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.

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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.

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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.

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