Tipple

When we moved into this house, we found a number of things left about the place by the previous owners. Some of them were useful: lots of bamboo canes, for instance. Some were less so: the twisted goal posts and rusted wheelbarrows, unearthed when we cleared the bramble jungle. One of the better finds was a stash of demijohns, neat and dusty on a set of shelves, the remains of someone or other’s home-brew ambitions. We took this as an invitation to have a go.

Some things have gone mouldy, and been chucked out. Others have been enjoyed. More have been dreamt up than have been made. Eighteen months ago, though, faced with a bumper elderberry harvest, I decided the time was right to try a classic country wine. I boiled it and stirred it and mixed in the sugar and yeast. I poured it into the demijohns and was amused to find a row of children watching the bubbles rise, rise, then break through the airlocks. Then I put them in the shed, and never racked them off.

There’s been a flurry of spring cleaning, around here. The shed has been emptied and swept out, spider webs dealt with, garden tools sharpened and oiled. I dusted off three demijohns of wine,  wondered briefly what to do with them, and put them back. And there they sat until John, inspired by the last of the forced rhubarb, pulled them out. We tasted it (with some trepidation) and pronounced it really quite nice. A sort of fruity dry sherry, clear and rosy against the light. Perhaps, just perhaps, we were more inclined to like it than most. I don’t think I’ll inflict it on any guests, unless they truly want to try it. But we like it, and I’ll be making it again, this autumn.

In the meantime, John has filled a couple more containers with the type of tipple he is best at. So now there is rhubarb liqueur slowly infusing beside last year’s sloes. Day by day, the colour leaches from the fruit into the liquid, so that the drink turns pink while the rhubarb slowly fades to white. A few more days, a few more turns, and it can be put away for a while.

There are gardeners who raise whole allotments of parsnips or gooseberries each year with the sole purpose of making wine. I’m interested, but not that keen. When it comes to home made drinks, I’m definitely a dabbler. A little here, a little there, a bit of experimentation. I’d like to try an ale, soon. And an elderflower champagne.

In the meantime, there are drinks to be made which are best drunk straight away. Ilse brought me a doll’s teacup of cold mint water the other day, and very refreshing it was, too. I’ll make mint syrup as soon as there’s enough of it. In the meantime, I like to add a sprig or two to a cup of black tea. Warm and sweet and freshly herby, it’s the perfect brew for this time of year.

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This is how

Some people show their love by cooking, or buying thoughtful gifts, or perhaps doing the washing up. I knit.

I cook and clean and sew as well, of course. I grow vegetables, and leave plants and flowers around the house. Some of these things bring me great pleasure. Others just need to be done. And there’s no denying that to sew for someone – or, better, with someone – or to bake a cake and watch your child lick the bowl, is a great joy. A shared joy, and a quick one. Over in an hour, or an afternoon, much to everyone’s satisfaction.

But to show my love, I knit. There is something about those stitches, one after another, sometimes counting, sometimes entirely elsewhere, which is, for me at least, a sign of something more. It isn’t always because knitting takes a long time: a baby hat can be whipped up in an evening. Nor is it about the beauty of the finished product: a knitted dishcloth expresses the same feeling.

Perhaps it has something to do with the solitary nature of it. Knitting is not a collaborative activity. Sociable, perhaps, but not collaborative. Which leaves a lot of time to think about the person you are knitting for, and the qualities of the wool, and how the finished product might look on them.

So many women start to knit in earnest when they have babies. Baby things are small, and quick, which is a blessing when you only have short nap times in which to seize the needles. We then move on to older children and perhaps ourselves. A few pullovers later, our stamina builds, and we are ready for the big one.

It took me many years before John got his cardigan. Hats, yes. Mitts, scarves, socks – absolutely. But that cardigan was a long time coming.

I started it in the spring, sitting in the sun under the tiny bright green leaves of the wisteria. I had a woollen rug around me and I was full of ambition. Two pattern repeats a day, I think I promised myself. It was to be done by June.

The following March found me on the beach at Sand’s End, still knitting. The same rug was spread beneath me, and I was ostensibly minding the picnic things while John and the children skimmed pebbles over the slate grey sea. They threw sticks for dogs, on walks, and ran about, and shouted. I huddled in my hat and scarf, back to the wind, knitting 408 stitches of collar one way, and then the other. After two long rows my fingers were numb and I went to warm them between John’s hands.

It was far and away my biggest project. I’d broken off twice: once for new school jumpers for Fliss and Seb, and again for a thick aran pullover for myself. I was nearly there, though, and that kept me going, until one day it was done.

Every so often I find it draped over the back of a wooden chair, or left in a heap on the floor. Sometimes I have to brush bits of grass or other signs of his day from it. Perhaps I ought to mind. It took a long time to make.

But I don’t. I don’t because I can see that he loves wearing it, and to nag would change that. I don’t because I know a snag or hole can be mended. Because I have no doubt that this knit will still be around forty years from now. All those children’s jumpers, the hats and socks and baby knits, will have been long since lost or worn out or passed on to younger cousins. I will have frogged my own knits to make something fit for a new phase of my life. But that cardigan will be a constant.

I’ll find it on the back of a chair one day. John, I’ll say, you really must let me throw this old thing out. He’ll shake his head at me. You see, this is how it works. I knit things, he wears them, and we both know what it means.

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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.

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