Sunday’s sewing

As the seasons slip one into the other, our rhythms change. Morning gardening has been replaced by time indoors, chipping away at those bad-weather jobs. These days the garden has a single weekly slot: a couple of hours on a Saturday afternoon, time enough to plant some fruit bushes or fork over a bed. More often than not it’s Ilse who joins me out there, while the others stay close to the fire with their books and board games, or slave away at prep in the study. Last Saturday she helped me turn a full three cubic yards of dense almost-compost into the next bay, shovelling the brown gold with her seaside spade and gleeful at the thousands of naked wriggling worms. I had a paper bag of sugared almonds in my pocket and fed these to her each time she suggested we were flagging.

If this were spring, Sunday afternoons would be spent in the garden, too. Being winter, though, Sundays are for sewing. For making inroads into serious projects, three or even four hours at a time. For bringing together the cutting out and dart-placing of the odd snatched moment in the week, to form something tangible, something finished.

I’d been looking forward to last Sunday. The plan was to settle myself into the dining room with my sewing machine and the wireless and the tea tray laid for one. I was going to construct a shawl collar for the very first time, and given that I’d drafted the pattern myself, I had no set of instructions to follow. It was to be time to think, with the quiet of a well-known classic serial in the background, and no intrusions of any sort.

I had just laid the pieces out to puzzle over when Ilse’s face appeared around the door, pink-cheeked from walking her doll around the garden. Ooh! she exclaimed in delight. Are we sewing today?

It took some effort of will to smile and take her to choose some fabric from the scrap pile. Can you make something all by yourself? I asked, doubtfully. I really need to concentrate today.

She was so quiet that I almost forgot about her, until she appeared at my elbow with a piece of embroidery for me to tie off. I showed her, again, how to do this for herself. She put her head to one side, thoughtful, and I heard nothing more from her until a request was made for two buttons from the jar, snipped off an old school cardigan. Don’t worry, Mummy, she said, anticipating my concern. Buttons are easy.

There was a long silence then, broken only by Silas Marner in the background and the clackety whirr of my machine. Eventually she reappeared, to ask once more for help. Together, with my sharp dressmaking shears, we snipped armholes into the piece she had been working on, and it was done.

I could describe it as an elongated shawl, made from a bit of old white sheeting. There’s a butterfly on one side, with blue wings and green antennae. It fastens around her doll’s body with two green buttons, held shut by loops haphazardly stitched on with more embroidery silk. The top of the shawl flops down to form a sort of collar, and there isn’t a hem in sight.

I could describe it thus, but I won’t, because that isn’t what it is. It’s a coat for her own baby girl, richly embroidered and beautifully finished, stitched with considerable skill and flair. It made me much, much prouder than my own careful collar. You see, my girl made it all by herself. She can make anything, you know.

[whohit]sundayssewing[/whohit]

Slowly

This time of year ought to be treated with care, like the convalescence after a long and difficult illness. This is not the time for programmes of self-improvement, or waist-reducing diets. Instead, we should be recuperating slowly after the long descent into darkness and the busyness of the new year. Yes, the earth is waking up. Yes, the days are gradually growing longer, and their light less thin and fragile. But these things happen slowly, and we ought to match their pace.

I had a lovely day, yesterday, moving slowly. I slowed so much that I stopped altogether at Mother and Father’s house and stayed to lunch: a great bowl of rich scotch broth, full of tender chunks of root vegetables, then a square or three of Mother’s fudge afterwards. I paused for a chat with the haberdasher as I chose the buttons for my dress, and for another with the butcher. The wind was fierce, and the market stalls near deserted, but he was in good cheer, as always.

I learnt a lesson from Seb on the way home. We were cycling into that wind, heads down and jaws set, when I suggested that we go down a gear. He immediately dropped into his very lowest and it was like that that we cycled the three miles home, pedals spinning, along a track which took us over the moor and through the whistling underpass.

They know about going slowly, these children of mine. They’ll wake and read for an hour or more, in their warm nests of beds, until someone calls them down for a bowl of the porridge which has been gradually thickening on the stove. They put their night things on early in these still-dark evenings, and come back down to read again before the fire. They play chess, with friends, move after move, game after game, thinking and pausing, a hand hovering before the final decision is made and the fatal piece touched.

Even when I go slowly, everything still gets done. I made a stew, simmering all afternoon in the bottom oven, so that by supper time the beef was falling apart and the dumplings cooked through to their mustardy cores. The fire was laid and lit. I had time for a long talk with my mother in law, visiting for the evening, and time to pull some parsnips for her to take home. They take a long time to germinate, those roots, then a long time to grow and a long time to roast and come into their earthy sweetness. All these things happen in their own time. And in my own time the house is cleaned, the ironing done, the children tucked up with hot water bottles to warm cold sheets and toes.

I’m having another slow day today. In fact, I’m having a slow month or two. There’ll be time enough for energetic bustle in the spring. Right now I’m content to meander through the days, pausing for a cup of tea by the kitchen window, watching the hellebores and snowdrops nod their drowsy heads in the cold winter air.

[whohit]slowly[/whohit]

Something new

We are each having something new, for spring. As a result, things are shifting and changing around here. The cushions from the kitchen chairs disappeared for a while, then reappeared, clad in new covers. New cottons are unfolded from brown paper packages, and draped over tables and the back of the settee and around Fliss, in front of the mirror after school. She appears in the kitchen while I am peeling potatoes, awkwardly clutching a little pattern of blue spring flowers to her front. May I have this one, Mummy? Once supper is over we sit together at the cleared table, and she describes the type of dress she would like: the collar, the hemline, what sort of sleeves are ‘in’. I make a little sketch and label it, to be sure I know just what she means. I will tweak the waist a little, to flatter her long legs, and set the collar slightly higher so as to frame her face, but otherwise it is a lovely design, and simple enough to make. Then we put it aside and she distracts herself with a book or six during the long wait until it is ready.

The vanishing cushion covers will be a dress for Ilse, and a new shirt for Seb. That fabric, four co-ordinating patterns, was too lovely to cut into last spring. I had ordered it to make things for the children, but cut down some of John’s worn shirts instead, so that by the time it arrived it wasn’t needed. Spread on the kitchen table, fresh from its wrappings, it sang against the apple green cupboard. Fabric isn’t meant to languish in a pile for a year, waiting to be wanted. Instead I folded it carefully, so as not to have to make a cut, and sewed four simple cushions for our chairs. Two more were made from the skirt of an old dress of mine. We’ve enjoyed them all year long, but now they are unpicked and washed again, ready to be made into a pretty frock and a smart new shirt or two.

Even John and Ben are having something fresh to wear to mass on Sundays, and to parties, and for when they want to feel their best. Something simple and straightforward, either made up to a bought pattern or sent to the tailor. Fine shirtweight cottons, in pastel shades of their choosing. And for me there are peonies, pink and faintly fanciful, on a background of blue. Enough blue to be right for me, enough pink to celebrate the spring. A perfect balance.

I know we all see different things when I bring a parcel of fabric home from the shops. I don’t think that Ben or Seb or Ilse see much at all, beyond some tweed or cotton, pretty or otherwise, which may one day reappear on their shelves. Fliss sees something that might just possibly be for her, and a long wait as I work my way through sewing for six. I suspect John simply sees something that brings pleasure to me, which it does. Not the ownership of the material, but the time before me, ready to be filled with planning and drafting and, finally, sewing. I can admire beautiful things in shop windows and walk away, happy to have seen them. But things unmade, unfinished, are another story, just waiting to be written.

It is this whole story that I see, these days, when I unwrap a piece of cloth that I chose so carefully from all those spread on the shop counter. A couple of yards might be, at first, a dress. It might be worn to the church fete, or on a sunny stroll around town. That is all I used to see, when I was Fliss’ age. Now I see around the edges, and into the future, too. No matter how carefully you lay your pattern out there will be scraps, all tricky curves and narrowness. They will be good for appliquéing names onto the front of children’s shoe bags, or snipping tiny hexagons for English paper piecing. There might be a square, large enough for a ladies’ handkerchief. They might sit well alongside other scraps I am saving for a quilt.

One day, three or four or five years from now, I’ll take the dress out of my wardrobe after its long winter rest and see how worn it is around the hem, and how the colours have faded. I’ll cut it up, into a play dress for Ilse, or linings for shoebags, or covers for the cushions which get dragged out to the treehouse. And in time, when Ilse grows still taller or we are past the age of plimsolls, or when there are just too many rips for it to be called a cushion cover any more, I’ll cut it up again. It might be a quilt, this time, for a doll or a friend’s new baby or even a wedding bed. Something old and something new, rolled into one.

A friend came round for tea the other day, bringing her baby, a sweet and clever and smiling boy, and I showed her my Devon quiltI like this square, she said, pointing, as her boy kicked his sturdy little legs on the bed beside it. Thank you, I said.  It was a dress of Fliss’ and before that, John’s shirt. I could see them both in it, lovely with youth and nostalgia. I could see John’s back as he climbed Embsay Cragg, and Fliss, mooching round the house on a wet Saturday, bored until I found her a book to read.

Long after the clothes are worn out, the handkerchiefs left on trams and the quilts reduced to the rags they once were, little scraps remain. There are some from my own childhood, in the dolls’ coverlet made by Mother at the same time as their curtains. There is a bit of a baby dress of Meg’s, in a pinwheel cushion cover which survives on Ilse’s bed. At some point even these will reach the end of their story, and be taken away by the rag and bone man when he comes calling. They will be washed and shredded, used to stuff sofas or the seats of automobiles. Perhaps they will be made into shoddy, bright and affordable. Maybe. And just maybe it will be bought by another woman, wanting to make something new.

[whohit]somethingnew[/whohit]

Many hands

New gardeners need advice, certainly. We can seek it in books or in the umpteen pamphlets available for a penny each. We can speak to those who have been growing things for longer than us. I like to ask Mr White what he is up to, at the moment, and often follow suit. He attends talks held by the local horticultural society, to hear advice straight from the experts. It trickles down, from them to him to me and, finally, to Father.

It always feels as though Father should know how to grow vegetables. His own father, whose garden is now largely put to lawn and flowerbeds, had a large vegetable garden. As a child I remember being sent into the humid greenhouse to pick the reddest tomatoes, or the longest cucumber, to slice thinly into sandwiches for luncheon. It was a job I loved. The greenhouse was forbidden to us children, otherwise. I would slide the door closed behind me, marvelling at the close air and the tangle of vines. It was another country, behind glass. Another world, to a child whose vegetables were delivered by the greengrocer’s boy.

I know he spent a lot of time in there, and in the extensive kitchen garden down one side of the house. Latterly he had a new patch made, closer to the back door, and carried on coaxing life out of the soil well into his nineties. Now he cannot garden any more, but we talk about it instead: what’s done well, what I’ve planted, varieties I might try. He likes to remember the times we went fruit picking together in North Wales, and he taught me to make jam afterwards, dangerous and sticky in the August kitchen.

So you see, I expect Father to just know how to do all this. The fact is, though, that one way and another he’s never had the chance to grow his own. So now we talk about it, and the things that Grandad taught me get passed back up a generation.

If new gardeners need advice, new gardens need small armies. Especially allotments, which are by their very nature normally abandoned a full season before they are given up. Father’s allotment, when he took it on last summer, was textbook. It took Father and Ben and I several weekly sessions to raze the chest high weeds to the ground and begin to fork their roots out. I gave him baby leeks, and little brassicas, and a few lettuces to fill the gaps. The rest could wait until winter.

This Christmas we promised him a day of the six of us, to clear the site ready for spring. I don’t know what he was hoping to achieve, but I was confident that we could get the job done. En masse, the Grahams make light work of such tasks. The hedge was cut back into shape. Endless brambles were dealt with. The fruit patch was shorn of long grass, and the bushes pruned. Ilse and Seb, armed with secateurs, cleared a ginnel for easy access. The beds were forked over once again.

At noon there were many none-too-clean fingers fishing vinegary chips from newspaper, and many thirsty mouths swigging dandelion and burdock. We paused to survey our work, and saw the end in sight. When we were finally done, and John had cycled home with the children, I lingered while Father put away his tools and shut the gate. A fellow allotmenteer poked her head over the hedge and commented on our progress. That always was a lovely plot, she said.

And now it is so again. It has a fruitful apple tree, and fledgling plums and damsons. It has red and blackcurrant bushes. It has four raised beds, just the right width for easy weeding. It has a wooden shed, and a sunny spot for sitting in.

We couldn’t see much of this, when Father took it on last summer, but now its charms are obvious. He’s there today, adding muck to three of the beds. I hope he goes there often, and that we have a good season ahead. I want him to like growing things as much as Grandad and I. Which is why I will happily answer his many questions, and ensure that there are many hands to help him, whenever he asks.

[whohit]manyhands[/whohit]

Warp and weft

Sometimes the sky stays resolutely grey for too many days in a row. Sometimes we simply feel worn out. Sometimes our plans are derailed at the last moment, and all that anticipation comes to nothing. Sometimes we are caught up in other people’s storms.

Sometimes I have to remember all the good things that have happened this past week. Ilse and I sewed the first seeds: lettuces, snug in their propagator on the kitchen window sill. She scrutinises them daily, for the first green speck of life. Next to them the potatoes are chitting, already sending out their sturdy, nubbly shoots. Red onions are rooting in a tray of compost. The whole kitchen hums with magic.

Fliss and I spent an hour in the fading twilight spreading compost on a bed. I transported it, she raked it level: six inches deep and full of promise.

John took Seb and Ilse to a matinee at the pictures while Fliss and I worked in the veg patch. They laughed so hard on the way home that we could hear them coming up the street.

My fair isle cardigan is on its way, dreamed up as I go along. I am enjoying it as much as I had hoped. There is no rush, no rush at all. This is a project that I would like to linger over.

I had a breakthrough, yesterday, when drafting the pattern for my new spring dress. I struggled and paced and was almost ready to leave it for the day when it suddenly made sense, and I knew how to make the collar I wanted.

These are the big things, for which I am grateful. The weft of my life.

Then, too, are these: a cup of tea, brought to me in bed. A spontaneous hug and a kiss from my sweet Seb. A hasty chapter of a novel, devoured before starting on the supper. Five minutes, sitting, in the afternoon. Passing the time of day with friends. A conversation with Mother. Half an hour, just John and I. The first fragile seedlings of the year.

The warp. Little things which keep my world turning, whatever the weather.

[whohit]warpandweft[/whohit]

A happy birthday

It so happened this year that my birthday fell on a soup club day. Another example of Mrs Bartlett’s wisdom, soup club is a weekly meeting of friends where we take turns to cook for one another. Whatever fills our lives, we pause to sit down together, and eat, and talk.

I made a honeyed fruit cake to share, full of dried figs and apricots. I had been looking forward to spending part of the day with friends. What I hadn’t expected was for so many of them to greet me with birthday wishes, cards and presents. Mrs Weston surprised me with a bottle of homemade wine. Miss Stevens and Miss Smith had scented soap and cold cream, beautifully wrapped. Lovely Mr White, on hearing that it was my day, disappeared only to return minutes later, bearing a card.

As I was already out and about I spent the afternoon running errands in town. I got home as the children did to find John already there, having lit the fire and cut slabs of Christmas cake ready for tea. He had arranged my presents under the tree, and when we were ready Ilse passed them to me, one by one.

They know me well, my family. Every gift was both beautiful and useful. There were things for the kitchen, and for the garden. And there were hand-crafted gifts as well, including a basket from my very favourite weaver.

Our house is slowly filling with Mrs Doney’s baskets. They hold vegetables, laundry, wood, hats, gloves, toys, wool, books: anything which needs a home. There is even one of dogwood and willow which I made, under her tutelage, some years ago. Each has its own character, and plays its role with quiet pride. Traditional and sturdy, they will be with us for years to come.

Ilse had drawn me a picture, while Ben gave me a voucher for labour in the garden. Fliss and Seb had pooled their resources to buy me some sharp new needles. Everyone had given me what I wanted, even though I hadn’t really wanted for anything. I felt cared for. More than that: I felt loved.

Who would have thought that I would like becoming thirty seven so much? I should have guessed. It gets better each year, this life. And the older I get the more I value it and those who help me make what I do of it.

After supper I spent the evening weaving in the ends on the last of those hats, while John and I discussed his gift. John is good at presents. One year he promised me fifty two weeks of flowers, and kept to it. Even in winter, when the market stalls were empty, he would seek out some greenery from somewhere.

This year we are off to the hardware shop, to buy everything I need for the coming garden season, and perhaps something special besides. After that, we’ll have tea in town, all six of us.

I would ask for the flowers again, except that there’s no need. You see, the habit stuck. More often than not I walk into the scullery on a Saturday afternoon to find the sink full of blooms, waiting to brighten another day.

[whohit]ahappybirthday[/whohit]

Burning bright

We had our day in the garden: the very best day of the holidays, so mild and bright that it might have been March. The children herded the hens, as planned, and saved long sticks for the building of their den. John and I climbed ladders and cut things back. A rogue branch from the cherry no longer hangs into the vegetable patch. The elders have been reduced to stumps. Even the wisteria, with its wild curls, has had its topknot shorn. The garden looks empty, and enormous.

The children helped for longer than I had hoped, pruning the roses and carrying lopped branches to a growing heap. But one by one they slipped off to the wild space at the end of the garden. Ilse built tiny nests, first for the birds but then, with Fliss’ help, for a whole village of little people.  Next door’s tabby was cast as a tiger, slinking through the undergrowth, and defences were thrown up. They had a winter picnic in the tree house and finally, when all was done, Ben built a bonfire to burn the debris of the day.

The others trickled indoors but we stood by it, Ben and I, until all that was left was a heap of wood ash. There you are, Mum, he said, pointing at it. You can mix that into the compost tomorrow. We can call it combust.

You see, he understands.  What else is this hacking and pruning and shaping and clipping for, if not to encourage new growth?

A few days ago, we moved from the old year to the new. Burning on that fire were the remains of 1930 in my small patch. But not all of it. The apple, pear and damson trees still stand in the same places. The knotted hawthorn hedge still marks one long boundary. And on everything we cut, fat buds are waiting for the right moment to start anew.

Somehow, the turning of that page means very little to me. A moment in time, full of champagne and fireworks. A fabrication. Artifice.

To see the new year in, you have to look outside. You have to caress the emerging buds with your fingertips, and prepare the way for them. You have to look up at the forsythia, about to burst into flame. The whole of nature knows that a new year is here, without recourse to clocks or calendars.

As for me, I know it is here when the clearing is done and the growing begins. I’ll sow the first lettuces soon, under cover. I’ve marked out my new bed, ready to double dig in the crisp January air. Soon, so soon, potatoes will be chitting in a cool bright place, while outside a hard frost prepares their bed for them.

Once the bonfire was out we went in to the other fire, and I spent an inspiring evening with seed catalogues and my notebook. There will be flowers, this time, in amongst the vegetables. Marigolds in pots, to cheer on the tomatoes. Sweet peas, my favourite, standing tall with the beans. Nasturtiums, to tumble out of beds and into salads.

I am restless with anticipation. I keep having to put aside my knitting to jot down a new idea, or a refinement of my plans. Because the new year is here at last, and burning brightly in me.

[whohit]burningbright[/whohit]

Comfort and joy

All around the house, people are busy with new games and projects. Ilse skips up and down the lawn, getting a little further each time before the rope catches on her ankles or her swinging coat. There is a beetle drive in the front room, between Mother and Father, John and Ben. Long rows of dominoes are set up then knocked over by tin soldiers in the heat of battle. Wood shavings litter the corner of the kitchen, when a new pen knife has been whittling all sorts of experimental objects. And beside each bed there is a little stack of fresh books, enticing us into our pyjamas and another early night.

This has been a Christmas of great comfort, and for that we are very blessed. John kept the fire roaring all day long. Ben helped me cook my first Christmas dinner on the aga, which proved so much easier than the old range. He peeled and scrubbed in the scullery, and I rolled and basted, and by the time we were finished the table was filled with everyone’s favourites. There was bread sauce for Father, pigs in blankets for Ilse and Seb, sweet parsnips for Mother and Fliss, balls of sage stuffing for John and Ben and a capon, juicy and hot. Paper crowns adorned heads, new wool socks kept feet cosy, and we ate so well that a game of charades was deemed necessary before anyone could face pudding.

Such comfort lasts a few days longer. Having cooked such a dinner the day before, I had no intentions of making anything more complex than a Boxing Day pie. It’s only a Monday pie, really, but with extra trimmings. Christmas dinner in a pie? I didn’t bother asking, but rolled the pastry in the morning and left it in the cool pantry all day, while we played our games and read our books and enjoyed being at home together.

So there is comfort, and there is also joy. Joy in the Christmas mass, when we remember the best gift of all. Joy in the carols, sung by three hundred people with one voice. Joy in the children’s voices as they rip the string from their presents on Christmas afternoon. And in the faces of Ben and Fliss, watching their parents, grandparents and little siblings exclaim over the fudge and marzipan they had prepared and wrapped so secretly.

The joy lingers too, just like the leftovers and the full woodshed. It carries on in the hearts and minds of the children, engrossed in something new. It carries on in John and me, at home and at rest together for a few sweet days. It carries on in the lights, still shining in the green tree, and in the sprigs of fresh ivy which adorn this house, and in the Christmas candles, lit each suppertime until they are all burnt out.

There is so much comfort and joy here, now. There is plenty to share. With people who are lonely or exploited or suffering the consequences of the Wall Street Crash. With victims of war. With people we pass in the street, every day. Which is why John and the children and I are putting our heads together around those Christmas candles, to decide how we might share a little of what we have so much of: all that comfort, and all that joy.

[whohit]comfortandjoy[/whohit]

Deck the halls

Christmas Eve is the day when it all comes together. When the tree goes up and presents appear beneath it and the house is full of the scent of cloves and oranges and gammon.

Over the past few days the children have been making, merrily, and decorating their bedrooms. Christmas cards have been pinned to wardrobe doors in the shape of fir trees. Yards and yards of paper chains have materialised, made from coloured paper or stylish, monochrome newsprint. The floors are littered with tiny flecks of white as snowflakes are snipped away at, then opened with a flourish. They twist and turn in the warm air rising up the stairs. Pomanders have appeared, hung with a scrap of ribbon from the window fixings, or nestling in the fruit bowl. Each time I open my wardrobe I pause to sniff at the orange, studded with cloves, which Ben has hung from its handles.

So much has been done in advance, in bits and pieces, by one or two or three of us at a time. But this is the day when we all work together, and Christmas fills the house after its long advent journey. And it is just like having a baby: weeks and months are spent dreaming and planning, but nothing really happens until the day when everything happens, and a new light enters the world.

The cake was made in November, but today I will roll out the marzipan and spread a layer of snow white icing on top. Fliss will decorate it, with silver balls and a paper frill, or with tin animals taken from the toy box and dusted with a sieveful of icing sugar. I’ll chop the sage to mix into the stuffing, and stir the custard as it cooks, ever so slowly, on the cool end of the aga. Then I’ll roll and cut the pastry, for mince pies, and call a passing child to make a turnover with the scraps.

In the meantime, the others will have come in from the garden, red-cheeked and noisy, bearing armfuls of greenery. A slip of holly will adorn the top of every picture frame, and the ivy will be woven into willow wreaths, and a table centrepiece, and in and out of the bannisters.

A pause, then, for a quick luncheon of sandwiches and tea before we troop down the road to the crib service. Each year I wait to see which of our children will take part. Ben nearly sat it out last year but was persuaded, at the eleventh hour, to hold the heavy star aloft. Fliss might be Mary one last time. Or they might sit in the pews with us, and watch their younger siblings embrace their roles.

Afterwards, the tree will be waiting in the living room, unadorned. John will stir the fire back into life as I switch on the wireless. Silence, then a lone voice will fill the room. It will sing a story to us, in nine lessons and carols. I will sit with my love and watch our children hang their ornaments, old and new,  on its green branches. Somehow they will lend this living thing yet more life. Then Ben will lift Ilse to place the angel on top, just as John used to lift him, and Seb will switch on the lights, and we will bask in their soft glow until it is time for stories, and stockings, and bed.

Merry Christmas, everyone.

[whohit]deckthehalls[/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.

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