New music

To my surprise, I find that there are other tunes to listen to. There, beside the gramophone, they have been waiting for me. I run my fingers over the cardboard sleeves, settle upon one at random, and pull it free. Some hissing, a little scratching but then the music which has been turning over and over in my mind, viewed from every angle, is replaced by the steady pulse of an orchestra and the the gentle rise and fall of piano notes above.

Throughout the rest of the day, other melodies have risen to the surface. Other snippets of song, other chords, other timbres. Some linger, some pass swiftly on, but it’s good to hear them again. Good to listen to something that I don’t know the name of every note of. Good to have a change.

That afternoon, in the garden, I find the slugs have been eating my savoys, and lift the cage off for a closer look. I bring two big bowls of raspberries in to have after supper, with cream. The mange tout are growing large and stringy so I pick the lot, and eat the bright sweet peas straight from the toughest pods. I weed a little section, and Ben passes me short lengths of cotton twine to tie things in. I snip at prickly brambles and carry them, at arm’s length, to the pile for burning. The hens follow me around, and I think that they are pleased to see me.

Inside, there is new fabric to be washed, and a new pattern to be cut. There is a little mountain of ironing to smooth the wrinkles out of. Ben gives me his old shirt, acid holes burned in the front from a chemistry lesson mishap, and I add it to the pile I was sorting, months ago, for Fliss’ quilt. There are two cards waiting to be written on the mantelpiece. There are novels by writers other than Christie to be read. There is a piano to be played, and a school play to enjoy. A party in a week or so. Holidays to have.

I hadn’t realised quite how far away I was – not consciously at least. Little piles were building in this house where little piles are never left to clutter up a surface. Books to be read, and new clothes to sew for little people. Recipes I’d like to try, thank you letters to be written. Even though the floors were swept, the dishes washed, the meals cooked and eaten, it seems I wasn’t fully there. Half my mind was elsewhere, rehearsing, remembering, and trying not to worry. It’s silly, really, to get so caught up in a project. To let it dominate a month or more.

But then I’m so, so glad I did it. I’ve become a better player, and learned to deal with nerves. I’ve remembered what it’s like to be eighteen and faced with exams, hard work and uncertainty about the outcome. I’ve seen how well my own children cope, and tried to learn from them. I’ve given four performances, and come out smiling.

Now I can relax, and the summer can begin. Never mind that it is raining, or that temperatures are low. There are so many things to do that I can’t wait, and so I haven’t. The garden got a burst of my attention yesterday. I’m popping into town to have my hair cut. Lots of little projects are coming back to life, and my full attention is right there with each and every one. And between them all – between the sewing and the writing and the tidying of the house – I think it’s time for some new music.

Garden notes: Speed magnification

Yesterday the anemones were just tight-furled buds atop their gangly stems; today the first have spread their petals wide. Courgette cigars swell to marrows the moment I turn my back. The mange-tout peas are ready, the raspberries a-ripen, the strawberries are reddening our lips. Every day, it seems, something new appears, or grows, or reaches its fruition. Already July, humid and heavy. Already the round of plays and performances. Already the harvest has begun.

There was a moment, hanging out the washing, when I caught sight of those anemones, and a crackly, imperfect cinema reel began to play in the back of my mind. Not a metaphor for memory, you understand, but a memory itself of a trip to the pictures when I must have been fifteen. There was a new film out by Percy Smith – a short, shown as part of the Saturday programme – but not flies lifting dumbbells or nursing baby dolls. No, this was something new: The Birth of a Flower. Long after it was over, and the feature – Jane Eyre, perhaps? – was reaching its denouement, those flowers burst open in my mind’s eye. Tulips and lilies, roses and snowdrops, sped up so that what should have lasted a few hours or even days took less than a minute to portray.

I don’t know what prompted Smith to photograph flowers in this way. Was it a sense of life going so slowly that we couldn’t see the changes taking place? Or was it an embodiment of this feeling I have now – of time rushing by, relentless, glorious and cruel. Already the evenings are noticeably shorter. Already the summer clothes are fading on the line. I only know one way to stop the rush: to join it, and be carried along in its current. It’s into the garden today, to plant and pick and weed. To take careful note of each new leaf, each inch the beans have climbed. I don’t want to miss another moment.

July planning

There is nothing nicer than an English summer’s day. Warm enough to saunter round the garden in your dressing gown before the breakfast rush, cool enough to wrap your hands around a cup of tea. Even in the height of summer the countryside is gloriously green, and the blue skies wrap the world in a subtle, Madonna-esque sense of peace. The verges are crowded with the sorts of flowers other, more exotic nations might just overlook: poppies and forget me knots. Cow parsley. Clover. There is time to stop and stare, in an elongated summer’s day.

And stop and stare you must. The English summer is fleeting and ephemeral. It always leaves you wanting more: one more doze upon the lawn, one more tea spread on the picnic rug. An extra week of Wimbledon, the treat of an Indian summer. Some years it acquiesces; others it barely stops to hang its hat up in the hall before passing on to milder, southern climes. Yet we are nothing if not hopeful. We plan for the summer as though it were a certainty, and pack our macs in case of likely rain. Soon the children will be at home for the six week holiday, and so camping trips and other adventures are the order of the day. We’ve spent a little while putting them on the calendar, and keeping our fingers crossed. The summer is taking shape, and I can’t wait. Today, though, the sky is most definitely blue. There’s a spot in a hammock with my name on, and a little extra wool has come my way. Time for a spot of lazy crochet, and another cup of tea. Enjoy it while it lasts, I say. Plan for tomorrow, but live for today.

Garden notes: Abandon

Rain-drenched days. Pockets of sunshine whenever I am elsewhere. The school year coming to a head with sports days and performances, with exams to be taken and costumes to be thrown together. Between the downpours and the sunshine, the garden is going wild. The hens are eyeing up the bolting lettuces. I myself see nothing but the weeds in the cracks between the paving slabs.

At times like this I try not to think about the garden. I have abandoned her, for the time being. I have left her to her own devices, and can only guess at the havoc she might wreak. I dash out to grab a basket of spinach or a fistful of herbs, and mutter at the tasks which must be done: the weeding, the staking, the planting out. It feels wild and out of control. Dangerous.

And then a splash of red catches my eye. There are poppies in the fruit patch. I wander down, to take a closer look, and spot a hoverfly perched upon a petal. On the surrounding canes, the first raspberries are coming into their sweet tartness. There are aquilegia self-sown in the gravel. The roses are in full and fragrant bloom.

This isn’t an abandonment. It is an act of faith, a stepping back, a letting go. Trusting that the garden will still be there when I have time for her again. Hoping she’ll forgive me. And, thanks to the poppies and the roses, the sweet peas and the beans pulling themselves strongly up their canes, knowing that she will.

Garden notes: Shift

If you stand at the kitchen window, the vegetable garden is a swathe of green where only weeks before it was bare earth. Spikes and frills, hearts and floppy pea stems – all can be seen from a distance. And in that green are blooms: pink where mangetout will grow, white at the top of the bolting rocket. Yellow, to herald new courgettes.

So many things have happened in the days and weeks and months between midwinter and today. The earth shifts in relation to the sun and the hours of daylight are drawn out, minute by minute, hour by slow hour. Sensing this, woodland plants send their shoots towards the sun before the trees get in the way. Snowdrops and hellebores lend their languid beauty to the still-cold earth. Beneath the surface roots stop hoarding their resources and spend them in a frenzy of resurgence, regrowth, rebirth. We sniff at the cold air like foxes, trying to smell the coming spring.

The earth is full of time bombs, laid in readiness for just the right degree. They crack open, and out snake roots and shoots, staking out their claims. Beneath the surface billions of life forms do their work of feeding and holding water, releasing nutrients and creating air-filled pathways. We work hard to keep it at its best, and yet, in a forgotten corner of the garden, just beyond the tree house, nature does it better. Soon the nettles can be picked, soon the yellow manes of dandelions will burst into hundreds of parachuting seeds to start again, next year.

Come May the days are long and warm. The vegetables are sturdy, though still small. The sun is on our side. Fat insects fill the air; the hens peck lazily at such abundance. The soil is warm, the roots are strong, the leaves soak up the sunshine. And then, at last, come June, the longest day is greeted by a flush of yellow blooms.

Six months, it’s been. Six months of lengthening, warming, reaching. And now, a shift. This evening will be shorter than the last, tomorrow’s dawn a little later. Summer hasn’t gone, but those in the know – the plants, the bees, the birds – are making the most of the heat stored in the earth beneath our feet. The garden hurtles on, surging towards its harvest. There are destinies to fulfil in the shape of peas, tomatoes, cabbages. It takes more than a simple order to turn this ship. Whispers of the shift will filter from the tree tops to the nematodes who go about their business in the dark, and one day, a season on from now, it will be time for rest. The longest day has passed, the waning has begun. The balance has begun to shift.

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]