Nesting

When I went out to the hens this morning I found that three of them, at least, had finally finished putting on their winter eiderdowns and were laying eggs again. After a few weeks of nothing, it was a pleasure to carry the still warm treasures through the frosty garden and place them in the bowl, straw and all.

I’ve been nesting, too, in this cold weather. The temperature dropped below freezing just in time for advent, and just in time for our new fireplace in the dining room to be lit for the first time. We decided to have the sitting room mantlepiece replaced too, so there was an awkward day last weekend when all the furniture was piled up in one end of our kitchen. John finished painting the dining room first, and we moved a couple of armchairs in there to have somewhere warm and clean to sit – a temporary measure, you understand. Except that it transpires that our dining room makes the cosiest sitting room imaginable.

I love these sorts of accidents. Who knew that a smaller sitting room was what we wanted, or that the bigger room would be so perfect for the dining table and all the making and designing that it hosts? That the piano would fit so perfectly into the space between the door and the start of the bay window, or that a big old leather settee was just what you needed to be able to flop onto when your algebra or sewing was too hard? And so the base of an old dresser has been pushed into an alcove to hold the coloured pens and school books, and the piles of sheet music found a space for in the big family bookcase. Armchairs and small tables have been moved. And cushions and throws and blankets have found new homes on old chairs around the house.

We haven’t bought anything, but the house feels completely different, which is my favourite kind of decorating. All our familiar things in unexpected places. There are two new-to-us items, however, which needed a reshuffle to find their places in the house. One is an old low rocking chair, which belonged to John’s grandmother. She used to sit and knit in it when he was a little boy. It’s been waiting for new covers for an embarrassing length of time, but now that there’s a space waiting for it by the fire, it’s the next job on my list. Much easier was the act of spreading a gorgeously warm Welsh blanket across the foot of our bed, to be pulled up on chilly nights. Passed on by John’s mother, it is just the thing to cosy up our room.

Last but not least were the advent calendars, unfurled and hung in a row in the hall, each little pocket stuffed with a chocolate for the start of every day. And I couldn’t resist a string of fairy lights around the kitchen dresser, where the first of the Christmas cards stands. It’s advent, you know. Time to get nesting. I hear a special baby’s on the way.

Tesselations

There have been page after page of tesselations floating around the house of late. Fliss learned to draw these interlocking patterns from her mathematics mistress and Ilse, spotting the bright sheets of gridded paper, demanded to know how they were done. Ever patient, Fliss taught her sister to draw interconnected crosses three squares wide, and pick each element out in a different colour. Then they moved on to dogs, each one standing on the back of the next so that they rose in diagonal towers across the page. Then came the moment of glory, when Ilse made up her own simple pattern and it worked. When I’m grown up, she announced, and I build a house of my own, this will be the hall floor.

The lives of the six of us, in and out of this house, are a tesselation of their own. They are more than the sum of their parts, and, when all is well, they fit together into a lovely seamless pattern. I see it more at this time of year than any other: when it’s chilly in the bedrooms and so we gather around the fire. When there’s still novelty in indoor pursuits and no-one is fed up with the same games, the same stories, the same selection of crafts. Last night, Ben lit the fire while I got the tea things ready. I sat down with a final cup once the scones had all been eaten, and found the boys engrossed in a game of chess. The girls were drawing more tesselating patterns together. Tea drunk, it was time to give Seb and Fliss their flute lesson, and for Ben to make a start on his prep. Ilse was happy with the shoebox of colouring pencils until Seb was free to join her, while Fliss went off to write an essay on Tennyson. By the time John came home, supper was ready, prep was done, and the children had a fresh stack of patterns for him to admire. It was one of those lovely evenings when everything fitted tidily together.

Of course, not all evenings are quite as neat. Often the things we do jar and clash against each other. Show me a family that doesn’t know that feeling. But once in a while everything fits, just so. The tasks which need to be done fall into place alongside the all important play. Everyone wants to join in the same games, to make the same music, to draw the same pretty patterns. Those rare evenings are worth taking the time to enjoy. And of course, the cherry on the cake was that the patterns the children were drawing summed it up just perfectly.

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.

The other side of rain

Wet washing hung over the banisters. Macintosh-clad children cycling through the puddles, splashing their bare legs with gritty water. Knitting indoors and not out. Trays of second sowings languishing on windowsills. Toes which are too cold and then, once slippered, too hot. Rainy days in June, when we had hoped for sun.

And yet. Rainy days in summer have their own peculiar charms. The other side of rain is pea and lettuce soup for supper, fragranced with fresh mint. More shades of green than I can name, just outside the window. Bejewelled peonies that only I am traipsing out to see. A cool day to turn gooseberries and elderflowers into jam – and another excuse for buttered scones. Guilt-free time with a book while the weeds dance under the falling droplets. Fewer qualms about children stuck indoors, revising. No need to use the watering can for a week or so. The knowledge that tomorrow might well be a scorcher.

All told, I’ll settle for today. After all, I waited all winter for June. Rainy days or not, it is slipping by so quickly. Soon the holidays will be upon us, soon the children will be another school year older. Soon there will be a week when we spill onto the lawn and picnic thrice a day. But today the rain is falling and, all things considered, there are worse things that could happen.

Banking it

Clearly two plus one does not always equal three. Take bank holidays, for instance: adding just one day to the weekend more than doubles the time off work. Everything that can closes down for the full three days, leaving Saturday curiously like Sunday, that lovely day of peace. And then the real Sunday comes, and then Monday which, with all the banks and shops and schools and factories shut down, is Sunday yet again. And three Sundays are worth much more than three of any other day, which makes the break far longer than just three turns upon the axis.

Add to that the fact that everything seems just that little bit easier in May and well – what are we to do but spend a lazy three days pottering around at home? Getting back into bed with the tea tray and a good book for just one extra hour. Helping Ilse with her latest project (involving tissue paper and a great deal of paste) before even thinking about the luncheon. Finding myself with an army of eager garden helpers, which dwindles to just one within five minutes, but which is still one more than I am used to. Getting round to some of the tasks I’ve been avoiding: repotting the tomatoes for the last time, lifting the netting off the peas to get at those marauding weeds – because it’s ten times more fun with two. Thanking John for doing the tasks I find heavy going, like cutting the hedges and mowing the lawn. Seeing a break from Ben’s revision become a carpentry session, at the end of which the hens have a new playground to get fit on.

Caught in this little time warp there is a chance to slow down, take stock, and get started on ventures new. Time to pair a pattern with some soft and variegated aran, and see a cabled bobble hat fly together in a swift row here, row there. Looking at my fast dwindling skeins of wool and choosing some to crochet into granny squares. Opening the cupboard with the fabric in and, with Fliss, choosing all the cottons for her quilt. Poring over design books together, and asking if she’s sure. Sitting and chatting while we snip away at old shirts and dresses, cutting squares two and a half inches wide for an Irish chain in washed out pinks and greens. And then, when we pause, finding that it’s only ten to three, and not quite time for tea.

There have been trips to the park, and to a friend’s to play. There’s been music practice, and preparation for exams, and learning lines for a school performance. There’s been a long letter from Meg, and one written in reply. A shop popping up in the shed, selling all manner of groceries at outrageous prices. A garden centre with a cafe and two keen delivery children scooting up and down the paths. Leisurely lunches which melt into leisurely teas. A bit of a tidy. A lot of sitting in the sun.

I’m half expecting to find that a whole month has gone by, while we were having our bank holiday weekend. We’ll go back to the real world and find that there’s a row of little absent Os in the school registers, that John’s desk at work is dusty. That Mrs P has been knocking at the door, and the children and I have missed our holiday by the sea. They go on forever, these bank holiday weekends, always giving more than seems quite possible. Soak it up, I say. Save it, store it, bank a bit of this for later. Because – believe it or not – it won’t go on forever.

Spring fashions, 1931

Hail one day, then glorious sunshine the next. April, in Yorkshire. Except that the sun has stayed with us for several days now, and temperatures are on the rise, and all that wool seems suddenly unseasonal. The time for cotton is most definitely here.

I have to admit that I really like changing our clothing over from one season to the next. There’s not that much involved. The pulling forward of cotton shirts and frocks. Making sure everyone has a set of decent bathers. Exchanging felt hats for straw, and heavy winter coats for canvas.

It’s the putting away which takes a little longer. Mrs P and I have been doing extra washes this week, of the woollens and the dressing gowns and so forth. Some things will stay out, refreshed, ready to be worn on cooler days or chilly evenings. Other things can be put away at the back of the wardrobe after a good airing, buttoned up and with the pockets basted shut to hold their shape. Boots are cleaned and polished ready for the next year or next child. Blankets flap on the line on a sunny afternoon and it feels like a thank you of sorts, this ritual week of putting things to rest. Sewing up little tears or undone seams, sponging dirty marks out of a lapel, putting our coats and jackets on the best padded hangers. They’ve kept us warm and dry all winter, and deserve to be looked after. They’ll be waiting when the calendar rolls on once more.

In the meantime, the cotton is shaken out and pressed. The girls head off to school in crisp green gingham, with white ankle socks and goosebumps on their calves. By first play, they assure me, it’s simply scorching. The boys are eagerly awaiting shirt sleeve orders. They ride home with blazers draped over their handlebars.

And I? Well, I’m getting to know these summer frocks of mine again. I’m enjoying seeing something different when I open the wardrobe door. I’ve been thinking about the season ahead, and what it holds for us, and making sure we all have what we need. There’ll be lots of normal life: gardening and housework and popping into York. The odd smart occasion, for which I think I’ll dress up my peonies frock. And lots of camping too, in July and August, which can be awkward in a skirt.

I decided to be bold, in the end, and bought a pair of slacks each for Fliss and myself. Needless to say, she looks the part in them, and loved them at once. I may take a little longer to get used to mine – a process which has not been helped by Mrs P’s reaction. But they are blissfully comfortable and so very, very practical. I wouldn’t wear them to church, or out to tea, but they’ll be perfect for life in a tent. And I must say, they look rather smart with a gay pullover and a pair of heels. So you can think what you like, Mrs P – I’m going to wear them anyway. It is 1931, after all.

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Nests

The blue tits are back, darting from the ground to the apple tree in short, fluttering hops. I presume they are building a nest in its hollow crown, although I have left them in peace. They have done so before, as evidenced by the numbers of them swooping low over the insect-rich lawn on buzzing late summer evenings. There are plenty of dried leaves for them, plenty of moss and bits of grass. I hope they make a home here once again.

My dear friend Mrs Eve has been doing the very same, making a new home just right for she and her Mister. She is buying new furniture, and happily unpacking trunks into new wardrobes. Creating a place to set forth from and to come home to. Somewhere which reflects the pair of them, just as they are. Somewhere spick, span, and ever so cosy.

Now that spring is coming, the urge to nest has struck even those of us who have been settled for some years. Through Mrs Eve I have had all the fun of shopping vicariously, coming home with a full purse. And I still don’t intend to spend much. But there are changes to be made.

For me, it’s all about having a base from which to get out, at this time of year. A place to sit just outside the door, and be spurred on into the garden. Somewhere to cast on for little knits on sunny afternoons. A snug spot for a snooze, without the season passing us by. And then, when the sun goes in at the end of the evening, when the fresh air has tired us out and the breeze turns chilly, we’ll want somewhere cosy to retreat to: a nest of sorts, lined with soft wool instead of moss. A space which looks out onto the world beyond, waiting for the next flight, and the next.

Ben will be spreading his wings this summer as usual, heading off on adventures of his own. Fliss will go away for a week or so with the Guides. Seb will spend the long vacation roaming round the village, and even Ilse will be popping in and out of this home and that. Then there will be times when we all fly away, together, to explore other parts of this island. We are all so looking forward to being away.

Yet I know that the flip side of being away is the joy of coming home again. Knowing the rhythm of our days. Seeing how the plants have grown, in our absence. Hearing, from Mother and Father, of how the hens have sulked and fussed and refused to lay any eggs. Opening the door to our own hall, hanging our coats on our own pegs, settling into our own beds.

They say that a change is as good as a rest, and after this busy half term with all its decorating and digging I am ready for a change. I’ve the kitchen in mind, with its french doors which open onto the patio beyond. Nothing drastic, nothing more than the work of an afternoon. I’d like to try the sofa in a different spot, for a better view. I’d like the rocking chair pulled closer to the door so that it’s the work of a moment to lift it onto the patio. I’d like to wake the picnic bench from its long slumber in the shed, ready for springtime dining. And I’d like to press some blooms, and place them in the frames which line one kitchen wall. To make this spot as cosy and appealing as I can. Because this is where you’ll find us, in this room which spills so delightfully outside. There, and in the garden beyond. Darting in and out of our nest, with brief fluttering hops at first. And later? Why, later we’ll have spread our wings. Later we’ll be swooping over the loud lawn in the heady evenings of summer, drunk on the joys of the season.

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Slowly

This time of year ought to be treated with care, like the convalescence after a long and difficult illness. This is not the time for programmes of self-improvement, or waist-reducing diets. Instead, we should be recuperating slowly after the long descent into darkness and the busyness of the new year. Yes, the earth is waking up. Yes, the days are gradually growing longer, and their light less thin and fragile. But these things happen slowly, and we ought to match their pace.

I had a lovely day, yesterday, moving slowly. I slowed so much that I stopped altogether at Mother and Father’s house and stayed to lunch: a great bowl of rich scotch broth, full of tender chunks of root vegetables, then a square or three of Mother’s fudge afterwards. I paused for a chat with the haberdasher as I chose the buttons for my dress, and for another with the butcher. The wind was fierce, and the market stalls near deserted, but he was in good cheer, as always.

I learnt a lesson from Seb on the way home. We were cycling into that wind, heads down and jaws set, when I suggested that we go down a gear. He immediately dropped into his very lowest and it was like that that we cycled the three miles home, pedals spinning, along a track which took us over the moor and through the whistling underpass.

They know about going slowly, these children of mine. They’ll wake and read for an hour or more, in their warm nests of beds, until someone calls them down for a bowl of the porridge which has been gradually thickening on the stove. They put their night things on early in these still-dark evenings, and come back down to read again before the fire. They play chess, with friends, move after move, game after game, thinking and pausing, a hand hovering before the final decision is made and the fatal piece touched.

Even when I go slowly, everything still gets done. I made a stew, simmering all afternoon in the bottom oven, so that by supper time the beef was falling apart and the dumplings cooked through to their mustardy cores. The fire was laid and lit. I had time for a long talk with my mother in law, visiting for the evening, and time to pull some parsnips for her to take home. They take a long time to germinate, those roots, then a long time to grow and a long time to roast and come into their earthy sweetness. All these things happen in their own time. And in my own time the house is cleaned, the ironing done, the children tucked up with hot water bottles to warm cold sheets and toes.

I’m having another slow day today. In fact, I’m having a slow month or two. There’ll be time enough for energetic bustle in the spring. Right now I’m content to meander through the days, pausing for a cup of tea by the kitchen window, watching the hellebores and snowdrops nod their drowsy heads in the cold winter air.

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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.

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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.

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