Eternal optimism

Ilse set out to make herself a pair of ball gloves this morning. You know the sort: white satin, elbow length, wrinkle free. They were the culmination of her half term holiday full of sewing. I had begun to wonder whether she’d ever start to use the box we’d put together for her for Christmas but one day she dove in and there was no stopping her. How lovely to have your own kit, complete with scissors and thread and a bundle of pretty fabrics. I’m so pleased that she agrees.

I’m also delighted by her sewing optimism. Seriously, she thinks she can make anything, and the truth is that she’s usually right. I didn’t know how she was going to make a pair of trousers for Little Ted out of Ben’s holey old socks, but she did. By the time she asked me to draw around her right hand, up to the elbow, I knew better than to question her, even though she later dropped the scheme in favour of washing the motor with John. There’s a lot of fun to be had with a bucket of suds.

But really, in this house optimism is key when it comes to sewing projects. And not just for eight year olds; I need a healthy dose as much as they do. After all, you wouldn’t catch me starting on a dress I felt was doomed to failure. Every single item I embark on is going to be beautifully fitted, finished and fit for purpose. This doesn’t always bear very much resemblance to reality. Sometimes things veer off in unexpected directions, such as the scrap bag, although this hasn’t happened for quite some time now. Still, after all these years of stitching, none of the clothes I’ve made have every turned out perfectly. I know all of their little flaws, and though I despair of them at first, in time they become just another quirk of the garment, and for that I forgive them.

I traced a pattern off an old blouse recently, picking the blue silk apart at the seams and laying it out on the bias, as is so fashionable just now. Honestly, only a few years ago everything was cut as straight as straight can be, and bodies squashed flat towards androgynousness. Here in 1932 curves are all the rage, and I loved my old blouse which clung and floated in all the right places. When the silk went bobbly and began to fade I knew I wanted another just like it, and so I made one in a light Liberty lawn, ready for the impending spring. Needless to say, it isn’t perfect, but it’s good enough. I shan’t tell you what’s wrong with it, because once I do, that’s all you’ll be able to see.

And that old blue silk? Well, that inspired some deeply uncharacteristic behaviour in me, using it to create a wearable toile for a set of, ahem, underthings. A toile isn’t the most optimistic choice, but when it comes to precision sewing it is the sensible one. I did, of course, expect them to be wearable and I can confirm that they most gloriously, comfortably are. I’ll certainly be buying some pretty new fabric for my next attempt.

In the meantime, the optimism continues, as I draft a new and untested pattern for each garment in the pipeline. Because that’s where the fun is. In holding your breath that things will work out and secretly, privately, knowing that they will.

Pottering with a purpose

The younger children have exactly three trips planned this half term: one morning in town with pocket money and book tokens to spend; one afternoon out with Mother – a trip to the Castle Museum followed by afternoon tea; and one day out in the motor, all together, for a walk or a wander in an as yet unselected location.

All are suitably vague for a holiday which is, in this house at least, all about rest and recuperation. We’ve adopted a let’s see how we feel on the day approach to everything beyond the garden gate. As long as they get out at regular intervals to stretch their legs and have a change of scene, I’m happy. So far there has been dressing up, board game playing, the making of pouches for survival kits, the start of a new manuscript, and much reading. They are expert potterers, able to entertain themselves for days on end with self-dreamed projects and pastimes.

All of which is extremely fortunate, as my own pottering has rather more of a timetable attached to it. Why do I always end up with so much I want to do, each half term? It isn’t as though any if it is terribly important, even, this time around. Honestly, one of my aims was to replicate the coffee cake my mother-in-law baked last week. Frivolous, yes – but I never make the time to ice my cakes in term time, so it seemed the perfect treat for Friday afternoon when the children came home with mounds of muddy sportswear and that start-of-the-holidays glee. Truth be told, it only happened because I wrote it down. Friday morning: clean house with Mrs P. Friday lunchtime: bake coffee and walnut cake. Friday afternoon: pop to haberdashers for thread, bias binding and elastic. Ice cake. Come half past four all was well with the world.

The list goes on, and more is ticked off each day. Sewing, knitting, seeing the odd friend. Preparing for spring in the garden. It’s all pottering, only I know what I want to achieve each day. With only a week off school, I like to have my time mapped out in a vaguely purposeful way. We still get up a little later, and take a lacksidaisical approach to daytime meals (a favourite part of holidaying, to me). But I can immerse myself in each and every moment knowing that, by the end of the week, I’ll have done all that I hoped to.

Needless to say, plans change all the time, but there’s plenty of room for improvements. Ilse has a new task, for which she’ll need a spot of supervision: bunny-sitting a certain rabbit named Sparkles who lives a few doors down. Popping along the street on certain days to check his water and have a few cuddles while we’re at it? I’m sure we can squeeze that in. In fact, that seems to be the epitome of pottering with a purpose.

Twelve days

The first day is the big one, or course. Christmas Day: a day for church and presents and rather too much food. A capon, and stuffing and parsnips and sprouts. Paper crowns. Wrapping paper everywhere. Leftovers on the kitchen counter.
Boxing Day: a walk in the wind. Cold meat and vegetables baked in a pie. The start of a jigsaw.
Not much on the 27th. Playing with some new toys, finding homes for others. Thank you letters. A stroll to the postbox.
On the 28th old fabrics are pulled through, and plans for using them up are afoot. We do a little sewing, or model making, or reading. There’s a trip to the pictures.
The 29th and 30th are spent outside, the former in freezing fog and frost, the second in a sudden thaw. One day in the garden, pruning shrubs and trees, and the next wandering around the woodland of Fountains Abbey with the rest of the Graham clan.
On the 31st, plans for the following year are germinating. By the first, they are complete. Mother makes a feast.
The second brings a trip to the countryside in the motor in the morning, and more sewing in the afternoon. The schools go back on the third. On the fourth I bake a cake, and give the house a clean.
Today, the fifth of January, is the eleventh day of Christmas, and also my 38th birthday. We’ll eat the cake, and have something special for supper. It is the last in a long list of recent celebrations, and really we are all ready to get back to normal. Which is why it’s a good thing that it’s the twelfth day of Christmas tomorrow. A day to take the greenery down and put it on the compost. To pack the decorations away in their box, ready for next year. For the house to feel clean and sparse and bright again. Twelve days, each with its own flavour. Our Christmas, in a nutshell.

Lull

Outside, the silver frost has hung on all day. The whole world seems suspended in the timeless twilight between Christmas and New Year. We get up a little later every day, and breakfast is in danger of merging into luncheon. And why not? I’m sure these precious days at the end of one year were made for readying us for the next.

How I love this little lull. If I were to wander around the house, I’d find a jigsaw on the dining table, and Ben’s books, and my sewing machine in full swing at the other end. In the sitting room John has been doing just that, and galloping through his Christmas books at speed. There is evidence of knitting on the couch, and some embroidery, and new music on the stand. On the stairs the fairy lights twinkle and beyond them, in the kitchen, Seb is touching up his latest diorama. Ilse’s new colouring book lies open on the table, a tropical scene half alive with colour. It’ll have to wait to be complete, like the jigsaw and and knitting and the little embroidered house. They’re all at the pictures with John, and I am in the quiet house on my own in the middle of the lull in these holidays.

There’s something about the turning of the year that makes me want to neaten up loose ends. These are the days in which I rifle through old offcuts, and make a plan for each and every little piece left over from the previous year’s projects. We covered two notebooks this morning, Fliss and I, for a twins’ birthday party she’s going to next week. I’ve made a quick potholder from the leftover crumbs. There are toilet bags and bookmarks and pretty fabric roses in the offing. I’d like to clear the decks by the end of January, in time for the spring sewing to begin. We all need a dose of optimism in February.

Then there’s the ground to clear for next season’s growth, the tips of which are already poking out above the soil. A day or two in the garden should do it, if we all work together, and pave the way for an excitable evening with the catalogues.

And yet it isn’t all tasks. Some days are set aside for other things. Best of all are those mind-clearing walks that only cold air and bright sunlight through bare branches can achieve. We found the first primroses yesterday, small and pastel yellow in the otherwise barren ground. Soon the buds will be on the trees, soon the snowdrops will be out in force. For now, though, we can walk through the silent woodland and over the icy moor and wonder at the peace of it all. Of this welcome, gentle, unassuming lull, before the earth shifts on its axis and plunges us into the coming year.

Bit by bit

What are we doing tomorrow? is often the last question of the day, asked over the banisters on the way up to bed. I had wondered if the younger ones were beginning to get fed up with pottering around the house. Fortunately, ‘tomorrow’ was a day with definite errands, activities and an outing built in. Well, I need to go the the greengrocer and the butcher, and then I thought we might make some gingerbread, and then we’re going to visit your great-grandmother for tea. A look of slight concern passed over Seb’s face. Will we have some time at home? I’ve got so much more to do for Christmas.

Bit by bit, everything is coming together. As far as I’m concerned, only my favourite parts remain: wrapping the children’s presents in front of the fire one evening with John; Christmas Eve in the kitchen, making custard and stewed cabbage and pigs in blankets. Laying first the marzipan and then the icing over the rich fruit cake, and deciding how to finish it this year. Boiling the ham and baking dauphinois potatoes for a meal so rich that only something green and frugal can sit beside it: the cabbagey tops of the sprouts I’ve grown especially. Laying out the stockings at the ends of beds and, finally, trying to sleep so that Father Christmas might arrive.

In the meantime, other important preparations are being taken care of by our household team of elves. There’s a snowstorm on the kitchen windows, and paper chains dangle from every permissible angle. The gingerbread we baked was duly tasted, decorated and tasted again. The pile of homemade cards and little presents is growing, day by day. I’ve a secret slot booked in the kitchen with Ilse. And although they are itching to bring in the holly and the ivy and festoon every picture frame in the place,  that and the tree must wait until Christmas Eve, when everyone needs something to channel their excitement into.

Which left me free to dust off my spinning wheel last night and turn a pile of rolags into yarn. While I did, I thought about all the things I’m going to make in that quiet week between Christmas and New Year, and the walks we’re going to go on, and the people we’re going to see. And then I thought: what are we doing tomorrow? and realised that the answer was: nothing, especially. Well, how lovely is that? I think I’ll do a spot of wintry gardening, and then maybe add a bit to Ilse’s quilt. This is just the sort of holiday I needed: calm and quiet, while the children busy themselves with Christmas fun. I wish you the sort of holidays that you need, too, whatever those might be. Have a very happy Christmas, everyone.

That’s better

Well, we finally made it. The children broke up on Friday, John has taken two weeks off work, and the holidays have begun. It took us until Sunday for the truth of it to sink in, and until today for me to begin losing track of time, which is always the mark of a good break. But it was yesterday morning, walking across Hob Moor as the sun broke through the mist, that I stopped to pay attention. The children travel  this way every single school day, cycling over this little nature reserve on the edge of the city, with John or I in attendance more often than not. At the start of each new term we marvel at its beauty, or stop for  an impromptu picnic tea, but as the weeks wear on I stop looking and simply pedal, head down, into the wind or the rain.

To me, enjoying the little pleasures that winter affords is one of the joys of the Christmas holidays. When we are all at home, sharing out the daily tasks, there’s time to lie on the rug in front of the fire and savour a fat satsuma. There’s time to visit Mother and Father for mulled wine and her delectable mince slices: shortbread with an apple mincemeat topping. And time for parties, of course, fuelled by a fridge full of fizz. When else would I get to settle down and listen to whole of The Box of Delights with the little ones, or take all four of them to the flicks? And yes, there are cards to be written and homemade presents to complete, and there’s lots and lots of wrapping to be done. But with a spicy drink and some carols in the background, it’s no trouble at all.

Yet the nicest thing of all about the Christmas holidays is that almost everyone I know is having a little rest. It’s the one time of year when holidays across the country coincide so that bankers and teachers and schoolchildren and shopkeepers can collectively look forward to a few days off. Even the farmers and the doctors strip their tasks back to the essentials. And beyond these shores, in many other countries, more people than I can picture are celebrating the same feast in more ways than I can imagine. I like that thought very much: a collective sigh of peace and goodwill from all over the globe.

Because I know I’m not the only one to see an old route with new eyes at this time of year, or to look forward to renewing old traditions. Bit by bit, our house is filling with greenery and light. Touches of gold sparkle in dim corners. And every so often I catch myself taking a deep breath and thinking: ahh, that’s better.

Offshore

Everything ends. Some things feel as though they never will, although you wish they would. They drag their feet like children carrying a bad report towards home and reprimand. Others end all too soon: good books, an evening at the pictures, time with the people we love. It doesn’t seem to matter how long a good thing lasts – whether the summer holiday is two weeks or six – end it must, and it doesn’t hurt any the less for being longer.

I love the way we’ve ended our last two summers: in Northumberland, in a couple of tents, spending all of every day together. This year we visited Cragside, the wonderfully eccentric home of hydroelectricity, where frightfully English arts and crafts meet outrageous Italian marble and steamy Turkish baths lurk in the foundations. It drizzled the whole time we were there, but we didn’t mind. We took our time around the house and found a tremendous pine to picnic under in the arboretum. We had afternoon tea and cakes in the snug gatehouse teashop, and motored right around the estate on our way back to the campsite. It was on this final drive that we saw a deer, just for a moment, on the road in front of us, before she turned to face us and was gone. That was a day which ended all too soon.

Our campsite was feted for its wildlife: a river cut it off from the field across the way and the whole area was surrounded by trees. It is in these that the owls must live, and from these that they must hunt and hoot the whole night through. We kept our eyes peeled for foxes, which we see sometimes at home, but also badgers, which we don’t. Sadly they were either sheltering from the rain or else their black and white kept them safely hidden in the shadows streaked with moonlight. Even though we didn’t see them, I liked knowing they were there. There’s something comforting about animals nearby, where they should be, not chased away to the shrinking wildernesses of our little island.

It’s easy to forget that we Britons live on an island. In York the sea is almost equidistant in either direction, and feels so far away, but the truth is that we could drive from coast to coast in one day in the motor. Had I my way, and John’s job was not with Rowntrees, we would live by the sea, and I would have a boat of my own, and sail when the weather was fair. Sailing fast in a dinghy is just how I imagine flying to be: catching the wind, responding to it with a little adjustment here and there, moving just as the crow flies upon a fluid and unmarked highway. It’s been years since I’ve had that thrill.

I was quite ready to content myself with another boat trip, though: out to the Farnes, where the birds and seals are protected from day trippers and their casual interference. We mean well, but too many footfalls might damage a puffin’s burrow, or frighten away the terns. By the time we went, at the end of August, the birds had long since flown to sea, abandoning their summer breeding grounds to the ravages of winter. They’ll be elsewhere, riding the wind and the waves, unconcerned about offshore breezes on the rocks. We weren’t, though. August, and there we were in woolly hats and jackets with the collars pulled up high against the spray. I doubt the children noticed: they only had eyes for the seals on the rocks and in and out of the water, playful as pups, disappearing and emerging somewhere entirely unexpected. Two miles offshore and we could have been on a different planet, so far removed were we from the piers and paths and crab selling huts of Seahouses. Here and there a building braved the sea: Grace Darling’s lighthouse, a ruined church, and cottage or two for the wildlife wardens. I could almost fancy living there: spending March to December in a little white stone cottage on the edge of a rock in the cold grey sea.

Coming south to York, and being met by that glorious September, our time in Northumberland felt odd and other-worldly. It was autumn there so soon, and it was wild, and wonderfully free. Our little city feels so tame and familiar by comparison. But when last week the cold began to bite, and the sky shifted from blue to grey, it was of Northumberland I thought, and those grey seals on the rocks, and the end of our summer holidays. An end spent somewhere other, arrestingly wild and offshore.

Garden notes: August

There are so many things to love about August. School holidays, for one. Sunny days which are actually hot, as well as bright. Bare feet indoors and out. Swimming in the sea. Ices. Those blonde wispy bits at the front of Ilse’s hair – and then finding the same in the mirror. Reading in the garden. Reading in the park. Reading on campsites and beaches and trains. Little knits, and planning the big ones. Child-sized adventures here, there and everywhere. Catching up with family and friends. Baskets of garden goodies which make for easy, tasty gifts.

Putting up the rest of the produce. Every day there are more windfalls to be dealt with. I made fifteen jars of apple jam last week, then began on the apple sauce. The beans are living up to their reputation and providing enough for a couple of meals a day, were we that way inclined. Instead, we share some and preserve others. There are tomatoes and cucumbers and crisp green lettuce leaves for lunch and the potatoes, no longer early, are big and floury enough to roast on Sundays. The courgettes need picking every day or two, and those which hide beneath a floppy leaf get missed and swell to awkward proportions in no time. There’s a bed of summer cabbage to bring in and salt. Beetroot and small red onions have begun to fill a row of ruby jars, while bigger onions dry off in the sun.

On top of this, new seedlings have gone in. There are spring cabbages on the kitchen windowsill, and the empty pea bed is sprouting once again with beetroot, radishes and fennel. Winter salads have been sown to grow on under cover, as well as swiss chard and spring onions. The brassicas are standing in the beds, ready to brave the winter when it comes, and beneath the soil the parsnips are waiting to be sweetened by the frosts.

But not just yet. They’ll have to wait a little longer. This August, which kept on giving, has me convinced it’s going to be an Indian summer. Even if it isn’t, it’ll be a while before the pears come in off the tree, and the apples need to be picked and wrapped in paper. There’s a good month of harvest ahead, surely. There are still days left before school starts, still weeks till the clocks go back. I can’t quite believe that this summer, which has given us so much, is ever going to end. We’ll keep it going till the very last minute: till the frost strikes and the fire is lit and the blankets go back on the beds. And even after that, we’ll be remembering it and talking it over. Looking at postcards and photographs, making plans to go back again next year. And eating its bounty, tucked away in the jars and bottles that line the pantry shelves.

Not today, though. I’ll turn the page of the calendar tomorrow. Today, let’s pretend it’s still August. After all, the sun is high in the sky and school uniforms lie crumpled at the backs of drawers. Today, in this house at least, we’re calling it August.

Bit by bit

There are two ways to cut an overgrown lawn. The first is the way Ben approaches it: forcing the mower over the long grass with the brute strength of youth. A few passes and he’s inside, complaining that I have set him an impossible task. The grass is too long, the blades too blunt, the sun too high in the sky.

Come on, I tell him. We’ll do it together. And despite his protests, I raise the blades so high that they’ll cut only the most precocious plants. I adjust the tension so that the cylinder spins freely. Then I give him the mower to try, without the cumbersome bin attached, and off he sets, leaving an arc of green mowings in his wake. We lower the blades, less than he would like, and he does it again. Then lower again for a third cut, until by the fourth he is ready to reattach the bin and leave neat light and dark green stripes up and down the garden. He’s proud of a job well done, I’m happy and John is delighted to come home from work and find that job ticked off the list.

All I need to do now is approach my own task list in the same, gentle way. The house and garden are not quite the way I’d like them to be by this point in the summer. There are weeds growing back between the patio slabs, and the celery is struggling with the heat. I haven’t washed the curtains yet, or beat the rugs for an age. I’ve a mountain of marrows to turn into chutney, and have hardly made any jam. The children’s clothes need clearing out, and I’ve got stuck halfway through knitting a pair of socks for Ben.

Luckily, his lesson on the lawn was a good one for me, too. Slowly, Cecily, slowly does it. It doesn’t all need to be done in one fell swoop. Every day there are meals to be made, clothes to be washed, floors to be swept. Much more importantly than that, there are the children’s holidays to be enjoyed. If I pick a single task every two or three days, that will be progress enough. Bit by bit, I’ll work my way down that list. And if I never reach the bottom? Well, never mind. What happens will happen, and what doesn’t, won’t. Given the choice between embracing the summer and running a perfect house, I know which I’d choose. Today the lawn was mown and the shed tidied, which I think merits a trip to the seaside tomorrow. Make hay while the sun shines, yes, but don’t forget to stop for a long drink of cider and a midday snooze in the shade of the bird-loud hedge.

Under the sea

Under the sea, everything is shimmering and slick. Sharks flash by with hollow grins. Small fry twist and dodge in choreographed synchronicity. Far away, over the blue horizon, mermaids sunbathe on the rocks between underwater races and the rescuing of hapless humans. And far below, giant squid glide effortlessly through the dark, their great plate eyes searching for yet another victim.

Or so they tell me. Family camp is fast approaching, and costume making has begun in earnest. There’s painting in the garage, and the cutting up of old potato sacks. Ilse has presented me with a coloured pencil drawing of her tail. Fliss has requisitioned the sewing machine. Ideas are broached, discarded and resurrected in the course of a single mealtime. Best of all, they are all occupied and happy, these children of mine, leaving me free to think about the things we’ll need for a camp on a hill in Devon. Top of the list? Why, bathers of course. Because I have every intention of getting into that sea.