to an auction at John Cordy Ltd and buys a few bits and pieces. She got a fur coat with Persian lamb trim for $10 the other day and, if it doesn’t scrub up as a coat, it will make a very nice throw. Occasionally she will offer up some of her own valuables for sale as a way of clearing her house. Actually, she’s really only partially clearing out the house, since she uses the money from these several things to buy one good thing.
Just like her house, her garden is small and packed with treasures, mainly clivias and bromeliads planted around trees, including a Kermadec pohutukawa. Together, house and garden make up a pleasing, vibrant, idiosyncratic world.
Shonagh says she’s moved many times but hopes this is her final home. She can’t imagine packing up everything again. We stand in the middle of the lounge together and take in the dazzling array of colours, fabrics and furniture and, frankly, I can only agree.
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Story: Yvonne van Dongen
Photographs: Jane Ussher