The blue tits are back, darting from the ground to the apple tree in short, fluttering hops. I presume they are building a nest in its hollow crown, although I have left them in peace. They have done so before, as evidenced by the numbers of them swooping low over the insect-rich lawn on buzzing late summer evenings. There are plenty of dried leaves for them, plenty of moss and bits of grass. I hope they make a home here once again.

My dear friend Mrs Eve has been doing the very same, making a new home just right for she and her Mister. She is buying new furniture, and happily unpacking trunks into new wardrobes. Creating a place to set forth from and to come home to. Somewhere which reflects the pair of them, just as they are. Somewhere spick, span, and ever so cosy.

Now that spring is coming, the urge to nest has struck even those of us who have been settled for some years. Through Mrs Eve I have had all the fun of shopping vicariously, coming home with a full purse. And I still don’t intend to spend much. But there are changes to be made.

For me, it’s all about having a base from which to get out, at this time of year. A place to sit just outside the door, and be spurred on into the garden. Somewhere to cast on for little knits on sunny afternoons. A snug spot for a snooze, without the season passing us by. And then, when the sun goes in at the end of the evening, when the fresh air has tired us out and the breeze turns chilly, we’ll want somewhere cosy to retreat to: a nest of sorts, lined with soft wool instead of moss. A space which looks out onto the world beyond, waiting for the next flight, and the next.

Ben will be spreading his wings this summer as usual, heading off on adventures of his own. Fliss will go away for a week or so with the Guides. Seb will spend the long vacation roaming round the village, and even Ilse will be popping in and out of this home and that. Then there will be times when we all fly away, together, to explore other parts of this island. We are all so looking forward to being away.

Yet I know that the flip side of being away is the joy of coming home again. Knowing the rhythm of our days. Seeing how the plants have grown, in our absence. Hearing, from Mother and Father, of how the hens have sulked and fussed and refused to lay any eggs. Opening the door to our own hall, hanging our coats on our own pegs, settling into our own beds.

They say that a change is as good as a rest, and after this busy half term with all its decorating and digging I am ready for a change. I’ve the kitchen in mind, with its french doors which open onto the patio beyond. Nothing drastic, nothing more than the work of an afternoon. I’d like to try the sofa in a different spot, for a better view. I’d like the rocking chair pulled closer to the door so that it’s the work of a moment to lift it onto the patio. I’d like to wake the picnic bench from its long slumber in the shed, ready for springtime dining. And I’d like to press some blooms, and place them in the frames which line one kitchen wall. To make this spot as cosy and appealing as I can. Because this is where you’ll find us, in this room which spills so delightfully outside. There, and in the garden beyond. Darting in and out of our nest, with brief fluttering hops at first. And later? Why, later we’ll have spread our wings. Later we’ll be swooping over the loud lawn in the heady evenings of summer, drunk on the joys of the season.



It isn’t quite here yet. It comes and goes in bursts of yellow light and clear blue skies. We are not in the month of April, with its sunshine and showers and weeds sprouting everywhere. Spring has not quite sprung.

And yet… The tomatoes have germinated. Forty-nine new lettuce seedlings are waiting to greet the outside world. The tiny specks of green which marked the celery and celeriac have got taller, and thrust out two fragile leaves apiece. We monitor our busy windowsills each morning for further signs of life. Outside, next year’s parsnips are in. The spinach is beginning to grow again. I have ordered some new hens. And last night we had broccoli from the garden with our fish pie.

Away from the fire the evenings are still shivery, but the days are warming fast. Gloves are discarded on the cycle home from school. Hats lie, unwanted, in the basket. Coats, donned under protest by some, are left unbuttoned by all. The snowdrops are over. The nettles are on the move.

I have almost finished being in: doing all those tasks I promised I’d do by Easter. Soon, very soon, I will be out every day, soaking up the sunshine and the green, green garden. And when it rains, which it will do, because we are in Yorkshire, after all, I can come in again and be pleased that I have a clean kitchen wall to look upon while I boil rhubarb jam and stir fresh greens into the soup.

Everything has its time. Last Sunday we started to plan our summer holidays, and while we were doing so I slipped in an little extra treat for the younger children and I: a trip to the seaside just as spring is turning into summer. A couple of nights in a boarding house, followed by smoked mackerel for breakfast and a race to be the first on the beach. We will dust off the buckets and spades, and dig out our bathers. The season of whelks and ices is coming round again. Soon, soon, but not just yet.

I made the schoolboy error of telling the children of this plan late one afternoon, as soon as our booking was confirmed by the last post. That night I found Ilse still awake long after her bedtime, whispering to her teddies. I can’t sleep, she told me. I’m too excited.

As for me, I went to bed with a head full of garden plans. Some new hens. How I’ll plant each bed. The shape of the days to come, in the spring, when everything is racing into life. My mind rushed from one thing to another, far into the wee hours of the morning, long after my own bedtime. In the morning I told John, bleary eyed, of my wakefulness. He laughed at me: how old are you? You sound just like Ilse.

I don’t care if I do. This is my very favourite time of year, full of hope and anticipation. Anything might happen, and I’ll do my best to make sure that it does. Good times are on their way. The earth is springing into life all around us, and I’m springing, too. Springing, springing, almost sprung.



There has been much late night activity in the kitchen, after the pots and pans have been washed and dried and put away. Once the sink has been wiped clean, and the table cleared for action the following morning. When the light should have been switched off, and the door pulled to.

Something was keeping me in there, away from the sitting room with its fire and cheerful company. It might have been the wireless, with the latest adaptation of Jane Eyre. But I think it was something deeper than that. Something tired of winter, mild though it has been. Something needing a change, and not a rest.

As a result, we are getting through flour at an alarming rate. Bags which have been lingering for some weeks now are being used up, finished off, tipped upside down over the mixing bowl. On Thursday it was a speedy seed cake, slid into the still hot range straight after supper. Its fragrant, damp heaviness, studded with caraway seeds, is the perfect partner to a well earned cup of tea.

On Friday the children were all playing at cards, just one last game of snap before bed, when I turned tail halfway down the hall and headed back to the kitchen. It was plain flour that found its way into the bowl, this time, along with a pint of milk and a couple of eggs. A quick whisk, and a space on the cold shelf in the larder. Breakfast done, but for the frying. Yet that wasn’t quite enough, so I kneaded strong flour into the leftover mashed potatoes, with a splash of milk and a pinch of yeast, and left that too, in the cold, to rise slowly overnight. It baked on Saturday, while the pancakes fried on the griddle, and baked beans heated in the bottom oven. Lunch, made at breakfast, dreamed up the night before. Chewy, dense potato bread, toasted in waxy yielding slices. Food thought of long in advance. Hungry food.

The seasons must be shifting if I am thinking of baking again. In the winter it is parsnips we eat, roasted, or a celeriac mash. Swede and carrot, on the side or sliced into a stew. Or potatoes, lots of potatoes, delivered by the sackful. Peeled and boiled and roasted. Left over, and chopped straight into the frying pan in the morning, alongside the eggs and some cold savoy cabbage. Mashed and eaten with an eruption of gravy, the remains patted into little cakes and fried in butter until crisp around the edges. They fill my suppertime kitchen with a gentle fug, these rooty vegetables, dug up in the autumn, stored in the mud they came with.

But when spring comes I won’t want to be standing over a steamy stove each night. I’ll want to be outside, doing something else. It’s bread I turn to then, rather than spuds, rather than swedes or parsnips or even porridge. Bread, straight from the crock, baked once a week in a session which makes me wonder what else I can fit in while the oven’s hot. A quick soda farl, perhaps, for supper that evening. A cake or two, while the oven is cooling down. Then no more baking for another week.

Bread is what I want to eat when the weather is hot and there are better things to do. I like a slice, buttered and folded in on itself, as the afterthought to having nibbled my way around the veg patch by way of a solitary luncheon. I might slide a sliced tomato in there, with a grind of pepper, if I can be bothered. And for supper I might go to all the effort of boiling some eggs to go with the salad and the loaf and the sliced ham. Or not. It depends on the weather.

In the greenhouse, baby lettuces are finding their feet. The first seeds are thinking about germinating, encouraged by a daily dose of water and kind words. The early potatoes are chitting on a cool windowsill, just waiting for Good Friday and the start of a new adventure, underground. The broccoli is beginning to sprout, and we have had our first taste of sour pink rhubarb.

The roots will keep coming for a while longer. Sunday morning saw a whole basket of Jerusalem artichokes, topped with a few more parsnips to go with the roast. They’ve kept us going all winter, those parsnips, with enough to give a few away. But now it’s time to eat them up, and make room for the new harvest. Which we do with pleasure: they are sweeter than ever, after the recent frosts.

Even so, I am greedily awaiting all the things I haven’t tasted in a while. Which is perhaps why I keep finding myself in the kitchen, after the day is done. Mixing and kneading. Getting my arm in again. Hungry for the season ahead.


Mothers and sons

Traditionally, Mothering Sunday was the day when people would be allowed to attend their ‘mother’ church – a religious occasion which meant that those in service would be allowed home for the day. Of course, the Great War changed all that – there are so few people working in the big houses nowadays – but I like to think of all those near-grown lads and lasses picking flowers from the hedgerows to greet their mothers with.

We went to our church last Sunday, and the little ones were invited to take flowers from the altar and bring them back to us. Seb picked out a hothouse rose, Ilse a seasonal tulip. Once home, Ilse tucked her pink one into the orange bunch John had bought me on Saturday. But Seb’s rose lay lonely on the kitchen table, with no natural mate. The house is full of flowers: daffodils, tulips and great leggy branches of forsythia, cut from the garden. Yet our own roses stand bare and twiggy in the beds. He looked a little forlorn, until I took down a cut glass vase, just big enough for a single bloom, and trimmed its stem to length. Now it stands beside my bed, the last thing I see at night. Something beautiful, from my boy.

It was Ben’s birthday, too, last weekend: his seventeenth. He still climbed into bed with us, long limbs and all, to open his presents in the morning. It is getting to be a squeeze, this bed of ours, on birthday mornings. Soon, too soon, he will be elsewhere, making his own traditions. But not yet. We showered him with all of ours: gifts before breakfast, a special supper of his choosing, and an outing with a friend or three. A raucous chorus of Happy Birthday. A cake, aflame. Nothing extraordinary, but everything sweet and full of comfortable, familiar ordinariness. We have had seventeen years of practice, to find out what he likes.

He likes to see his grandparents, too. We invited them all to share our Sunday roast: a chicken as a treat, and a home grown fruit crumble for afters. I took the opportunity to give my mother some flowers, and a card I’d stitched on my machine. My own cards, adorned with cups of tea and colourful (if improbable) garden scenes, were lined up on the dresser. I love those homemade cards: crayon on folded paper from some, watercolours on the special laid stuff from others. I cherish the way they appear from under mattresses and stacks of vests. I take care not to tidy too well at such times of year. And I love how there are always more than four, always six or eight or ten, as they are struck by inspiration over and over again. Those funny little cards are the best gift I could have.

Yesterday I dusted the mantelpiece, moving each of Ben’s cards carefully out of the way, daydreaming idly about our upcoming holiday in the Lakes. Meg and I have begun to plan it, sending lists of food and equipment north and south of the Scottish border. She: pickles and cold meats. Fresh perch, fried in butter. Fishing rods. I: beef stew and new sleeping bags. And cake. More than anything, I want to arrive armed with heavy tins of it. I want to send the children into the woods with greaseproof-wrapped slabs in their pockets. I make a list, thinking most of all of what Ben might like. Tiffin, stored with a cut Cox to keep it moist: gingery, Yorkshire. A simnel cake, made by a mother for her children rather than the other, traditional, way around, a fat disc of marzipan melted into its fruity middle. Hot cross buns, full of chopped peel and spice. Easter food. Picnic food. The sort of food that can be served in chunks. The sort of food that boys – and girls, and mothers and fathers and aunties and uncles – crave on long walks with uncertain weather. A last burst of winter food, eaten in front of a bank of crocuses, under a shower of blossom. Food for the start of spring.

As a result, I’ve spent a lot of time poring over my cookbooks this past week, choosing what to bake. I’ll try a few things out, between now and then, recipes I’ve not followed for a while. From over my shoulder, certain voices have made themselves heard. I nod, and assure them that I know what they would choose. I am their mother, after all.


Home from home

So much of this winter’s sewing has consisted of little things: shoppers and cushion covers, bookmarks and pencil cases – bits and bobs. Gifts, and the odd thing I’ve needed for a while, but have been loathe to buy. A simple set of pyjamas. A new toilet bag. Things which can be made out of the scraps left over from our new shirts and dresses, costing nothing more than a Sunday afternoon. What with the rain we’ve had lately I’d rather be inside anyway, across the hall from the fire, with the wireless for company.

Most often, though, I find I have other company, usually in the form of a certain six year old. She makes me feel like a conjuror, with her oohs and ahhs and general excitement. The simplest hemmed handkerchief appears, through sleight of hand, where minutes earlier there was a only a square of cloth. It is enough to inspire even the most reluctant sewer.

I can’t help laughing, just a little, at her enthusiasm, and yet… Creation in action is magical. Seeing something appear where before there was only a piece of paper, a stick of charcoal. Watching someone use their hands to turn something mental into something tangible, accessible to all.

It happens even when we think we are in charge. It was I who showed Ilse how to cut and stuff her teddy bear, and how to form a blanket stitch. I thought I knew what she was making. Yet even I was surprised by tiny Tabitha Bear, with her little blanket, ready for nights away. Ooh, I said when presented with her, she’s wonderful!

A little familiar company is what is needed, sometimes, to make a home away from home. Someone to whisper to at bedtime, after the last page of the story has been turned and your light has been switched off. Someone to tuck in and reassure that everything is fine, in this strange house with its funny noises. Ilse has been staying with Mother and Father from time to time, as a treat, when Seb is away with the Cubs. Much as she loves it, she has been dreaming up a few home comforts to make it even more special. A new teddy bear to mother in the dark, and a grown up toilet bag – just like Mummy’s, please.

Thus passes another showery spring afternoon. A bit of pink corduroy for the outside, with a little bird stitched on, to distinguish it from mine. A pale blue zip to match the bluebird lining. Then another zip, to a smaller, secret pocket. One day she might keep her jewellery in there, as I do mine. For now, though, I think she might just unzip it to look at the fabric it is made from: a scrap from my peonies dress. A little bit of home away from home, at toothbrushing time, that no-one else need know about.


Fresh eyes

Somewhere between sweeping the hall and getting my mop out, the steady rain turned to snow. Slushy snow, at first, more wet than icy. It dropped, novel and clean, onto the muddy lawn. The grey clouds turned from something dull to something special.

By the time I was rinsing my bucket I had trodden a definite path between the back door and the standpipe. The flakes, huge and heavy, redecorated my jumper and, uncertainly, the garden turned from green and brown to white and brown, and then pure white.

Nobody had expected it to snow. It was far too wet for it to stick. But it did so anyway, for an hour or two. My forlorn garden, the village rooftops, even the street outside looked lovely.

By the time I met Fliss in town it had long since melted. The ragged heaps of slushy brown, pushed irreverently to one side, had shrunk away in the sunshine. I took Fliss to the bakery to buy Chelsea buns for tea, and as we cycled home she pointed out tiny islands of white, hiding in the shade, dripping from low bushes.

It was only she and I, that afternoon. She laid and lit the fire as I warmed the pot and set our favourite tea things on the tray. I thought about the baby girl I had visited that morning, and about this girl of mine, old enough for matches and strong tea. I watched her over the rim of my cup as she nibbled her bun, engrossed in her book, and tried to remember her as a little thing, and almost couldn’t.

The rest of them trickled home, one by one, beneath the setting sun. Ben on his bicycle, squash racquet slung over one shoulder, satchel heavy with books. Isle, brought home by the mother of a little friend, having had a tea party of their own. Seb, with John, after an early evening jaunt in town. They had a present for me, a flat shape in a paper bag. A recording of a fantasie by Telemann: number three, to be precise. The fantasie I have been battling with for several weeks now, unable to turn the relentless semi-quavers into music.

I settled the needle onto it and set it turning while the potatoes boiled. And then, I heard how it should be done.

We played it again during supper, and once more afterwards, while I looked at the notes on the page. Now I saw them with fresh eyes. Not groups of four, marching up and down the stave, but threes and fives and, every now and then, a pause. Phrases. Consciousness.

I had a go, mimicking what I had heard, and what had been an excercise in reading accidentals became having a go at a piece. This was fun. Wobbly, far from perfect fun. Thank goodness for fresh eyes.


Sunlight, starlight

The sky has cleared. I think Ilse did it, early last week, with some sort of magic only six year olds can muster. Well, perhaps not. But whatever the reason, the blanketing cloud has lifted and we have been given sunlight, starlight, and frosty mornings.

I finished Ilse’s new summer dress and gave it to her, fresh from the machine, to twirl around the house in. She had her little missions: to show it to Daddy, then Fliss, then Ben and Seb, before remembering to glance in the mirror and see how it looks for herself. Everyone satisfied her – and my – need for admiration for this simple little creation, and she was delighted. She’s an easy girl to please, really. She loves everything I make for her. So I wasn’t really surprised when she asked if she might wear her new dress for the rest of the day.

Some mothers might not let their little girls wear sleeveless cotton frocks on chilly February days. Away from the fire, the days have been grey and damp. I couldn’t brave it, myself. But really, how could I say no to so delightful a request? I shuddered, smiled and said a deliberate yes.

It turns out that Ilse couldn’t brave it, either. She lasted all of ten minutes before reappearing in corduroy and wool, with (hopefully) some thermal underwear beneath. She handed me the dress, to fold gently and lay away in the drawer of waiting summer clothes. Then she marched to the window, pointed to the sky and commanded: Hurry up, sun!

And hurry up it did. It was there to greet us the next day, presiding over a glittering street. It stayed all through the long morning, luring me out of doors. By the afternoon it had swung round to the front of the house where it lounged on the armchairs, cat-like, warming the seats. It has stopped with us all week, transforming the end of February into something March-like, something joyful.

I took advantage of its presence to finally dig my new bed, turning the lawn over and under itself. At last there is new ground for plants to grow in. I let the hens out of their run while I worked, and we were outside for so long that even the giddy one gave up her running and flapping and turned to pecking at the earth around my feet, before finally settling down to fluff her feathers and bathe in all that yellow goodness.

Because really, after this winter, a little sunshine is pure goodness. Everything it touches turns to gold. This spring sunlight has magic in its fingertips: King Midas with a happy ending. And at night, when it goes to bed, the moon follows suit and coats everything in silver. Without the clouds, the night sky is full of diamonds once again. I feel another night walk coming on, with telescopes and star charts and overexcited children.

But that’s had to wait, because I’ve been having fun elsewhere. On Friday Mr White had arranged for members of our soup club to see Cosi Fan Tutte in Leeds. We caught the train home, humming cosily through the night in our own little compartment, remembering this aria or that. I said my goodbyes at York station and cycled home on my own. As I pedalled, I could swear the spheres were singing to me, keeping time. My dynamo swept along the midnight lanes, but it wasn’t really needed. Thanks to Ilse, the world was awash with starlight.



Last Sunday found us at Mount Grace Priory, out for the day, doing something different. It was the last day of the holidays, you see, and to go out and be somewhere else is the very best way I know of making it both lasting and special.

Even driving through the countryside is a treat: seeing different places, remembering old landmarks. The bend in the road where our hired motor broke down, once, and we had to keep giving it push starts all the way home. The farm that each of the children visited, with school and willing mothers, to pet the lambs in the spring of their reception year. The turnings to other places we love to visit: Byland Abbey and Helmsley Castle. There have been a lot of last days of the holidays.

We admired the trees, standing bare and boney above the landscape. I think they might be at their most beautiful, like that. Then again, I know I’ll change my mind once they blossom and bud. We looked for rabbits, their white tail ends bobbing madly as they dove for the hedgerows. There was a bird of prey, hovering over a fresh-ploughed field. The first daffodils were braving it.

I’d never been to Mount Grace at this time of year. I’d heard that there would be snowdrops, but was unprepared for the sheer carpets of white that lay under trees and around the becks and bridges. The grounds were alive with bulbs: the little white flowers at their peak and the sturdy spears of daffs and crocuses waiting in the wings. We followed the path to the arts and crafts house, normally vibrant within, but that day the wallpapers looked almost dull compared to the show outside.

There was a pinboard display all about the monastery beyond. I read it with Ilse, who liked the thought of all those monks living side by side in their own little houses. It is a cosy idea, somehow, those people all alone and yet together, somewhere wild and also safe, tucked into the warm end of a valley. Occasionally coming together for prayer and labour, but mostly contemplating the beauty of the universe and the love of its maker.

We wandered out to cell eight, which has been rebuilt and restored, the only home standing in a terraced quadrangle. Downstairs each room was assigned its function: to sleep, to pray, to study. There was a great stone fireplace set into one wall. Above was the workroom, equipped with spinning wheel and loom. A great space, full of light. Below was a glazed cloister. It faced a walled garden, the vegetables kept orderly by box hedges, the fruit bushes lining the path to the latrine set over yet another little stream. Oh, Mummy, said Fliss, I bet you’d love to live here.

In some ways, I really would. I feel at home in its simplicity and purposefulness. I could happily spin and weave, garden and write. I would enjoy the time alone and the time with others. If it wasn’t for one great stumbling block I really would love to live there. NoI said to Fliss, I’d miss you all far too much.

Perhaps a retreat might be the thing, for a weekend or so. A little time away, someday. But I really don’t feel the need, just now. I am very happy where I am: at home, in the thirties, with everyone around me. Family life is messy in all sorts of ways, but I couldn’t give it up.

On the way home, the pheasants were running from our headlamps. The trees were vanishing into a blackening sky. I was tired, yet also rested. Ready for another half term. One day’s retreat, with everyone around me, was all that I had needed.



Ben and I had to go away at the start of the half term holiday, to help an elderly relative in Sussex. Fliss came to wave us off at the tram stop, early on a frosty morning, before the little ones were even awake. I knew they would be fine, without me. John is more than capable, and Mother and Mrs P were already planning casseroles and invitations to high tea.

It seems they had a lovely time while I was away, full of fun and family. John took the children out for a winter scramble, and to cafes for luncheon on more than one occasion. I missed a tea party for his grandmother, who is now 98 years old. By all accounts my mother in law laid on a real feast, and I was sorry to miss seeing that side of the family. I sent a handmade present in my place: a letter case sewn from pink corduroy, with pockets and edging made from scraps left over from my peonies dress. I put wadding between its layers, to give it body, and a mother of pearl button with a self-fabric loop to hold it closed. Inside were cards, and stamps, a little address book and a pen. Because letters matter, especially when you live alone.

Mother and Father had everyone over for a big meal, and one of her family-famous puddings. My children rave about her puddings, and helping her make one is one of their favourite things to do when they are there. They are building quite a repertoire: Eve’s pudding, crumbles, trifle and steamed suet delights. All served with plenty of custard, of course.

By the time Ben and I were home again, everyone had found their half term rhythm. John had taken a couple of days off work, and the children were filling their time with books, dens, and, more than anything else, making. The last time my mother in law had come to visit, Seb had told her how much he wanted to make a little teddy bear for himself, out of felt, to live in a matchbox. So it was that he came home from Great Grannie’s tea party with a parcel of felt, a head full of plans, and a little sister eager to join in. I came in the door to requests to raid my knitting basket for woollen scraps to stuff their bears, who have accompanied them on their half term adventures ever since.

She had also sent a stack of old gardening pamphlets for me, and as I read them I passed them on to the children. Fliss mixed a flour paste for Ilse and the girls have spent two or three happy afternoons making collages of dream gardens, complete with gnomes, sheds stuffed with books, and blooms improbably out of season. They have abandoned the laws of nature, and turned their backs on the rules. Their gardens are a happy mix of whatever they fancy and nothing more.

Which is what this half term has been, one way and another. Time away, which makes me greet being at home with fresh enthusiasm. And then, once home, a collage of all good things. Time with each child, on their own, catching up. Perhaps it was only a walk to the shops or a ten-minute whisper before the lights went out, but it was precious time alone together nonetheless. Catching up on laundry, and ironing, which is not fun in itself but comes with the satisfaction of seeing everything fresh and ready for another day. A little bit of work on my fair isle cardigan, of which the body is complete and the first sleeve begun. Sewing – lots of sewing: a toilet bag before my journey, and a sweet reversible handbag almost as soon as I came in through the door. It has birds on one side, and velvet on the other, and little round handles. Quick and pleasing, and intended as a gift. Starting and finishing a shirt for Seb in one surprising afternoon, and then some new night things for myself. Looking at all the scraps I am creating and planning a new quilt for Fliss’ bed.

There have been some startlingly bright days since my return, tempered by lots of rain and wind. I am surprised by the swiftness of this week. Half terms fly by so quickly, and are always more of a change than a rest. We know the drill; we all know what to reach for in these February holidays at home. A hodgepodge, a medley, a collage of pleasant things to fill the hours.



Every so often a book is published which captures the imagination of a generation. Father Christmas delivered one such book this Christmas, to the stocking of a certain ten year old. He read it in one long go, pausing only to eat meals and, when forced to, sleep, so that by the end of Boxing Day he was able to lay it aside with a bittersweet sigh. He didn’t want it to end, you see.

Ilse was curious, as she always is when Seb is immersed in something, so I borrowed it from him to read aloud to her, in the time between supper and bed, snuggled on the couch. By the end of the first evening Fliss was listening in, hovering, perched on the edge of an armchair. By the third evening she was ready and waiting with Ilse for the story to go on, and Seb had come back in to lie before the fire and hear it all again. Even John has had to read it, just to be able to join in with the incessant chatter and renaming of so many daily things. The children no longer walk anywhere, but tack, arms spread to catch the wind. They request pemmican and grog at mealtimes. The newsagent is getting used to being called a native, and takes it in his stride as he measures toffee provisions into striped paper bags.

No-one wants the younger parts. Seb is, naturally, Captain John, and carries his compass around with him. He has done a lot of cartography, lately, and I am not altogether surprised to learn that the hill up the road is, in fact, the Matterhorn. Ilse wants to be Mate Susan, but all too often Fliss takes that role and Ilse is Able Seaman Titty, instead. I, of course, am Mother, the best of all natives, and our own John is Captain Flint with his green parrot and home upon the high seas.

Only Ben doesn’t join in. He’s too old for such games, and not old enough to enjoy them differently, either. Fliss teeters on the edge. I hear her playing, wholeheartedly, when she thinks it is just herself and Ilse and Seb, but the minute I walk into the room she clams up, and pretends to be doing something else. She is in-between, just now, in that no-man’s land between Ilse and I. I catch her longing for both things: for womanhood and childhood, and not knowing which way to turn.

John and I are very aware that these might be the last few months in which she plays these sorts of games. This might be the last time she can be truly lost, as only a child can be, just around the corner, barely out of sight. A cry goes up from the end of the garden: Swallows and Amazons forever! and while there is abandonment in it there is an edge of something else too, of self-consciousness and shame. Soon, too soon, the role of Susan will be Ilse’s every day.

With this in mind, we’ve hired a bothy in the Lakes for later in the season. A little stone hut, far from anywhere, on the edge of a mere. There are rowing boats for hire, and perhaps a chance to sail. We’ll teach the children to make drop lines and fish for sharks and tiddlers in the boundless ocean. They can build dens amongst the trees, and make buttered eggs over a campfire, and walk the mile to the native settlement for their supper each evening. They can wake each morning to that best of all thoughts: now, what shall I do today? and come up with the answers themselves.

They don’t last long, those years between toddling and adulthood. Much as I would like them to last forever, Ben has shown us that they won’t. So we’ll just have to make the most of them, fleeting and precious as they are.