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]

In practice

My gardening plans have had to be postponed, for today. I woke up this morning to rain: not just the typical Yorkshire mizzle but the sort of downpour which permeates your very bones if you’re not careful.

Rather than launch straight into the day’s housework, I turned to my rainy day alternative, and left the lid of the piano up once Ilse had finished her morning practice. As soon as the house had emptied, I pressed down the soft pedal and began to play.

There is a reverence to mornings that I don’t lightly break. Speaking to a neighbour I might explain my habits in other terms: the beds need time to air, or the daily doesn’t arrive until ten. In truth, I need a peaceful start to my days. With four children I can’t stay in bed with a pot of tea and a book, or go for a pre-breakfast wander. So I wait until the house is quiet to begin my little rituals.

I am learning a gavotte, by Bach. From the hesitation, the stopping and starting and wrong notes, this may not seem like a particularly soothing activity. Yet I can think of nothing else, as I play. I am absorbed. I am tested and stretched, and play the same short passage over and over before the clock strikes quarter to and I resurface. Then I take a deep breath, shut the lid gently, and put the kettle on for Mrs P. She will be cold and damp from the rain.

Sometimes, in my lessons, I feel a terrible dunce, my hands stumbling and head wooly when faced with the simplest exercises. But that feeling never lasts. Each week (my teacher assures me) I am, ever so slightly, better. I wish that my childhood self had never given up. Much stronger that my regret, though, is my delight that I am learning anyway.

I normally play the piano in the evenings, after the supper dishes have been wiped and left, standing ready, for the morning. I play my flute in the late afternoon, when the hotpot is in the oven and the vegetables are boiling on the top. By late afternoon I am ready for its surprisingly penetrating timbre, the high notes and the semi-quavers. I am fully awake, by then, and I need to be. At present, I am working on Mozart’s quartet in D, and even straightforward phrases are often rudely interrupted by wrong notes and missed accidentals. I wonder whether I will ever get it up to speed.

When the children were babies, before I  had begun to take piano lessons, I would practise once they were all in bed. I had no choice: the time before supper was consumed by fretful babies and fractious toddlers. I would long for John’s return. Once he was home and the children tucked up, full-bellied, I would assemble my flute to play soft airs, country dances and lilting Irish lullabies. Sometimes it was only for five minutes, sometimes longer, but that twilight music is lodged in their subconscious. Fliss still alters when I play after supper, dragging a blanket into a chair and listening, eyes closed. Even now I play to her, from downstairs, when she is sleepless.

Nowadays, my turn at the piano is the last of the day. It is certainly not the most impressive, but probably the best-enjoyed. Occasionally (only occasionally) I have to remind the children that they’ll be glad of all this practice, later. As an adult, I just do it because I want to. And that changes everything.

[whohit]inpractice[/whohit]

Gathering

Sunday morning, before mass, found me in the garden, gathering the last of the anemones. I arranged them into a rough bouquet as I picked them, knowing that to separate them would cause the trembling petals to scatter. There were just enough to fill two vases: one for the kitchen and the other for the dining table, ready to greet our guests. It was ‘only’ Mother and Father, but the occasion was heightened by the fact that we hadn’t seen them for a month. They have been on the south coast, catching the remains of the summer sunshine.

I laid on the sort of luncheon October does best: roast loin of pork with apple sauce, cauliflower, potatoes and parsnips which, although not yet sweetened by the first frosts, were golden and sticky from their roasting.

Ben was home from camping with the scouts just in time to bathe and join us. The others were rested from their week-end at home, scattered about the place, engrossed in their own endeavours. Ilse has been learning to knit, flitting down from her bedroom every few minutes with another tangle for me to unravel. Seb has been practising archery, having carefully restrung the bow Ben made so patiently with him last spring. Fliss has been wandering in some imaginary world, under an old blanket in the tree house, a stack of best-beloved volumes beside her. Industrious John chopped and stacked all day on Saturday, filling the woodshed and shaking off the feel of his desk.

So it was with great joy that I had them all around one table. We each had our own adventures to tell of, so that we sat talking for a long while after the last spoonful of damson crumble was gone.

A lengthy game of scrabble ensued, and knitting for some, and the customary doze on the settee for Father. Best of all, we lit the sitting room fire for the first time this season, and its magic held us all there, together, in one space. We didn’t even move for tea but drank it where we rested, with thin slices of apple and cheese, and slabs of Mother’s apple and marmalade cake to follow. It was the very best sort of Sunday: involving food, fire and a family gathering.

That evening, before turning in, I weighed out sugar and dried fruit, and poured over it the dregs of the day’s tea. An egg, some flour and a quick stir was all that was required before I popped it into the stove to bake the following morning. It made two tea loaves, fragrant with cinnamon: one for home and one for John to take to the office. In the coming afternoons, I believe that they will be the cause of smaller, but no less important, gatherings.

 

[whohit]Gathering[/whohit]

Jam for grown-ups

Last Wednesday, after tea, we headed down the green lane once again. The blackberries are nearly over, and the few that remain are either small and dry or overblown and pecked at. Although we picked a few, they were not our primary concern: we were after sloes.

Seb and Ilse were with me, as were my sister and her husband. Being newly married, they have no children, but make a great fuss of mine. My four are very fond of their new uncle who, as an historian at Edinburgh, has no shortage of tales of derring-do, and whose study at home boasts no fewer than three swords. He also has three of the prettiest spaniels this side of London; it was with heavy hearts that Fliss and Ben stayed at home to finish their prep.

Despite the dogs under our feet we gathered twenty pounds of sloes in no time. I am so often overawed, at this time of year, by the sheer abundance of nature. We left hundreds upon hundreds of fruits for the birds, all in a ten yard stretch. Multiply that by the thousands of miles of hedgerows in Britain, and the hundreds of thousands of families like ours. Then there are the millions of creatures who depend on them for their shelter and food over the course of a year. The mind boggles.

I kept eight pounds of the sloes for ourselves, which Mrs P clearly thought was far too much, judging by the shape of her left eyebrow. I assured her that much of it was destined for the village show, and charity auctions, but the truth is that that still leaves plenty for us. John and I are both rather fond of a small glass of sloe gin while toasting our feet in front of a February fire.

When Seb discovered that he wouldn’t be eating any of the sloes, he asked why on earth he’d been gathering them. Ilse stepped in. ‘It’s to make a special drink’, she explained. ‘It’s like jam, but for grown-ups.’ Which is precisely what it is: a sweet, fruity reminder of a happy afternoon over a year ago. A sun-drenched autumn afternoon, stored up for winter.

By the time we were home the cottage pie I’d left in the oven was ready, Fliss had cooked the beans and John was in from work. We had a very merry supper, the eight of us, ending with a bowl of blackberries and cream. Seb and Fliss gave an impromptu piano concert, and we laid plans for gathering sloes again this time next year. It was a perfect midweek supper: homemade, simple and sweet. Jam for the souls of grown-ups and children alike.

 

[whohit]Jam For Grown-Ups[/whohit]

Where the cake is

Now that all four children have been back at school for a couple of weeks, they have fallen into their familiar habit of announcing, on arrival, how good it is to be home. It’s a bit of a family joke this: Benjamin in particular says it with a sideways smile, to please me. Felicity is beginning to adopt the same habit, as her world widens around her, but the little ones truly mean it. I am grateful, each and every afternoon, that we live so close to good schools and don’t need to send the children away. John says that it would benefit Ben and Fliss, but I held my ground on that score, and won.

I waited until they were tucking into their second round of sardines on toast at tea yesterday (because I know that full stomachs lead to more thoughtful answers – from my brood, anyway) before asking what ‘home’ meant to each of them. Actually, I’d asked Mrs P, my daily, the same questions earlier in the day. She’d surveyed me, with the dignity that she somehow maintains even when up to her elbows in soap suds, as if I might be a few pence short. ‘It’s where you go back to at the end of each day’, was her – slightly wondering – response.

Of course, I’d hoped the children would have rather more to their notions of ‘home’ than simply a place to return to, and they didn’t disappoint. Ben (helping himself to bread and jam, now) said that it was a comfortable place to replenish oneself. Fliss told me that it is a safe place where she can forget about ‘outside’ things and curl up in an corner with a book. Seb claimed that it was where the best cake was to be had (which I think he meant as a compliment, rather than a threat to relocate should standards slip) and dear Ilse said that it was where Mummy and Daddy were. (They have all learned to butter me up, in their own ways.)

While we were on Lindisfarne, we visited the castle there, designed by Edwin Lutyens and Gertrude Jekyll. John had written ahead to the housekeeper to arrange a private tour. He is very good at things like that; I would have skulked around the castle mound, surreptitiously admiring the wildflowers whilst hoping I wouldn’t be spotted.

I liked the castle very much. I liked the brickwork herringbone floors, the handles carved to fit comfortably beneath one’s hand, and the stained glass which threw soft and fleeting colour into the rooms without the need for gaudy ornamentation. Despite the design being almost twenty years old – and despite the fact that it is a castle, on a very windy northern island –  it felt quite modern, comfortable and homely.

I also liked Mrs Lilburn, the housekeeper, and think she liked us, for she invited us into her kitchen for tea and fed the children ginger snaps from an unfeasibly large tin. When we left, we all agreed that the kitchen had been our favourite space of all, because (as Seb put it) ‘that’s where everything important happens’. I prefer to think of it as where those things happen that nobody really notices until they stop happening: shopping lists being written, pots being washed, socks being darned.

So, although there are still many (many) changes I long to make to our house, I was pleased to unlock our front door, light the fire in our stove, and put our kettle on. I don’t go out to work, and therefore have a place to ‘go back to at the end of each day’, but I do have a place to which those I love return. There aren’t that many years left before Ben won’t be opening our gate every evening, so I must try my best to make it ‘home’ for them all – with a groaning table, a quiet corner, moist cake and the best version of myself.

[whohit]Where The Cake Is[/whohit]