Deck the halls

Christmas Eve is the day when it all comes together. When the tree goes up and presents appear beneath it and the house is full of the scent of cloves and oranges and gammon.

Over the past few days the children have been making, merrily, and decorating their bedrooms. Christmas cards have been pinned to wardrobe doors in the shape of fir trees. Yards and yards of paper chains have materialised, made from coloured paper or stylish, monochrome newsprint. The floors are littered with tiny flecks of white as snowflakes are snipped away at, then opened with a flourish. They twist and turn in the warm air rising up the stairs. Pomanders have appeared, hung with a scrap of ribbon from the window fixings, or nestling in the fruit bowl. Each time I open my wardrobe I pause to sniff at the orange, studded with cloves, which Ben has hung from its handles.

So much has been done in advance, in bits and pieces, by one or two or three of us at a time. But this is the day when we all work together, and Christmas fills the house after its long advent journey. And it is just like having a baby: weeks and months are spent dreaming and planning, but nothing really happens until the day when everything happens, and a new light enters the world.

The cake was made in November, but today I will roll out the marzipan and spread a layer of snow white icing on top. Fliss will decorate it, with silver balls and a paper frill, or with tin animals taken from the toy box and dusted with a sieveful of icing sugar. I’ll chop the sage to mix into the stuffing, and stir the custard as it cooks, ever so slowly, on the cool end of the aga. Then I’ll roll and cut the pastry, for mince pies, and call a passing child to make a turnover with the scraps.

In the meantime, the others will have come in from the garden, red-cheeked and noisy, bearing armfuls of greenery. A slip of holly will adorn the top of every picture frame, and the ivy will be woven into willow wreaths, and a table centrepiece, and in and out of the bannisters.

A pause, then, for a quick luncheon of sandwiches and tea before we troop down the road to the crib service. Each year I wait to see which of our children will take part. Ben nearly sat it out last year but was persuaded, at the eleventh hour, to hold the heavy star aloft. Fliss might be Mary one last time. Or they might sit in the pews with us, and watch their younger siblings embrace their roles.

Afterwards, the tree will be waiting in the living room, unadorned. John will stir the fire back into life as I switch on the wireless. Silence, then a lone voice will fill the room. It will sing a story to us, in nine lessons and carols. I will sit with my love and watch our children hang their ornaments, old and new,  on its green branches. Somehow they will lend this living thing yet more life. Then Ben will lift Ilse to place the angel on top, just as John used to lift him, and Seb will switch on the lights, and we will bask in their soft glow until it is time for stories, and stockings, and bed.

Merry Christmas, everyone.

[whohit]deckthehalls[/whohit]

Day’s end

It had been such a mundane sort of day: the children at school, John at work and a blanket of damp grey sky. I swept the grit, tracked in from the salty streets, off the hall tiles for the umpteenth time, and decided that a pleasant evening was in order.

Popping a tea bread into the stove at the same time as the stew, I laid the table early. By the time the children were home I was hanging up my pinny. A special Christmas card fell through the door with the last post, from my auntie in Scotland. Already, things were looking up.

John was home on time, for once, so I took the opportunity to pull out the calendar and talk through the rest of December. We added in Ben’s rugger social, and John’s evening out with an old friend. I reminded the children of the nice things I had planned: Grandma coming to stay, and a special matinee next week; which days they were seeing Grannie and Granddad, and the Cub Scouts’ Christmas party.

We chose a date to work in the garden, all together. What I really needed was a day of Ben and John’s labour to climb ladders and shift several small mountains of compost. Ben wanted to improve the hen run, and John hasn’t worked in the garden for weeks, so they agreed readily enough. I forget that none of the others get out there on weekdays. They haven’t had the hens pecking at their shoelaces for ages. I wouldn’t have any trouble in getting them outside.

Still, I have long since learnt that the best strategy is to give everybody their own special job to do. I started them off: leaf-raker, bonfire-builder. By the time we sat down to supper, the little ones were full of suggestions. Fire-feeder. Hen shepherdess. They chattered away through the meal, getting sillier and more fanciful. Worm relocation officer. Twig snapper. Ladybird hibernation monitor. Leek counter. They moved on to plans for the den, and giggles gave way to earnest faces. Hooks for the bows and the quivers of arrows. A basket of pine cone missiles. Prunings, woven into camouflaging screens. A secret entrance round the side. Their excitement mounted, and supper became a strategy meeting.

Afterwards, when I asked Seb and Ilse to get ready for bed, they begged to come down again in their night-things, to carry on planning. Of course they could, on this special occasion. Because although it was just the end of a very ordinary day, it had been made into something extraordinary by these children.

[whohit]daysend[/whohit]

December soundscape

The younger children may be rising earlier, but Ben and I are struggling to wake in these dark December dawns. This morning I was only vaguely aware of the desultory gusts of drizzle against the windows when a sweeter sound broke through.

I lay in bed, eyes closed, guessing at which of my little band it was. Silent Night, with the chords only occasionally hesitant: Fliss. There was a pause as, presumably, the sheet music I had left out was rifled through, then the tune of Good King Wenceslas, picked out arrhythmically with a finger or two. John, rattling the stove vents, whistled along in support. I could hear Fliss naming some of the low notes for her sister.

Ben and I yawned our good mornings on the landing. When I went downstairs I found them all wide awake, thanks to chocolate and carols. We chatted over boiled eggs and soldiers before they departed in ones and twos.

Now that Ilse is at school, the days can be very quiet, especially in December. There is none of that hum of life when everyone is shut behind their own closed doors. Many of the birds have flown away. The insects are over. Even the late bees have crawled drowsily into a crevice somewhere.

I let the hens out for a wander as I finally tackled that hibiscus. Two of them were surprisingly noisy as they clawed the soggy leaves. The third, the one who is either too wise or too afraid to ever leave the run, let out a series of heartfelt clucks. Afterwards I closed my tingling fingers around her egg, relishing its warmth. We will buy more pullets in the spring, and I will hear that sound eight or nine times a day. For now, I pull eggs from the chilly barrel of isinglass.

Inside, the sounds are not so different, bar the early morning mumming. Kettles whistle, needles clack. Pots bubble over, spitting on the hot plate. I can turn the wireless on, with a click, to hear someone talking. Soon Mrs P will ring the doorbell and pass the time of day as she shrugs her overcoat off and pinny on.

This evening I might leave John toasting by the fire and and have a rummage through those carols myself. Ben will be upstairs, translating the next section of The Iliad. He is growing tired at the end of this long term. Seb and Ilse will be tucked up, sheets and blankets pulled tight, the way they like it. Fliss may knit a few rows of her scarf. John will be reading a book, and resting. Easter aside, Christmas is the busiest time of year in a chocolate firm.

There is an excitement building in this house, spreading from the youngest to the eldest, despite the short days and tired heads. Which is why we mustn’t forget the other side of advent, about contemplation and preparations of another kind. We can embrace the short days and the opportunities to look inwards sometimes: to ourselves, and to those in our care. So I might choose God Rest Ye, Merry Gentlemen, or Away in a Manger, to soothe them all as the night draws in around us.

[whohit]decembersoundscape[/whohit]

Advent

Overnight, mornings have changed from coaxing the children out from under their blankets to finding them downstairs before me, smears of chocolate around their mouths. It is as if we were past the solstice and heading towards longer days again, thanks to this month of lights and anticipation.

I made their calendars shortly after Ilse was born, completing two the first autumn and two more the next. Each has a scene, blocked out in felt then trimmed with a simple chain stitch, with sequins and beads to add sparkle. Ben has the shepherds, telling stories around their fire. They have leapt up to point at something mysterious: a new star in the sky. Fliss has Mary on a donkey, the lights of Bethlehem twinkling cosy and crowded in the distance. Seb has the three kings, precious gifts in hand. And of course my baby Ilse has the baby in his manger, surrounded by the world he loves.

Just as the wise men are stirring, so are parents everywhere. My list-making has begun. New handkerchiefs and socks are at the ready, embroidered and knitted in long-ago summer moments.  And I must tell Father Christmas of the things they need: a bottle of ink, or a box of crayons. A new trigonometry set. Knickers, with ribbon round the waist. A penny whistle, to replace one which was lost and is still mourned. Chocolate coins, of course, and a satsuma for the toe.

The hardest gift is the one they don’t need, but simply want. The one under the tree, the one which is gazed at and dreamed about and not to be touched under any circumstances. I have some ideas, but John is best at these. He has a way of knowing what people want almost before they do. I wonder whether this is, in part, due to his work: studying people, knowing what they will buy, and why. It’ll be John who suggests a list of titles for Fliss, or a new game for Seb. He knows what Ben would like in a way that I can’t fathom. So we will be making that list together.

Last of all are the little gifts, for parents and grandparents and one another. Small things we know we like, which show that we care enough to remember. It wouldn’t be Christmas for me without sugared almonds, a jar of marmalade and sweet-smelling beeswax candles for the table. That, and giddy children. And I needn’t tell John this, because he already knows. He proves it, every year.

[whohit]advent[/whohit]

Stitches in time

Ilse and I went to the village jumble sale: I to run a stall, Ilse to play beneath the tables with her little gang.

Mrs Partridge had put me in charge of the jams. Before me was a jewel-box of treasures, the summer bottled and screwed down tightly. Although the jars were not labelled with the makers’ names, everyone knows everyone else’s speciality. I bought a jar of Mrs Andrew’s strawberry conserve, knowing that there will be bright chunks of soft fruit suspended in the jelly. Mrs Partridge bought a jar of her friend Mrs Ellis’, who returned the compliment. There was a pleasant hum around me all afternoon.

It was only when I spotted the dress that I felt marooned. I had been looking for Ilse, who had vanished some time ago, and recognised her cardigan beneath the rail of donated clothing, arms dancing in some clapping game. Above her was a vision of Victorian outlandishness: a virtual haberdashery of flounces and bows, roses and braid. It looked just Ilse’s size. Mrs Partridge was doing another round of the hall. Two more tables and she would reach me. I saw a woman I didn’t recognise, accompanied by her own little girl, feeling the fabric between knowing fingers. She held the dress hopefully in  front of the child who pulled just the face Seb pulls when I kiss him in public.

It took another ten minutes before Mrs Partridge had gossiped her way round to me, but at last she took over my table while I went to investigate.

The dress wouldn’t be everyone’s cup of tea – no-one else had even given it a second glance – but the way Ilse’s face shone when I pointed it out made trying it on a formality. It would be made to fit, if necessary. She skipped and hopped at my elbow all the way home.

Even John couldn’t help but admire the work which had gone into it. It must have been a wealthy little girl’s best dress, for parties or perhaps a wedding, probably in the 1880s. The overskirt, in cream dupioni silk, was lifted to reveal the satin underskirt, with clusters of rolled ribbon roses pinning up the gathers. The waist was accentuated by a plaited cord in three shades of creamy brown, and the puffed sleeves finished with softly swinging lace at the elbows. Best of all was the cafe-creme front panel, embroidered with vines, leaves and shimmering flowers. It must have taken days and days – even weeks – to make.

The dress was a little large on Ilse, so I took it up while she stood on a stool, turning as directed, pretending to be the original owner. As I sewed we wondered about who she might have been. Ilse tried on a few names for size and settled on ‘Sara’. She called me ‘dear Mama’ and my mouth was too full of pins to point out that Sara’s mama most certainly would not have been on her knees at her daughter’s feet. That was the lot of other, poorer, women.

I basted the hem fairly loosely, guessing from Fliss’ envious looks that Ilse will continue to wear this as she grows. There wasn’t  a mark on it, which made me feel sorry for a child not allowed to run or play for fear of spoiling her frock. Ilse ate jammy crumpets in it, helped me shut up the hens, then lay in front of the fire on her tummy, rereading A Little Princess.

I hope it is a long time before I have to let down that hem. Time enough for more jam dribbles and grass stains and many, many parties. ‘Sara’ must be quite grown by now, older than I am. I don’t want to imagine Ilse as a woman: sixty rather than six. If I could, I would put a few stitches in time too, just to hold it steady.

[whohit]stitchesintime[/whohit]

Armistice

On Sunday there were military parades and church services. People gathered at the cenotaph and laid their wreaths of poppies – there and at other cold stone memorials around the country. Ilse learned In Flanders Fields and recited it at her school pageant. Seb and Ben marched with the Scouts. Fliss made garlands of red and black and green. I bought a crocheted poppy from Mrs Roberts, who is raising money for the British Legion, and pinned it to my coat. There was ceremony, and solemnity.

Today is Armistice Day. It is twelve years since the end of the Great War. In that time Ben has grown from four to sixteen, Fliss from two to fourteen. I count the years by them. Seb and Ilse have appeared, from nowhere, because John came home. My brother’s second child has done the same. My sister has married a man she didn’t know existed then, but who came home nonetheless.

Next door, Mrs Ellis still has a cupboard full of her husband’s clothes. She gave a suit, for the first time, to the children’s guy this year. Mrs P works to support Mr P, who came back a different man. Their daughter is a widow. There are empty places in the ranks before the cenotaph, but also in the schools and on the playing fields. Whole generations of dreamed of families have gone missing.

At eleven o’clock this morning Mrs P and I laid down our knives and took off our aprons. I poured two small sherries, in the best cut glass, and set them on the sideboard. For two minutes, the world was hushed.

I don’t know what Mrs P was thinking, but I can guess. I prayed for peace, lasting peace, so that we will never see a conflict like that again. I prayed for Ben and Seb and all the other boys. I prayed for the the mothers and fathers, sisters and brothers, wives and lovers of those who were killed or maimed. I prayed for broken families and dislodged families, whichever nation they belong to. I prayed for those who had fled, and those who have yet to find home again.

Finally, when we were both ready, we raised our glasses to memory and love and hope.

[whohit]armistice[/whohit]

Remember, remember

Bonfire night is the highlight of the autumn calendar. All four children have been anticipating it with glee, whispering about their plots, and gathering fuel for the fire. The guy waited ready in our shed, complete apart from his turnip head, which Ben carved on Wednesday evening.

Even Mrs P seemed to have an air of excitement about her as she came in on Thursday morning. Having stopped at the grocer’s on the way, her basket was full of caster sugar and golden syrup. I had laid the apples ready on the table, sixty of them, washed, with a lollipop stick pushed into each core. We melted the sugar and syrup and dipped the apples into the pot, before leaving them to cool and harden on trays. The toffee ran into little flat discs around their bases. Surreptitiously, while Mrs P was clearing away in the scullery, I ran my finger around the inside of the empty pan. The touch of toffee on my tongue brought back a world of childhood bonfires.

We borrowed trestle tables from the village hall and, as the day was clear and bright, set them on the village green. The infants were let out of school an hour early and bade carry chairs. The older ones must have cycled like the beefeaters were on their tails to reach us as early as they did, and then the fun began in earnest. By five o’clock, as the light finally fell, the bonfire was built and burning: a hodgepodge of old furniture, prunings and scrap wood. In the centre, bound to the farmer’s long pine trunk, was the guy.

By then, the last of the mothers had turned out, each bearing a tin of cake, platter of sandwiches or great jugs of milk. Someone filled the tea urn and kept it topped up with boiling water. By the time the men arrived the flames were licking the guy’s darned and darned-over socks, and potatoes had been pushed into the grey embers around the edges of the fire. John helped Ben and some of the other boys sharpen one end of a pile of sticks, and we pushed a sausage onto each for the children to roast. They stood in a circle, faces burning and backs cold, oblivious to everything but the fate of their guy, their dripping sausage and the promise of sweets.

Mr Hewitt made his annual gift of a box of fireworks, and set them off as the last of the potatoes was being pulled open, exposing its fluffy insides. We stood around the fire, oohing and ahhing in unison, well rehearsed over the years. Toddlers began to whinge and a dog, not locked up, set up a howling that started the babies off. Prams were wheeled away with reluctant infants in tow. The older children stayed to tease the fire. John lifted a sleepy Ilse onto one arm and she laid her head on his woollen shoulder. His other arm he put around me, and we watched the end of the evening, remembering other such nights in years past, back to when it was a tired Ben in his arms, and before even then, when there was only he and I.

[whohit]rememberremember[/whohit]

Conquering

Maps in hand, we set out for the horse chestnuts. The season is well under way, and I wasn’t quite sure of what would be left. Fortunately, the children have been finding conkers in dribs and drabs over the past few weeks, and already had a reasonable selection. I think that what they really wanted was the promised expedition.

We traversed mountain ranges and waded through razor sharp mangrove swamps. In the trees the parrots called to the puffins. Lions ran at us, tongues out, panting, to share their games. We passed all sorts of indigenous peoples: eskimos in their beaded collars and embroidered sealskins, bright against the achingly white landscape; aboriginals with dreaming dots about their brows, inviting us to go walkabout with them; and the odd Sioux, on horseback, with long dark hair blowing like silken strands in the cooling breeze. Several times we had to stop and check our compass, or squint at the sun to guess at our latitude. I flitted between the north pole and the antipodes, carried by the fancy of whoever I was talking to.

No wonder the explorers were in need of provisions by the time we arrived at that long rumoured haven, where the conkers lie thick and plentiful on the ground and everything tastes, somehow, of ambrosia. I unrolled the woollen rug and spread it on the still crisp leaves. Cocoa was sipped as quickly as it cooled, pork pies sliced and spread, ever so daringly, with mustard, boiled eggs shelled then dipped in a twist of salt. There followed a long pause for conker hunting and knitting. Both pursuits were, thankfully, fruitful, and celebrated by the passing round of slabs of seed cake.

My personal triumph was waiting at base camp: a hotpot, ready to feed the returning expedition, cooked for so long that it felt as though someone else had made the supper. I only needed to add the pastry crust.

Once home, the focus of the expedition shifted. A pair of expert, retired conquerers shared their secrets with the raw recruits. The smooth dark spheres were suspended in vinegar, baked in the oven, or stored, in a paper bag empty of pear drops, at the back of the airing cupboard. That particular treasure will be unwrapped and carefully drilled next year. Finally, Seb and Ilse fetched from their treasure boxes a single conker each, collected the year they were born and quietly growing in strength ever since. They were carried, ceremoniously, to John’s shed, to be made ready for battle.

The fresh air of the Arctic, of the North American plains and of Uluru had renewed the party’s appetites, and short work was made of both hotpot and pickles. I wiped the table so that the children could sit there, after supper, while I washed the pots in the scullery.

The new conkers will be ready soon, ready to take on playground challengers and defeat all comers. In the meantime, at the kitchen table, my three conquerers occupy themselves by filling in the blank spaces on their maps with all they had found while they were taking over the world.

[whohit]conquering[/whohit]

Stir up Monday

Our conker expedition was rained off. The picnic, prepared the day before, sat forlornly on the kitchen table. Everything felt damp, and the sky stayed resolutely grey.

On days like this, the kitchen is the place to be. I turned on the electric light and, not trusting to its yellow glow alone, shook more coal from the scuttle into the stove. Then Ilse, Seb, Fliss and I gathered our supplies, not for an outdoor expedition but for a rainy day adventure.

For the children: coloured pencils, wooden rulers, ink pots and boxes of nibs, and thick sheets of laid paper. Special paper, for a special project.

For me: cinnamon and mixed spice, flour and eggs, golden syrup and dark brown sugar.

The children began by sketching compasses, Fliss reminding Ilse of in which direction each of the points lay. They discussed their landscapes, suggesting features geographically possible and impossible. Oxbox lakes in surprising little Os along the river. Islands with hostile camps upon them. High strung bridges and fireplaces with cauldrons slung over them. Then the map-making began in earnest, tongues out, brows furrowed. Seb drew curving contour lines. Fliss sketched a magical glade.

While they drew, I zested oranges and lemons. I creamed sugar and butter with oozing syrup. I sieved flour with spices and stirred them, alternating with beaten eggs, into the mix. Finally, I poured in two pounds of brandy-soaked fruit and carried the bowl to the table.

Ilse went first, pulling the spoon easily through the layer of dried fruit and wishing, eyes tight shut. Then Seb, whose lips moved unconsciously, nearly spilling his secrets. Fliss’ wishing took a long time, and I wondered whether there was a long list of wishes or just one, elaborate, desire. And I went last of all, wishing for the same thing that mothers always wish for, and actually stirring the fruit into the cake mixture.

The Christmas cake went into the oven. Soon there was a warm, spicy December fug, cacooning us from the lingering gloom. Coloured pencils were taken up, and I turned to the pudding.

Eggs and brandy, nutmeg and zest – almost the same ingredients but to a different end. We washed a silver sixpence and buried it in the uncooked basinful, before pleating the greaseproof paper lid and tying it on with string. Once lowered into the steaming pan it began its rattling dance, rising and falling with the bubbles. The room grew warm and softly steamy. Exotic flora and fauna were sketched around the edges of the maps.

I spread the picnic on the tablecloth for a late luncheon. Bully beef sandwiches, apples and cocoa make a feast whether eaten in a Christmas-cosy kitchen or on a trans-Siberian trek. Over their meal three excited children told me of the developments to their conker-collecting plans. It appears that we will be criss-crossing the globe. Their eyes shone, their voices rang, and their imaginations were clearly stirred up. As was my pudding, on a Monday, and a few weeks early. Sometimes, though, you have to obey the weather.

[whohit]stirupmonday[/whohit]

Foxgloves for Fliss

Fliss’ cardigan has been cast off and crocheted, the steek cut and button bands knitted on. I left it on the chair in  her bedroom, having sewn on the last button as she slept. She held me in its woollen arms, next morning, and whispered thank-yous in my ear.

Fliss is my shy, thoughtful, imaginative girl. She lives half in this world and half in some other, make-believe realm. She’s my war baby, born in 1916, the child I wanted only to keep safe and close to my heart. When I was having her I was afraid of so many things: zeppelins and their bombs, food and fuel shortages, and, most of all, losing John. Other women, of my age and younger, were entering the factories and fields. The war opened their eyes and their worlds. They were fearless and pioneering. As a married mother, my own world closed in around me.

Once John had joined up, I went home to live with Mother and Father, accompanied by two year old Ben and the knowledge of Fliss. Looking back, it seems as though Mother and I sat across the fire from one another every evening for three years, knitting. We didn’t, of course. We visited friends, went to the odd concert, and laughed at the antics of the newly all-female amateur dramatics society. But what I remember most is the knitting. Bootees and balaclavas, layettes and extra layers for Fliss and for John, for my brother Pete and for other, nameless, soldiers. Cream and khaki, khaki and cream, keeping them safe the only way we could. I would have knitted charms into those garments, if I could.

Once she was born Fliss turned out to be a quiet baby, as long as I was nearby. Her brother Ben was always off, as soon as he could toddle, launching himself into the world. Not Fliss. She would lie on her blanket for hours, playing with her hands and following me with her dark eyes. As she grew I got used to suddenly finding her by me, slipping her paw into mine, sliding into my lap.

I took Fliss, Seb and Ilse into York yesterday, to buy their winter shoes. Seb and I strolled behind: he is spilling over with plans for our conker expedition. Ilse bounced ahead beside Fliss, hanging off her patient hand. It has been a mild autumn so far, not yet cold enough for coats. Instead the air is damp and grey and thick with muffled mists. Fliss’ foxgloves shone back at me through the murk, clear and bright, free of the shadows of hedgerows and old fears. She glanced over her shoulder, once or twice, to check that I was near, but found a place for she and Ilse to sit, alone, on the busy tram. She is pulling away, as she should. But however far she goes from me I will always be able to sense her, unexpected and quiet, surprising us with flashes of her fantastical beauty.

[whohit]foxglovesforfliss[/whohit]