Monday, 27 December 2010

Silence falls

The tide of family has washed through: this year son and grandson, daughter, daughter in law and her mother over from Canada.  We have eaten turkey and all the trimmings, truly delicious and a tribute to the happy life the bird has lived, wandering our friends' orchard full of organic food.  We have eaten home made bread and cold turkey and cold lamb, our pickles and cheese by the ton, Welsh cheese from our local deli.  We have made some small inroads into the Christmas cake.

This afternoon four year old grandson was helping to hand round cups of tea and slices of cake.  He looked at the cake and said "Grandma, I only like the icing."

"Well," I said, "that's amazing because I only like the cake so we can share."  I took the icing off and gave it to him on a plate and put the cake on a plate for me.

A huge smile cracked his face and he put his hand gently on my arm like a little old man.  "You know what that means, Grandma?  It means you and me are the perfect combination" and he sat up on the worktop swinging his legs and eating icing.

I think FIL has enjoyed the extra company, retreating every now and then to his room where the television is loud enough and there are no complicated three way conversations going on.  Grandson stayed last night and went in to say goodnight to his great grandfather.  He went straight up and gave him a kiss and a huge hug.  Perhaps it is the additional vulnerability that goes with his current physical frailty and his bereavement, but FIL is more visibly moved these days and I could see his lip quiver.

"I thought he might be frightened of an old bugger like me," he said to me as S went up to bed.  "But he isn't, is he?  He's a cracker."

So it has all been good.  In a couple of days I shall drive down to Devon to see my parents and my sister and family and next week elder daughter and younger grandson are coming to stay.  We have missed younger son and his wife who, as newly qualified doctors, have been working over Christmas, but I did manage a flying visit down to them too.  So life has been full of family and there is lots more still to come.

But just now the house has the quiet which follows departure.  Ian and FIL are watching the television in the other room.  The cat is asleep in the other armchair.  The woodburner is glowing and there is a glass of white wine at my side.

Do other people have this?  The relish that attaches to the moments of quiet?  I love the company with all my heart but I love these pauses too, the moments when the wave pulls back, the tide goes out, the only noise is the crack and flicker of the fire.

Thursday, 23 December 2010

Sometimes you just need to get out

It's lovely to be inside in the warm, especially when the kitchen smells of this morning's bread baking, but sometimes you just need to get out.

You just need to wade down to the viewpoint and wonder if there is more snow in the air.

You need to wander around the field, inspecting things.

If you are a cat you need to help with this.

Sometimes at quite close quarters.

You need to admire the only artichoke head left unpicked.

Or the sedum heads.

And then you need to come inside again into the warm.

Sunday, 19 December 2010

Oh yes, this Christmas thing...

I have intermittently been watching Phil and Kirstie's Perfect Christmas programme in an aimless, talking wallpaper sort of a way, not because I am likely to do any of it but more because I like both of them and love the enthusiasm with which Kirstie embraces homemade things and the whole idea of making an effort rather than waving a credit card.  It did however occur to me last night that this Christmas thing was not theoretical but really was going to happen and in fact is approaching at a rate of knots.  Somehow in the last couple of months of hospital visiting and the last week or so of preparation for my FIL (now safely installed just before the snow came) I have not been making home crafted Christmas presents and individual paper snowflake decorations.  So I thought I had better take my head out of the sand and do a quick stock take on where we are for Christmas.

Let's start with the most important thing in our house: food.

The Christmas cake is made, made in early November as a therapeutic exercise one long day.  It hasn't been fed as often as usual with brandy but it should still be a good one.  There is still the marzipan to be made and the icing to do.  I used to think that I didn't like marzipan but I discover that I love home made marzipan with its tang of lemon and making marzipan is really easy to do.  So that needs to go on the list.

I haven't made a Christmas pudding this year, for the first time in ages, so that is another thing to buy.

The turkey is sorted.  My friend who first helped me when I started keeping hens always raises a few turkeys for Christmas.  Usually they are all spoken for by October but this year, joy of joys,  there is one with my name on it.  You couldn't get a better provenance.  I know these turkeys have been lovingly raised, have roamed free range amongst her fruit trees and have been fed organically.  I even know that there were a real pain to put away at night.  Instead of trooping off into their house at night the way hens do, the turkeys were keen to roost in a tree or at a pich in a row across the top of the house and every night, with much muttering of "Get in there, you stupid things.  Have you never heard of foxes?",  had to be herded into their house.  I suspect this turkey might be bigger than we would normally buy but I couldn't turn down the chance.  What do you think you would pay for a bird with that provenance in London?

My order for other meat is all sorted too, left on the counter at our local butcher yesterday.  So that will produce the sausagemeat for stuffing, the pigs in blankets, a leg of lamb for Christmas Eve and some local cheeses.  By Monday I need to order the vegetables that we have not produced ourselves  from the village shop.

Presents: most of it done on the internet. There is one parcel which has not yet arrived.  I hate this: check the website, supposedly dispatched, not here, sitting somewhere in warehouse I suppose.  At what point do I give up and go out and buy all over again?  Wrapping too is one of my least favourite things, partly because I am not good at it.  This year I am trying a new approach of wrapping a few at a time.  Normally I leave all the wrapping to Christmas Eve and spend a couple of hours, glass in hand, producing more and more randomly shaped dog's breakfasts.  I have very mixed feelings about beautifully wrapped parcels.  Part of me admires the time and thought which has gone into a fabulous parcel as well as the beauty of the result.  The other part of me can't quite be bothered with something so ephemeral that will be torn off and in the bin in minutes!  It's also hard to be green about wrapping without reusing last year's crumpled stuff and looking like a miser.

The house remains resolutely undecorated.  That is not something with its roots in what has been happening  this year.  We are not big on decorating the house and don't usually bring the tree in until Christmas Eve.  This year we have a tiny Christmas tree which is growing in our field which will be put in a pot and will take its place by the fire for a few days before going back out again.  I am really pleased about this.  I love a real tree but I hate the waste of all those trees being chopped down and going outside again, brown and needleless, before going off to the tip.  This way, tiny though it will be, it will a living tree which will carry on living, all being well!  On Christmas Eve I will also bring in some holly and ivy to hang above the pictures and mirrors, and that will be that.  There are candles.  There is wine.  There will be visits from children and from older grandson on Boxing Day.  FIL needs quite a bit of help but is settling in, finding his way around, both literally and figuratively finding his feet and looking forward to seeing his grandchildren and great grandchildren.

Yes, I think we can say we are almost ready for Christmas.

Thursday, 16 December 2010

Dream gardens

I have been reading a wonderful post at Esther's Boring Garden blogspot (and don't be fooled.  She was just too modest to call it Esther's fascinating garden blog which is what it is.)  In it she talks about her dream garden, not a fantasy garden but the way parts of her real garden represent bits of a dream: a single primrose by the path is a bank of primroses.  It resonated  strongly with me.  I suspect most gardeners have a dream version of their own garden.  It's that dream that keeps us plotting and planting and musing about our gardens.

That sensation is very strong when you are slowly making a garden.  So much of my garden as yet in is my head and what is happening on the ground is sometimes something of a surprise, so vivid are things in my mind's eye.  So here are some of my dream spots.

Under the viburnum by the gate to the field the soil is shaded and dry.  In my head it is marbled with cyclamen and dancing with epimedium.  These are the epimedium I selected with some care at the Malvern Spring Show.  On the ground the cyclamen has spread from this:

to a patch with a diameter of about two feet, maybe more.  That is good, obviously, but it is not a dancing sea.

I am really hoping the epimedium hasn't died.  I could look it up and confirm for sure whether they should be above ground right now but my hunch is that they should always be visible and they are well and truly not.  I can't quite bring myself to admit that they have turned up their toes.  Everything I have read about epimedium trumpets the plant's toughness and indestructibility.  In what kind of garden can't they make it?

The sunny bank does quite a good version of being what it is supposed to be.  There is of course the permanent threat of extinction under a tide of comfrey and nettles, and, more recently under a wash of valerian which I introduced myself, but generally the power of the view is strong here and the mix of irises and lavender and penstemon and old pinks followed later by sedum in all its glory is as it should be.

The field is a different matter.  When we came here five years ago it was an acre of grass containing a workshop, a septic tank overflow, a prolific apple tree, a young walnut tree, a native cherry, a silver birch and a twisted willow.  All of these things were squashed into the quarter of the area nearest the house.  Beyond that it just grew and reproached you for not being productive either for plants or for nourishing livestock.

Now it has a plan, of sorts.  It is divided into three.  The top third contains the workshop and a wooden swing surrounded by native daffodils in spring, the area stopped by a great curve of shrub roses, mainly rosa rugosa.  Behind these there is a stand of stipa gigantea, intended to provide the full stop to the play area when the roses are bare.  In my dream garden the roses are six foot high and five feet across, their feet in daffodils in spring when the foliage is green and bright and then weighed down by pink and white blooms in summer.  Behind them as the roses fade the grasses fountain up, hinting at meadow, meadow on steroids perhaps.  On the ground the roses are about 2 foot 6".  The grasses only went in this summer.

I can feel that this is a post which a deal of a way to go yet.
To be continued....

Friday, 10 December 2010

Poised between one life and the next

Here I sit, balanced between my old life and my new.  Next week sometime my beloved father in law will come to live with us.  I have spent the last few days sorting papers and cleaning in the room which was my study and which is to become his bedroom.  The room looks bare and empty now with only a bed and a chair and a bookcase in place, although it is a lovely room with a huge red rug on the quarry tiled floor and a deep windowsill. It looks out towards the bakehouse and across the valley.  In the morning the sun streams in.

I want it to look welcoming.  Ian will bring some of his many family pictures and maybe the photos of Orkney and the wallmounted map of the islands.  As a working class lad from the industrial North it must have been extraordinary for my father in law to find himself spending his war on little boats patrolling the islands.  He still has all their names on his tongue: Mainland,  North Ronaldsay, South Ronaldsay, Papa Westray, Papa Stronsay, Hoy.  He will tell you how he sent food parcels home and once went back on leave with half a lamb in his kitbag, well wrapped but still oozing slightly when he hoisted it onto his shoulder.  He must have been a rare soldier to be posting parcels of food to his family.  He will tell you how he kept trying to send home eggs, parcel after parcel arriving with the contents shattered in the tin, until he finally cracked it (or not!) with industrial quantities of sawdust.  He will tell you about a wedding between a soldier and an island girl where people wandered in and out of each other's houses and danced in the street.  I wish I could get some sort of narrative tale from him, a nice, neat, chronological story with a clear progression from arrival to departure, but that's not how it works.  The memories come vivid and disjointed, like images flashing randomly on a screen.  The stories are mostly the same so you nod and smile as the same tale comes round and then suddenly a little nugget of something new hops out to surprise you.  There is going to be a lot of wartime Orkney up here on our Welsh hill I expect.

And how do I feel about the new life just around the corner?   I feel two things at once.  I love my family more than I can say but I have as well always loved a bit of separateness, a bit of solitude.  After my first marriage ended and before I married again I often used to look at other people's marriages and feel, not envious as perhaps they might have thought I would, but faintly oppressed by their togetherness.  Not every time, obviously there were marriages which looked happy and supportive and as though they were fun to be in, but sometimes the sight of people endlessly consulting and compromising and doing things they clearly didn't want to do made me feel quite claustrophobic.  The one big advantage of being on my own was having a high degree of choice about what I did and how I did it. 

When I married again, while I loved my husband to bits (still do darling if you are reading this, or whether you are reading it or not!) I struggled with the endless need for discussion and agreement and with the bewildering finding that someone who was so clearly my life's partner thought so very differently from me about so much of the minutiae of life.  I adjusted.  We adjusted.  But my independence felt like a fundamental part of me.  I relished financial independence and for long periods of our married life I have spent time working away from home.  Sometimes that was lonely but often it was an easy way of having some time to myself, of turning off the sense of being attuned to the needs of others and simply being myself in the silence.  When I mused and mulled and stared into the darkness in the night before I decided to give up my job last year, it was losing that independence, both financial and the life which was mine and no one else's, that bothered me.  It was fine.  I am fine and happier than before.  All of the positives of time at home and time together and freedom to do what I want have so outweighed the potential losses that I fretted about that I have hardly thought of them.  But now I look at the word "freedom" in that sentence and know that the freedom of the last year is about to disappear.  How will that be?  Time will tell.

And alongside that there is the huge, much stronger sense that this is what families are for.  My father in law has spent years looking after other people in a deeply practical,reliable, unshowy way:  family, friends, looking out for neighbours.  He is a special man, generous and funny and kind to the soles of his feet.  It is his turn now to have back some of what he has given to others over more than ninety years of life.  And we can do it.  There are so many families where the demands of jobs and children would make taking on the care of someone else just not possible.  But here I am, with my fluid, flexible self employment and here is Ian with his reduced working week.  We can do it, so we will.  It will be good to share my fire with him and to make cakes for him and to know that he is safe and happy.  When spring comes it will be good to share the garden and to sit in the sun for a cup of tea and watch the hens scratch. 

Life shifts and changes but the important things remain: family, children, a glass of wine, the snowdrops showing, ham and eggs for tea, friends. 

Time for the next stage.  Hold your nose and jump in.

Wish us all good luck!

Sunday, 5 December 2010


Sometimes the contrasts in life are almost too much for the brain to comprehend.

On Friday there was my sister in law's funeral.  All our grown up children came from all over the country as well as my mother from Devon and friends from all over the place.

On Saturday we drove for three and a half hours to Oxford for my one year old grandson's first birthday party.  There was a cake in the shape of a dinosaur made by my daughters, and biscuits and balloons and a lovely low key happiness.  Ian drove back to visit his father in the evening.  I stayed overnight to chat in the evening and play with the baby in the morning while his parents had a rare lie in.  He snuggled into my chest and put his thumb in his mouth as he began to get tired.  His blond hair curled against the green jumper I was wearing over my pyjamas.

Today I took a train to Manchester and was picked up and visited a livelier father in law, living much more in today rather than tellling stories of his war years in the Orkneys as he has been doing since his fall.  We drove  home in separate cars.  Here the snow still lies crisp and the cat is delighted, in so far as a cat can be, at the return of human company.

Tomorrow the car needs to go in for service.  I have work to do.  I need to bake.  Life is complicated and simple at the same time.