While there’s light

It took a very long time for me to realise that, no matter how organised I was, the time between the end of school and supper was always going to be busy. For years I had visions of sitting down after tea with a spot of sewing or knitting, and while it does happen from time to time, those times are few and very far between. There are simply too many people around in the early evenings, all needing me for something or other: to listen to their scales or their reading, to mend skirts which somehow got caught on a branch on the way home, or simply to chatter to about their day.

So I’ve given up on making supper after lunch or in the morning. They’ll come rushing in and out of whichever room I’m in, so I may as well be in the kitchen, chopping carrots. Which leaves a little bit of time vacant in the day. And now that it is getting dark so early, there’s only one thing to do with a bit of silent sunlight. I can knit and make beds and roll pastry by electric light, but in the sunlight, I’ve been counting threads and making tiny, tiny crosses, over and over again.

Lots of people have been saying how satisfying this is, and they were right. With or without a murder mystery on the wireless, half an hour with some cross-stitch and suddenly the world is a wonderful place. In fact, I can’t imagine why they call it cross-stitch, as it’s the least cross thing I do, these days.

By the time the children roll home from school it’s time to draw the curtains and begin on the next round of tasks, but that’s alright by me. That little snowflake is proof that the sun did rise, today, and that I made the most of it. It’s fast becoming a favourite time of day, the early afternoon. Sitting in the window seat, stitching while there’s light enough to see.

Sshh

Once the leaves drop off the trees, you can see the fragility of their limbs, shivering in the November sleet. That full, green flush of spring feels long ago; we have harvested the goodness of that time, and once again the world is on the brink of all that winter inflicts.

After the war, we thought that there could never be another time like it. That the men in high office had learned their lesson, that the people wanted only to be able to walk down a lamp lit street to a house where the yellow light shone out of gaily curtained windows.

Now, it seems, there are new men in high office. In the chilled winds, people forget quite how blessed they might be. They compare themselves to those who have more than them, forgetting those who have less. The same old angrily trodden paths are marched down once again, and once again the grass is worn away. Forgotten and despised, the excesses of our long summer lie, brown and rotting, in the gutters.

But I know where the bulbs lie, still and quiet in the earth. Deep in their veins, those selfsame trees hold the blood of life. In drawers, all over the world, packets of seed lie dormant, just waiting to be planted. And quietly, while the mob is shouting, the rest of us carry quietly on putting meals on family tables, and teaching children to think for themselves. Driving lorries of clothes to the cold and dispossessed. Smiling at strangers in the street.

If you listen carefully, you can hear the rattle of the tines as those blackened leaves are raked up for the compost, ready to grow next summer’s fruit. You can hear the scratching of thousands of pens as people write in diaries and newspapers of their care and optimism. You can hear the rattle of the collecting tin as volunteers stand for hours in the cold to help someone other than themselves.

In November, the bleak midwinter lies yet before us. But after that comes the spring. Always, and inevitably.

Low hanging fruit

There were times, towards the end of October, that I thought we’d never get the apples in. There was always something more urgent or important to be done. The days slipped by and the weather steadily worsened. Fliss and I spent the finest afternoon of the holiday at Father’s allotment, helping him to bring his own crop in. But at home the Bramleys languished on the tree, occasionally thudding onto the kitchen roof or the patio or lawn.

That is until one day, when Seb and I were home alone, and decided to go out and pick the low-hanging fruit. Just an hour, we promised each other: an hour and a couple of crates. We didn’t even get the stepladder out, but picked whatever we could reach with our feet still on the ground, laying all our bounty on the garden table. In under an hour we had well over a hundred apples picked, wrapped and packed, and I could bear to look at the tree again.

Needless to say, the apple- picking squad assembled the very next day, ladders and all. But I like to think they wouldn’t have, if Seb and I hadn’t got the ball rolling. Whatever the reason, we have apples enough for a whole winter of puddings, and compotes and roasts.

Reaching for the low-hanging fruit has become a bit of a theme around here in the past couple of weeks. The Liberty blouse I have planned seems far too onerous a task to begin. So too does my simple quarter circle skirt, the materials for which are laid out ready on the dining table. Instead, I’ve embarked on a little cross-stitch project, which is mesmerising and beautiful in its novel imperfection. I’ve been knitting simple things. I hear that Father Christmas has started his list with the presents he gives out every year: socks and books and foil-wrapped chocolate coins. Tick them off, I say. It’s got to be done anyway, so you may as well start with the low-hanging fruit to get you in the mood for a bit of stretching at the top of a rickety ladder.

Sunday

For all the moments when having such a spread of children’s ages is a challenge, there are days like Sunday which make up for it, tenfold. On Saturday, Ben and Fliss went off to bonfires with their friends, leaving the rest of us to our own devices. And although I didn’t much feel like celebrating, the little ones bounced us through the traditions and it was fun seeing how happy a sparkler could make them.

After the fireworks, Sunday dawned grey, wet and windy. There didn’t seem to be enough light in the air to make it through the windows. Days like that make me tired to my very bones, and apt to doze the hours away in an armchair. But there are better things to do. We wrapped the little ones in their coats and wellingtons and, despite their protests, headed to Fountains Abbey. All around us the trees shone, copper and bronze, and the light switched from gloomy to ambient. A silly, impromptu game of tig carried them through the ruined cloisters and, before they knew it, they were halfway to the tea shop at the far end of the grounds. There we sheltered from the rain and fed them up with scones and jam and clotted cream, until their cheeks were pink. And on the way back they stalked pheasants through the wooded hillside, pretending to be poachers, and named trees from their fallen leaves, and found their own route back.

What with the wind and the spattering rain and a pot of tea at the cafe, I thought the walk had woken me up, until we were motoring through the dark on the way home. We arrived unexpectedly soon. The living room window glowed yellow through closed curtains, and when we opened the front door the smell of supper made my stomach growl. How lovely it is to have children big enough to stay at home and feed the fire on a cold November day. To  keep an eye on the meat, slow roasting in the oven, and set the table ready for the meal. To have them all there, the little ones telling the big ones about their walk and the pheasants they supposedly nearly caught. The big ones eating two, then three helpings of belly pork and potatoes, before breaking through the nutmeggy skin of a baked rice pudding. Slow food, watched over by those who have stayed at home to write an essay and solve a page of equations. This is what Sunday afternoons are made for: spreading out and then coming back together, to eat. A little feast day to celebrate the passing of each and every week. Whatever the weather, whatever our plans, this is what makes it Sunday.

Sugar and spice

We almost had a frost last night. I woke, snug under the covers, to the sound of the tea tray at the bedroom door and the news that I’d slept until nine. Nine? Surely not. But when I drew back the curtains and saw the fog I knew why the sun hadn’t woken me.

It was in the fog that we finally picked the pears: Ilse, Seb and I. It’s only a gnarled little tree but it yielded several pounds and Seb spent the morning helping me peel and stud the halves with cloves before pickling some and bottling the rest in sweet spiced cider. By lunchtime they were just about done, as was the soup that we’d set bubbling on the warm plate of the aga, and the kitchen was full of the smells of our preserving as well as the garlicky lentils and bacon of our lunch. For afters the children took an apple each, picked from Father’s allotment only the day before when we’d helped him bring the end of his harvest in.

That’s what this week’s holiday has been all about. The Bramleys have finally been picked and wrapped and laid neatly in wooden market-traders’ trays. The remnants of the summer cabbages have been jarred. Those almost-forgotten red tomatoes have made splendid lunchtime treats, and the green used up in chutneys. The fennel, still too small to harvest, is safe under a cold frame. Only the leeks stand in the beds, and the swedes and purple sprouting brocolli, savoys and Jerusalem artichokes. Parsnips grow steadily on, waiting for that first frost to bring their sugars out. It can come now, and blacken the lingering nasturtiums and courgettes.

In the kitchen there’s a bowl of dried fruit soaking in brandy. Tomorrow we make the Christmas cake and pudding, and heady apple mincemeat. The season is shifting from early to late autumn, looking ahead to the winter. Until today we put up what was in the garden: tomorrow we bake with more exotic ingredients. Lemons and oranges all the way from Africa nestle in the fruit bowl with apples from only down the road. There’s an extra bag of sugar on the shelf to turn their empty rinds into a marmaladish jelly. I popped a glacé cherry into each of the children’s mouths and watched their faces as they recognised the sweetness. The larder shelves are very nearly full with the work of another year, indoors and out. This is the sort of cooking that looks as far ahead as our gardening plans do: into the weeks and months before us. I know how much we’ll enjoy these bright jewelled jars of spicy goodness and the flavours they’ll bring to the winter table.

For now, though, at the end of another long day in the kitchen, the sitting room fire beckons. That, and a glass of rhubarb gin, bottled in the long-ago spring. You see, we knew then that we’d be glad of it now, and so we are. Who wouldn’t be? Because sugar, spice and all things nice are what the things in the larder are made of. Mmm.

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.

Oh, October

Every time I look outside the garden is a little more bedraggled. There are weeds left over from when it was still warm enough for them to grow. The grass is overlong and permanently damp. Some trees have shed their leaves; others will cling on for another month or so. The pots of herbs are twiggily bare; already a brown dirt path is being worn to the compost heap.

I haven’t seen as much of this October as I would like. Between one thing and another – a nasty cold, last minute sewing, trips to visit friends – it is already half gone before I realised it was here. Suddenly the house is too cold if left unheated in the evenings. There is condensation on the bedroom window panes. Slippers have appeared, and hot water bottles, and hats and gloves and snoods. Oh, I think. October. And then the sun shines and midday is warm and the washing blows dry on the line and I catch sight of the hens bathing in the dust and the blowsy autumn roses clinging onto skeletal shrubs and – oh October!

It’s a funny, inbetweenish sort of month. The sort I never really notice: it bears neither the grief of September nor the dread of November nor even the headlong rush of December towards Christmas and year’s end. It’s just simple, quiet October, calm and unassuming. Slowly, the green is fading and the nights are drawing in. There is a gradual lessening of noise and outdoor life. Yet a walk to the shops can still be taken in a jumper. The beetroot and fennel grow on, quietly, in the beds. Caterpillar season is over and the Brussels sprouts are swelling on their stems. The sturdy leeks grow fatter.

The robin is back on the garden bench, cocking his head at me. Birds of prey circle over hedgerows. The geese have not yet all flown south. It’s only October still, mild and gentle, waiting for me just a little longer.

Two steps back

Never mind two steps forward, one step back – I seem to be moving in the opposite direction. My autumn plans seemed entirely reasonable at September’s start, but here I am, faced with a list which keeps growing rather than shrinking as the weeks flip by. Two weeks before half term and I’ve made half a jumper, one dress with bunny pockets and some wobbly wool on my wheel. That leaves two school dresses and a long-legged romper for Ilse, a new skirt for myself and another which needs relining, two eiderdowns which need covering again to keep the stuffing in and a blouse for myself which may or may not happen. What I want to sew is Ilse’s quilt, the pieces for which are all cut out, a Liberty fabric soft case for my flute, and tiny crumb quilt covers for Christmas present notebooks. But I’ve forbidden myself all of that until the other sewing is done, which is why I’m spending so much time knitting instead.

I took Ben’s jumper with me to the ballet studio on Saturday while I was waiting for Ilse to finish her lesson, and was pleased with the progress I’d made until I got home and spread it out and realised that I’d held a cable needle to the front and not the back five inches ago. Oh well, at least it’s chunky wool. And at least I know myself well enough to rip it out at once, lest it become a reproach, sulking in my basket. By lunchtime my funny feeling head had given way to a sore throat and nose full of sneezes, so I spent the afternoon strategically resting by the fire in the hopes of heading it off at the pass. No such luck: I woke up on Sunday to a full head cold and a list as long as I had left it.

Sometimes there is nothing for it but to grit one’s teeth and get stuck in. I retrieved the cut out pieces of Ilse’s grey school dresses from where I’d hidden them from myself and got to work, determined to complete the bodices at least. It only took me until the stay stitching to realise that I’d cut the back bodice wrongly: as a whole, instead of two half bits to button together. Thankfully there was just enough left over to cut it out again, and doctor the pieces I had. And thankfully Mrs P was here and chose that moment to appear with a pot of tea for two, emergency buttered scones and some well chosen words of advice. Thus bolstered I sewed on long beyond my goal of two neat bodices, making puffed sleeves with gathered cuffs, little button holes all down the back, understitched linings and pleated skirts until suddenly, nearly four hours later, I had two fully lined wool dresses, all finished bar the handsewn hems and buttons I have yet to buy in town. And when Ilse tried them on they even, miraculously, fitted.

Perhaps that counts as two steps forward – or one, at the very least? Yes, it rained off and on again all day yesterday so that the apples are still on the tree. Yes, there are still trays of winter seedlings waiting on the kitchen windowsill, hoping to be planted out. Yes, it’s getting colder and I don’t have a single decent skirt to wear. But those two dresses which were holding up my stitching are almost out of the way, and I feel a surge of productivity coming on as soon as I feel better. I finished the front of Ben’s jumper last night as I recovered in front of the fire and as I held it up to him this morning I noticed a tiny mistake in one of the ribs near the top. Time to start ripping again. What was that saying? Two steps forward and one step back? Oh well, at least that’s better than the other way around.

Garden notes: Autumn rhythm

Porridge weather has arrived. There was porridge for breakfast this morning, served with a spiced compote of windfall apples and pears. Delicious. The sky, on the other hand, was the grey of that peculiarly nasty porridge: the kind that goes all gluey in the pan. And, truth be told, I felt a little that way out myself. Lethargic and sluggish and low. Because try as I might to hope otherwise, I know that summer is over and the whole of autumn and winter lie ahead.

I’d like to be one of those people who embrace autumn. The kind who long for the weather to turn. But I’m not. Instead, I seek out the compensations. A good excuse for knitting. Long cosy days when the whole family gathers to be near the fire. Pies, and mackerel, and hot sticky puddings. There are many things to love about the colder half of the year. The thing is, I have to get there first. When I wake on a day like today, all I want to do wave the children off to school and collapse in an armchair with my knitting or a good book and a blanket to shut out the season. Yet there are sheets to be washed, and meals to be cooked. Floors need scrubbing and nobody but me is going to see about the garden. And those chores, those pesky chores which keep me from a day of wallowing in the gloom, are really my saving grace. So today I sat down with my notebook and did what I’ve done for the last seventeen years: I decided on my autumn rhythm.

Mrs P laughed when I showed it to her. I don’t blame her: it is scarcely any different to last year’s. First some time at the piano: soothing and effective all at once. Then the garden. Then the house, then this, then that. Slowly and purposefully, it pulls me out of the morning quiet and into the day. There are no deadlines, no time slots other than the obvious. There’s no rush; there’s plenty of time for a cup of tea or half an hour working on my latest project. And after supper is eaten, the evening is mine to do with as I wish. This is the time to sit under that blanket and read, or knit, or do a little sewing by hand, and chat to John or listen to the wireless. The day is done, but more importantly, it is done well, and that matters, in the autumn.

Each part of the rhythm counts. It matters that there is a stew in the oven and crock of fresh soup on the cold shelf for the week. I care about getting the sheets washed and ironed and back on the children’s beds. Making music makes me happy, as does getting better at it. But the turning part of the day, the part that lifts me from the gloom, is the time I spend in the garden. I never, ever want to go out there when it’s cold and damp and grey. Today I promised myself I only had to do ten minutes. Dig the potatoes, I said, and that’ll do. But then Penelope made me laugh by standing right over the fork so as to get at all the worms, so I spent a little longer pulling some bolted lettuce for them all. In doing so, I noticed that the second, smaller flush of lavender was ready for the taking. And while crouching there, I smelled the sweet peas and cut another vaseful for the kitchen. Then there were the windfalls to pick up: the good ones to come indoors, the sluggy ones for the chickens in their run. The tomatoes needed watering. The veg patch wanted a walk and an inspection, and all told, I was out for an hour and a half.

It’s not as exciting as spring. It’s not as brilliant as summer. And yet somehow it’s in the autumn that I’m most glad I have a garden. It keeps me going, gentle and funny and kind, pulling me outdoors each and every day. I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about it, and working in it, and writing about it, these past few months. There’s not much left to say now, except this: know that I’ll be out there in the wind and the drizzle and snow. Ostensibly, I’ll be taking care of it, fitting it into my daily rhythm. In truth though, it’ll be taking care of me.

Garden notes: Reluctant

Parts of the garden, at least, seem as reluctant to accept the autumn as I am. The tomatoes keep on coming, as do the valiant courgettes which I’d expected to succumb to their layer of powdery mildew weeks ago. Nasturtiums flower cheerfully in oranges, reds and yellows, and the herbs keep growing fragrant and bright green. If I only look in certain places, I can convince myself that it’s still summer.

It’s harder in the kitchen, though. True, last night’s supper was a simple combination of cheese omelettes, soda bread and greenhouse-fresh tomatoes, but I slipped the fruits into the frying pan to warm through in melted butter. Beside them cooked this evening’s supper –  a simmering pot of sunny carrot soup. It seems the salad days are coming to an end.

True, there are trays of baby little gems and other winter leaves waiting on the kitchen windowsill. It almost looks like springtime. But these will be planted in the greenhouse, and will grow too slowly to feed us all each day. These winter salads won’t be filling any bowls. What they will do, though, is brighten up a ham and chutney sandwich. They’ll bring a dash of greenery to a plate of smoked mackerel and toast. They’ll persevere, when all is wet and windy.

Mrs P is bothering about the house these days, washing the last of the curtains, turning out the rooms. It was she who urged me to book the sweep and order a delivery of coal. Yesterday, she rapsodised for a full half hour about the joys of wearing woollens, and cold, fresh morning air. Oh, I know what she means, but I’m just not ready yet. Don’t tell her I haven’t ordered anyone’s new woollen combinations, or even thought about putting the summer frocks away. No-one’s told me that they’re cold – yet.

Reluctant as I am, though, some progress has been made. The first of Ilse’s dresses is very nearly done, and went together smoothly. A bolt of woollen suiting came today. This Sunday finds us at the yarn fair again. And in the kitchen drawer lie all those wintry flavours needed to bottle this year’s pears: cinnamon, nutmeg and cloves. I’ve had a sniff or two, to get me in the mood, and am feeling almost ready. I’ll do it on a rainy day, and be glad of the warm and spicy fug. That, and some new wool to knit with, and a bit of successful sewing, and I might feel a little less reluctant about the tilting of the world.