The other side of rain

Wet washing hung over the banisters. Macintosh-clad children cycling through the puddles, splashing their bare legs with gritty water. Knitting indoors and not out. Trays of second sowings languishing on windowsills. Toes which are too cold and then, once slippered, too hot. Rainy days in June, when we had hoped for sun.

And yet. Rainy days in summer have their own peculiar charms. The other side of rain is pea and lettuce soup for supper, fragranced with fresh mint. More shades of green than I can name, just outside the window. Bejewelled peonies that only I am traipsing out to see. A cool day to turn gooseberries and elderflowers into jam – and another excuse for buttered scones. Guilt-free time with a book while the weeds dance under the falling droplets. Fewer qualms about children stuck indoors, revising. No need to use the watering can for a week or so. The knowledge that tomorrow might well be a scorcher.

All told, I’ll settle for today. After all, I waited all winter for June. Rainy days or not, it is slipping by so quickly. Soon the holidays will be upon us, soon the children will be another school year older. Soon there will be a week when we spill onto the lawn and picnic thrice a day. But today the rain is falling and, all things considered, there are worse things that could happen.

Garden notes: Song

Golden light which falls like a gentle reprieve at the end of an overcast day. Glowing lawns, and light-reflecting buttercups. Scents which hang heavy in the air as I cycle through them: rambling roses, stocks, elderflowers as sweet as syrup. Early summer days, bookended by the birds and their song.

The aren’t many nicer ways to start the day than to be woken by the birds. They stir at the very coldest hour, just before the dawn, and sing as if to urge the sun along. By the time it is breaking though the gap in the curtains, we are in that vague yet lucid state, half dreaming, half awake. Then the children come in or, on a good day, the cups are rattled on the tea tray and there is time to come to, slowly, while the robins and blackbirds give way to the warblers and wrens.

Everything is making the best of this warm weather. The birds are nesting, the washing is on the line. There has not been as much time as I would like for the garden of late, and when I hurried out to inspect the weeds after several heavy downpours I found other surprises: the first courgettes, pale and slim; spring cabbages big enough for eating, green raspberries all over the canes. I had time enough to set the leeks out in their final positions, and net the troubled swedes against those dratted pigeons. To pull a fistful of radishes, and pick a salad for our supper. There seems to be a moment, each year, when the garden grows exponentially, and this seems to be it.

I am not quite missing it, rushing out as I am to stay in touch. Sometimes a few moments, standing on the lawn, is all that I can manage. There is a musical project taking up all of my spare time these days, leading to a big performance in a few short weeks, and when I wake to the birds I think of the songs I will sing back to them, after breakfast, while they hop about the neighbourhood searching for grubs and worms.

I’ve taken to practising at the back of the house, near the garden that I can’t be in. Through the window I can see the bluetits almost bouncing between the earth and the lower branches of the trees. I can see the blackbird patrolling the lawn with his quick yellow beak at the ready. The hens, in their runs, are pecking and scratching and doing other such hennish things. I take a breath, and at the first note they pause, all those birds, wild and caged, to listen. The bluetits stop their darting flight and perch in the apple tree. The hens stand in a line at the wire, heads to one side. And the robin appears from nowhere to stand right at the kitchen window and watch me from the corner of his eye.

I wonder what they’re thinking, these birds who sing so well with neither instruments nor music. I wonder what they make of the music of a flute, long after the dawn has crescendoed into day. I wonder, does it seem strange to them, for someone to be whistling and chirping at such odd hours of the day?

In the evening it is the bluetits who seek out centre stage. They chirrup their high pitched little trills as the rest of the world is settling down to sleep, tired after a day of foraging, and parenting, and flight. When I have the time I like to return their compliment. I stand upon the lawn on these precious summer evenings and listen, really listen, to their song.

 

 

 

 

Favourites

I held my breath as I cut the pieces for Seb’s fish shirt, hoping I’d bought enough fabric. He’d chosen it so eagerly, selecting something which would be just right for family campAnd it is. It will be perfect for a weekend of pirates and creatures of the deep, as well as for the rest of the summer.

But it’s just right for him, too. For the boy who likes to swim against the tide a little, to be the odd fish out from time to time. This is the boy who wants to make a giant squid costume out of papier mache and paint it gold, because they are gold, Mummy. Really. There will be ten trailing tentacles, plate-like eyes at belly button height, and armholes to accommodate all the dancing he’s going to do. My little fish is most certainly the orange one.

He left me in no doubt about the details of the shirt: it is exactly the same as that of two years ago, only bigger. A grandad collar, with no buttons to snag on pesky branches. Straight sides to accommodate too many ice creams. And tabs and buttons at the elbows, to keep his sleeves out of the way while he’s hammering new bits onto his den, or copying out constellations.

I find a great deal of joy in a job well done, and even more in one so well received. He put it on, beaming, and the shirt I thought had plenty of room in it had only a little. He grows while my back is turned. Ten, already. Ten.

I wondered whether he’d still wear it next year, at eleven. Whether he’d prefer something else, by then, something striped or checked or even plain. Who knows? Not I. All I know is the pleasure on his face as he hops around, declaring it his favourite ever.

He’s grown out of everything but his school uniform, this spring. Ten was the height of Ben’s phase of wearing everything out: holes in knees and elbows and many random rips besides. There is nothing to pass down. So Seb will need something more to wear at weekends and through the long summer holidays. I didn’t need to think before offering him another.

The trick with Seb is to let him choose, because who doesn’t want to wake up on an spring morning with a favourite shirt flung ready over the back of a chair?  They’ll become his second skin, a creased and grass-stained part of his everyday adventures. One on, one in the wash, over and over again. Little boys have other things to think about than what to wear, like where to find the biggest mess of frogspawn, and whether the latest Just William is back on the library shelves. But when he does stop to wash his face before tea, and catches a glimpse of himself in the little bathroom mirror, he’ll recognise himself, just the way he is in his mind’s eye.

He went for bears, the second time around. I cut the pattern a little larger, and managed to squeeze a size eleven out of just over a yard. I’m feeling optimistic, you see, encouraged by his hearty approval of the first. This time it’s bears to wear in the woods, out ranging, searching for blackberries in late August. Bears to wear fishing with his uncle in the Lakes, to scoop pike out of the water and into the bows of the boat. Bears to come snuffling around me in the hot July kitchen, asking for honey sandwiches for tea.

One day he’ll outgrow such things; I know that. But now? For now, he loves them, and I love that he does. I must have stitched that sentiment into each and every seam, judging by the way his face shines when he wears them. Once these days are past I’ll cut them up and make a quilt for him. Something new from something old – something very, very him. Not yet, though. Not just yet. We’ve the whole of the summer before us, and the next, and maybe even the one after that. Here’s hoping.

[whohit]favourites[/whohit]

Summer in Devon, Winter in York

It was Ilse’s turn to help me with my quilt yesterday. I spent the first part of the afternoon in the village hall, listening to her school carol concert – a cacophony of recorders and coconut shell donkey steps, carried off with the exuberance only infants can muster. I had my handkerchief ready – I am prone to welling up when all those little voices wend their way haphazardly through Away in a Manger – but I didn’t need it this year. Ilse is one of the ‘big’ ones now, and I enjoyed watching her play her recorder and organise the tots.

We stopped at the baker’s for two currant buns and headed home for an afternoon of just the pair of us. I’d left the fire laid and supper ready to go into the stove, so all I had to do was make a pot of tea while Ilse ran around closing the curtains, and generally being grown up and helpful.

Since we finished her quilt I have hand-sewn the three layers of my own together in blues and greens: quilting and decorating it in one stroke. I’d sewn the front of the binding in place with the machine and so just needed to spend an extended evening hand-sewing the back of it into place. Ilse’s ‘help’ consisted of her playing her favourite records and rehearsing dances to them in the hallway. Then she would come in, announce a recital, and perform. It made the hand-sewing fly by.

I love this quilt, not because it is particularly beautiful or a show of much skill. It is, in fact, extremely simple in design and execution. The reason I keep gazing at it is that it is pieced from old clothes worn on a special holiday in Devon, eighteen months ago.

My brother Pete and his wife had arranged for the whole family – aunts, uncles, cousins, parents, grandparents – and many friends to spend a week camping on a wooded hill by the sea in South Devon. We took the train down and as we had to carry everything up to the wood from the bus stop three miles away, we packed as lightly as we could. I laid out one old frock and set of underwear for each of the girls and myself. Similarly, John and the boys packed one change of clothes apiece. Bathers, night-things and essential teddy bears went into the knapsacks, and the children were ready to go.

We had the kind of weather we English fantasise about – long, sunny days with unbroken skies, where the air is sultry in the light but blissfully temperate as soon as you step into the shade. There was no cloud watching or chilly breeze; Ben and several of his older cousins abandoned their tents and slept in a clearing, with nothing between them and the hushing of the trees. In the evenings there was a great fire, for fresh fish from the hut along the road, or tins of beans, or potatoes in their skins. Somebody brought an accordion, and someone else, a tin whistle.

The site has no water, so I took the children to bathe in the cove each morning, and rinsed their clothes out in the salt water before spreading them on warm pebbles to dry. The weather broke on the last day; the sea turned grey with the threat of the coming storm and our train was lashed by it all the way north.

When I washed the salt out of the clothes with soap and fresh water they were soft and faded, perfect for climbing trees and getting lost in for the remainder of the summer. Ripped and finally outgrown, I cut them into squares last winter and, in the summer just gone, stitched the squares into four long strips.

The faded blues and greens remind me of the muted Devon landscape in late July. The grass is about to yellow. The leaves of the trees are less verdant, more familiar. The sea sparkles so that it barely has a colour at all, but is just a dazzling sheet of reflected light.

Between the strips I sewed white percale sashing, left over from the sheets I made in January. White for winter and snow, and to bring light into these dark days. A quilt for both summer and winter, finished in time for midwinter’s day, when the balance tips and the days begin to draw themselves out once more. I sewed rows of running stitch dashes to link the two, to say where we have been and where we are now. We will go back again. Back to summer and sunshine and days when all you have to do in the morning is slip on a frock and a pair of sandals. Summer and winter, north and south, sunshine and snow. Neither would be the same without the other. And on cue, the very morning after I finished the quilt, a postcard dropped onto the mat, inviting us to another family camp next year.

[whohit]summerindevonwinterinyork[/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]