A party in the dark

Eleven is a wonderful age. Young enough to knock around together as a ragtag gaggle of boys and girls, old enough for a party outside on a pitch black December evening in the week before Christmas.

Somehow, on the short journey between school and home, the children morphed from the responsible pupils who had led the carol concert into a band of experienced backwoods people. In no time at all they were gathering sticks with which to prepare their supper, building a fire and polishing off great slabs of sticky chocolate cake. And while they’re young enough to be happy spending time with Seb’s parents, grandparents and siblings, they’re old enough to follow instructions with a knife and sit safely around a campfire. After the cake they wound twists of dough around clean peeled sticks to bake over hot coals, then speared sausages on sharpened sticks to roast and nibble while hot and dripping fat. And all the time, between each bite it seemed, the game that they were playing developed just a little more into something uniquely theirs and of the moment.

Perhaps December isn’t the very nicest time to have a birthday: everyone is rushing around in the cold and the dark, getting ready for the bigger birthday to come. And yet, played to its strengths, it worked out beautifully this year. Dark by four, the evening seems endless to children who measure time in terms of sausages consumed. By six o’clock there had evolved a game involving hidden monsters at the end of the long garden, and a safe place by the shed, and more rules than I could follow. And, judging by the shining eyes and the number of times they ran up and down the garden, I think the party in the dark was a success. Nobody wanted to go home, even though the leaving was tempered by gooey marshmallows and other final treats. Bathed and pink and clad in his pyjamas, Seb declared it the best birthday that he’d ever had. Well, that’ll do, then. Happy birthday, my love.

Tiddely-pom

It isn’t snowing around here, but it is pretty cold and dark and foggy. Bad weather for walks and scenic drives; good weather for toasting your toes in front of the fire and speeding to the end of a pair of woolly socks.

They’ve taken rather longer than I anticipated, largely due to the fact that things got very busy around the heels, and by the time I sat down each evening I was so tired that I kept going wrong. I had to wait until a Sunday to make the turn, and even then it was another week before I got going properly on the feet. I was very glad indeed to reach the toes: a pair of socks shouldn’t take so long to knit. If I hadn’t been making them two at a time I might have abandoned them until after Christmas. But it’s cold now, and I have every intention of pulling them on the moment I get out of bed tomorrow, unblocked as they are, to wear to Mrs Thistlebear’s December party. Time enough for blocking in the wash, I say.

With the coming of the cold and the long evenings, the retreat inside is very nearly complete, and the shelves of books and games have been thoroughly reexamined. Our library visits have gone up in frequency, if such a thing is possible – I wish I had the leisure to read as voraciously as the children do. Although I can remember ploughing my way through a novel a day, I am still taken by surprise when, at the end of the weekend, those towering piles they bore home so happily have been devoured. Last week’s hoard included Anne of Green GablesThe Riddle of the Sands, and The House at Pooh CornerWe did so enjoy reading those poems and stories again. And while I was knitting, the plodding yet skippety rhythm of The more it SNOWS (tiddely pom) kept marching around my head, reminding me of the parlous state of my own toes.

Well, they’re done now. Homemade woolly socks – a little pre-Christmas present to my toes. There seems to be a theme emerging, of nice little things to keep us all going until Christmas. This week: summer jam and woolly socks. Next week, nativity plays and carol concerts. I think Pooh Bear has the right idea really, approaching the cold and the wet with a cheerily unconcerned tiddely pom. In fact, looking at the calendar and my ever-growing to-do list, I think it might be the only way forward. Perhaps he isn’t a bear of so very little brain after all.

Something nice

We had a little tidy up in the larder on Sunday, Ilse and I. I love tidying with Ilse; she makes me laugh the way she gets into role. Hands on hips, she puts a thoughtful finger to her lips and, in her most grown up voice, says things like: Now then, and Let me see. She stopped to do this numerous times while we emptied the shelves, wiped them and put the contents back in a much less higgledy-piggledy way than they were thrust on at half term. I left her to it while I popped into the sitting room for a minute, and when I came back she and Seb were rhapsodising over a jar of bilberry jam.

All it took was a mention of that summer’s day and we all remembered how hot it was – too hot to sit in the sunshine – and that it had been John’s birthday, and that there were bilberries everywhere. How long ago that feels now that we’re in dark December. We could all do with a picnic in the sunshine, and next summer is a very long way away. I quietly  put the jar to one side, and we finished the job.

I was sorely tempted to save it for a dank February morning – the sort when Christmas seems a long time ago and spring impossible. When it keeps raining and nobody wants to go out in the weather to get to school or work. No doubt it would cheer everybody up. But in the meantime, this impossibly busy term keeps throwing obstacles our way, and the two weeks until the holidays feel interminable. It’s getting harder and harder to get out of bed each morning – not just for me but for everyone in the house – and really, a change is as good as a rest. Well, almost. A jar of jam isn’t going to change the world, but it helps.

As does a drop of apple and pear liqueur, or a small glass of sloe gin. The children’s chocolate-filled advent calendars are hanging in the hall, and John and I have decided that now is the time to decant some of the tipple we tucked away over a year ago, as a sort of adult equivalent. It’s up on the kitchen dresser, along with the new-strung fairy lights and the tea and the pepper and salt. Oh, and that jar of jam. Little things that make a big difference. Something nice to keep us all going.

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.

A Winter of Walks

Almost everyone who stepped into the tea shop said the same thing: Well, that certainly blows away the cobwebs. Through the windows, the surf rolled onto the sands. Children and dogs laid claim to sticks, one little boy proudly brandishing a branch much longer than he was tall. Wet animals ran in and out of the chilly water. And when it was time to leave, we pulled on hats and buttoned our coats tightly against the sea breeze.

What fun it is, to have a motor of our own, and be able to enjoy somewhere other than our own little city. We’ve made a promise, John and I, to head out every single Sunday of the winter for a walk. To have a change of scene, and make the day feel longer, and generally, well, blow away those pesky cobwebs which come of too much time indoors.

This week we sought the clear blue-grey light of the coast in winter. It only took an hour to reach Sandsend and, having stopped for a cup of tea, we walked along the beach to Whitby for a bag of chips for lunch, vinegary and hot. The tide lapped at our heels as we approached the safety of the slipway, and by the time we were walking back along the seafront the spray was sending the children shrieking and laughing in and out of its reach. What with the promise of chips in one direction, and the fun of not quite dodging the spray in the other, nobody complained about the five or six mile jaunt, and it was lovely to stretch my legs and plough up the steep path to the cliff tops.

Not all our walks will be as long, or as far afield. A fortnight ago we only ran out to Beningbrough to wander round the ordered calm of their walled garden. Sometime soon we’ll go over to the Dales, and set off early to make the most of the short sunlight. It’s the getting out that matters, and fresh air and green spaces.

Every other day of the week I wish it would stay light for longer, that the day didn’t end at four o’clock. But on Sundays the early sunset means that we all get to enjoy it, whether towards the end of our walk or afterwards, in the motor car. This week it was gentle and glowing, a soft apricot suffusion breaking through the clouds and rendering the moors more glorious than ever. After the sunset, once it’s dark, we may as well go home and pop a chicken in the oven. There was just enough time for a rice pudding, as long as the little ones bathed before tea and went to bed straight after, and for a glass of wine in front of the fire. Thank goodness there’s no rushing in at seven o’clock in the winter, racing to put tea on the table, because that would undo all of the good of the day.

Everyone seems to like it, so we’re sticking with this plan. The Sunday roasts we’ve always had, and a hot pudding for afters, now with a walk beforehand. A whole winter of walks, in fact.

Is it winter yet?

As long as I have known John, which is a very long time now, we have disagreed over the naming of the seasons. To me, a sunny day in May spells summer. Flowering bulbs and a break in the frost means spring, even if it’s only February. And winter starts around the middle of November, when lightweight macs are relegated to the backs of cupboards and the last of the summer shoes are hibernating, polished leather against crumpled tissue, in their boxes under the stairs. I can’t wait for the next season to begin, can hardly sleep for hoping for the spring. Were I in charge, summer would begin in March and last until October. And if November isn’t winter yet, then I dread to think how cold it’s going to get.

John likes to name the seasons by the book. Winter, apparently, does not begin until the setting of the solstice sun. Spring comes in March; autumn in September. And not just at the start of each named month, but on the 21st, and not a minute sooner. He measures his days by the calendar, which is reasonable enough, I suppose, but not sane enough for me.

For me, winter is when toddlers chug up and down the street, blowing steam out of their engines. It’s when even Ben asks if we might light the fire, and I can serve stew three times in a week without anyone complaining. Winter starts when the Christmas crafting does, and the last of the tomatoes’ blackened stems has been hauled off to the compost. When the hens have to be away by four o’ clock for fear of the fox. When the children bother to come back for mislaid gloves.

If I want to take the only sunny day in January and call it spring, I will, and I’ll enjoy it all the more. One swallow definitely makes a summer. In fact, the only season I will not rush towards is autumn. Lovely in itself, it spells the end of my long summers and I hold it at arm’s length as long as I possibly can. That’s why it’s the shortest season of them all, only hanging around as long as the brown leaves on the trees. What with the wind and the rain of the last few days, those have all been blown away. So call it a month early, if you must, but I’m fairly certain winter’s here at last.

Crisp

All it takes is for the sun to shine, and every little detail is thrown into relief. Where did that rhubarb come from, unfurled so soon from soil-bound tender buds? I didn’t see it yesterday, trudging through the gloom to empty the bucket of peelings, yet here it is, crisp and pink against the bluest sky. My mouth waters: already in my mind it is full-grown and pulled, chopped into inch-long sticks and dipped in a saucer of sugar. Already it is boiled in a copper pan, with thin slivers of ginger, and tucked into the larder: an edible memory of just this sort of day. Clear and cold and crisp.

Everything is heightened, today. The garden is loud with birds, the magpies and blackbirds and territorial robins competing with the steady hens in their worship of the welcome yellow sun. They trill and cluck. It has been a very long and very grey winter, this year. There has been a lot of rain, and no snow to lift the landscape. But now the sun is out even the mud sparkles, and the ridges left by my boots yesterday are semi-solid with frost. I took a little longer over my outdoor chores. Hanging out the washing is a task which can be stretched as long as the line I peg it to. The air was cold on my fingertips, the sun warm on my back. Later, the sheets smelt wild, half-dried in the clean fresh air.

This is a day for fine black tea, not dulled by milk. This is a day for toast and marmalade, the bread allowed to cool so that the butter lies upon it in thick cream slabs, protecting it from damp. Lately the shops have been full of seville oranges, and today they have come into their own. I count my  jars greedily, and plan to make some more.

This is a day for sewing, for pressing new seams clean and straight, sprinkled under a hot iron. The settee has fresh cushions, birds and flowers against a clean white background. This is a day for gardening, for turning the green lawn over into something darker. This is a day for making music, for high notes cutting through the still house. A day for opening windows, and letting the dry air sweep swiftly over everything. A day for reading a book on a window seat, blanket and hot water bottle to hand. This is the sort of day on which I want to do everything, and can’t, and have to choose just one favoured task over all the others. The kind of day I would like all days to be. The kind of day winter was made for.

Late in the afternoon I set a match to the newsprint and watch it curl and blacken, delicate flames growing bold. They lick at the kindling and make it crackle. The sun disappears, over the edge of the earth. I hope it will come back. Now that it is gone, everything changes. The time for marmalade has passed. Instead I set to making a huge fish pie, smoky and smooth. I serve it with wilted greens: the blueish tops of sprouts that grow like algae in the winter beds. The cream of the pie is salty and soothing. It will send us all early to our beds. Yet there is an undercurrent to it, wild and clean. A day in Whitby, visiting the smokehouses after a chilly morning paddle. The smell of kippers coming home with us as we journey over the free and windy moor. Before I settle down to sleep, I make a note to book rooms in a boarding house in May, beside the sea. Then I say a prayer for another crisp day tomorrow, and sleep deeply and well.

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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.

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In

We have been driven indoors more and more, of late. Out of doors there is bluster and chill and fat wet flakes of snow which melt as they hit the sodden ground. Indoors there is fire, driving out the damp, and any one of a number of pursuits.

For the children there are dolls and other toys to play with. There is ludo and scrabble and chess, pitted against a sibling or just yourself, scuttling from one end of the board to the other.  There are pictures to paint. Books to be read. Warm nests are built in hidden corners, out of blankets and cushions. I walk in and out of rooms, searching for Fliss or Ilse or Seb, not knowing that they are reading oh so quietly, just out of sight.

For John and Ben there is home: warm and snug, bookending their day. John is often elsewhere, at work or at the pub after a friendly game of squash. Ben is out most of all, at school or on the rugger pitch. But here, in with the rest of us, is where those days begin and end.

When I have time, I sit in the bay windows to catch the best of the light. I look forward to the evening’s knitting. I am waiting for new fabric to come into the shops, to make spring dresses and shirts. These are the things I like to do, when I am in.

Inevitably there are other things to be done. The stairs need redecorating. There is an untidy wall in the kitchen to paint. I must book the electrician to rewire the light in the hall. Now is the time to do these things, so as not to waste the summer.

And I must prepare for the warmer months. I must stop daydreaming and book a cottage somewhere, so that one day in August we can pack our knapsacks and spend a week by the sea. I must set the potatoes chitting. Mend the garden bench, for a whole season of reading in the sun.

Put like that, this time takes on a new sheen. It is unexpectedly precious. A commodity, limited, not to be wasted. This time, spent in, won’t last forever.

I’ve marked things on the calendar, and been startled by how few short weeks there are until Easter. As a result I’ve begun a project I’ve been putting off since last July, when the pull of being outside was just too strong. Seb and Ilse are learning to play the flute, at last. The house is full of the sound of puffing and breathy whistles, catching the edge of harmonics. They are delighted, and so am I.

Because next summer, when I am out of doors, I will hear a simple tune, carried on the warm air. It is already on its way. And when I wander in again, to fill a vase with flowers or wash lettuce for our supper, I’ll glance at the staircase or the kitchen wall and smile. Because I did it when I was in. And now I am free to be out, again.

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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.

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