Welcome, rain

On Friday afternoon, the sun shone and the air grew so thick that I abandoned all thoughts of cooking. Indoors, the couch and my knitting were beckoning, but instead I stayed on the patio, picking my way through another batch of fleece before carding it, ready for spinning. The thing is, you never know whether this will be the last day of sunshine for a long, cold while. So while the sun shone, I carried on with the dirty, outside tasks, like pulling the mucky tips off the wool and watching the dust fly as it moved from carder to carder.

Over tea – thank goodness for ready-roast chickens and shops within an easy cycle – I doled out jobs for today. Not a lot, just a little help from everyone, please. Strimming for Ben. Tying up the peas and beans for Seb while Fliss staked the fast-blooming alstroemerias and my new freesias. Ilse was to help me water and plant out the cucumbers and courgettes – the very last things to go into this spring’s veg patch – while I weeded it all and John made his usual rounds at the butcher and greengrocer’s on the market. A typical late spring Saturday morning.

And then on Saturday it rained, on and off all day, so that instead we found ourselves in the kitchen. A kettle on the Rayburn for endless mugs of tea, and more buttery crumpets smeared with Marmite as each new sleepy head emerged. Fliss stitched away at her old ballet skirt, embroidering it with golden swirls for a fancy dress costume. Seb appeared from the garage with a big stick and his knife, as well as the promise to work over a spread of newspapers. Ilse was colouring, and Ben rummaged through the spice drawer as he and John planned our meals for the week ahead. It’s the first time in ages that we’ve been in just one space, together, for so long. In the spring our house doubles in size as we spread out, away from the fires, into bedrooms and right down to the end of the garden to make much-needed repairs to winter-ravaged dens. But yesterday we all stayed together, held no doubt by the gentle warmth of the cooker and all five episodes of Death on the Nile, one after another, on the radio.

As for me, I worked on the knitting I’d been so keen to get to the previous day, which is a pattern I’m developing for the autumn. I got through all the counting and onto the easy stretch before Poirot solved the murder, which was satisfying. The rain let up, just a little, after lunch, so that I could run out and plant the freesias that my dad had bought me on Friday, staking them against the weather. And then, later, there was Paddington to watch again and, best of all, a pile of rolags ready to spin from that sultry afternoon the day before. There’s a time and a place for everything, you see. Tasks for sunshine and tasks for rain. That way, whatever the weather, there’s a way to make it welcome.

Madeleine

Through the wardrobe

Mid May seems terribly late to be going through the children’s wardrobes, but this spring has felt too cold to do so any sooner. At least, that’s what I think. Ilse has been bouncing around in her romper since she spied it in the cupboard when I dug out a couple of her gingham dresses for school. Whatever the weather, spring classrooms are invariably stuffy.

Sunday dawned wet and grey, to be honest, but by the time we got home from Mass the sun was streaming from the heavens and the hens lay basking in it, wings akimbo. I dragged Seb upstairs to go through his things with him, and after the first couple of reluctant changes he was quite pleased to be reunited with some of his more summery things. Of course he’s grown, but with a move to a new school in just a few months’ time I think we’ll embrace the almost cropped look and let him choose some new things next spring instead. At twelve he won’t want to be wearing clothes he chose at the naive and tender age of eleven. This I know from experience. And after all that rationalisation I softened and promised him one new top, just to ring the changes. Needless to say he chose another animal one.

Ilse’s turn began with a look through Seb’s old things, picking out what would be useful for summer camping and the like. Although we agree that you can do absolutely anything in a dress that you could do in trousers, she quite likes wearing her big brother’s clothes when she’s adventuring, and I like to see her a little warmer when she doesn’t realise that it’s turned cold and grey. That said, Seb’s old things couldn’t match the thrill of being reacquainted with a trio of pretty cotton frocks, and she happily tried each one in turn. Two, a little big last year, fit perfectly now. One of those was mine when I was little, and although Mother wasn’t one to save clothes once they were outgrown by the smallest of us, this frock turned up in a box of books a few years ago and has since been worn by Ilse’s cousin, and Fliss, and now her. Add Meg and I, and that’s five of us, which is quite nice, although I’m not entirely sure why. It’s just a dress. Most importantly, she thinks it’s beautiful.

We both gasped a little when she put on the frock I made for her last summerWell Mummy, aren’t you glad you put such a big hem in it? she beamed. It was down here last year! And so it was, right down below her knees, and now it is almost halfway up her thigh. So yes, I am glad I put such a big hem in that and all her dresses. I’ve learned that trick through experience too. It wasn’t such a surprise to me as it was to her, to see how much she’s grown – I’ve been watching her grow out of her winter dresses for months – but she was absolutely thrilled. I remember that feeling of going through my wardrobe as a child: suddenly things which had always fitted were too small, and I’d grown while playing and learning and doing other things. How wonderful. How odd. Best of all, though, was the little stack of new-to-you things to wear, and Ilse is no less pleased with her pile. Cotton, flowers, and more cotton please – jumpers were most severely sent off to the big cupboard to sit the summer out.

Later, though, once she’d skipped off downstairs in nothing warmer than her romper, I pulled a couple of hand-knits from the cupboard and added them to her pile. Emergency cardigans: the sort of thinking that makes me realise that I’ve gone and grown up while I was playing and learning and doing other things.

Bound

What a lazy Sunday – not at all the sort I would expect in May. A morning spent knitting a quick and chunky snood in peacock hues, ends woven in and blocked by lunchtime: the fruits of one of my very first attempts at spinning. A spot more spinning while it soaked. And then an afternoon in front of the fire, hand sewing the back of the binding onto Ilse’s quilt while outside continued windy and cold and grey and someone else took care of the supper.

The pace of crafting in this house tells me that it isn’t quite as warm as it ought to be, for May, and we would like a little more sunshine, please. We are still wearing our coats when we go into the garden, only shedding them once this task or that has warmed us up. Mrs. Drummer and I went for an evening of knitting in the pub on Saturday and there was no chance of our sitting outside. She finished a lovely moss stitch scarf and I cast on for my snood, and it didn’t feel unseasonable at all. Very pleasant, in fact, if somewhat oddly autumnal.

So, rather than spending hours in the garden and just enough to keep the quilt ticking over, my time is being spent the other way around, and I don’t think it’ll take me until the end of May after all. There’s been a change of plan, too, which will speed things along just as soon as I unpick what I’ve already done. Having quilted nine of the sixty-three white squares I don’t like the effect at all. They break up the chain effect and make the pattern revert to one of nine-patches and white blocks. Instead, the centre square of each nine-patch will be quilted, emphasising the intersections between the horizontal and vertical rows of diamonds – much more in keeping with the trompe l’oeil. There’s no need to stick slavishly to an original plan and anyway, it’s a good excuse to unpick those wobbly first lines of quilting stitches.

Hopefully it won’t be done by the end of May because that will mean that the weather has turned gorgeously warm and bright and I’ve been unable to resist the charms of the great outdoors. It won’t matter anyway, because Ilse will be far too hot at night to want such a thick and heavy quilt draped over her. But if things stay the same I shan’t mind too much, having something warm and interesting to look at spread over my lap as I stitch.  Either way, it’s bound to by finished by autumn.

Outside: Potting on

It’s official: I have run out of space on the kitchen windowsills. All the way around are pots full of seedlings: marigolds, lettuces, cauliflowers, sweet peas… I ran out of trays weeks ago and so they stand on a motley assortment of old plates and the like. Each burst of germination sends me hunting round the house and shed for something – anything! – to put the next lot in, and that something is always found. Tin cans, toilet roll inners, things the children have fashioned out of newspaper – it all works well enough. But more space is not something we can magic up that easily. And I’ll be needing more next week.

I don’t remember ever having such an abundance of seedlings all at once before. Partly it’s because I’ve taken a leaf out of my friend Mr. White’s book and started my brassicas inside this year. Partly it’s because spring seemed late and cold and nothing went in until April. And partly it’s because by the time you’ve found a new source of ‘pots’ and ‘trays’ you may as well pot on every last seedling, as someone will surely want it.

Thankfully while it all seems to be coming up thick and fast, things are about to start moving on quite quickly too. I suppose that’s the beauty of sowing in April: May is only just around the corner and I think the tomatoes will be happy in the greenhouse soon. I’ve earmarked some plants to go out into the soil under large-jars-as-cloches, and another lot to pass on to other gardeners.

It’s a constant shuffle, this potting on business, a funny sort of dance involving pots and trays and rather a lot of compost, but an elegant one all the same. Somehow, at the end of each day spent making such moves, everything ends up in the right place, and there is just enough room for it all.

Like the wind

After taking so very long to get started, Ilse’s quilt is flying together. This week I sewed the squares into long diagonal rows and then, on Saturday, started putting the rows together. I thought I’d try a couple, to see how the quilt would look, but somehow just one more row turned into a whole quilt top and by half past nine it was spread out on the living room floor, and everyone not yet in bed called in to admire it.

Once it was ironed I hung it on the line to dry the last of the sprinkled water, and stood for some time as it danced in the lively wind. How lovely it is, to see those pieces cut out so long ago finally come together. It looks just as I’d imagined it: blues, greens and pinks against a white background. Look at it closely and you see the nine-patches set on point; squint and there are rows of horizontal and vertical diamonds. With it so close to completion, and with the timely arrival of an old circular tablecloth from Mother, I pieced a back on Sunday and sandwiched one of Ilse’s great-grandfather’s blankets between the two, safety-pinning it all in place.

Now I know that the convention is to quilt it all next, but there were a lot of seams on the edge of this quilt, all sewn on my aged 1916 Singer and prone to pulling apart. The thought of watching them unravel as I worked my way through weeks of hand quilting made me wince. So I took some advice from a highly experienced quilter and machined the binding in place. The apple green sets off all the other greens in the quilt and now, like magic, it is a green and white quilt. It’s funny how that happens. It could have been pink, or even blue, but no, it’s apple green: crisp and fresh.

All that activity left a bare shelf in the landing cupboard to fill with blankets peeled off everyone’s beds. Yesterday’s wind has blown itself out and May has arrived, bright and calm. I’ve given myself the whole month to finish this quilt off: to hand stitch down the binding, cross stitch a little label and quilt a diamond in each of those background squares. I can’t think of anything I’d rather be doing, now that spring seems here to stay. I’ll carry it onto the lawn on sunny afternoons, and sit under it to work in the still-chilly evenings. It’s still going like the wind, only now it’s just a gentle breeze, soft and mild.

Bringing it in

Now that the garden is back under control, we can settle into our usual rhythms: a little weeding every day, some planting or staking or some other important task – just a couple of hours out there, four or five times a week. For the last couple of years I’ve made weeding the first thing I do when I step outside. I wander round all the fruit and veg beds and pull up every last little weed I can find. It’s become a habit, partly because I practised it but mainly because it works. My beds have been cleaner than they ever were before. (Just don’t peer into the corners of our garden. We call them wildlife havens, and the air above them hums with life, but most people would call them neglected, instead.)

This year, though, I’ve decided that bringing it in will be the first thing I do each day. I started on Sunday, and found four fennel bulbs to sit our joint of pork on, and a basket of the last of the sprouting broccoli, each stem slender and tender and a deep forest green. On Monday there was cherry blossom, cut from the side which overhangs a veg bed slightly, and between getting it through the back door and into a vase in the sitting room the house was strewn with petals. It was so nearly over that I almost left it out there, and only came back to it after pulling a handful of beetroot from its overwintering in the greenhouse. Half an hour later the blue sky turned black and the rain pelted down, and through the kitchen window I could see the dark sky fill with pale confetti, ripped from the dancing branches. On Tuesday there were bluebells, cut from the patch Fliss discovered self-seeding behind the compost bay (another wildlife haven), and enough little gem leaves, yet again from the greenhouse, to put one or two into everyone’s sandwiches.

There’s not a lot out there just yet, but there’s so much more than I can see standing at the kitchen sink. If I didn’t go looking I’d have missed those bluebells, and that rain would have whipped the end of the cherry blossom from under my very nose. There may not be bowlfuls of salad, but oh! what a difference a little fresh crunch makes in an April sandwich. And even if it’s only a basket of young nettles or beetroot tops to treat as chard, it’s something. I shudder to think how much I’ve missed over the years, waiting for the harvest. So that’s my springtime resolution: keep up with the weeding, and do a different, extra, task each day, but first of all, bring something – anything – in. A little harvest, each and every day. It’s absurd how much pleasure that brings me.

Holy Week

My children like Christmas much more than Easter; I think most children do. I certainly used to. Now, though, it’s the other way around. I love Easter and all that leads up to it: Pancake Day, Ash Wednesday, Lent, Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, Easter Saturday… It goes on for well over a month, but, well, so does life. Looking around, even now, you wouldn’t know that there was anything much afoot. A few more chocolates in the shops, perhaps, in some rather unusual shapes, but nothing like the days before Christmas.

Instead, Holy Week finds us all full of our own plans: for gardening, spring cleaning, a good old clear out, a trip away or maybe just a rest in the glorious sunshine. I like the way that life goes on throughout the run up to Easter. If Christmas is about a birth, with all the excitement and novelty that that entails, Easter is about life. About the day to day, and how we live it, and what happens when it comes to an end on this earth. If a birth is the beginning of something, like a wedding day, full of promise and joy, then life is about the keeping or breaking of those vows. Not with grand gestures once a year on a birthday or anniversary. It’s in a million cups of tea, or meals set on the table, or a willingness to stop and listen to each other. Small things.

So really, I’m glad that there are no gifts to be bought or parties to attend. Just a trip to mass and a meal with family and a bit of chocolate for the children. Simple celebrations in the midst of springtime life: the sowing of seeds, the pulling of weeds, the washing of curtains and quilts. It’s a promise kept, Easter Day, just as the spring follows the deep midwinter. A miracle occurred. The sun came back. And life goes on and on.

A day dress

It isn’t often that I make an adult dress from start to finish in a single day. Normally I break it into little chunks: drafting the pattern, cutting out and so forth, and spread it over three or four. For a long time there hasn’t been enough space between meals and laundry and the million other tasks that all parents know so well.

However, I’d promised myself that I’d finish all the garment sewing by the end of March, and on the first of April the fabric I’d ordered some weeks earlier was still waiting, washed and ready, for my attention. I told them all at breakfast: Today I am sewing a dress, divided the tasks into the spaces between meals, and began.

By elevenses an old pattern was modified and the pieces cut out. I sewed the preparatory bits and pieces between then and lunch: a self-fabric belt, darts, long tubes for straps pulled inside out, and even tinier tubes to snip into matching button-loops. Then, in the space between lunch and tea I put it all together: the quarter circle skirt, the three piece bodice, the straps and button-loops attached in just the right positions. John helped me drape it on myself, marking adjustments with coloured chalk and getting the row of buttons central down my back. And finally, after tea and cake, it was time to hand-sew the hem and stitch seven mother-of-pearl buttons into place. I was done in time for supper, only one day late, with another project off the shelf and into my wardrobe.

It’s not a fancy dress at all, just a day dress, with crossover spaghetti-thin straps and a row of dainty buttons down the back. It’s got a modest circular skirt, only as wide as an A-line but without the darts and with plenty of bias drape. The bodice is fitted but not tight – even at the post-tea fitting there was room around the waist – with a wide belt to cinch it all in should the desire arise. And the Indian chintz makes me think of the bleaching midday sun, and parasols, and heat, and dust. Exotic things. Summer things.

I hope we get the weather for it this year. I’ve lined it throughout, just in case, to add a little warmth (and modesty) to that fine, pale-coloured fabric. It ought to be warm enough for high noon, and I’ve a cardigan nearly off the needles to pair with it morning and evening. It is a day dress, after all. A summer’s day, hot day, holiday sort of dress.

Out there

I’ve been waiting and waiting for the excitement to hit, but it just hasn’t so far this year. Normally by now I’m out there every day, planting things ever so slightly too early, impatient for the weather to warm up, but not this spring. I took a stroll around the garden with Father on Sunday afternoon and was dismayed by how weedy and forlorn it looked – my own fault for neglecting it this long – but instead of rising to the challenge I wasn’t quite sure I was up to it. I’m tired, and there are so many things pulling at the corners of my mind that I don’t seem to have a moment to daydream about the warmer months ahead.

But then the sun comes out, and I promise myself that all I have to do is go out and cut some purple sprouting broccoli for supper before I can come back in. Two hours later I’m still out there. There’s a basket of broccoli and another of celeriac, before it runs to seed. I found some tiny red onions, missed in last year’s harvest, sprouting zingy greens to go with tomorrow morning’s eggs. And of course rhubarb, which I so often forget to pick: enough to stew for an easy weeknight pudding, topped with a dollop of cream. I’ve weeded the fourth of the veg beds and made a plan of attack for the upcoming holidays – a sort of jump-start into the season ahead. Best of all, I sat on our bench in the sunshine and watched the birds come and go. A wren, gathering moss for her nest. Our hens, their feather armour slip-sliding smoothly over their sun-warmed necks. A pair of doves, balancing in the uppermost branches of a nearby tree. And the tits, flitting in and out of the hollow in the trunk of that old apple.

In years gone by I’ve been the one leading the way outdoors at this time of year, coaxing the children out with slightly unseasonal ices or drinks. This time they’ve beaten me to it. They’ve had whole afternoons in the hammock, played cricket on the lawn and are shutting up the hens each evening. Ilse’s little bed is beautifully well weeded. And this morning, before school, they each put in a request for what they’d like to sow this afternoon. I’ve got more flower seeds than I’ve ever had before, and promised to buy some bedding plants in after the last frosts. This isn’t very me at all.

But I don’t particularly mind. How nice it is to have someone else to lead the way when you’re feeling tired out by it all. What a pleasure it is to sow something different, and watch new plants emerge. Their enthusiasm’s catching, as is the sun, and I was glad that my quarter of an hour grew into so much more. When I came in I mapped out all the beds and what’s going where, and began to get a little bit excited. I think an evening with a gardening book is in order. In fact, from where I sit I can see blue skies through the window. Perhaps I’ll make a pot of tea and head outside right now. After all, it’s looking quite appealing, out there.

Mud and rushes

The willow is most definitely out: the twisted little tree in our garden; the grand weeping sort, trailing its tears in the silty river water; and the shoots which sprout unbidden everywhere they think they can get away with it. We saw more willow than anything, on our Sunday walk along the Ouse. We also saw wild cherry trees in such full bloom that from time to time there was nothing for it but to stop, and stand in their arms, and breathe in all that nectar.

Maples were unfurling their sticky buds, their little hands still held tight in the cool spring air. And everywhere stood hummocks of last autumn’s grass, its seeds long since pillaged by the birds and the field mice and the tiny, furry voles.

These are the things I look for on a walk: what is growing, what was growing, what will be growing soon. Signs of animals which surely must abound there. Birdsong, and flashes of the rainbow as a crow hops into the marsh, a treasure in his beak. Just life, really, the sort of life that goes on, wild and independent, galaxies apart from mine, and right there on my doorstep.

What the children look for is something entirely different. The city boathouse where the wooden rowing shells wait in racks for their turn upon the river. Wide concrete steps down to the water, and an algae-waving wellington abandoned at their foot. Barges along the towpath, and their little gardens set out with living fences woven out of willow. The smell of woodsmoke, and somebody’s lunch, and the fantasy of living there and being allowed to roam the water and its edge. Eroded pathways tumbling to the shore, with muddy beaches and slippery expeditions to the next. Grass, growing unkempt and unexpected in the crook of a tree, and working out how it came to be there. And mud. Always mud. Squelchy and wet in the marshes, a treacherous terrain which boasts the fluffy tops of rushes at its centre. Mud, slippery on the beaches. Sucking mud, in patches, where if you wiggle your feet you can get them to sink in and pretend that you are trapped there, held prisoner by your own rubber boots.

It’s gratifying, how much pleasure can be gleaned from a simple tramp along the water at the edge of the city. I can see why there are big houses built here, overlooking the marshland and the waterway beyond. Huge houses, in fact, with lawns which sweep down to the rough public land below, a polite distance keeping them from tramping folk like us. I saw one house that I would very much like to live in, should I also be allowed to have the staff. And a garden that I loved, with ancient hawthorns pruned into wonderfully round clumps at the end of each gnarled branch. We ought to go back, in May, to see them blossom into candy floss. That was the image I carried home with me.

Seb, who is on occasion very wise as well as being very silly, brought home a handful of fluff from the top of a tall reed or two, and put it in the empty syrup tin he’d begged last week. We were all a little bemused, not knowing what this was meant to be. It’s my tin of happiness, he told us later, when Mother and Father had arrived to share our roast. He prised off the lid and offered it around, urging each of us to plunge our hands inside, and as we did so every single one of us broke into smiles. He’s right. That silky, fluffy goodness is happiness in a tin. Who would have thought it? So much pleasure from just some mud and rushes.