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]

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]

Armistice

On Sunday there were military parades and church services. People gathered at the cenotaph and laid their wreaths of poppies – there and at other cold stone memorials around the country. Ilse learned In Flanders Fields and recited it at her school pageant. Seb and Ben marched with the Scouts. Fliss made garlands of red and black and green. I bought a crocheted poppy from Mrs Roberts, who is raising money for the British Legion, and pinned it to my coat. There was ceremony, and solemnity.

Today is Armistice Day. It is twelve years since the end of the Great War. In that time Ben has grown from four to sixteen, Fliss from two to fourteen. I count the years by them. Seb and Ilse have appeared, from nowhere, because John came home. My brother’s second child has done the same. My sister has married a man she didn’t know existed then, but who came home nonetheless.

Next door, Mrs Ellis still has a cupboard full of her husband’s clothes. She gave a suit, for the first time, to the children’s guy this year. Mrs P works to support Mr P, who came back a different man. Their daughter is a widow. There are empty places in the ranks before the cenotaph, but also in the schools and on the playing fields. Whole generations of dreamed of families have gone missing.

At eleven o’clock this morning Mrs P and I laid down our knives and took off our aprons. I poured two small sherries, in the best cut glass, and set them on the sideboard. For two minutes, the world was hushed.

I don’t know what Mrs P was thinking, but I can guess. I prayed for peace, lasting peace, so that we will never see a conflict like that again. I prayed for Ben and Seb and all the other boys. I prayed for the the mothers and fathers, sisters and brothers, wives and lovers of those who were killed or maimed. I prayed for broken families and dislodged families, whichever nation they belong to. I prayed for those who had fled, and those who have yet to find home again.

Finally, when we were both ready, we raised our glasses to memory and love and hope.

[whohit]armistice[/whohit]

Remember, remember

Bonfire night is the highlight of the autumn calendar. All four children have been anticipating it with glee, whispering about their plots, and gathering fuel for the fire. The guy waited ready in our shed, complete apart from his turnip head, which Ben carved on Wednesday evening.

Even Mrs P seemed to have an air of excitement about her as she came in on Thursday morning. Having stopped at the grocer’s on the way, her basket was full of caster sugar and golden syrup. I had laid the apples ready on the table, sixty of them, washed, with a lollipop stick pushed into each core. We melted the sugar and syrup and dipped the apples into the pot, before leaving them to cool and harden on trays. The toffee ran into little flat discs around their bases. Surreptitiously, while Mrs P was clearing away in the scullery, I ran my finger around the inside of the empty pan. The touch of toffee on my tongue brought back a world of childhood bonfires.

We borrowed trestle tables from the village hall and, as the day was clear and bright, set them on the village green. The infants were let out of school an hour early and bade carry chairs. The older ones must have cycled like the beefeaters were on their tails to reach us as early as they did, and then the fun began in earnest. By five o’clock, as the light finally fell, the bonfire was built and burning: a hodgepodge of old furniture, prunings and scrap wood. In the centre, bound to the farmer’s long pine trunk, was the guy.

By then, the last of the mothers had turned out, each bearing a tin of cake, platter of sandwiches or great jugs of milk. Someone filled the tea urn and kept it topped up with boiling water. By the time the men arrived the flames were licking the guy’s darned and darned-over socks, and potatoes had been pushed into the grey embers around the edges of the fire. John helped Ben and some of the other boys sharpen one end of a pile of sticks, and we pushed a sausage onto each for the children to roast. They stood in a circle, faces burning and backs cold, oblivious to everything but the fate of their guy, their dripping sausage and the promise of sweets.

Mr Hewitt made his annual gift of a box of fireworks, and set them off as the last of the potatoes was being pulled open, exposing its fluffy insides. We stood around the fire, oohing and ahhing in unison, well rehearsed over the years. Toddlers began to whinge and a dog, not locked up, set up a howling that started the babies off. Prams were wheeled away with reluctant infants in tow. The older children stayed to tease the fire. John lifted a sleepy Ilse onto one arm and she laid her head on his woollen shoulder. His other arm he put around me, and we watched the end of the evening, remembering other such nights in years past, back to when it was a tired Ben in his arms, and before even then, when there was only he and I.

[whohit]rememberremember[/whohit]

Conquering

Maps in hand, we set out for the horse chestnuts. The season is well under way, and I wasn’t quite sure of what would be left. Fortunately, the children have been finding conkers in dribs and drabs over the past few weeks, and already had a reasonable selection. I think that what they really wanted was the promised expedition.

We traversed mountain ranges and waded through razor sharp mangrove swamps. In the trees the parrots called to the puffins. Lions ran at us, tongues out, panting, to share their games. We passed all sorts of indigenous peoples: eskimos in their beaded collars and embroidered sealskins, bright against the achingly white landscape; aboriginals with dreaming dots about their brows, inviting us to go walkabout with them; and the odd Sioux, on horseback, with long dark hair blowing like silken strands in the cooling breeze. Several times we had to stop and check our compass, or squint at the sun to guess at our latitude. I flitted between the north pole and the antipodes, carried by the fancy of whoever I was talking to.

No wonder the explorers were in need of provisions by the time we arrived at that long rumoured haven, where the conkers lie thick and plentiful on the ground and everything tastes, somehow, of ambrosia. I unrolled the woollen rug and spread it on the still crisp leaves. Cocoa was sipped as quickly as it cooled, pork pies sliced and spread, ever so daringly, with mustard, boiled eggs shelled then dipped in a twist of salt. There followed a long pause for conker hunting and knitting. Both pursuits were, thankfully, fruitful, and celebrated by the passing round of slabs of seed cake.

My personal triumph was waiting at base camp: a hotpot, ready to feed the returning expedition, cooked for so long that it felt as though someone else had made the supper. I only needed to add the pastry crust.

Once home, the focus of the expedition shifted. A pair of expert, retired conquerers shared their secrets with the raw recruits. The smooth dark spheres were suspended in vinegar, baked in the oven, or stored, in a paper bag empty of pear drops, at the back of the airing cupboard. That particular treasure will be unwrapped and carefully drilled next year. Finally, Seb and Ilse fetched from their treasure boxes a single conker each, collected the year they were born and quietly growing in strength ever since. They were carried, ceremoniously, to John’s shed, to be made ready for battle.

The fresh air of the Arctic, of the North American plains and of Uluru had renewed the party’s appetites, and short work was made of both hotpot and pickles. I wiped the table so that the children could sit there, after supper, while I washed the pots in the scullery.

The new conkers will be ready soon, ready to take on playground challengers and defeat all comers. In the meantime, at the kitchen table, my three conquerers occupy themselves by filling in the blank spaces on their maps with all they had found while they were taking over the world.

[whohit]conquering[/whohit]

Stir up Monday

Our conker expedition was rained off. The picnic, prepared the day before, sat forlornly on the kitchen table. Everything felt damp, and the sky stayed resolutely grey.

On days like this, the kitchen is the place to be. I turned on the electric light and, not trusting to its yellow glow alone, shook more coal from the scuttle into the stove. Then Ilse, Seb, Fliss and I gathered our supplies, not for an outdoor expedition but for a rainy day adventure.

For the children: coloured pencils, wooden rulers, ink pots and boxes of nibs, and thick sheets of laid paper. Special paper, for a special project.

For me: cinnamon and mixed spice, flour and eggs, golden syrup and dark brown sugar.

The children began by sketching compasses, Fliss reminding Ilse of in which direction each of the points lay. They discussed their landscapes, suggesting features geographically possible and impossible. Oxbox lakes in surprising little Os along the river. Islands with hostile camps upon them. High strung bridges and fireplaces with cauldrons slung over them. Then the map-making began in earnest, tongues out, brows furrowed. Seb drew curving contour lines. Fliss sketched a magical glade.

While they drew, I zested oranges and lemons. I creamed sugar and butter with oozing syrup. I sieved flour with spices and stirred them, alternating with beaten eggs, into the mix. Finally, I poured in two pounds of brandy-soaked fruit and carried the bowl to the table.

Ilse went first, pulling the spoon easily through the layer of dried fruit and wishing, eyes tight shut. Then Seb, whose lips moved unconsciously, nearly spilling his secrets. Fliss’ wishing took a long time, and I wondered whether there was a long list of wishes or just one, elaborate, desire. And I went last of all, wishing for the same thing that mothers always wish for, and actually stirring the fruit into the cake mixture.

The Christmas cake went into the oven. Soon there was a warm, spicy December fug, cacooning us from the lingering gloom. Coloured pencils were taken up, and I turned to the pudding.

Eggs and brandy, nutmeg and zest – almost the same ingredients but to a different end. We washed a silver sixpence and buried it in the uncooked basinful, before pleating the greaseproof paper lid and tying it on with string. Once lowered into the steaming pan it began its rattling dance, rising and falling with the bubbles. The room grew warm and softly steamy. Exotic flora and fauna were sketched around the edges of the maps.

I spread the picnic on the tablecloth for a late luncheon. Bully beef sandwiches, apples and cocoa make a feast whether eaten in a Christmas-cosy kitchen or on a trans-Siberian trek. Over their meal three excited children told me of the developments to their conker-collecting plans. It appears that we will be criss-crossing the globe. Their eyes shone, their voices rang, and their imaginations were clearly stirred up. As was my pudding, on a Monday, and a few weeks early. Sometimes, though, you have to obey the weather.

[whohit]stirupmonday[/whohit]