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]

Nutcracker

A trip to the ballet seems to have become a Christmas tradition in this house. And what better ballet than the Nutcracker, full of toys and children, magic and sweets?

The very act of putting our glad rags on and leaving the damp streets for the gilt and plush of the theatre made it feel as though, suddenly, Christmas was here. Ilse was tingling even before the overture began, with its hoppity-skippety heartbeats. She perched on the edge of her seat throughout, and by the time Marie was dreaming of her nutcracker prince Ilse was dreaming too, of dancing those same steps, and having the swell of the orchestra lift her from below.

At six, she can dream. At six, anything can happen. Her life is wide open, just waiting to be filled with whatever she may choose.

Seb would not choose to be a dancer, I know, much as he loves his lessons. His dreams, he told me afterwards, were a little more prosaic: he plans to ask his dancing mistress if they might include a fight scene in the next show. Or trumpets and galloping. Or both. We talked about how good the little nutcracker boy was at keeping himself stiff and wooden, even when he was being carried around, and how he was barely any older than Seb.

Neither Ben nor Seb particularly liked the romantic ending, but Fliss and I did. Try as I might, I can’t shake the adagio from that Pas de Deux from my mind – those falling notes, simple and tragic all at once, followed me all the way home.

So when we got in, I put on my recording of the score. It has been on or near the gramophone for some time, as the children became familiar with the music. There was a great deal of twirling and leaping around me as I boiled the potatoes, and Ben succeeded in showing Seb how hard it is to stay rigid whilst being carried under somebody’s arm. Ilse put her tutu on, left over from her last show, and Fliss watched them all from behind a book.

I suspect that there will be a lot of dancing in this house over the next few days, of both the sword-wielding and twirly varieties. And I’m sure I heard some shuffles and thumps from Fliss’ room at bedtime. As for myself, I lowered the needle on the record as soon as they had all left this morning, and enjoyed a little waltz as I cleared away the breakfast things. An overblown flower, in two pullovers and a pair of slippers. At thirty-six, that particular daydream is never going to come true, but it is fun pretending. Anything can happen in your own head, no matter how old you are.

In fact, in the foyer yesterday I bumped into a friend with whom I had lost touch, and we made plans to meet up in the new year. Old friends brought together by something beautiful. Which only goes to show that all sorts of wonderful and unexpected things happen in real life, too.

[whohit]nutcracker[/whohit]

Day’s end

It had been such a mundane sort of day: the children at school, John at work and a blanket of damp grey sky. I swept the grit, tracked in from the salty streets, off the hall tiles for the umpteenth time, and decided that a pleasant evening was in order.

Popping a tea bread into the stove at the same time as the stew, I laid the table early. By the time the children were home I was hanging up my pinny. A special Christmas card fell through the door with the last post, from my auntie in Scotland. Already, things were looking up.

John was home on time, for once, so I took the opportunity to pull out the calendar and talk through the rest of December. We added in Ben’s rugger social, and John’s evening out with an old friend. I reminded the children of the nice things I had planned: Grandma coming to stay, and a special matinee next week; which days they were seeing Grannie and Granddad, and the Cub Scouts’ Christmas party.

We chose a date to work in the garden, all together. What I really needed was a day of Ben and John’s labour to climb ladders and shift several small mountains of compost. Ben wanted to improve the hen run, and John hasn’t worked in the garden for weeks, so they agreed readily enough. I forget that none of the others get out there on weekdays. They haven’t had the hens pecking at their shoelaces for ages. I wouldn’t have any trouble in getting them outside.

Still, I have long since learnt that the best strategy is to give everybody their own special job to do. I started them off: leaf-raker, bonfire-builder. By the time we sat down to supper, the little ones were full of suggestions. Fire-feeder. Hen shepherdess. They chattered away through the meal, getting sillier and more fanciful. Worm relocation officer. Twig snapper. Ladybird hibernation monitor. Leek counter. They moved on to plans for the den, and giggles gave way to earnest faces. Hooks for the bows and the quivers of arrows. A basket of pine cone missiles. Prunings, woven into camouflaging screens. A secret entrance round the side. Their excitement mounted, and supper became a strategy meeting.

Afterwards, when I asked Seb and Ilse to get ready for bed, they begged to come down again in their night-things, to carry on planning. Of course they could, on this special occasion. Because although it was just the end of a very ordinary day, it had been made into something extraordinary by these children.

[whohit]daysend[/whohit]

Quilts, large and small

I had intended to work on my quilt on Sunday. The top is all pieced, made from shirts and dresses we wore on a special holiday and have since worn out. All I needed to do was find the old curtain I had in mind for the backing, and check that it was large enough. I already had a threadbare blanket set aside for the filling.

Truth be told, my fabric was a mess, stored in a variety of bags and boxes about the place. I found the curtain soon enough, and cut away the heading, setting it aside for the rag and bone man. Ilse, sensing a clear out, was at my side in a moment.

She giggled as we pulled all sorts out of the scrap bag: old shirt collars, remnants of sleeves, pieces so small I don’t know why I kept them. Amongst it all was the quilting Ilse and Seb had begun last summer. We set this to one side and then, as I was ironing some larger pieces to fold and put away, I pressed their blocks for them.

Once everything was stowed neatly in one cupboard and the last bit of thread had been picked up off the rug, Ilse turned to me, hands on hips. ‘Now what shall we do?’

What we did was finish her quilt.

She’d already pieced most of the top, as she, Seb and I sewed by hand on the patio, Children’s Hour on the wireless. She was now at the point where a little adult intervention was required, to speed the project to its conclusion.

Ilse is often in need of a speedy hand. When she catches me knitting in the daytime she seats herself at my side, to carry on with the teddy bear scarf she began that weekend in October. She knits one s-l-o-w row, and I knit three. It keeps her going.

So we pulled the machine out and she turned the handle while I pushed the fabric through. Then she put her hands on top of mine so as to be able to say that she sewed it, without ever needing to go near that frighteningly fast needle. We had it batted and backed in no time, and machined one edge of the binding around the border.

After a quick break to make some scones, we settled ourselves, tea tray and all, before the living room fire to finish the job. I showed her how to secretly stitch the back of the binding into place and together, despite sticky fingers and copious crumbs, we finished it off.

Seb was a little crestfallen at Ilse’s progress, which has been a theme of their quilting. Ilse sews the way I remember sewing when I was at school – with fast, uneven stitches. Like her, I wanted to see the finished product now, please. Seb would have delighted my sewing mistress. His stitches are pin prick tiny, in perfectly straight lines. I couldn’t have done a better job myself. Because of this, he is a long way from completion. I promised him the use of my machine next weekend, and his face brightened. Tiny stitches and speed? A winning combination.

In the meantime, I plan to finish my own quilt. I’d like it on someone’s bed – probably Ben’s – by Christmas. Isle has already wrapped hers and hidden it in her cupboard, ready to be laid beneath the tree on Christmas Eve: her present to her dolly. I wonder whether one of Seb’s toys will get such a treat. In the meantime, I have some rows to add to a delightfully wobbly pink scarf, so that Little Ted doesn’t feel left out on Christmas Day.

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December soundscape

The younger children may be rising earlier, but Ben and I are struggling to wake in these dark December dawns. This morning I was only vaguely aware of the desultory gusts of drizzle against the windows when a sweeter sound broke through.

I lay in bed, eyes closed, guessing at which of my little band it was. Silent Night, with the chords only occasionally hesitant: Fliss. There was a pause as, presumably, the sheet music I had left out was rifled through, then the tune of Good King Wenceslas, picked out arrhythmically with a finger or two. John, rattling the stove vents, whistled along in support. I could hear Fliss naming some of the low notes for her sister.

Ben and I yawned our good mornings on the landing. When I went downstairs I found them all wide awake, thanks to chocolate and carols. We chatted over boiled eggs and soldiers before they departed in ones and twos.

Now that Ilse is at school, the days can be very quiet, especially in December. There is none of that hum of life when everyone is shut behind their own closed doors. Many of the birds have flown away. The insects are over. Even the late bees have crawled drowsily into a crevice somewhere.

I let the hens out for a wander as I finally tackled that hibiscus. Two of them were surprisingly noisy as they clawed the soggy leaves. The third, the one who is either too wise or too afraid to ever leave the run, let out a series of heartfelt clucks. Afterwards I closed my tingling fingers around her egg, relishing its warmth. We will buy more pullets in the spring, and I will hear that sound eight or nine times a day. For now, I pull eggs from the chilly barrel of isinglass.

Inside, the sounds are not so different, bar the early morning mumming. Kettles whistle, needles clack. Pots bubble over, spitting on the hot plate. I can turn the wireless on, with a click, to hear someone talking. Soon Mrs P will ring the doorbell and pass the time of day as she shrugs her overcoat off and pinny on.

This evening I might leave John toasting by the fire and and have a rummage through those carols myself. Ben will be upstairs, translating the next section of The Iliad. He is growing tired at the end of this long term. Seb and Ilse will be tucked up, sheets and blankets pulled tight, the way they like it. Fliss may knit a few rows of her scarf. John will be reading a book, and resting. Easter aside, Christmas is the busiest time of year in a chocolate firm.

There is an excitement building in this house, spreading from the youngest to the eldest, despite the short days and tired heads. Which is why we mustn’t forget the other side of advent, about contemplation and preparations of another kind. We can embrace the short days and the opportunities to look inwards sometimes: to ourselves, and to those in our care. So I might choose God Rest Ye, Merry Gentlemen, or Away in a Manger, to soothe them all as the night draws in around us.

[whohit]decembersoundscape[/whohit]

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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