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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Winter stitching

In between the decorating and the cooking, the wrapping and the tidying, there has been a flurry of sewing in this house. It had been a slow start to the season, with nothing but a woollen skirt completed until the day Ilse and I sorted the fabrics, but since then I have not stopped.

We finished her quilt first, then mine. There was a rush of pre-Christmas sewing: dolls’ dresses, a hat, an armful of bags, a quilted table runner – all squeezed into odd moments between the festivities. Sometimes I cut the fabric in the evenings and left it out ready for a morning burst, and like the shoemaker I was amazed to see so much come together.

Since Christmas day there has been more rhythm to it. I work at my machine all afternoon until evening comes, then finish each piece, by hand, close to the fire.

I’ve not been alone. Ilse and Seb are by my side more often than not, also stitching. A cross-stitch kit, received on Christmas day. Pouches for treasures old and new. A flag, ready to fly in an island camp for the latest game of let’s pretend.

I love sewing with children. They make whatever their world demands, with confidence and considerable skill, and with none of the doubt of adults. When things don’t go to plan, the plan changes. And no matter how much help they receive, they have always made it all by themselves.

So while they sewed flags and pouches, I worked my way through a pile of offcuts, making shoppers and potholders, pencil cases and peg bags. Even the tiniest scraps were made into bookmarks and little pockets, just waiting to be filled with next summer’s lavender. And despite the odd thing being claimed by someone or other – and who could deny their littlest girl a mummy-made pencil case? – I have a shelf full of presents and empty of remnants.

We are getting back into the swing of it, my machine and I. We are ready now to tackle the next round of sewing: a summer frock for each of the girls and myself, and new shirts for Seb. I have a dress, passed on to me by my friend Miss Stevens, waiting patiently for alterations. There’s a new-to-me chair which needs upholstering. Bigger projects for when the children are back at school, to fill the quiet of the house.

Because this is the time for sewing. For emptying the shelves, ready for new fabrics in the new year. For ensuring that we are all ready for spring, with something fresh and light and floral. I have until April, when the weeds start to overtake my seedlings. When my machine will go to rest in the cupboard for the whole long summer. When the only sewing I might do is by hand on a garden bench, in odd moments of slanting northern sunshine. There are so many other places to be in summer, so many other things to do.

I fastened the last thread on the last gift yesterday evening, and found that I needed to pause. To pause, but not to stop. I took up the seed catalogue instead. I think I’ll spend the day in the garden, today. But I won’t stay out there too long. I’ll be back soon, at my machine, not too far from the warmth of the fire and the explorers’ camp behind the settee. I have sewing to do.

[whohit]winterstitching[/whohit]

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.

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