Sudden light

I took the shears to the edge of the lawn this morning. A few spots of rain fell, but I ignored them. It has been November for weeks, and grey for even longer.

I crawled into some of the secret places, to cut away at the weeds. The nettles were high behind the hen run, and I laid them low: these are places where the children play. There is a farm in the prickly shade of the pine. Fairies live, in palaces of broken bricks, between the lilac and the fence. These are places which need to be accessible, yet not intruded upon. They are the secret places, where children play hidden in plain sight.

It was as I squatted behind the lilac that the sun came out. It filtered its way through the bare leggy branches and suddenly, utterly, it was August.

Unbidden, Gymnopedies slid into my mind. The November garden was gone, as was 1930, for with Gymnopedies it can only ever be August, that Edwardian August day, when the french doors were open and someone played those same chords just inside them. A friend of my father had come to stay, with his young wife. Like my mother, she wore a long beige skirt and a blouse of indeterminate frills. Her skin was very smooth and very white, like a baby’s, but the fingers which twirled her parasol were slender and precise. Father was pointing out his flowers, Mother pouring the tea. Their eyes slid tactfully past the garden gate and the rough grass beyond, in which I hid. In a minute, I would be called, loudly, so that I could hear them wherever I might happen to be. The older part of me knew that they were playing along. The younger part did not.

I waited, crouching in the long grass at the boundary between the garden and the golf course beyond. The stalks were stiff and yellow. I stayed very still, smelling the grass seeds baking in their sleeves, watching the spinning parasol, breathlessly reciting the names of the flowers. Knowing that there would be victoria sponge for tea. Listening to the piano, and those simple chords, up and down like a woman on a trapeze, but slower, turning somersaults in the air.

When I stood up, the sharp stalks had pressed into my shin, leaving ridges and dents and, in one place, a bright little smear of blood. The yellow sunlight shone on all of this.

All of this in a single moment, before the reticent sun withdrew behind a November cloud.

I decided to leave the fairies their forest until the frosts claimed it. I refilled their jam jar water butts and laid fresh grass clippings in their lid platters, before heading indoors.

There was the familiar hiss, like an expectant audience in a concert hall, before the gramophone began to play. On and on it ran, turning towards the point I had remembered, then further on to what was familiar only as I heard it. Perhaps after school, while the fairies are feasting, we might play them the gymnopedies so that they can dance, nostalgically, in the gathering dusk.

[whohit]suddenlight[/whohit]

Not stopping, but slowing

Some people seem able to put their gardens to bed for the winter. They rake up the leaves, plant fresh bulbs for spring and watch the weather from behind their kitchen windows.

My garden never goes to bed. At most, it might take a quick snooze under a heavy fall of snow. It doesn’t ever come to a complete halt, but slows, like the laying of the hens as the sun’s brief visits grow ever shorter.

It has been a mild and rainy autumn, which is one reason that I am behind on my garden plans. For weeks, the lawn has been awaiting its final cut. A section of hawthorn hedge still needs trimming into shape. I need to weed the veg plot one last time. After all that comes the winter work of moving plants, creating new beds and pruning the soft fruit. The trees need cutting back. The hens, though not laying much, need cleaning out more than ever. There are leaves to rake, every day, and still – still – apples falling from that tree.

As the day was bright and breezy I decided to make the most of it and cut the lawn myself. It was so long that I had to run at it to get the blades spinning, and complete each pass at an insistent jog. Hat and pullover were quickly discarded, and I have three new blisters. I don’t mind: it won’t be cut again until spring. By then I will be longing for the clattering whirr of those red blades. In March, the garden will begin its catch-me-if-you-can once more, barely glancing back at me as it rushes, exuberantly, into life.

But now it is November, I can catch up easily. The rituals continue – the ever optimistic check for eggs, bringing in some veg from the patch. Today I pulled three leeks, grown sturdy on this warm weather, to add to our stone soup. There is a bowl of chard ready for the morning fry. Then I’ll spend an hour or so cutting something back, or digging, enjoying being warm and busy in the chill damp air. Basking in what little light there is. Spying the first spears of woodland bulbs. Waiting for the robin to keep company with me. If I take a lesson from the garden, and slow right down, I can make these tasks last all the way to spring.

[whohit]notstoppingbutslowing[/whohit]

Stitches in time

Ilse and I went to the village jumble sale: I to run a stall, Ilse to play beneath the tables with her little gang.

Mrs Partridge had put me in charge of the jams. Before me was a jewel-box of treasures, the summer bottled and screwed down tightly. Although the jars were not labelled with the makers’ names, everyone knows everyone else’s speciality. I bought a jar of Mrs Andrew’s strawberry conserve, knowing that there will be bright chunks of soft fruit suspended in the jelly. Mrs Partridge bought a jar of her friend Mrs Ellis’, who returned the compliment. There was a pleasant hum around me all afternoon.

It was only when I spotted the dress that I felt marooned. I had been looking for Ilse, who had vanished some time ago, and recognised her cardigan beneath the rail of donated clothing, arms dancing in some clapping game. Above her was a vision of Victorian outlandishness: a virtual haberdashery of flounces and bows, roses and braid. It looked just Ilse’s size. Mrs Partridge was doing another round of the hall. Two more tables and she would reach me. I saw a woman I didn’t recognise, accompanied by her own little girl, feeling the fabric between knowing fingers. She held the dress hopefully in  front of the child who pulled just the face Seb pulls when I kiss him in public.

It took another ten minutes before Mrs Partridge had gossiped her way round to me, but at last she took over my table while I went to investigate.

The dress wouldn’t be everyone’s cup of tea – no-one else had even given it a second glance – but the way Ilse’s face shone when I pointed it out made trying it on a formality. It would be made to fit, if necessary. She skipped and hopped at my elbow all the way home.

Even John couldn’t help but admire the work which had gone into it. It must have been a wealthy little girl’s best dress, for parties or perhaps a wedding, probably in the 1880s. The overskirt, in cream dupioni silk, was lifted to reveal the satin underskirt, with clusters of rolled ribbon roses pinning up the gathers. The waist was accentuated by a plaited cord in three shades of creamy brown, and the puffed sleeves finished with softly swinging lace at the elbows. Best of all was the cafe-creme front panel, embroidered with vines, leaves and shimmering flowers. It must have taken days and days – even weeks – to make.

The dress was a little large on Ilse, so I took it up while she stood on a stool, turning as directed, pretending to be the original owner. As I sewed we wondered about who she might have been. Ilse tried on a few names for size and settled on ‘Sara’. She called me ‘dear Mama’ and my mouth was too full of pins to point out that Sara’s mama most certainly would not have been on her knees at her daughter’s feet. That was the lot of other, poorer, women.

I basted the hem fairly loosely, guessing from Fliss’ envious looks that Ilse will continue to wear this as she grows. There wasn’t  a mark on it, which made me feel sorry for a child not allowed to run or play for fear of spoiling her frock. Ilse ate jammy crumpets in it, helped me shut up the hens, then lay in front of the fire on her tummy, rereading A Little Princess.

I hope it is a long time before I have to let down that hem. Time enough for more jam dribbles and grass stains and many, many parties. ‘Sara’ must be quite grown by now, older than I am. I don’t want to imagine Ilse as a woman: sixty rather than six. If I could, I would put a few stitches in time too, just to hold it steady.

[whohit]stitchesintime[/whohit]

Armistice

On Sunday there were military parades and church services. People gathered at the cenotaph and laid their wreaths of poppies – there and at other cold stone memorials around the country. Ilse learned In Flanders Fields and recited it at her school pageant. Seb and Ben marched with the Scouts. Fliss made garlands of red and black and green. I bought a crocheted poppy from Mrs Roberts, who is raising money for the British Legion, and pinned it to my coat. There was ceremony, and solemnity.

Today is Armistice Day. It is twelve years since the end of the Great War. In that time Ben has grown from four to sixteen, Fliss from two to fourteen. I count the years by them. Seb and Ilse have appeared, from nowhere, because John came home. My brother’s second child has done the same. My sister has married a man she didn’t know existed then, but who came home nonetheless.

Next door, Mrs Ellis still has a cupboard full of her husband’s clothes. She gave a suit, for the first time, to the children’s guy this year. Mrs P works to support Mr P, who came back a different man. Their daughter is a widow. There are empty places in the ranks before the cenotaph, but also in the schools and on the playing fields. Whole generations of dreamed of families have gone missing.

At eleven o’clock this morning Mrs P and I laid down our knives and took off our aprons. I poured two small sherries, in the best cut glass, and set them on the sideboard. For two minutes, the world was hushed.

I don’t know what Mrs P was thinking, but I can guess. I prayed for peace, lasting peace, so that we will never see a conflict like that again. I prayed for Ben and Seb and all the other boys. I prayed for the the mothers and fathers, sisters and brothers, wives and lovers of those who were killed or maimed. I prayed for broken families and dislodged families, whichever nation they belong to. I prayed for those who had fled, and those who have yet to find home again.

Finally, when we were both ready, we raised our glasses to memory and love and hope.

[whohit]armistice[/whohit]

Remember, remember

Bonfire night is the highlight of the autumn calendar. All four children have been anticipating it with glee, whispering about their plots, and gathering fuel for the fire. The guy waited ready in our shed, complete apart from his turnip head, which Ben carved on Wednesday evening.

Even Mrs P seemed to have an air of excitement about her as she came in on Thursday morning. Having stopped at the grocer’s on the way, her basket was full of caster sugar and golden syrup. I had laid the apples ready on the table, sixty of them, washed, with a lollipop stick pushed into each core. We melted the sugar and syrup and dipped the apples into the pot, before leaving them to cool and harden on trays. The toffee ran into little flat discs around their bases. Surreptitiously, while Mrs P was clearing away in the scullery, I ran my finger around the inside of the empty pan. The touch of toffee on my tongue brought back a world of childhood bonfires.

We borrowed trestle tables from the village hall and, as the day was clear and bright, set them on the village green. The infants were let out of school an hour early and bade carry chairs. The older ones must have cycled like the beefeaters were on their tails to reach us as early as they did, and then the fun began in earnest. By five o’clock, as the light finally fell, the bonfire was built and burning: a hodgepodge of old furniture, prunings and scrap wood. In the centre, bound to the farmer’s long pine trunk, was the guy.

By then, the last of the mothers had turned out, each bearing a tin of cake, platter of sandwiches or great jugs of milk. Someone filled the tea urn and kept it topped up with boiling water. By the time the men arrived the flames were licking the guy’s darned and darned-over socks, and potatoes had been pushed into the grey embers around the edges of the fire. John helped Ben and some of the other boys sharpen one end of a pile of sticks, and we pushed a sausage onto each for the children to roast. They stood in a circle, faces burning and backs cold, oblivious to everything but the fate of their guy, their dripping sausage and the promise of sweets.

Mr Hewitt made his annual gift of a box of fireworks, and set them off as the last of the potatoes was being pulled open, exposing its fluffy insides. We stood around the fire, oohing and ahhing in unison, well rehearsed over the years. Toddlers began to whinge and a dog, not locked up, set up a howling that started the babies off. Prams were wheeled away with reluctant infants in tow. The older children stayed to tease the fire. John lifted a sleepy Ilse onto one arm and she laid her head on his woollen shoulder. His other arm he put around me, and we watched the end of the evening, remembering other such nights in years past, back to when it was a tired Ben in his arms, and before even then, when there was only he and I.

[whohit]rememberremember[/whohit]

Conquering

Maps in hand, we set out for the horse chestnuts. The season is well under way, and I wasn’t quite sure of what would be left. Fortunately, the children have been finding conkers in dribs and drabs over the past few weeks, and already had a reasonable selection. I think that what they really wanted was the promised expedition.

We traversed mountain ranges and waded through razor sharp mangrove swamps. In the trees the parrots called to the puffins. Lions ran at us, tongues out, panting, to share their games. We passed all sorts of indigenous peoples: eskimos in their beaded collars and embroidered sealskins, bright against the achingly white landscape; aboriginals with dreaming dots about their brows, inviting us to go walkabout with them; and the odd Sioux, on horseback, with long dark hair blowing like silken strands in the cooling breeze. Several times we had to stop and check our compass, or squint at the sun to guess at our latitude. I flitted between the north pole and the antipodes, carried by the fancy of whoever I was talking to.

No wonder the explorers were in need of provisions by the time we arrived at that long rumoured haven, where the conkers lie thick and plentiful on the ground and everything tastes, somehow, of ambrosia. I unrolled the woollen rug and spread it on the still crisp leaves. Cocoa was sipped as quickly as it cooled, pork pies sliced and spread, ever so daringly, with mustard, boiled eggs shelled then dipped in a twist of salt. There followed a long pause for conker hunting and knitting. Both pursuits were, thankfully, fruitful, and celebrated by the passing round of slabs of seed cake.

My personal triumph was waiting at base camp: a hotpot, ready to feed the returning expedition, cooked for so long that it felt as though someone else had made the supper. I only needed to add the pastry crust.

Once home, the focus of the expedition shifted. A pair of expert, retired conquerers shared their secrets with the raw recruits. The smooth dark spheres were suspended in vinegar, baked in the oven, or stored, in a paper bag empty of pear drops, at the back of the airing cupboard. That particular treasure will be unwrapped and carefully drilled next year. Finally, Seb and Ilse fetched from their treasure boxes a single conker each, collected the year they were born and quietly growing in strength ever since. They were carried, ceremoniously, to John’s shed, to be made ready for battle.

The fresh air of the Arctic, of the North American plains and of Uluru had renewed the party’s appetites, and short work was made of both hotpot and pickles. I wiped the table so that the children could sit there, after supper, while I washed the pots in the scullery.

The new conkers will be ready soon, ready to take on playground challengers and defeat all comers. In the meantime, at the kitchen table, my three conquerers occupy themselves by filling in the blank spaces on their maps with all they had found while they were taking over the world.

[whohit]conquering[/whohit]

Stir up Monday

Our conker expedition was rained off. The picnic, prepared the day before, sat forlornly on the kitchen table. Everything felt damp, and the sky stayed resolutely grey.

On days like this, the kitchen is the place to be. I turned on the electric light and, not trusting to its yellow glow alone, shook more coal from the scuttle into the stove. Then Ilse, Seb, Fliss and I gathered our supplies, not for an outdoor expedition but for a rainy day adventure.

For the children: coloured pencils, wooden rulers, ink pots and boxes of nibs, and thick sheets of laid paper. Special paper, for a special project.

For me: cinnamon and mixed spice, flour and eggs, golden syrup and dark brown sugar.

The children began by sketching compasses, Fliss reminding Ilse of in which direction each of the points lay. They discussed their landscapes, suggesting features geographically possible and impossible. Oxbox lakes in surprising little Os along the river. Islands with hostile camps upon them. High strung bridges and fireplaces with cauldrons slung over them. Then the map-making began in earnest, tongues out, brows furrowed. Seb drew curving contour lines. Fliss sketched a magical glade.

While they drew, I zested oranges and lemons. I creamed sugar and butter with oozing syrup. I sieved flour with spices and stirred them, alternating with beaten eggs, into the mix. Finally, I poured in two pounds of brandy-soaked fruit and carried the bowl to the table.

Ilse went first, pulling the spoon easily through the layer of dried fruit and wishing, eyes tight shut. Then Seb, whose lips moved unconsciously, nearly spilling his secrets. Fliss’ wishing took a long time, and I wondered whether there was a long list of wishes or just one, elaborate, desire. And I went last of all, wishing for the same thing that mothers always wish for, and actually stirring the fruit into the cake mixture.

The Christmas cake went into the oven. Soon there was a warm, spicy December fug, cacooning us from the lingering gloom. Coloured pencils were taken up, and I turned to the pudding.

Eggs and brandy, nutmeg and zest – almost the same ingredients but to a different end. We washed a silver sixpence and buried it in the uncooked basinful, before pleating the greaseproof paper lid and tying it on with string. Once lowered into the steaming pan it began its rattling dance, rising and falling with the bubbles. The room grew warm and softly steamy. Exotic flora and fauna were sketched around the edges of the maps.

I spread the picnic on the tablecloth for a late luncheon. Bully beef sandwiches, apples and cocoa make a feast whether eaten in a Christmas-cosy kitchen or on a trans-Siberian trek. Over their meal three excited children told me of the developments to their conker-collecting plans. It appears that we will be criss-crossing the globe. Their eyes shone, their voices rang, and their imaginations were clearly stirred up. As was my pudding, on a Monday, and a few weeks early. Sometimes, though, you have to obey the weather.

[whohit]stirupmonday[/whohit]

Foxgloves for Fliss

Fliss’ cardigan has been cast off and crocheted, the steek cut and button bands knitted on. I left it on the chair in  her bedroom, having sewn on the last button as she slept. She held me in its woollen arms, next morning, and whispered thank-yous in my ear.

Fliss is my shy, thoughtful, imaginative girl. She lives half in this world and half in some other, make-believe realm. She’s my war baby, born in 1916, the child I wanted only to keep safe and close to my heart. When I was having her I was afraid of so many things: zeppelins and their bombs, food and fuel shortages, and, most of all, losing John. Other women, of my age and younger, were entering the factories and fields. The war opened their eyes and their worlds. They were fearless and pioneering. As a married mother, my own world closed in around me.

Once John had joined up, I went home to live with Mother and Father, accompanied by two year old Ben and the knowledge of Fliss. Looking back, it seems as though Mother and I sat across the fire from one another every evening for three years, knitting. We didn’t, of course. We visited friends, went to the odd concert, and laughed at the antics of the newly all-female amateur dramatics society. But what I remember most is the knitting. Bootees and balaclavas, layettes and extra layers for Fliss and for John, for my brother Pete and for other, nameless, soldiers. Cream and khaki, khaki and cream, keeping them safe the only way we could. I would have knitted charms into those garments, if I could.

Once she was born Fliss turned out to be a quiet baby, as long as I was nearby. Her brother Ben was always off, as soon as he could toddle, launching himself into the world. Not Fliss. She would lie on her blanket for hours, playing with her hands and following me with her dark eyes. As she grew I got used to suddenly finding her by me, slipping her paw into mine, sliding into my lap.

I took Fliss, Seb and Ilse into York yesterday, to buy their winter shoes. Seb and I strolled behind: he is spilling over with plans for our conker expedition. Ilse bounced ahead beside Fliss, hanging off her patient hand. It has been a mild autumn so far, not yet cold enough for coats. Instead the air is damp and grey and thick with muffled mists. Fliss’ foxgloves shone back at me through the murk, clear and bright, free of the shadows of hedgerows and old fears. She glanced over her shoulder, once or twice, to check that I was near, but found a place for she and Ilse to sit, alone, on the busy tram. She is pulling away, as she should. But however far she goes from me I will always be able to sense her, unexpected and quiet, surprising us with flashes of her fantastical beauty.

[whohit]foxglovesforfliss[/whohit]

Late-harvest chutney

There is a period, each August, when the tomatoes ripen thick and fast. Every day I leave a bowlful on the kitchen table. We eat them in sandwiches, with or without cheese; fried for breakfast with a panful of eggs; or just as they are.

Bit by bit, our enthusiasm for them fades. As their numbers dwindle in September I fall out of the habit of picking them every day and by the end of the month I am content to close the greenhouse door on them.

It was my garden task, yesterday, to dismantle that little jungle. I sliced through twine and stems with my curved knife, arranged the canes neatly in a corner of the potting shed, and carted load after load of compost to the heap at the far end of the garden. Then I cleaned the greenhouse, sweeping it clear of desiccated leaves and previously encouraged spiderwebs. I washed the glass inside and out. I scrubbed slippery algae from the paving slabs. I wiped the woodwork, and made a note of where it needs another coat of paint. When all that was done, I had almost nine pounds of tomatoes to bring indoors.

There has been enough of a lull for the red ones to be greeted with renewed enthusiasm. Most of them are green, though, and need to be cooked. Hence the late-harvest chutney.

I’ve been following the same recipe ever since we’ve had a garden large enough to produce a surplus. Occasionally I make tangy yellow piccalilli, or spicy red relish, but not this year: those are the sorts of recipes which come and go. They depend on the weather, the harvest, and my holiday plans. But I make late-harvest chutney every October because it uses what I have in abundance: windfall Bramleys, marrows, onions and green tomatoes.

Sitting down to read through the recipe, I realised with a start that I have seemingly never done this before. The ingredients were familiar, the method as simple as I remembered – yet apparently I am supposed to peel the tomatoes. Peeling tomatoes is one of those tasks which I do not do. It falls into the same bracket as ironing tea towels, or buying little china ornaments to dust. Succumb to these tasks and there would be no time left for the important things in life like talking – really talking – to John, playing with the children, or watching the fast-changing autumn skies. In truth, if I had to peel the tomatoes I simply wouldn’t make the chutney.

So I made it anyway, skins and all. I took the time to arrange all the fruit in order of colour and size, and paused to admire that little segment of rainbow. Once the meditative chopping was done, I stopped again, to wonder at the all shades which fall between white and green. I even admired the sheen on those taut tomato skins.

All told, it is quite a mountain of vegetables, and takes a while to collapse beneath the rim of the pan. I let it get on with this while I prepared the spice bag: peppercorns, cloves, coriander seeds and fragrant ginger. I put in a couple of extra cloves, and, once I had smashed the ginger root with my rolling pin, held back a slice for myself. It only wanted boiling water and a spoonful of honey. Cup in hand, I spent an important fifteen minutes watching clouds scud across the brightening sky.

[whohit]lateharvestchutney[/whohit]

Hedgehog season

Beyond the lawn and the veg patch, in the unclaimed land between my garden and the start of the children’s territory, stands the pergola. It leans to one side, and I’ve grown to love its weary dilapidation. A wisteria, once trained up it for support, now holds the structure together, and each spring dangles slender bunches of lilac blooms into its interior.

To its left is the fruit bed and to its right, a shaded, forgettable bed which, until this year, has ended each season deep in weeds. Last spring I hit upon the idea of growing jerusalem artichokes there and they have flourished, forming an impassibly lush and vaguely prickly wall. The beans took up the bed to the front of the pergola, and the wisteria linked arms with them as soon as they were tall enough, forming a seamless transition from ceiling to floor.

We sling the hammock in this green room, and I’m sure I was not the only one to imagine myself on an Amazon expedition as I swung there in muggy July.

But now it is October, and time for its walls to come down. I spent an hour this morning pulling up the spent beans, having first collected the mottled pods full of next year’s seed. The robin moved in as I left, hopping over the dark bare soil, hoping for a worm. The hideaway is no longer.

Yet I am careful to leave a boundary: an untouched edge of hedge and fallen leaves which is disturbed as little as possible. The toads live here, and the hedgehogs and, once, we even saw a lizard zig-zagging his way to the safety of a crevice. We leave the nettles standing all summer for the butterflies to feast on, and piles of old logs for beetles and solitary bees to set up house.

At tea time there was a knock on the door and six or seven of the village children were crowded there, asking whether mine might come out to collect wood for Bonfire Night. Seb bolted his milk and in a few minutes he and Ilse were scarved and hatted. Ben took his electric torch to ward off the gathering darkness. I started to remind him not to let the children build the bonfire until the fifth, but he nodded impatiently. He knows what hedgehogs like to do.

Once the door was shut behind them, their simmering excitement pouring down the lane to the farmer’s house, Fliss and I looked at each other, the same idea in each of our minds. The dough was rising for supper, next to the stove where vegetable soup spluttered lazily.

She divided the dough in two while I cleared the tea things. Then we shaped dough noses, snipped prickles and pressed fat raisin eyes into place. We set the little creatures down for a rest, under a clean tea towel, before finishing them in the oven.

At the supper table Ilse and Seb were full of their triumphs: the strong pine tree trunk Mr Stevens had been saving for them all year, the woodwormy wardrobe Mrs Cornwall was only too pleased to be rid of, and the promise, from next door, of a moth eaten suit for the guy. Ben had taken them all hunting for conkers, too, shining his light into the orange leaves which lay, thick and unbroken, on the green. Too soon, though, a definite rustling in the leaves persuaded them to abandon their endeavours.

There had been many eager pockets and too few conkers to go around. Seb asked whether we might run a half term expedition to a row of horse chestnuts we know, near the knavesmire. I agreed at once, on the proviso that Ilse would be cartographer and Seb navigator. I would provision the company.

Fliss had decorated the hedgehog loaves with fallen leaves, conkers, and acorns. They prompted happy bouncing from Ilse, a bloodthirsty ‘can I eat the eyes?’ from Seb, and a kiss from John as I sat down. It was the end of one happy day, full of plans for another.

[whohit]hedgehogseason[/whohit]