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]

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]

In practice

My gardening plans have had to be postponed, for today. I woke up this morning to rain: not just the typical Yorkshire mizzle but the sort of downpour which permeates your very bones if you’re not careful.

Rather than launch straight into the day’s housework, I turned to my rainy day alternative, and left the lid of the piano up once Ilse had finished her morning practice. As soon as the house had emptied, I pressed down the soft pedal and began to play.

There is a reverence to mornings that I don’t lightly break. Speaking to a neighbour I might explain my habits in other terms: the beds need time to air, or the daily doesn’t arrive until ten. In truth, I need a peaceful start to my days. With four children I can’t stay in bed with a pot of tea and a book, or go for a pre-breakfast wander. So I wait until the house is quiet to begin my little rituals.

I am learning a gavotte, by Bach. From the hesitation, the stopping and starting and wrong notes, this may not seem like a particularly soothing activity. Yet I can think of nothing else, as I play. I am absorbed. I am tested and stretched, and play the same short passage over and over before the clock strikes quarter to and I resurface. Then I take a deep breath, shut the lid gently, and put the kettle on for Mrs P. She will be cold and damp from the rain.

Sometimes, in my lessons, I feel a terrible dunce, my hands stumbling and head wooly when faced with the simplest exercises. But that feeling never lasts. Each week (my teacher assures me) I am, ever so slightly, better. I wish that my childhood self had never given up. Much stronger that my regret, though, is my delight that I am learning anyway.

I normally play the piano in the evenings, after the supper dishes have been wiped and left, standing ready, for the morning. I play my flute in the late afternoon, when the hotpot is in the oven and the vegetables are boiling on the top. By late afternoon I am ready for its surprisingly penetrating timbre, the high notes and the semi-quavers. I am fully awake, by then, and I need to be. At present, I am working on Mozart’s quartet in D, and even straightforward phrases are often rudely interrupted by wrong notes and missed accidentals. I wonder whether I will ever get it up to speed.

When the children were babies, before I  had begun to take piano lessons, I would practise once they were all in bed. I had no choice: the time before supper was consumed by fretful babies and fractious toddlers. I would long for John’s return. Once he was home and the children tucked up, full-bellied, I would assemble my flute to play soft airs, country dances and lilting Irish lullabies. Sometimes it was only for five minutes, sometimes longer, but that twilight music is lodged in their subconscious. Fliss still alters when I play after supper, dragging a blanket into a chair and listening, eyes closed. Even now I play to her, from downstairs, when she is sleepless.

Nowadays, my turn at the piano is the last of the day. It is certainly not the most impressive, but probably the best-enjoyed. Occasionally (only occasionally) I have to remind the children that they’ll be glad of all this practice, later. As an adult, I just do it because I want to. And that changes everything.

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Little knits

Autumn does not deepen in a steady flow, but hesitantly, advancing and retreating like an incoming tide.

This morning was the occasion of another little rush forwards. We woke up to clear skies and a heavy dew and, suddenly, out of drawers and cupboards, came the little knits. They have been squirrelled away, tucked in, all summer, behind the socks and vests, but their time has come. October is the month for little knits – on go hats and mittens, scarves and socks – enough to keep that nip in the air at bay without recourse to a heavy coat.

Like autumn itself, though, the day will grow warmer before it is colder, and those same hats will be shoved down the sides of satchels on the journey home from school. Because of this, October is also the month of lost little knits. Gloves, discarded, cannot be found when the frost strikes a week later. I sewed Ilse’s mittens to a ribbon and ran it through the arms of her cardigan. The others are disdainfully too old for such precautions, but Ilse, at least, will still have two mitts by November.

Outside, I wished I’d put my new wool socks on. By the time I’d pulled out the shrinking cucumber vines my toes were numb. I found no fewer than twenty-six cucumbers, hiding from the cold in the remains of the lush tangle. The hens were sunbathing, snuggled together in a corner of their run. And happily, the slugs had not ventured near the windfalls.

Inside the house, a ladybird had come to share our warmth. She ambled along the white windowsill, unconscious of how conspicuous she was in her red and black jacket. I took her out to the bush where hundreds of her kind sleep each winter. There is still time for her to bed in.

In the warmth of the afternoon I knitted. At the bottom of my basket, beneath the sleeves and half-knit body of Fliss’ Foxgloves, is a half-finished scarf for Ben. I worked on this, today.

Most of my little knits are made in the summer months. I like to use up the odds and ends of wool – balls left over from cardigans, half a skein remaining from my nordic pullover, or from another little knit. There’s a rhythm to my knitting: cardigans for John and I in the spring and then little knits right through until late September, when I know the children won’t grow out of their new pullovers before they’ve worn them. These smaller knits are easy to take on the train, to the beach, and on a picnic. They don’t lie hot and heavy in my lap. By October, my wool basket is empty and the corners of everyone’s drawers are full of cosiness.

I looked at John in his new hat, and remembered the three evenings I spent knitting it: mid-August, the windows open, a serialisation of the latest Agatha Christie on the Home Service. My own oak leaf hat: a rainy week in July when we couldn’t get out of doors. Ilse’s mittens: the meandering train ride to my brother’s family in Devon, one either way.

When all the others had left, I watched Ilse from our bedroom window as she set off for school, exclaiming over jewelled webs with muffled claps of joy. Those mittens will remind her of dewy mornings, frosty gates and, hopefully, pushing carrots into snowmen’s faces. But they remind me, already, of telegraph poles oscillating by train windows, of the first glimpse of sailboats in Devon harbours, and of the promise of the summer ahead.

[whohit]littleknits[/whohit]

Plotting

It might have been the reappearance of the sun, after so many days of grey skies. Or perhaps it was simply that I had wandered into the garden with no particular task in mind.

I couldn’t quite bring myself to pull out the cucumbers. The trees are still in leaf, so cannot be pruned. And I flatly refuse to cut away the hibiscus which has grown into my bench. I spent some time diving down the backs of the laurels and lilac, cutting away at rogue brambles. That done, I wandered to the fruit plot, and began to weed.

The strawberries were heavy with fruit which will never ripen. The rhubarb, too, was suffering in the shade of the ash. Both needed a sunnier spot. Which meant that I’d have space for at least three new fruit bushes – blackcurrants or gooseberries, most likely. But in order to move the unhappy plants I would need a new perennials bed, in full sun. I abandoned my weeding and set off, pacing the lawn, carving it up in my mind.

Gardening is an optimist’s game. Ask me, any time, and I will always reply that the garden will be better next year. It’s not just about autumn. In winter we pencil convoluted calculations of appetites and planting distances in the margins of seed catalogues, determined to get it right. Then there’s the thrill of green buds in spring, dancing above us as we nurture the first fragile rows of seedlings. By summer these have translated themselves into fruits and flowers, and we sow the overwintering plants between them.

In each of these seasons we work away, diligent and hopeful, making the very most of what is before us.

In autumn, only in autumn, can we tear up the plans. At a stroke of a pencil, lawn becomes bed, and bed, lawn. New trees are drawn in where, a moment before, there were none. Hard landscaping appears, changing the feel and function of the plot.

We have a window of opportunity, once a year, to reimagine everything. I have a tendency to plan my garden on my own. I ran into the house for paper and pencil, squeezed onto the bench beside the hibiscus, and began to sketch. I got as far as having the old pine tree removed before I paused. If we cut it down at head height, it would leave the perfect space for a den. And the children have been asking whether they might reinstate the secret passage behind the hawthorns. I pushed my plan aside.

In the house, I spread a larger piece of paper on the kitchen table. On it I sketched a compass and the bare bones of our garden. The rest I left blank.

This evening, after supper, we shall fill it in. Together. We can each plot our treasures on this map. It will be a jumble, a mixture of piratical Xs and neat, scaled sketches. But I will make sense of it. I will make a list, alongside, of what is to be done. Then, with everybody’s help, I will begin anew. I love our garden, and with everyone’s input, it will be better still next year.

[whohit]plotting[/whohit]

Gathering

Sunday morning, before mass, found me in the garden, gathering the last of the anemones. I arranged them into a rough bouquet as I picked them, knowing that to separate them would cause the trembling petals to scatter. There were just enough to fill two vases: one for the kitchen and the other for the dining table, ready to greet our guests. It was ‘only’ Mother and Father, but the occasion was heightened by the fact that we hadn’t seen them for a month. They have been on the south coast, catching the remains of the summer sunshine.

I laid on the sort of luncheon October does best: roast loin of pork with apple sauce, cauliflower, potatoes and parsnips which, although not yet sweetened by the first frosts, were golden and sticky from their roasting.

Ben was home from camping with the scouts just in time to bathe and join us. The others were rested from their week-end at home, scattered about the place, engrossed in their own endeavours. Ilse has been learning to knit, flitting down from her bedroom every few minutes with another tangle for me to unravel. Seb has been practising archery, having carefully restrung the bow Ben made so patiently with him last spring. Fliss has been wandering in some imaginary world, under an old blanket in the tree house, a stack of best-beloved volumes beside her. Industrious John chopped and stacked all day on Saturday, filling the woodshed and shaking off the feel of his desk.

So it was with great joy that I had them all around one table. We each had our own adventures to tell of, so that we sat talking for a long while after the last spoonful of damson crumble was gone.

A lengthy game of scrabble ensued, and knitting for some, and the customary doze on the settee for Father. Best of all, we lit the sitting room fire for the first time this season, and its magic held us all there, together, in one space. We didn’t even move for tea but drank it where we rested, with thin slices of apple and cheese, and slabs of Mother’s apple and marmalade cake to follow. It was the very best sort of Sunday: involving food, fire and a family gathering.

That evening, before turning in, I weighed out sugar and dried fruit, and poured over it the dregs of the day’s tea. An egg, some flour and a quick stir was all that was required before I popped it into the stove to bake the following morning. It made two tea loaves, fragrant with cinnamon: one for home and one for John to take to the office. In the coming afternoons, I believe that they will be the cause of smaller, but no less important, gatherings.

 

[whohit]Gathering[/whohit]