Shuffling

What with the end of term in sight, and the end of Ben’s exams today, my mind has started tripping forward to a little reshuffle around the house. It’s already started in the sitting room: the chaise lounge, which I’d intended to move into the bay window as soon as we stopped lighting the fire, has finally been settled into its new place. Too cold for the winter, it’s perfect for summer evenings, and in the mornings we’ve been coming down to find Seb or Ilse tucked up behind closed curtains, under a blanket, lost in a book.

I like moving things around from time to time. Twice a year, when the equinox throws us from shorter days to long, then back to short again. It almost passed me by this spring, busy as I was in the garden and elsewhere, but it’s never too late for little changes. In truth, I’ve been waiting for Ben’s exams to be over, to put a long-planned scheme into place. He’ll be leaving home soon, slowly at first, with little hops out and back again, and will need a room to call his own for quite some years to come. Yet at the same time there will be long stretches when his room lies empty, and could be put to better use. He’s had one of the two nicest rooms in the house: a sun-drenched double bedroom which mirrors our own across the landing, and it seems a shame to let it be used less frequently. So he’s swapping with Seb, and moving into one of the back bedrooms.

We’ve never had a guest room – having as many people as rooms does that to a family – but things changing seems the perfect opportunity to make two rooms in one. I love spaces which can be one thing and then another: a dining room one hour, children’s study the next. We have lots of such spaces in this house, deliberately, and keep surfaces and other tables free so that they can be put to use for whatever takes our fancy. It takes a bit of thought and planning but really, in the grand scheme of things, university student’s bedroom/ guest room is an easy one to master. It’s lots of fun too, working out just what might go where, how much storage space is needed, how a desk can be a dressing table too. I’m even looking forward to taking down the curtains and having a clear out with the boys.

Nothing is ever static, and things change even faster when there are children in the mix. They insist on growing up, on changing, on moving on to something new. I could keep things just the same, and sit in his room when he goes away, feeling sad. But I suspect there be quite enough of feeling sad as it is. In which case, a little project seems just the ticket, to keep me busy and focused on good things: all the friends we’ll be able to put up in comfort, and see so much more easily. It’s not an end – nothing’s really coming to an end. It’s just a spot of shuffling around, as usual.

Stitches

Well, it transpires that there are lots of things you can’t do without stretching your arms forward, particularly if you spend most of your days working with your hands in one way or another. I had a day or two of such discoveries, getting more and more fed up until I started to think about all the things I could do. Things that were not on my immediate list but that I wanted to get done. Frivolous things.

I spent an evening alternately dozing and re-reading The Go-Between. I tapped into Ilse’s enthusiasm for growing flowers and, with her help, arranged the pots on the patio. I delegated, rather a lot. This helped the house to get clean, thank goodness. I baked a huge Victoria sponge, simply oozing raspberry jam and cream, simply because I had the time, and it seemed a nice way to celebrate Friday. I still sat, for several hours across several different sessions, and helped Ben with his revision. It’s dull, doing it all on your own, day after day. I practised my Chopin, and the non-arm-crossing parts of my Debussy. I hoed the garden, standing very upright. I made a new camisole for myself.

And in between all of this, I cross-stitched the label for Ilse’s quilt. Indoors on the Saturday, then outside while drilling Ben on his Latin grammar on Sunday afternoon. It’s done now, although I might add a pretty little border in a darker pink, just to frame the words. It has a snowflake in the middle because it was one I never finished last Christmas. Once I’d stitched the other half of the flake, it seemed silly not to use it. The label is far from perfect – it’s an old linen napkin with a very uneven weave which makes it hard to be neat – but we all rather like it. So much, in fact, that the others would all like one for their quilts too. I’m sure I can oblige. I loved every soothing stitch.

But today I woke up and felt much better, which meant that the onions have had a much-needed hand weeding and I’m planting up some of those pots. Mrs P and I did a huge, ever-so-slightly-urgent wash. I’ll be getting on with lots of those tasks at the top of the list, now that I’m on the mend. I might just slip in a little cross stitch though. It is just the loveliest thing to do at this time of year, in a wicker chair, in the dappled sun. I don’t think I’m altogether healed just yet. Yes, a few more days of stitches might just be in order.

Pottering with a purpose

The younger children have exactly three trips planned this half term: one morning in town with pocket money and book tokens to spend; one afternoon out with Mother – a trip to the Castle Museum followed by afternoon tea; and one day out in the motor, all together, for a walk or a wander in an as yet unselected location.

All are suitably vague for a holiday which is, in this house at least, all about rest and recuperation. We’ve adopted a let’s see how we feel on the day approach to everything beyond the garden gate. As long as they get out at regular intervals to stretch their legs and have a change of scene, I’m happy. So far there has been dressing up, board game playing, the making of pouches for survival kits, the start of a new manuscript, and much reading. They are expert potterers, able to entertain themselves for days on end with self-dreamed projects and pastimes.

All of which is extremely fortunate, as my own pottering has rather more of a timetable attached to it. Why do I always end up with so much I want to do, each half term? It isn’t as though any if it is terribly important, even, this time around. Honestly, one of my aims was to replicate the coffee cake my mother-in-law baked last week. Frivolous, yes – but I never make the time to ice my cakes in term time, so it seemed the perfect treat for Friday afternoon when the children came home with mounds of muddy sportswear and that start-of-the-holidays glee. Truth be told, it only happened because I wrote it down. Friday morning: clean house with Mrs P. Friday lunchtime: bake coffee and walnut cake. Friday afternoon: pop to haberdashers for thread, bias binding and elastic. Ice cake. Come half past four all was well with the world.

The list goes on, and more is ticked off each day. Sewing, knitting, seeing the odd friend. Preparing for spring in the garden. It’s all pottering, only I know what I want to achieve each day. With only a week off school, I like to have my time mapped out in a vaguely purposeful way. We still get up a little later, and take a lacksidaisical approach to daytime meals (a favourite part of holidaying, to me). But I can immerse myself in each and every moment knowing that, by the end of the week, I’ll have done all that I hoped to.

Needless to say, plans change all the time, but there’s plenty of room for improvements. Ilse has a new task, for which she’ll need a spot of supervision: bunny-sitting a certain rabbit named Sparkles who lives a few doors down. Popping along the street on certain days to check his water and have a few cuddles while we’re at it? I’m sure we can squeeze that in. In fact, that seems to be the epitome of pottering with a purpose.

Twinkle

Walking home from Mother and Father’s last night, we paused to admire the big trees twinkling in bay windows. There’s something so generous about a Christmas tree in a window, the curtains left open as night falls. From within, the inhabitants can enjoy its light and scent while they snuggle by the fire; from without passers-by can choose their favourites, which gets harder and harder as the walk goes on.

The very best display was in a tall Georgian home, where the window of each storey was involved. On the ground floor was the tree, decked out in coloured lights – pretty, but nothing extraordinary. Above it, though, was the nativity scene: the plain panes transformed into stained glass by coloured tissue paper. There was the stable, and the mother and father leaning dotingly over the crib. Three shepherds and three wise men had appeared in the distance. The whole picture was framed by the sort of flowing leaves and vines we might expect in a medieval illumination. And above it, in the little attic window of the top storey, all was dark apart from a yellow tissue star, silhouetted against the background.

In our house we don’t ‘trim up’, as Mrs East puts it, until Christmas Eve. The tree lives in a pot outside; the baubles and all those funny homemade decorations which would mean nothing to any other family stay firmly in their box until the very last minute. Then, while I’m icing the cake and stewing red cabbage, the children have the tree and house to keep them busy, and on Christmas Day it all feels fresh and new and fun.

It can be difficult to wait, though. I found them all in the sitting room making paper chains on Saturday, and more lights have been added to the ones that I strung up last week. A few branches of twisted willow have been cut and sparkle quietly in the corner. There’s a jug of eucalyptus in the hall, subtly scenting the house. And some silly twinkly teacups, bought at a jumble sale last year, have replaced my usual green and white set on the dresser.

We lit the pink gaudate candle at mass yesterday, and the excitement seems to be catching. Just a couple more presents to make, just a few more days of school. But before all that, before the season can really begin, we have the birthday of my own special boy to celebrate. Eleven! And such a fun and special birthday planned. I can see his eyes twinkling already.

Nesting

When I went out to the hens this morning I found that three of them, at least, had finally finished putting on their winter eiderdowns and were laying eggs again. After a few weeks of nothing, it was a pleasure to carry the still warm treasures through the frosty garden and place them in the bowl, straw and all.

I’ve been nesting, too, in this cold weather. The temperature dropped below freezing just in time for advent, and just in time for our new fireplace in the dining room to be lit for the first time. We decided to have the sitting room mantlepiece replaced too, so there was an awkward day last weekend when all the furniture was piled up in one end of our kitchen. John finished painting the dining room first, and we moved a couple of armchairs in there to have somewhere warm and clean to sit – a temporary measure, you understand. Except that it transpires that our dining room makes the cosiest sitting room imaginable.

I love these sorts of accidents. Who knew that a smaller sitting room was what we wanted, or that the bigger room would be so perfect for the dining table and all the making and designing that it hosts? That the piano would fit so perfectly into the space between the door and the start of the bay window, or that a big old leather settee was just what you needed to be able to flop onto when your algebra or sewing was too hard? And so the base of an old dresser has been pushed into an alcove to hold the coloured pens and school books, and the piles of sheet music found a space for in the big family bookcase. Armchairs and small tables have been moved. And cushions and throws and blankets have found new homes on old chairs around the house.

We haven’t bought anything, but the house feels completely different, which is my favourite kind of decorating. All our familiar things in unexpected places. There are two new-to-us items, however, which needed a reshuffle to find their places in the house. One is an old low rocking chair, which belonged to John’s grandmother. She used to sit and knit in it when he was a little boy. It’s been waiting for new covers for an embarrassing length of time, but now that there’s a space waiting for it by the fire, it’s the next job on my list. Much easier was the act of spreading a gorgeously warm Welsh blanket across the foot of our bed, to be pulled up on chilly nights. Passed on by John’s mother, it is just the thing to cosy up our room.

Last but not least were the advent calendars, unfurled and hung in a row in the hall, each little pocket stuffed with a chocolate for the start of every day. And I couldn’t resist a string of fairy lights around the kitchen dresser, where the first of the Christmas cards stands. It’s advent, you know. Time to get nesting. I hear a special baby’s on the way.

Tesselations

There have been page after page of tesselations floating around the house of late. Fliss learned to draw these interlocking patterns from her mathematics mistress and Ilse, spotting the bright sheets of gridded paper, demanded to know how they were done. Ever patient, Fliss taught her sister to draw interconnected crosses three squares wide, and pick each element out in a different colour. Then they moved on to dogs, each one standing on the back of the next so that they rose in diagonal towers across the page. Then came the moment of glory, when Ilse made up her own simple pattern and it worked. When I’m grown up, she announced, and I build a house of my own, this will be the hall floor.

The lives of the six of us, in and out of this house, are a tesselation of their own. They are more than the sum of their parts, and, when all is well, they fit together into a lovely seamless pattern. I see it more at this time of year than any other: when it’s chilly in the bedrooms and so we gather around the fire. When there’s still novelty in indoor pursuits and no-one is fed up with the same games, the same stories, the same selection of crafts. Last night, Ben lit the fire while I got the tea things ready. I sat down with a final cup once the scones had all been eaten, and found the boys engrossed in a game of chess. The girls were drawing more tesselating patterns together. Tea drunk, it was time to give Seb and Fliss their flute lesson, and for Ben to make a start on his prep. Ilse was happy with the shoebox of colouring pencils until Seb was free to join her, while Fliss went off to write an essay on Tennyson. By the time John came home, supper was ready, prep was done, and the children had a fresh stack of patterns for him to admire. It was one of those lovely evenings when everything fitted tidily together.

Of course, not all evenings are quite as neat. Often the things we do jar and clash against each other. Show me a family that doesn’t know that feeling. But once in a while everything fits, just so. The tasks which need to be done fall into place alongside the all important play. Everyone wants to join in the same games, to make the same music, to draw the same pretty patterns. Those rare evenings are worth taking the time to enjoy. And of course, the cherry on the cake was that the patterns the children were drawing summed it up just perfectly.

Bit by bit

There are two ways to cut an overgrown lawn. The first is the way Ben approaches it: forcing the mower over the long grass with the brute strength of youth. A few passes and he’s inside, complaining that I have set him an impossible task. The grass is too long, the blades too blunt, the sun too high in the sky.

Come on, I tell him. We’ll do it together. And despite his protests, I raise the blades so high that they’ll cut only the most precocious plants. I adjust the tension so that the cylinder spins freely. Then I give him the mower to try, without the cumbersome bin attached, and off he sets, leaving an arc of green mowings in his wake. We lower the blades, less than he would like, and he does it again. Then lower again for a third cut, until by the fourth he is ready to reattach the bin and leave neat light and dark green stripes up and down the garden. He’s proud of a job well done, I’m happy and John is delighted to come home from work and find that job ticked off the list.

All I need to do now is approach my own task list in the same, gentle way. The house and garden are not quite the way I’d like them to be by this point in the summer. There are weeds growing back between the patio slabs, and the celery is struggling with the heat. I haven’t washed the curtains yet, or beat the rugs for an age. I’ve a mountain of marrows to turn into chutney, and have hardly made any jam. The children’s clothes need clearing out, and I’ve got stuck halfway through knitting a pair of socks for Ben.

Luckily, his lesson on the lawn was a good one for me, too. Slowly, Cecily, slowly does it. It doesn’t all need to be done in one fell swoop. Every day there are meals to be made, clothes to be washed, floors to be swept. Much more importantly than that, there are the children’s holidays to be enjoyed. If I pick a single task every two or three days, that will be progress enough. Bit by bit, I’ll work my way down that list. And if I never reach the bottom? Well, never mind. What happens will happen, and what doesn’t, won’t. Given the choice between embracing the summer and running a perfect house, I know which I’d choose. Today the lawn was mown and the shed tidied, which I think merits a trip to the seaside tomorrow. Make hay while the sun shines, yes, but don’t forget to stop for a long drink of cider and a midday snooze in the shade of the bird-loud hedge.

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.

Banking it

Clearly two plus one does not always equal three. Take bank holidays, for instance: adding just one day to the weekend more than doubles the time off work. Everything that can closes down for the full three days, leaving Saturday curiously like Sunday, that lovely day of peace. And then the real Sunday comes, and then Monday which, with all the banks and shops and schools and factories shut down, is Sunday yet again. And three Sundays are worth much more than three of any other day, which makes the break far longer than just three turns upon the axis.

Add to that the fact that everything seems just that little bit easier in May and well – what are we to do but spend a lazy three days pottering around at home? Getting back into bed with the tea tray and a good book for just one extra hour. Helping Ilse with her latest project (involving tissue paper and a great deal of paste) before even thinking about the luncheon. Finding myself with an army of eager garden helpers, which dwindles to just one within five minutes, but which is still one more than I am used to. Getting round to some of the tasks I’ve been avoiding: repotting the tomatoes for the last time, lifting the netting off the peas to get at those marauding weeds – because it’s ten times more fun with two. Thanking John for doing the tasks I find heavy going, like cutting the hedges and mowing the lawn. Seeing a break from Ben’s revision become a carpentry session, at the end of which the hens have a new playground to get fit on.

Caught in this little time warp there is a chance to slow down, take stock, and get started on ventures new. Time to pair a pattern with some soft and variegated aran, and see a cabled bobble hat fly together in a swift row here, row there. Looking at my fast dwindling skeins of wool and choosing some to crochet into granny squares. Opening the cupboard with the fabric in and, with Fliss, choosing all the cottons for her quilt. Poring over design books together, and asking if she’s sure. Sitting and chatting while we snip away at old shirts and dresses, cutting squares two and a half inches wide for an Irish chain in washed out pinks and greens. And then, when we pause, finding that it’s only ten to three, and not quite time for tea.

There have been trips to the park, and to a friend’s to play. There’s been music practice, and preparation for exams, and learning lines for a school performance. There’s been a long letter from Meg, and one written in reply. A shop popping up in the shed, selling all manner of groceries at outrageous prices. A garden centre with a cafe and two keen delivery children scooting up and down the paths. Leisurely lunches which melt into leisurely teas. A bit of a tidy. A lot of sitting in the sun.

I’m half expecting to find that a whole month has gone by, while we were having our bank holiday weekend. We’ll go back to the real world and find that there’s a row of little absent Os in the school registers, that John’s desk at work is dusty. That Mrs P has been knocking at the door, and the children and I have missed our holiday by the sea. They go on forever, these bank holiday weekends, always giving more than seems quite possible. Soak it up, I say. Save it, store it, bank a bit of this for later. Because – believe it or not – it won’t go on forever.

Spring fashions, 1931

Hail one day, then glorious sunshine the next. April, in Yorkshire. Except that the sun has stayed with us for several days now, and temperatures are on the rise, and all that wool seems suddenly unseasonal. The time for cotton is most definitely here.

I have to admit that I really like changing our clothing over from one season to the next. There’s not that much involved. The pulling forward of cotton shirts and frocks. Making sure everyone has a set of decent bathers. Exchanging felt hats for straw, and heavy winter coats for canvas.

It’s the putting away which takes a little longer. Mrs P and I have been doing extra washes this week, of the woollens and the dressing gowns and so forth. Some things will stay out, refreshed, ready to be worn on cooler days or chilly evenings. Other things can be put away at the back of the wardrobe after a good airing, buttoned up and with the pockets basted shut to hold their shape. Boots are cleaned and polished ready for the next year or next child. Blankets flap on the line on a sunny afternoon and it feels like a thank you of sorts, this ritual week of putting things to rest. Sewing up little tears or undone seams, sponging dirty marks out of a lapel, putting our coats and jackets on the best padded hangers. They’ve kept us warm and dry all winter, and deserve to be looked after. They’ll be waiting when the calendar rolls on once more.

In the meantime, the cotton is shaken out and pressed. The girls head off to school in crisp green gingham, with white ankle socks and goosebumps on their calves. By first play, they assure me, it’s simply scorching. The boys are eagerly awaiting shirt sleeve orders. They ride home with blazers draped over their handlebars.

And I? Well, I’m getting to know these summer frocks of mine again. I’m enjoying seeing something different when I open the wardrobe door. I’ve been thinking about the season ahead, and what it holds for us, and making sure we all have what we need. There’ll be lots of normal life: gardening and housework and popping into York. The odd smart occasion, for which I think I’ll dress up my peonies frock. And lots of camping too, in July and August, which can be awkward in a skirt.

I decided to be bold, in the end, and bought a pair of slacks each for Fliss and myself. Needless to say, she looks the part in them, and loved them at once. I may take a little longer to get used to mine – a process which has not been helped by Mrs P’s reaction. But they are blissfully comfortable and so very, very practical. I wouldn’t wear them to church, or out to tea, but they’ll be perfect for life in a tent. And I must say, they look rather smart with a gay pullover and a pair of heels. So you can think what you like, Mrs P – I’m going to wear them anyway. It is 1931, after all.

[whohit]slacks[/whohit]