After the storm

Mrs P came home today, wrapped in blankets in the back of an ambulance, to trees blown bare of every last lingering leaf and streets scoured dry by the wind. After the storm, the sun came out, and it was in this sunny interval that she made her careful way up the stairs to bed. She’s in safe hands, that’s certain, and there isn’t a neighbour or a friend who hasn’t visited with beef tea or broth or both.

As well as the branches littering the streets, and bins blown sideways in front gardens, there was a pile of scraps by the side of my sewing machine, and thread and fluff all over the living room floor. I sorted and tidied with no small satisfaction: everything big enough has been cut into strips for Ben’s quilt, or made into little bags or other gifts. Only a pile of crumbs remains, and those are destined for an afternoon of sewing cards. Order restored, it was time for a cup of tea and a daydream, watching the yellow light spill in through the window and stain the room with coloured beams. A little daydreaming, for the what feels like the first time in ages. A reverie.

Which is the name of the piece I’ve just started learning, oh so hesitantly, at the piano. After my lesson I did wonder if I’d set my sights a little high, but after half a painstaking hour this morning I had begun to string the notes of the first few lines into something resembling music. I set the needle on the record and let the gramophone play it properly while I sewed the last few pieces. Sometimes I wonder whether I choose the music to suit the mood I’m in, or whether my mood is dictated by the music. It’s probably a bit of both. Today was most certainly not a day for Mahler: although there are sunbursts in his symphonies there are also many storms. Today was a day for something gentler, something soothing and delicate and beautiful, after recent worries.

By mid afternoon the wind had dropped and the clouds moved in once more, uncompromisingly dark. Yes, after the storm there is always the sunlight, but it often passes all too quickly at the moment. Today everything was right in my little world, but I am increasingly aware of the angry and the dispossessed. Since the crash it seems that it’s not only our economy that has suffered: our tolerance and generosity has, too. We had a leaflet through our letterbox last week, inviting Ben and Fliss to join the youth arm of Mosley’s New Party. They didn’t, of course. I worry, though, about where all this is heading, only fourteen years after the Great War. Yet at the same time, when the light slips in through the windows and good friends are on the mend, it seems impossible that such madness could ever reoccur. After such a storm, there should be sunlight for a hundred years at least.

Garden notes: maying

May is such a polite month. Out goes moody April, with her cold shoulders and stormy temper and in steps gentle May, all maypoles and morris men. It is the month of maying, too, as the old song goes: of love and courtship, steady and hopeful. Time marches on and yet some things never change. The old songs are sung, the old dances stepped lightly out on the grass, and now my girls join in while Meg and I look on and tap our feet. Even the little ones know their places, know to wait their turn to weave in and out amongst the others, and to hold their own strand high above their heads so the bigger girls can pass beneath.

It’s the month of maying in the garden, too – of asking permission and getting it. May we play out after supper, Mother? May we have our lunch in the tree house? May we wear our bathers and splash in a bucket of water? Yes, yes and oh, if you must. It’s hard to deny anyone anything in May, as long as they ask nicely. I’m asking nicely, too. May I harden off the brassicas? May I put in the french beans, and trust to a warm spell to bring them on?

Even the plants are behaving themselves: sitting where they’re put, respecting one another’s space. They’ll sprawl around later, full grown and uncouth, when they think I’m too busy to notice. September can be like that. But in May they are oh so polite. Even the weeds are tentative and easy to deal with. I hoe them down, knowing what tricks they’d get up to later if I didn’t.

Some things are bolder, barely waiting for a reply before pushing themselves up, up into the warm air. The peas are making steady progress, in synch with one another, neat and tidy in their little rows. They’ll start grabbing at the poles soon, but for now they are being good. The shy bluebells are putting on their little show, cool and modest in the shadow of the apple, taking their turn before the branches above burst into bloom. The ash isn’t at all sure, but then it never is, and always waits until the very end of the month to put on leaf. Perhaps it is just being kind, and letting the gooseberries swell before it ushers them into semi-shade. Nor is the may itself in blossom, although the hedges are bright with new leaves. We’ll know the warm weather is here to stay once its pink and white froth celebrates the season.

The only thing which isn’t polite is the list of tasks I want to tackle each day. Planting, sowing, weeding, watering, knitting, writing, making music… Those are just the things I long to do; add to that the jobs which must be done – the cleaning and cooking and washing and ironing. They jostle in my head, these jobs, each wanting to be at the fore, until I order them all on a piece of paper and there they stay until I can cross them off, one by one. A May day is never long enough. I could spend twice the time on each of these labours of love, spurred on by sunshine and soft breezes.

Sometimes it feels as though the only thing to do is to make things simpler. In this spirit, I’ve combined tea and supper into a single meal: high tea, served picnic-style on the patio. A jug of creamy milk from the cows who are so happy to be in the fields again. A pot of tea. Bread and butter, cake, sardines and radishes, and each plate lined with the tenderest, earliest lettuce leaves. I asked very nicely, and took them very gently, and left plenty to grow on. The little plants said I may. For who could say no, on a day like this?

 

Stitches in time

Ilse and I went to the village jumble sale: I to run a stall, Ilse to play beneath the tables with her little gang.

Mrs Partridge had put me in charge of the jams. Before me was a jewel-box of treasures, the summer bottled and screwed down tightly. Although the jars were not labelled with the makers’ names, everyone knows everyone else’s speciality. I bought a jar of Mrs Andrew’s strawberry conserve, knowing that there will be bright chunks of soft fruit suspended in the jelly. Mrs Partridge bought a jar of her friend Mrs Ellis’, who returned the compliment. There was a pleasant hum around me all afternoon.

It was only when I spotted the dress that I felt marooned. I had been looking for Ilse, who had vanished some time ago, and recognised her cardigan beneath the rail of donated clothing, arms dancing in some clapping game. Above her was a vision of Victorian outlandishness: a virtual haberdashery of flounces and bows, roses and braid. It looked just Ilse’s size. Mrs Partridge was doing another round of the hall. Two more tables and she would reach me. I saw a woman I didn’t recognise, accompanied by her own little girl, feeling the fabric between knowing fingers. She held the dress hopefully in  front of the child who pulled just the face Seb pulls when I kiss him in public.

It took another ten minutes before Mrs Partridge had gossiped her way round to me, but at last she took over my table while I went to investigate.

The dress wouldn’t be everyone’s cup of tea – no-one else had even given it a second glance – but the way Ilse’s face shone when I pointed it out made trying it on a formality. It would be made to fit, if necessary. She skipped and hopped at my elbow all the way home.

Even John couldn’t help but admire the work which had gone into it. It must have been a wealthy little girl’s best dress, for parties or perhaps a wedding, probably in the 1880s. The overskirt, in cream dupioni silk, was lifted to reveal the satin underskirt, with clusters of rolled ribbon roses pinning up the gathers. The waist was accentuated by a plaited cord in three shades of creamy brown, and the puffed sleeves finished with softly swinging lace at the elbows. Best of all was the cafe-creme front panel, embroidered with vines, leaves and shimmering flowers. It must have taken days and days – even weeks – to make.

The dress was a little large on Ilse, so I took it up while she stood on a stool, turning as directed, pretending to be the original owner. As I sewed we wondered about who she might have been. Ilse tried on a few names for size and settled on ‘Sara’. She called me ‘dear Mama’ and my mouth was too full of pins to point out that Sara’s mama most certainly would not have been on her knees at her daughter’s feet. That was the lot of other, poorer, women.

I basted the hem fairly loosely, guessing from Fliss’ envious looks that Ilse will continue to wear this as she grows. There wasn’t  a mark on it, which made me feel sorry for a child not allowed to run or play for fear of spoiling her frock. Ilse ate jammy crumpets in it, helped me shut up the hens, then lay in front of the fire on her tummy, rereading A Little Princess.

I hope it is a long time before I have to let down that hem. Time enough for more jam dribbles and grass stains and many, many parties. ‘Sara’ must be quite grown by now, older than I am. I don’t want to imagine Ilse as a woman: sixty rather than six. If I could, I would put a few stitches in time too, just to hold it steady.

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