Nutcracker

A trip to the ballet seems to have become a Christmas tradition in this house. And what better ballet than the Nutcracker, full of toys and children, magic and sweets?

The very act of putting our glad rags on and leaving the damp streets for the gilt and plush of the theatre made it feel as though, suddenly, Christmas was here. Ilse was tingling even before the overture began, with its hoppity-skippety heartbeats. She perched on the edge of her seat throughout, and by the time Marie was dreaming of her nutcracker prince Ilse was dreaming too, of dancing those same steps, and having the swell of the orchestra lift her from below.

At six, she can dream. At six, anything can happen. Her life is wide open, just waiting to be filled with whatever she may choose.

Seb would not choose to be a dancer, I know, much as he loves his lessons. His dreams, he told me afterwards, were a little more prosaic: he plans to ask his dancing mistress if they might include a fight scene in the next show. Or trumpets and galloping. Or both. We talked about how good the little nutcracker boy was at keeping himself stiff and wooden, even when he was being carried around, and how he was barely any older than Seb.

Neither Ben nor Seb particularly liked the romantic ending, but Fliss and I did. Try as I might, I can’t shake the adagio from that Pas de Deux from my mind – those falling notes, simple and tragic all at once, followed me all the way home.

So when we got in, I put on my recording of the score. It has been on or near the gramophone for some time, as the children became familiar with the music. There was a great deal of twirling and leaping around me as I boiled the potatoes, and Ben succeeded in showing Seb how hard it is to stay rigid whilst being carried under somebody’s arm. Ilse put her tutu on, left over from her last show, and Fliss watched them all from behind a book.

I suspect that there will be a lot of dancing in this house over the next few days, of both the sword-wielding and twirly varieties. And I’m sure I heard some shuffles and thumps from Fliss’ room at bedtime. As for myself, I lowered the needle on the record as soon as they had all left this morning, and enjoyed a little waltz as I cleared away the breakfast things. An overblown flower, in two pullovers and a pair of slippers. At thirty-six, that particular daydream is never going to come true, but it is fun pretending. Anything can happen in your own head, no matter how old you are.

In fact, in the foyer yesterday I bumped into a friend with whom I had lost touch, and we made plans to meet up in the new year. Old friends brought together by something beautiful. Which only goes to show that all sorts of wonderful and unexpected things happen in real life, too.

[whohit]nutcracker[/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]

Quilts, large and small

I had intended to work on my quilt on Sunday. The top is all pieced, made from shirts and dresses we wore on a special holiday and have since worn out. All I needed to do was find the old curtain I had in mind for the backing, and check that it was large enough. I already had a threadbare blanket set aside for the filling.

Truth be told, my fabric was a mess, stored in a variety of bags and boxes about the place. I found the curtain soon enough, and cut away the heading, setting it aside for the rag and bone man. Ilse, sensing a clear out, was at my side in a moment.

She giggled as we pulled all sorts out of the scrap bag: old shirt collars, remnants of sleeves, pieces so small I don’t know why I kept them. Amongst it all was the quilting Ilse and Seb had begun last summer. We set this to one side and then, as I was ironing some larger pieces to fold and put away, I pressed their blocks for them.

Once everything was stowed neatly in one cupboard and the last bit of thread had been picked up off the rug, Ilse turned to me, hands on hips. ‘Now what shall we do?’

What we did was finish her quilt.

She’d already pieced most of the top, as she, Seb and I sewed by hand on the patio, Children’s Hour on the wireless. She was now at the point where a little adult intervention was required, to speed the project to its conclusion.

Ilse is often in need of a speedy hand. When she catches me knitting in the daytime she seats herself at my side, to carry on with the teddy bear scarf she began that weekend in October. She knits one s-l-o-w row, and I knit three. It keeps her going.

So we pulled the machine out and she turned the handle while I pushed the fabric through. Then she put her hands on top of mine so as to be able to say that she sewed it, without ever needing to go near that frighteningly fast needle. We had it batted and backed in no time, and machined one edge of the binding around the border.

After a quick break to make some scones, we settled ourselves, tea tray and all, before the living room fire to finish the job. I showed her how to secretly stitch the back of the binding into place and together, despite sticky fingers and copious crumbs, we finished it off.

Seb was a little crestfallen at Ilse’s progress, which has been a theme of their quilting. Ilse sews the way I remember sewing when I was at school – with fast, uneven stitches. Like her, I wanted to see the finished product now, please. Seb would have delighted my sewing mistress. His stitches are pin prick tiny, in perfectly straight lines. I couldn’t have done a better job myself. Because of this, he is a long way from completion. I promised him the use of my machine next weekend, and his face brightened. Tiny stitches and speed? A winning combination.

In the meantime, I plan to finish my own quilt. I’d like it on someone’s bed – probably Ben’s – by Christmas. Isle has already wrapped hers and hidden it in her cupboard, ready to be laid beneath the tree on Christmas Eve: her present to her dolly. I wonder whether one of Seb’s toys will get such a treat. In the meantime, I have some rows to add to a delightfully wobbly pink scarf, so that Little Ted doesn’t feel left out on Christmas Day.

[whohit]quiltslargeandsmall[/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]

Stars for Seb

I like to think it all began with our first night walk, years ago now, when Seb had grown sturdy on his feet and Ilse was just beginning to be thought of. It was a mild October evening, yet the dark had us penned up, listless, indoors.

There were empty jars draining by the kitchen sink and Ben had abandoned some tissue paper project. He had already mixed a flour paste, so it was easy to put the two together and show the children how to cut bright pieces of colour and stick them to the outside of the jars. Ben’s had tiny diamonds in it; Fliss’ was a sea of overlapping curves. Seb’s was a medley of colour, stuck on any which way with great globs of paste.

We tied parcel string handles around the rims and dropped a tea light into each. The children giggled as they waited, ready in their hats and coats, for John’s key to turn in the lock.

There is something thrilling for children about being out after dark: something adult and almost forbidden. It is not quite the same world, seen only by light spilt yellow across the pavement.

We listened to the nocturnal creatures crashing about in the fallen leaves, and made our way to the river. Glimmers of white caught our eye along its contours as the moon picked out the sleeping swans. We made for our favourite bench on the bridge and it was here, protected by candlelight, that they ate their makeshift supper of cheese and pickle sandwiches, dipping shortbread into milk still warm from the thermos. Towards the end of the feast the candles guttered and went out, one by one.

Suspended over the river you are away from the light thrown out by the important buildings: the shops with their windows full of wares, the big gas lamp reminding everyone where the pub is. The sky above, with its splash of stars, is more clearly visible. We pointed out what we knew: the North Star. Ursa Major. Dippers, large and small. Orion’s diamante belt. Seb, in particular, was fascinated.

That Christmas we gave him a book on the stars. He has long since absorbed it. This is the boy who asks to stop on the way home from cubs to see which of his friends are shining tonight. This is the boy who threw handfuls of borax in the bonfire, to show me what it would do. The boy who can make a miniature radio set out of a bit of crystal. A magician, and a soothsayer. An alchemist.

Children change all the time. There is a danger of pigeonholing them, of telling them who they are and what they are good at, and determining their self-view. One year’s passion might be gone by the next. They try things on for size and discard most of them.

But some of them stick, which is why I am confident that this starry jumper will still suit Seb in a year or two. I think the stars have stuck, with him.

These past few months have seen new interests creeping in. An affinity for music. Outdoorsiness. A blossoming love of nature. Which is why I am glad that there are trees, too, in this traditional design. Stars and trees, but mostly stars, for Seb.

[whohit]starsforseb[/whohit]

Freewheeling

John has been trying to persuade me to buy a new bicycle for ages; last week he won the argument.

My final ride on my old cycle was to the station. The chain fell off, again, but once it was back on the pedals jammed. I used all my know-how: peering at it, telling it off and prodding it a bit. Then I decided to focus on catching my train. I ran up the hills, pushing, and jumped on to freewheel down the other side. I leapt into the nearest compartment just as the guard was blowing the whistle.

That evening I wheeled it all the long way home, confident that John or Ben would be able to work their magic on it and coax a little more life out of the old girl, but they took one look and shook their heads. It was time for a replacement.

This is the first new bicycle I have had since I was a child. It is exactly the cycle I wanted: with a big basket and dynamo lights, a ding dong bell and the Sturmey Archer gears that are so perfect for the low hills of York.

It’s hard to overestimate the difference that it has made to my life. It has set me free again. Just one week of being confined to tram timetables, or making lengthy trudges, has reminded me of how much freedom there is in a bike. Bicycles are relatively inexpensive, and cheap to maintain. Each journey can begin and end wherever you like and will, by default, lift your spirits. Best of all, though, is that feeling of whizzing downhill, which makes little ones squeal with glee and big brothers put their hands, nonchalantly, in their pockets.

If I could choose just one luxury for each of my children to own, it would be a bicycle. Forget box brownies and gramophones and wireless sets. Give them a bicycle and you give them their freedom and independence. Teach them to maintain it and you give them a not-to-be-sniffed-at source of pocket money, too. All four of our children cycle, just like John and I. Ilse, watching the others from the luggage rack behind me, was the keenest to graduate to her own set of wheels. We bought her a brand new machine of her very own, as there wasn’t a hand me down small enough, and she has pedalled at my side ever since.

So far I’ve cycled over to visit Mother and Father, and to meet the children after school in our favourite tea shop. I’ve dashed to the grocer’s to buy cheese for a supper cheese and onion pie. I’ve enjoyed a sunny afternoon coasting along country lanes. I’ve pedalled past mothers with perambulators and queues of old ladies at bus stops, and I’ve made up my mind. If I am lucky enough to grow old, old enough to be afraid of falling, I will buy a pair of tricycles, one for me and one for a toddling grandchild, and teach them how to ride it.

[whohit]freewheeling[/whohit]

Sudden light

I took the shears to the edge of the lawn this morning. A few spots of rain fell, but I ignored them. It has been November for weeks, and grey for even longer.

I crawled into some of the secret places, to cut away at the weeds. The nettles were high behind the hen run, and I laid them low: these are places where the children play. There is a farm in the prickly shade of the pine. Fairies live, in palaces of broken bricks, between the lilac and the fence. These are places which need to be accessible, yet not intruded upon. They are the secret places, where children play hidden in plain sight.

It was as I squatted behind the lilac that the sun came out. It filtered its way through the bare leggy branches and suddenly, utterly, it was August.

Unbidden, Gymnopedies slid into my mind. The November garden was gone, as was 1930, for with Gymnopedies it can only ever be August, that Edwardian August day, when the french doors were open and someone played those same chords just inside them. A friend of my father had come to stay, with his young wife. Like my mother, she wore a long beige skirt and a blouse of indeterminate frills. Her skin was very smooth and very white, like a baby’s, but the fingers which twirled her parasol were slender and precise. Father was pointing out his flowers, Mother pouring the tea. Their eyes slid tactfully past the garden gate and the rough grass beyond, in which I hid. In a minute, I would be called, loudly, so that I could hear them wherever I might happen to be. The older part of me knew that they were playing along. The younger part did not.

I waited, crouching in the long grass at the boundary between the garden and the golf course beyond. The stalks were stiff and yellow. I stayed very still, smelling the grass seeds baking in their sleeves, watching the spinning parasol, breathlessly reciting the names of the flowers. Knowing that there would be victoria sponge for tea. Listening to the piano, and those simple chords, up and down like a woman on a trapeze, but slower, turning somersaults in the air.

When I stood up, the sharp stalks had pressed into my shin, leaving ridges and dents and, in one place, a bright little smear of blood. The yellow sunlight shone on all of this.

All of this in a single moment, before the reticent sun withdrew behind a November cloud.

I decided to leave the fairies their forest until the frosts claimed it. I refilled their jam jar water butts and laid fresh grass clippings in their lid platters, before heading indoors.

There was the familiar hiss, like an expectant audience in a concert hall, before the gramophone began to play. On and on it ran, turning towards the point I had remembered, then further on to what was familiar only as I heard it. Perhaps after school, while the fairies are feasting, we might play them the gymnopedies so that they can dance, nostalgically, in the gathering dusk.

[whohit]suddenlight[/whohit]

Not stopping, but slowing

Some people seem able to put their gardens to bed for the winter. They rake up the leaves, plant fresh bulbs for spring and watch the weather from behind their kitchen windows.

My garden never goes to bed. At most, it might take a quick snooze under a heavy fall of snow. It doesn’t ever come to a complete halt, but slows, like the laying of the hens as the sun’s brief visits grow ever shorter.

It has been a mild and rainy autumn, which is one reason that I am behind on my garden plans. For weeks, the lawn has been awaiting its final cut. A section of hawthorn hedge still needs trimming into shape. I need to weed the veg plot one last time. After all that comes the winter work of moving plants, creating new beds and pruning the soft fruit. The trees need cutting back. The hens, though not laying much, need cleaning out more than ever. There are leaves to rake, every day, and still – still – apples falling from that tree.

As the day was bright and breezy I decided to make the most of it and cut the lawn myself. It was so long that I had to run at it to get the blades spinning, and complete each pass at an insistent jog. Hat and pullover were quickly discarded, and I have three new blisters. I don’t mind: it won’t be cut again until spring. By then I will be longing for the clattering whirr of those red blades. In March, the garden will begin its catch-me-if-you-can once more, barely glancing back at me as it rushes, exuberantly, into life.

But now it is November, I can catch up easily. The rituals continue – the ever optimistic check for eggs, bringing in some veg from the patch. Today I pulled three leeks, grown sturdy on this warm weather, to add to our stone soup. There is a bowl of chard ready for the morning fry. Then I’ll spend an hour or so cutting something back, or digging, enjoying being warm and busy in the chill damp air. Basking in what little light there is. Spying the first spears of woodland bulbs. Waiting for the robin to keep company with me. If I take a lesson from the garden, and slow right down, I can make these tasks last all the way to spring.

[whohit]notstoppingbutslowing[/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]