Desert Island Discs: Kiss Me, Honey Honey, Kiss Me

Apparently, green mambas have three scales between the eyes, whereas the harmless grass snake has four. This is one of the first things I remember learning when we moved to Dar, probably from one of the bigger boys. It was only later, once I’d carried a young cobra to the biology teacher’s house for identification, that someone thought to tell me that I should never get close enough to count.

For all the things that I loved about life in West Sussex, life as a child in Tanzania was bigger, wilder and more free. School ended at half twelve and then we were free to roam until the sun set at six. We lived on the secondary school campus and nowhere was off limits to us: not the askaris’ huts with their poisoned spears and arrows, not the diving pool with a leak but plenty of tadpoles if you could reach the bottom. Not the low roofs of the classrooms, on which we would play and ride our bikes, nor the flame trees into whose branches we hammered planks and made dens. I know, now, that we were safe, watched over by all the adults in the place, but back then we didn’t care. We were just kids, immortal and invincible, teasing scorpions behind the art room.

So many of my memories of that time are about animals – the baboon that stole the potatoes from my plate, the one-tusked elephant that hung around Mikumi Lodge, the rats that swam up through the toilets and ate our candles and plastic tupperware. Bright birds, in cages or tethered by one leg to a stick. Bush babies and monkeys for sale. Monitor lizards, appearing suddenly out of storm drains.

And driving to see more: lions and cheetahs, impalas and hyenas and giraffe. Tanzania is a huge country, and we thought nothing of driving for a day or two to get somewhere, see something. We saw black rhinos in Ngorogoro Crater, and swathes of flamingos shimmering on Lake Manyara. Wildebeest stirring up the landscape of the Serengeti, and hundreds upon hundreds of crocodiles in the Selous. We also drove out of the country, to Kenya, Malawi, and Zimbabwe and, when my parents wanted a little luxury, we travelled to the Old Town of Zanzibar, or to Swaziland, or to a tiny private island where we and the members of A-ha were the only residents for the week.

I’m not sure whether our Datsun pickup, shipped in second hand from China, had a tape player, but if it did I don’t think it worked. I can’t remember ever listening to taped music in that truck. What I do remember is my dad singing. He would sing Green Finger, and Wimoweh, and other songs from the sixties. Most of all, though, he would sing Kiss Me, Honey Honey, Kiss Me, and at the vital moment it was our role to come in with the much-anticipated uh-huh? I’m sure we must have squabbled over space in the back seat. I’m sure it was a little stressful driving with several jerry cans of fuel in the back, and hundreds of kilometres between mechanics. We broke down a lot, with one immortal repair in the form of our exhaust being stuck back on with chewing gum, but what I really remember is the singing, and the wildlife, and the possibility of it all.

In 1984, Tanzania was to all intents and purposes unchanged from the accounts I read about in Roald Dahl’s Going Solo. The minibus would drive us past his house on the way to the lower school site, and I’d look at the huge baobab in his front garden and not be the least surprised that nothing had changed. I haven’t been to Tanzania since 1999, when already the country I knew and loved was beginning to morph into something else. Every so often someone asks me whether I’d like to go back. The truth is that I couldn’t, even if I wanted to. The Tanzania of my childhood simply doesn’t exist anymore. It’s been engulfed by our new, globalised world. It’s a place where you are always connected. It’s not that I think progress is a bad thing. It’s just that I’d rather hold onto my memories as they are, wild and free and undoubtedly rose-tinted. Those first five years there were a time when anything could happen, and when I learned that that in itself is a wonderful thing.

Madeleine

PS – What about you? What form do your early years take, once they are distilled? And what song would you choose to summon them up? Let me know in the comments – I’d love to hear.

A two-week quilt for Ben

I had been saving bits of fabric for some time – old clothes, remnants from other quilts and household projects – to make Ben a quilt to leave home with. The other children had their quilts first, but I knew I wanted Ben’s to coincide with the time when he headed off to university. It can be a peculiarly lonely time, those years in tertiary education. Although ostensibly in the company of friends – at parties and lectures and Sunday film nights – there is none of the background noise of family life. Little siblings might not be as much fun as your peers, parents might be downright annoying, but it’s hard to overestimate the value of your family just being there. They’re there when you eat your sleepy breakfast, there when you get in from school, there in the washing dumped on your bed, there when you want to lounge in the hammock and find that someone has beaten you to it. Underrated and ill-appreciated, the comings and goings of family life are the very best sort of company there is.

I wanted to include as much of us as possible in his going-away quilt, which is partly why I left it until last. Every time I cut up an old shirt or dress for another project, I tucked a couple of strips away for Ben. Slicing through new fabrics to add to his siblings’ quilts, or the kitchen cushions, or a summer holiday bucket hat, a strip always made its way into his pile. It didn’t matter if they were narrow or wide, long or short: this quilt used every size of scrap in every colour available. Even the grey sashing came from old white bedsheets, worn through in the middle and transformed in a bucket of dye. I wasn’t quite sure how many scraps I would need – I had yet to write the pattern – but I knew that I must be fairly close, and had another year to keep collecting.

At least, that was what I thought, until A Level results day last year when he decided that he’d go straight away, rather than taking a year out. It was absolutely the right decision, and we supported him in organising the essentials: finance, accommodation, and … quilt making. Although perhaps that last was only essential to me. It turned out that making a quilt – an essential quilt, mind – in just under two weeks is the ideal displacement activity when you are worrying about your eldest flying the nest. All those things I thought I had a year to do – like just getting used to the idea – I had to do in two weeks, instead. So I made him his quilt in double quick time.

We’d sketched out an idea in advance – a colour gradient of quilt-as-you-go string blocks, sashed in some way. It didn’t take long to do the maths, dye the old white cotton, and get started. Almost everything in his quilt is repurposed from elsewhere in our home. The orange and white backing is an favourite old duvet cover, split in half to make backings for both my boys. The twenty four blocks of wadding are the very last of some cotton fleece I bought to make the warmest – and heaviest – lined curtains in the world, before we had proper heating in this somewhat drafty old house. The sashing is, as I say, strips of old white sheets, and the fabrics in the blocks are almost all fabric he recognises – fabrics which have memories attached.

 

I say almost because I did run out of pink and had to buy a fat quarter pack to make it work. So for a month or two odd strips of the pink felt unrooted, somehow, in my mind. Until, that is, a new niece arrived and I used the leftovers in her quilt. Now they remind me of her, and when he went to meet her he saw his fabrics in her cot and even thought to tell me.

Home again, after several months away, his quilt is rather more crumpled than I remember, but that’s just a sign of use. I asked him whether he’d liked having it. Of course, he told me. It makes a huge difference, having something like that on your bed. It makes it feel like home.

Madeleine

PS – Have you ever made a memory/ going-away quilt? How did you make all the different scraps work together? I love scrap quilts but they take a bit more thought to make them work. I’d love to hear your suggestions because the scrap pile is growing again!

PPS – Is anyone interested in making a quilt like this? If so, let me know and I’ll post the pattern and tutorial (for free, of course).

 

On our way*

Laundry done, lists made and amended and amended again. The children have been taken into town to choose a new book each, not to be opened until we are on our way. Frocks have been deliberated over, bathers tried on for size, dark glasses packed against the bright Greek sun. I’ve taken most of the toys out of Ilse’s bag – the entertainments she packed just in case – and replaced them with smaller, more versatile playthings. A tin of coloured pencils. Her favourite teddy bear. And in the other children’s bags, something for all of them to share: a deck of cards, a rainbow of embroidery silks. A ball to inflate on the beach.

The garden is weeded, the hens cleaned out, a note rolled in a bottle for the milkman. Mother and Father have visited for full watering and hen-care instructions – without which we wouldn’t be able to go away at all. Sandals have been bought, or passed on, so that everyone has a pair that fits. I’ve made myself a double-sided hat to shade me from the sun: the others each have one from holidays past. Greek drachmas have been ordered and collected from the bank. Tickets and passports, checked and double-checked, await a final checking in the hall.

One more sleep, if you can persuade yourself to do such a thing with a head full of heroes and ruins. One more day of waiting. And then, almost unbelievably for the littler ones among us, we will be on our way.

 

* Actually, we have now been to Greece and back and had a really wonderful holiday, which I look forward to writing about next week. Oh, and I lost my hat. C’est la vie.

 

 

Sweet

Sweet peas by my bed, so that I fall asleep and wake to their scent. The fact that they keep coming, a few more every day.

Wide open days with nothing whatsoever planned, so that we can ask that most delightful of questions: now, what shall we do today?

Produce from the garden and beyond: warm tomatoes, fleshy cucumbers, baskets of strawberries from a nearby farm.

The thud of the first windfalls, and the cinnamon-spiced preserves that sound heralds in this house.

Children and chickens on the lawn, doing nothing extraordinary. Just footling about, lost in their own little worlds.

These summers, with all of them here, more precious every year.

Bittersweet, yes. But let’s focus on the sweet.

All together, now

Now that the holidays are here, we can all have a bit of a rest. It’s most obvious for the children, off school as they are, and so far they have lain in bed both mornings with books for company until I call them. Ben has been off for a while now, since the end of his exams, and is combining a surprising amount of relaxation with a few odd jobs until his summer job begins next week. John has enjoyed two days of peaceful breakfasts, sipping his coffee over the paper or a good book before cycling across town to his office at the chocolate factory. And I am freed from the shackles of the school day, and the endless ironing of school blouses.

Out of everyone, though, it’s Mrs P who needs a rest most of all. She’s not been quite right since that bout of flu in the new year, and I’ve been wanting her to be careful ever since. As you might imagine, she is one of those old battle-axes who ploughs on regardless: stubborn and difficult and with a heart of gold. It’s very difficult to stop her scrubbing the hall tiles, but over the past few months I have devised the strategy of having a long list of other tasks for her. She ticks one thing off and I add another, so that there is always some light work which simply must be done. Thankfully the children are adept at wearing holes in socks and making bedrooms dusty, and there’s always another pot of potatoes to be peeled. And so, while she’s thus engaged, I can quietly scrub those tiles or wring out another load of sheets.

Mr P, who since the war has been a different, sadder sort of man, has come to the fore since his wife’s illness, and for the first time ever has begun to tidy and clean around the house, making something simple for their tea. He came to see me a couple of months ago with the idea of taking Mrs P away for the summer, for a breath of sea air. I thought it a tremendous plan, and we plotted and cajoled until the good lady finally gave in. They left for Whitby on Monday, and won’t be back until the autumn term begins.

Now, other mothers might be quite content to sweep around their children’s feet and tidy their mess after them, but I am not. In the absence of Mrs P, and with so many extra bodies around the house all day, some sort of solution seemed in order. Thus it is that I’ve claimed half an hour of every morning, directly after breakfast. Tasks are doled out (or volunteered for) and I am pleasantly surprised by how efficient we can be. Yesterday we cleaned the whole house, top to bottom. It helps that I’m less particular in the summer, and if I found the odd undusted patch I didn’t mention it. This morning we weeded the front garden, cut back the brambles which insist on growing back each time and gave the henhouse a much needed change of straw. By ten o’clock all was done, and they got on with their plans for the day.

Of course there’s always more to do – dishes and ironing, laundry and the polishing of shoes. I could keep them busy for much longer than half an hour each day. But they go at with with such vigour and – so far – good humour that it seems churlish to ask for more. What they do gives me a flying start and frees a good couple of hours for us to play together, or go for a walk to the park. They’ll always help with the odd little jobs – the setting of the table, or popping down to the shops. And it seems to have inspired Ilse to make her own bedroom a little bit prettier, echoing the sweet peas by my bed with a little cup of hibiscus blooms on her dressing table.

Truth be told, it’s as much about teaching them responsibility and household skills as lightening my load. Don’t tell the little ones, but I really don’t mind if they miss a bit here or there. It’s the willingness that counts, and the fact that we all pitch in, all together now.

Anyone for tennis?

Since Wimbledon drew to a close the weekend before last, Seb has been rather keen to try his hand at a spot of tennis. It’s Fliss who most often gets pressed into playing – she’s the only one of us who’s any good, anyway. I certainly never played when I was growing up. But it’s been all the rage with girls recently, what with Helen Wills retaining her number one status for so long. Fliss was practically jumping up and down by the wireless during the women’s final, but Wills seemed unperturbed, taking the trophy in two straight sets.

So she and Seb can often be found on the lawn after tea, hitting a ball up and down to one another, an imaginary net slung across the grass. He’s getting better, and if his serving continues to grow stronger I might suggest they play farther away from the windows. Perhaps this summer I’ll book them a court at the park the odd time.

But it’s after supper that you’ll find them all out there, making the most of the lingering summer light. A tennis ball and a cricket bat is all that’s needed for a game of French cricket, with doggy chances for Ilse (and anyone else who gets out on the first throw). The hens retreat into their run, the woodpigeons coo in the tall ash tree, and the sun slips lower and lower in the sky until I notice the time and send Ilse to bed. Summer evenings have got the be the loveliest of the year, whatever it is you’re playing.

Shuffling

What with the end of term in sight, and the end of Ben’s exams today, my mind has started tripping forward to a little reshuffle around the house. It’s already started in the sitting room: the chaise lounge, which I’d intended to move into the bay window as soon as we stopped lighting the fire, has finally been settled into its new place. Too cold for the winter, it’s perfect for summer evenings, and in the mornings we’ve been coming down to find Seb or Ilse tucked up behind closed curtains, under a blanket, lost in a book.

I like moving things around from time to time. Twice a year, when the equinox throws us from shorter days to long, then back to short again. It almost passed me by this spring, busy as I was in the garden and elsewhere, but it’s never too late for little changes. In truth, I’ve been waiting for Ben’s exams to be over, to put a long-planned scheme into place. He’ll be leaving home soon, slowly at first, with little hops out and back again, and will need a room to call his own for quite some years to come. Yet at the same time there will be long stretches when his room lies empty, and could be put to better use. He’s had one of the two nicest rooms in the house: a sun-drenched double bedroom which mirrors our own across the landing, and it seems a shame to let it be used less frequently. So he’s swapping with Seb, and moving into one of the back bedrooms.

We’ve never had a guest room – having as many people as rooms does that to a family – but things changing seems the perfect opportunity to make two rooms in one. I love spaces which can be one thing and then another: a dining room one hour, children’s study the next. We have lots of such spaces in this house, deliberately, and keep surfaces and other tables free so that they can be put to use for whatever takes our fancy. It takes a bit of thought and planning but really, in the grand scheme of things, university student’s bedroom/ guest room is an easy one to master. It’s lots of fun too, working out just what might go where, how much storage space is needed, how a desk can be a dressing table too. I’m even looking forward to taking down the curtains and having a clear out with the boys.

Nothing is ever static, and things change even faster when there are children in the mix. They insist on growing up, on changing, on moving on to something new. I could keep things just the same, and sit in his room when he goes away, feeling sad. But I suspect there be quite enough of feeling sad as it is. In which case, a little project seems just the ticket, to keep me busy and focused on good things: all the friends we’ll be able to put up in comfort, and see so much more easily. It’s not an end – nothing’s really coming to an end. It’s just a spot of shuffling around, as usual.

A good year for roses

I can’t remember my garden ever being quite so full of flowers. The  roses by the hen house keep coming in flush after flush, filling my arms with vasefulls for the house. By the side gate they are pink and open and heady with old-lady scent. The creamy rambler I planted in the hedge two years ago is beginning to do just that: stretch its arms up into the hawthorn branches and twine between and betwixt them. The patio pots are in bloom: pinks, violets and blues, and in the new bed the little plugs have settled in and are commencing their own summer show.

Perhaps it’s the long spell of proper summer weather. Perhaps it’s the sense of things winding down towards the summer break. Perhaps it’s the coming to fruition of so many things at once in this particular corner of York, but this moment feels important. I have a strong sense that it is, in part, to do with the children and who they are just now: each at a different age but all with that peculiar combination of independence, willingness and trust which is so precious. While Ben is on the cusp of the wide world beyond school and home and all that’s familiar, Ilse is running her own little cafe  selling everything from sweet peppermint tea to rose water from an upturned box on the lawn – yet both of them invite us to be part of their endeavours. Add that to Seb and Fliss growing more like themselves with each passing month, and all of them wanting me rather than needing me as much, and this is a lovely time.

Today the sun is shining bright as ever, with temperatures set to soar once more and there are many, many jobs which should be done. But. I think I’ll pause to smell the roses, sit on the patio and spin for a spell, before taking the children for ices after school. First, though, I’m off to gather another bunch of roses to set in water around the house. They don’t bloom like this every day. No, this is most certainly a good year for roses, and I’m going to enjoy every single moment of it.

Bronte country

Can you remember how old you were when you first read Jane Eyre? I can. I was ten, and my grandad had given me a set of all three Bronte classics for Christmas just a fortnight earlier. Fliss has read it, of course, and Ilse knows it from a wireless adaptation, and I’m sure Ben must have read it though he claims no recollection. Seb was the least thrilled when I announced that our half term day out was to be at Haworth, visiting the village and the moors but, most importantly of all, the Bronte Parsonage.

It’s hard not to think of it as a sad house, especially as the first death, that of their mother, occurred very soon after moving in. Then were the deaths of the two eldest children, both girls, both of tuberculosis contracted at school. Then later, the deaths of Branwell, Emily and Anne, and finally Charlotte, a few years later, the longest lived of all the children, aged only 38. Imagine, to have all six children and your wife to survive childbirth and infancy only to lose them all, one by one, until you were alone again. No wonder the house feels sad.

And yet there must have been a lot of fun in it, between times. There was an awful lot of life to be lived between each of those deaths, and you can’t help but come away with a sense that those girls made the very most of what they had. Their home is bursting with their sketches, embroidery, tiny childhood manuscripts, family newsletters and the like. It is a house full of industrious play – the sort of play that Emily and Anne and Charlotte never really grew out of, channelling it into their novels instead.

They played on the moors, too, just a short walk out of the village, and when we visited it was the hottest day of the year so far and everything was blooming. Fliss even complained of the lack of bleakness. Everywhere were flowers: buttercups, umbellifers, rhododendrons and forget-me-nots. We sat on a great slab of stone and looked out over it all, from the vibrant moor to the blasted hillsides and the grey stone village nesting in between, and had to be quiet so that Ilse could be inspired. She’s started a new novel: The Return of Wuthering Heights. I think there are a lot of ghosts in it, because later that night she came into our room with a nightmare, too scared to go back to sleep in the dark. There were fingers scratching at her window, even after I assured her that it was only Humbug the hamster’s squeaky wheel.

And now our copies of those novels are off the shelf and to be found on beds and garden benches. There are lots of discussions about which is everyone’s favourite, and why. It’s Wuthering Heights for me, in case you’re curious. Because of the sympathy between people and place, and the blurring of lines between the past and the present, the dead and the living. It embodies everything I think I know about the Brontes, and the lives they lead, and the place they came from. In fact, they are so strongly associated with Haworth and the moors above it that its new name seems entirely appropriate, and not a mere anachronism: Bronte country.

Balancing

There are certain points when everything feels a bit like a balancing act. Between time spent outside, growing things in the newly emerging garden, and ensuring that the house still feels welcoming when we come back in. Between work and rest – I think that fact that John and I have both been felled by heavy summer colds suggests that we got that one wrong. Or even just getting everyone to where they need to be, especially on two wheels, which poor old Seb came a cropper to last week. He fell on his right elbow, resulting in five weeks of wearing a sling. Like the old pergola, we all seem to be walking a little wounded at the moment. Most challenging of all, though, is catering to people of different ages and stages, all needing something, but something different.

Ben is in the last month of preparation for his Higher School Certificate. I can’t help but think how different it’ll be for Seb and Ilse, with no younger siblings charging around the place singing and squabbling and forgetting that they’re supposed to be quiet, please. We don’t do too badly most of the time, especially when school is in term. But this week they are all on holiday, and only Fliss seems to understand that Ben really could do with some peace in which to get his head down. It’s fine as long as the weather holds – Ben installs himself in the front room and we head out into the garden. On wet days, though, it takes a while for something to grab everyone’s attention. Yesterday was one of those, but crochet animals came to the rescue, and a jigsaw, and Children’s Hour on the wireless.

Thankfully they are heading out tomorrow with Mother and Father and the house will be quiet all day, which will be wonderful while Ben works. He’ll have all the peace he could want. Except that when he’s finished and the books are put away, he won’t have anyone to be silly with, or chat to, or play games with in the garden. The truth is that I’m just not as good for letting off steam with as his little siblings. I’ll have to make sure he does something nice with a friend, instead. Some fun is certainly needed after all that study. It’s a balancing act, I tell you.