Something new

We are each having something new, for spring. As a result, things are shifting and changing around here. The cushions from the kitchen chairs disappeared for a while, then reappeared, clad in new covers. New cottons are unfolded from brown paper packages, and draped over tables and the back of the settee and around Fliss, in front of the mirror after school. She appears in the kitchen while I am peeling potatoes, awkwardly clutching a little pattern of blue spring flowers to her front. May I have this one, Mummy? Once supper is over we sit together at the cleared table, and she describes the type of dress she would like: the collar, the hemline, what sort of sleeves are ‘in’. I make a little sketch and label it, to be sure I know just what she means. I will tweak the waist a little, to flatter her long legs, and set the collar slightly higher so as to frame her face, but otherwise it is a lovely design, and simple enough to make. Then we put it aside and she distracts herself with a book or six during the long wait until it is ready.

The vanishing cushion covers will be a dress for Ilse, and a new shirt for Seb. That fabric, four co-ordinating patterns, was too lovely to cut into last spring. I had ordered it to make things for the children, but cut down some of John’s worn shirts instead, so that by the time it arrived it wasn’t needed. Spread on the kitchen table, fresh from its wrappings, it sang against the apple green cupboard. Fabric isn’t meant to languish in a pile for a year, waiting to be wanted. Instead I folded it carefully, so as not to have to make a cut, and sewed four simple cushions for our chairs. Two more were made from the skirt of an old dress of mine. We’ve enjoyed them all year long, but now they are unpicked and washed again, ready to be made into a pretty frock and a smart new shirt or two.

Even John and Ben are having something fresh to wear to mass on Sundays, and to parties, and for when they want to feel their best. Something simple and straightforward, either made up to a bought pattern or sent to the tailor. Fine shirtweight cottons, in pastel shades of their choosing. And for me there are peonies, pink and faintly fanciful, on a background of blue. Enough blue to be right for me, enough pink to celebrate the spring. A perfect balance.

I know we all see different things when I bring a parcel of fabric home from the shops. I don’t think that Ben or Seb or Ilse see much at all, beyond some tweed or cotton, pretty or otherwise, which may one day reappear on their shelves. Fliss sees something that might just possibly be for her, and a long wait as I work my way through sewing for six. I suspect John simply sees something that brings pleasure to me, which it does. Not the ownership of the material, but the time before me, ready to be filled with planning and drafting and, finally, sewing. I can admire beautiful things in shop windows and walk away, happy to have seen them. But things unmade, unfinished, are another story, just waiting to be written.

It is this whole story that I see, these days, when I unwrap a piece of cloth that I chose so carefully from all those spread on the shop counter. A couple of yards might be, at first, a dress. It might be worn to the church fete, or on a sunny stroll around town. That is all I used to see, when I was Fliss’ age. Now I see around the edges, and into the future, too. No matter how carefully you lay your pattern out there will be scraps, all tricky curves and narrowness. They will be good for appliquéing names onto the front of children’s shoe bags, or snipping tiny hexagons for English paper piecing. There might be a square, large enough for a ladies’ handkerchief. They might sit well alongside other scraps I am saving for a quilt.

One day, three or four or five years from now, I’ll take the dress out of my wardrobe after its long winter rest and see how worn it is around the hem, and how the colours have faded. I’ll cut it up, into a play dress for Ilse, or linings for shoebags, or covers for the cushions which get dragged out to the treehouse. And in time, when Ilse grows still taller or we are past the age of plimsolls, or when there are just too many rips for it to be called a cushion cover any more, I’ll cut it up again. It might be a quilt, this time, for a doll or a friend’s new baby or even a wedding bed. Something old and something new, rolled into one.

A friend came round for tea the other day, bringing her baby, a sweet and clever and smiling boy, and I showed her my Devon quiltI like this square, she said, pointing, as her boy kicked his sturdy little legs on the bed beside it. Thank you, I said.  It was a dress of Fliss’ and before that, John’s shirt. I could see them both in it, lovely with youth and nostalgia. I could see John’s back as he climbed Embsay Cragg, and Fliss, mooching round the house on a wet Saturday, bored until I found her a book to read.

Long after the clothes are worn out, the handkerchiefs left on trams and the quilts reduced to the rags they once were, little scraps remain. There are some from my own childhood, in the dolls’ coverlet made by Mother at the same time as their curtains. There is a bit of a baby dress of Meg’s, in a pinwheel cushion cover which survives on Ilse’s bed. At some point even these will reach the end of their story, and be taken away by the rag and bone man when he comes calling. They will be washed and shredded, used to stuff sofas or the seats of automobiles. Perhaps they will be made into shoddy, bright and affordable. Maybe. And just maybe it will be bought by another woman, wanting to make something new.

[whohit]somethingnew[/whohit]

Many hands

New gardeners need advice, certainly. We can seek it in books or in the umpteen pamphlets available for a penny each. We can speak to those who have been growing things for longer than us. I like to ask Mr White what he is up to, at the moment, and often follow suit. He attends talks held by the local horticultural society, to hear advice straight from the experts. It trickles down, from them to him to me and, finally, to Father.

It always feels as though Father should know how to grow vegetables. His own father, whose garden is now largely put to lawn and flowerbeds, had a large vegetable garden. As a child I remember being sent into the humid greenhouse to pick the reddest tomatoes, or the longest cucumber, to slice thinly into sandwiches for luncheon. It was a job I loved. The greenhouse was forbidden to us children, otherwise. I would slide the door closed behind me, marvelling at the close air and the tangle of vines. It was another country, behind glass. Another world, to a child whose vegetables were delivered by the greengrocer’s boy.

I know he spent a lot of time in there, and in the extensive kitchen garden down one side of the house. Latterly he had a new patch made, closer to the back door, and carried on coaxing life out of the soil well into his nineties. Now he cannot garden any more, but we talk about it instead: what’s done well, what I’ve planted, varieties I might try. He likes to remember the times we went fruit picking together in North Wales, and he taught me to make jam afterwards, dangerous and sticky in the August kitchen.

So you see, I expect Father to just know how to do all this. The fact is, though, that one way and another he’s never had the chance to grow his own. So now we talk about it, and the things that Grandad taught me get passed back up a generation.

If new gardeners need advice, new gardens need small armies. Especially allotments, which are by their very nature normally abandoned a full season before they are given up. Father’s allotment, when he took it on last summer, was textbook. It took Father and Ben and I several weekly sessions to raze the chest high weeds to the ground and begin to fork their roots out. I gave him baby leeks, and little brassicas, and a few lettuces to fill the gaps. The rest could wait until winter.

This Christmas we promised him a day of the six of us, to clear the site ready for spring. I don’t know what he was hoping to achieve, but I was confident that we could get the job done. En masse, the Grahams make light work of such tasks. The hedge was cut back into shape. Endless brambles were dealt with. The fruit patch was shorn of long grass, and the bushes pruned. Ilse and Seb, armed with secateurs, cleared a ginnel for easy access. The beds were forked over once again.

At noon there were many none-too-clean fingers fishing vinegary chips from newspaper, and many thirsty mouths swigging dandelion and burdock. We paused to survey our work, and saw the end in sight. When we were finally done, and John had cycled home with the children, I lingered while Father put away his tools and shut the gate. A fellow allotmenteer poked her head over the hedge and commented on our progress. That always was a lovely plot, she said.

And now it is so again. It has a fruitful apple tree, and fledgling plums and damsons. It has red and blackcurrant bushes. It has four raised beds, just the right width for easy weeding. It has a wooden shed, and a sunny spot for sitting in.

We couldn’t see much of this, when Father took it on last summer, but now its charms are obvious. He’s there today, adding muck to three of the beds. I hope he goes there often, and that we have a good season ahead. I want him to like growing things as much as Grandad and I. Which is why I will happily answer his many questions, and ensure that there are many hands to help him, whenever he asks.

[whohit]manyhands[/whohit]

Warp and weft

Sometimes the sky stays resolutely grey for too many days in a row. Sometimes we simply feel worn out. Sometimes our plans are derailed at the last moment, and all that anticipation comes to nothing. Sometimes we are caught up in other people’s storms.

Sometimes I have to remember all the good things that have happened this past week. Ilse and I sewed the first seeds: lettuces, snug in their propagator on the kitchen window sill. She scrutinises them daily, for the first green speck of life. Next to them the potatoes are chitting, already sending out their sturdy, nubbly shoots. Red onions are rooting in a tray of compost. The whole kitchen hums with magic.

Fliss and I spent an hour in the fading twilight spreading compost on a bed. I transported it, she raked it level: six inches deep and full of promise.

John took Seb and Ilse to a matinee at the pictures while Fliss and I worked in the veg patch. They laughed so hard on the way home that we could hear them coming up the street.

My fair isle cardigan is on its way, dreamed up as I go along. I am enjoying it as much as I had hoped. There is no rush, no rush at all. This is a project that I would like to linger over.

I had a breakthrough, yesterday, when drafting the pattern for my new spring dress. I struggled and paced and was almost ready to leave it for the day when it suddenly made sense, and I knew how to make the collar I wanted.

These are the big things, for which I am grateful. The weft of my life.

Then, too, are these: a cup of tea, brought to me in bed. A spontaneous hug and a kiss from my sweet Seb. A hasty chapter of a novel, devoured before starting on the supper. Five minutes, sitting, in the afternoon. Passing the time of day with friends. A conversation with Mother. Half an hour, just John and I. The first fragile seedlings of the year.

The warp. Little things which keep my world turning, whatever the weather.

[whohit]warpandweft[/whohit]

In

We have been driven indoors more and more, of late. Out of doors there is bluster and chill and fat wet flakes of snow which melt as they hit the sodden ground. Indoors there is fire, driving out the damp, and any one of a number of pursuits.

For the children there are dolls and other toys to play with. There is ludo and scrabble and chess, pitted against a sibling or just yourself, scuttling from one end of the board to the other.  There are pictures to paint. Books to be read. Warm nests are built in hidden corners, out of blankets and cushions. I walk in and out of rooms, searching for Fliss or Ilse or Seb, not knowing that they are reading oh so quietly, just out of sight.

For John and Ben there is home: warm and snug, bookending their day. John is often elsewhere, at work or at the pub after a friendly game of squash. Ben is out most of all, at school or on the rugger pitch. But here, in with the rest of us, is where those days begin and end.

When I have time, I sit in the bay windows to catch the best of the light. I look forward to the evening’s knitting. I am waiting for new fabric to come into the shops, to make spring dresses and shirts. These are the things I like to do, when I am in.

Inevitably there are other things to be done. The stairs need redecorating. There is an untidy wall in the kitchen to paint. I must book the electrician to rewire the light in the hall. Now is the time to do these things, so as not to waste the summer.

And I must prepare for the warmer months. I must stop daydreaming and book a cottage somewhere, so that one day in August we can pack our knapsacks and spend a week by the sea. I must set the potatoes chitting. Mend the garden bench, for a whole season of reading in the sun.

Put like that, this time takes on a new sheen. It is unexpectedly precious. A commodity, limited, not to be wasted. This time, spent in, won’t last forever.

I’ve marked things on the calendar, and been startled by how few short weeks there are until Easter. As a result I’ve begun a project I’ve been putting off since last July, when the pull of being outside was just too strong. Seb and Ilse are learning to play the flute, at last. The house is full of the sound of puffing and breathy whistles, catching the edge of harmonics. They are delighted, and so am I.

Because next summer, when I am out of doors, I will hear a simple tune, carried on the warm air. It is already on its way. And when I wander in again, to fill a vase with flowers or wash lettuce for our supper, I’ll glance at the staircase or the kitchen wall and smile. Because I did it when I was in. And now I am free to be out, again.

[whohit]in[/whohit]

Begin again

The first rule of making lofty plans is not to flinch when things go wrong.

I had great plans for this winter’s knitting. A Foxgloves for Fliss, Seb’s Stars, and third yoked jumper for myself. These were all to be completed by Christmas, which would leave the long stretch from January to March free to knit something for Ben’s increasingly lanky frame. He’s a double knitting boy, not to be persuaded into aran. His jumpers take time.

It all started well enough, with the first two completed before advent. I picked up my pattern at the start of December, and, without a thought or concern, began to follow it.

The first doubts crept in halfway up the waist decreases, but I pressed on nonetheless. I wanted to wear it on Christmas Day; I would not be dissuaded.

By the time the bust increases began, even I couldn’t ignore the fact that the tube of knitted fabric bore no relation to my body. It would have fitted a lovely pair of hips, but not mine. I was forced to sternly remind myself of two facts. One: I always adapt patterns. Two: I never like curvy pullovers.

Frogged and rewound, we began again, this time with my own shaping added to to the original pattern. I worked furiously, churning out a whole three inches of 2-ply before I noticed that I was knitting a helix.

At this point I abandoned it, my plans and all my usual habits. I began knitting hats. And a dishclothLittle knits, in other words. In December.

Which is how, six weeks after casting off Seb’s Stars, I have precisely one inch of 1×1 twisted rib to show for myself. That, and an uncharacteristic amount of sewing. Just one afternoon’s worth of knitting, to be exact.

But goodness me, it feels good to begin again. Those little knits just weren’t quite the thing for this time of year. Long rows are what I need. A project to carry me through whole weeks, not an evening or two. Two hundred and thirty one stitches per round, round and round again.

It’s an odd number because seven of those stitches form a steek. You see, somehow it’s become a cardigan. And for now, that’s all I know about it. I may revert to the original pattern and knit a neat necklace of bluebells, echoed at the cuffs. Yet I’ve been thinking about sweet peas, lately, and dreaming up a design of my own. Or maybe even an allover, in Xs and stripes and little blooms, made up as I go. I’m tempted to write to the supplier and order two more skeins, in dusty rose. Tomorrow, maybe.

Because today is a busy day, with lots of errands and cleaning, music lessons after school, and Cubs this evening for Seb. I’ll only manage a few rows, once the day is done. Five or six rows which will take me one way or another, so that tomorrow I’ll know whether I need that extra colour. I’m looking forward to seeing what my hands will do, once my head stops getting in the way. This is going to be fun.

[whohit]beginagain[/whohit]

A happy birthday

It so happened this year that my birthday fell on a soup club day. Another example of Mrs Bartlett’s wisdom, soup club is a weekly meeting of friends where we take turns to cook for one another. Whatever fills our lives, we pause to sit down together, and eat, and talk.

I made a honeyed fruit cake to share, full of dried figs and apricots. I had been looking forward to spending part of the day with friends. What I hadn’t expected was for so many of them to greet me with birthday wishes, cards and presents. Mrs Weston surprised me with a bottle of homemade wine. Miss Stevens and Miss Smith had scented soap and cold cream, beautifully wrapped. Lovely Mr White, on hearing that it was my day, disappeared only to return minutes later, bearing a card.

As I was already out and about I spent the afternoon running errands in town. I got home as the children did to find John already there, having lit the fire and cut slabs of Christmas cake ready for tea. He had arranged my presents under the tree, and when we were ready Ilse passed them to me, one by one.

They know me well, my family. Every gift was both beautiful and useful. There were things for the kitchen, and for the garden. And there were hand-crafted gifts as well, including a basket from my very favourite weaver.

Our house is slowly filling with Mrs Doney’s baskets. They hold vegetables, laundry, wood, hats, gloves, toys, wool, books: anything which needs a home. There is even one of dogwood and willow which I made, under her tutelage, some years ago. Each has its own character, and plays its role with quiet pride. Traditional and sturdy, they will be with us for years to come.

Ilse had drawn me a picture, while Ben gave me a voucher for labour in the garden. Fliss and Seb had pooled their resources to buy me some sharp new needles. Everyone had given me what I wanted, even though I hadn’t really wanted for anything. I felt cared for. More than that: I felt loved.

Who would have thought that I would like becoming thirty seven so much? I should have guessed. It gets better each year, this life. And the older I get the more I value it and those who help me make what I do of it.

After supper I spent the evening weaving in the ends on the last of those hats, while John and I discussed his gift. John is good at presents. One year he promised me fifty two weeks of flowers, and kept to it. Even in winter, when the market stalls were empty, he would seek out some greenery from somewhere.

This year we are off to the hardware shop, to buy everything I need for the coming garden season, and perhaps something special besides. After that, we’ll have tea in town, all six of us.

I would ask for the flowers again, except that there’s no need. You see, the habit stuck. More often than not I walk into the scullery on a Saturday afternoon to find the sink full of blooms, waiting to brighten another day.

[whohit]ahappybirthday[/whohit]

Alice and I

Holidays really shouldn’t be allowed to come to such abrupt ends. Luckily for me, the village school didn’t reopen until yesterday. On Monday I had one little person still by my side, to ease me back into term.

Looking back, I think we all had exactly the sort of holiday we needed. I know I did. Lazy days, in that we didn’t have to be anywhere at any particular time. Yet the days were busy, too. Days full of projects and plans, making and doing. Sewing, for me, and plenty of gardening. Knitting in odd moments here and there, which added up to four baby hats and a new dishcloth. For the children there were board games, and long days of make-believe, and reading, and running around out of doors. For John, the pleasure of being at home, snug in the cardigan I knitted him last year, away from worries and work. There were high days, of course, but lots of deliciously ordinary ones too.

Ilse received a beautiful edition of Alice in Wonderland this Christmas. It has coloured illustrations throughout, and gilt-edged pages. She has carried it around with most of her other presents, in her little satchel, and spent hours looking at the pictures and reading bits of it aloud to anyone who’ll listen. She simply makes up any words she can’t decipher – an approach which suits the text admirably. She is bold and inventive, my youngest.

Which is why I wasn’t surprised to be told off numerous times for referring to this little girl by the wrong name. It’s hard to keep up. She’s been Titty for much of the week, and occasionally one of Shackleton’s huskies. But there was no hesitation today. I’m Alice, Mummy. Alice.

Alice, in her blue frock and hair ribbon, helped with the morning chores. She chattered to Mrs P all through the wash, and then to the hens while I cleaned out their house. Finally, while our soup was warming for lunch, we did a quick bit of baking together: the sort of baking Alice would have done in Wonderland had the cook been better tempered.

By the afternoon there was nothing for it but to pull out the sewing machine and make the most of a precious day at home, just Alice and I. I hesitated over a worn sheet, set aside for sashing a quilt. But some moments just beg to be seized; I can source another by next autumn. Together we measured and cut, stitched and hemmed. Alice had a little rest, to look at the pictures in her book and discuss our progress with Dinah. She joined in again for the sewing on of the buttons, and we brushed her hair and retied the ribbon before ceremoniously slipping her arms into her new pinafore and buttoning up the back.

I’ve been meaning to make her one for months – the sort of simple white pinafore I grew up in. It was what all little girls wore, then. Today we made it for Alice, but she can be on the beach with the psammead in it, or waiting for Daddy, her Daddy, in a Yorkshire station. She can be a little princess, sleeping in a cold garret with only the rats for company, or sullen Mary Lennox, learning to skip and laugh and bring gardens back to life. I have a feeling that this pinafore will get an awful lot of wear, by an awful lot of characters. It was satisfying sewing. Not utilitarian in my eyes, but certainly so in hers.

Thus it was an afternoon well spent, for Alice and I. When the big ones tumbled in from school they recognised her immediately, much to her delight. And in turn she delighted them, by serving jam tarts for tea.

[whohit]aliceandi[/whohit]

Burning bright

We had our day in the garden: the very best day of the holidays, so mild and bright that it might have been March. The children herded the hens, as planned, and saved long sticks for the building of their den. John and I climbed ladders and cut things back. A rogue branch from the cherry no longer hangs into the vegetable patch. The elders have been reduced to stumps. Even the wisteria, with its wild curls, has had its topknot shorn. The garden looks empty, and enormous.

The children helped for longer than I had hoped, pruning the roses and carrying lopped branches to a growing heap. But one by one they slipped off to the wild space at the end of the garden. Ilse built tiny nests, first for the birds but then, with Fliss’ help, for a whole village of little people.  Next door’s tabby was cast as a tiger, slinking through the undergrowth, and defences were thrown up. They had a winter picnic in the tree house and finally, when all was done, Ben built a bonfire to burn the debris of the day.

The others trickled indoors but we stood by it, Ben and I, until all that was left was a heap of wood ash. There you are, Mum, he said, pointing at it. You can mix that into the compost tomorrow. We can call it combust.

You see, he understands.  What else is this hacking and pruning and shaping and clipping for, if not to encourage new growth?

A few days ago, we moved from the old year to the new. Burning on that fire were the remains of 1930 in my small patch. But not all of it. The apple, pear and damson trees still stand in the same places. The knotted hawthorn hedge still marks one long boundary. And on everything we cut, fat buds are waiting for the right moment to start anew.

Somehow, the turning of that page means very little to me. A moment in time, full of champagne and fireworks. A fabrication. Artifice.

To see the new year in, you have to look outside. You have to caress the emerging buds with your fingertips, and prepare the way for them. You have to look up at the forsythia, about to burst into flame. The whole of nature knows that a new year is here, without recourse to clocks or calendars.

As for me, I know it is here when the clearing is done and the growing begins. I’ll sow the first lettuces soon, under cover. I’ve marked out my new bed, ready to double dig in the crisp January air. Soon, so soon, potatoes will be chitting in a cool bright place, while outside a hard frost prepares their bed for them.

Once the bonfire was out we went in to the other fire, and I spent an inspiring evening with seed catalogues and my notebook. There will be flowers, this time, in amongst the vegetables. Marigolds in pots, to cheer on the tomatoes. Sweet peas, my favourite, standing tall with the beans. Nasturtiums, to tumble out of beds and into salads.

I am restless with anticipation. I keep having to put aside my knitting to jot down a new idea, or a refinement of my plans. Because the new year is here at last, and burning brightly in me.

[whohit]burningbright[/whohit]