Monday, 9 July 2007

Snowball, Buttercup and Snoozer

The directions to the hen lady’s house on Red Fen read like a child’s treasure map. Pass 2 lay-by’s, turn right at the sign for the tip, go 500 yards and turn left, count 4 telegraph poles, turn left again. The houses here were proper fen, inhabited by people who steered well clear of councils and planning permission, erecting low lying barns and bungalows and neighbouring them up nicely with a company of caravans and sheds. I was glad to be arriving in our tiny dented car. It didn’t bat an eyelid at the rutted, muddy lane that twisted and turned round potholes to the hen lady’s hastily erected higgledy-piggledy house. It felt perfectly at home parked amongst the scrap metal in the yard. When the huge toothy dogs had been taken into the house our girls fell out of the car all cheery at the thought of mud and a gate to climb by the horse paddock.
The white-legged hen lady, practical in shorts, pulled on her cigarette and smiled. Four long teeth, whiter than the others and looking like they had had something artificial done to them gleamed across at me. Three large turkeys gobbled noisily behind her.

“Got ‘em all penned up for you.” she said, leading the way towards the hen huts. The girls spied a brood of chicks scratching with their mother in the dirt and were off. We followed the hen lady over a concrete slab, past two mud-pits and a horse manure pile to where a clutch of hutches and runs had congregated in the long grass. One had our three bantam Polands in it waiting. Until yesterday they had never been cooped, had spent their whole little three-month lives running wild with their mother, scratching up biodiverse treats and getting lost in the hedges. Now, behind a makeshift door of board and a brick they sat in a legless rabbit hutch waiting to be tamed.

The hen lady stubbed out her cigarette, reached down and shifted the brick. A wild flap of wings as her hand reached in. Fluttering squawks, a scratch of claw, and the first hen emerged. Then, in her capable hands, a hushed bird sat with its extraordinary puff of a head resting on her wrist, its smooth buff breast laced with white, its eyes just visible beneath the feather crest like small dark worlds unblinking.

I had never seen a crested Poland before. We had decided on them purely on the advice of a gardening friend who said that Polands were the best of all bantams at being held by children. I knew that they were friendly, and had been warned about the hairstyle. In a magazine, even strutting in a farmyard, I would have looked at one and said ‘Ridiculous’. But in my fingers the downy crest felt rather marvelous. And they peeped so charmingly, and sat so softly against the breast. They even traveled well in the car.

Oh dear, looks like I’ve gone and bought the poodle of hens, all fluff and feathers. The girls, of course, adore them. Every morning and every evening we go, all four of us, Mummy, Daddy, girl 8, girl 3, on a leggy procession to the bottom of the garden to let them out and put them up, and in between we visit them several times, poor hens, because we like the stroke and peep of them so very much.One is pure white, the other two are chamois laced with white, one a big-breasted ball of butter, the other a sleepy dozer. They should start to lay about Christmastime. Snowball, Buttercup and Snoozer.

Friday, 29 June 2007

One Bite of the Pear

Birds singing after the rain. The breeze is toying with the trees again, reaching between the branches like a devilish cad laying those ladies low. The supple apples arch their backs like women caught in the last high kick of a tango. The rose tips kick the short neat kicks of a can-can girl. The dark-leafed crab shoots, girlfriends in a crowd of screaming fans, wave in unison at the pop idol up on stage. The garden swoons, seduces, swoons. All the while the breeze plies its caddish trade in titillation. It will leave them, when the fun is spent, and who will they tell, the girlfriends silent now in solidarity. The dancers unmade up, putting their glistening costumes to bed.
Dalliance. The elements tease and please and depart each other’s company. The breeze allures by touch, the trees by sound and sight – the red leaves glistening bright, the green leaves blushing pink at the tip, all of them whisper and sush. “All things allured God to make them.” wrote the poet Thomas Traherne. Desire is at the heart of things. No serpent I expect was needed to tempt our mother Eve. The apple’s own plump perfection, the blush on its cheek, its smooth dappled skin, its satisfying crunch, the promise of its scent -- all these would have sufficed. Temptation enough in the nature of the thing to make one want to pluck, and palm and taste.
My three year-old knows this. She cruises the fruit bowl fingering each fruit, weighing apples in her two small palms, feeling the hairy bristles of the kiwi, the thin bruisable skin of the pear. Her touch incarnadines the nectarine’s blush. She samples everything. She takes a bite, then puts it back. Plucks a grape satisfyingly from its stalk and bursts its juice in her happy mouth. When I enter the room she starts, looks guiltily at me for her sentence. Sometimes I banish her from the garden, send her crossly to sit on the stairs, angered by the waste of food. Sometimes I do not. Because there is a real pleasure in the pluck of a grape, because I remember that one bite of the pear is all one ever wanted.

Thursday, 7 June 2007

Prunus pruning

The gardening frenzy is on and in our village it’s not just the weather. The announcement of the date for Open Gardens Day (this year in aid of RDA) has plunged the participating gardeners into a whirling dervish of plan and counterplan. The date stares firmly from every diary – threat to the novice, challenge to the keen, promise to the most accomplished—but to all, like laughter lines and baggy eyelids, now unavoidable.

Pippa, whose garden, good sort that she is, is made available year after year, invited me over for a lazy coffee over half term. Her son Hugo, my Houdini and my 8 year-old scrabbled about in the garden getting muddy in the hen coop, chalking a blue and yellow dusty scooter racetrack on the terrace, throwing sticks for the fetching lab. Most of which landed, naturally, in the herbaceous borders, expertly positioned between delicate delphinium leaves and snapping peony shoots so that maximum collateral damage could be achieved by bounding paws.
“HUUGOOO!” Pippa shouted from the kitchen. The spots on the Emma Bridgewater teapot jumped to attention.
“Heigh-ho,” she sighed, rubbing her forehead, “time to make some willow shelters.”

For Pippa, Open Garden Day means not so much exciting new plans and designs or trips to the garden centre or planting up new plants as it means running a protection racket. She spends hours constructing beautiful willow wigwams and tepees around the delicates, her garden sprouting twiggy bunkers till it looks like a dwarf Indian village. And still the balls and dog paws come crashing through. Observing her mounting frustration as the day approaches has probably been the main deterrent from me throwing my lot in with the rest of the brave band and opening mine too (well that, and the fact that my Latin plant names are not entirely up to scratch, oh yes, and that neither is my garden).

Last year I took my darling nearly-deaf mother, who was visiting from America round the village gardens.
The artist’s garden was fascinating. Tucked away behind a small cottage on the high street, the artist’s garden is a series of little outdoor rooms made up by hedges and low walls, steps up here, a path down there. Different textures underfoot, sudden changes of colour, scent and light. Around one corner a hidden henhutch suddenly clucks to life, around the next a swirling sculpture on a pole swings towards you in the wind. There are stained glass windows hanging from the trees and phrases of poetry embedded in the terrace. You feel you could spend hours there and never see it all, could approach the same room twice from different angles and think it was a new one. The artist hid under his hat in the shade of his apple tree, with a reticence I like to think more shyness than contempt. No conversation was required.

Proud across the street, the Old Rectory, with its shiny as a new penny family, opened its gates verbosely. Printed notices directed you on a set route. Labelled trees spread their ancient enormous arms. The lady of the house, brunette chatter on heels, swooped to my mother’s side
“Welcome,” she smiled, warm and hostessy, “I don’t believe I’ve seen you in the village before,”
“Thank you,” my mum smiled warmly back.
Disconcerted by this non sequitur, Chatter arranged her hair, arranged the large rings on her fingers, proceeded undaunted with the tour.
I do not explain my mother’s deafness to people we meet. What am I supposed to say – hello, this is my mother, she’s deaf– as if her deafness is the single quality by which her rich and varied life should be described? She is my own darling, still standing tall mother, who likes English gardens, and kept a fine garden herself in her day. I let them figure it out for themselves.
But sometimes I do have to laugh.
From hollyhock to cornflower, across more lawn to rose bed we followed our talkative guide. Under the dark foliage of a large cherry my mother looked up admiringly,
“Do you like Prunus?” asked the lady of the house.
“Sometimes,” my mother looked querulous, “at breakfast.”
“I just love them,” Chatter raved, heels sinking suddenly into the lawn, slinging her drunkenly off balance, “perfect answer to the winter blues.”
“I have problems with regularity too,” confided my mother discreetly.

Tuesday, 22 May 2007

My catcher's mit

“It’s the best day of my life” said my eight year-old yesterday afternoon as we got home from school. She had just been chosen for tag rugby, the first ever indication (merest hint) in her life that she might, just might, be half-way good at ball games. A ballet natural, a swimming enthusiast, a cycling and skootering fanatic, she has never had much confidence with fast flying balls. I put this down to my own similar inadequacy hence lack of encouragement and practice in ball games. A little slow on the maternal uptake here, I am only just beginning to see that they might matter. Hugely.

Mention ‘balls’ and before I can type the second apostrophe around the word, there are blogs bashing the back of my brain, crying to be let in – the green and white cricket on the green blog, the ridiculous bottoms up fumbling in the hedge for the lost ball blog. None of them I am going to write today because as well as having a splendid game of tag rugby to watch with Baby Houdini scouring the perimeter of the field for hemlock and yew berries to suck, I also have my neighbour’s three children to watch after school into the evening whilst their mother takes their dad to the hospital and back; and then a huge homework project to supervise and cakes to burn for the school cake stall whilst I run upstairs and chip away tediously at the last two bits my patient editor is waiting for; and then when the clocks in America say I may, my lovely deaf mother to ring and shout at slowly. And all those balls in the air this day are enough to catch.

But the thing my palm is itching for, the thing that, if it stuck, I’d tuck to my chest and fold my shoulders over tackling tomorrow to preserve, is that look she tossed my way. Perched on the teetering edge of her seat, her body bursting with buoyancy -- “…the best day of my life.” Oh to be so sure that this one moment you’re living is the one you love, before the game’s begun or won or anybody’s even pinned your tags on. Just the possibility enough. That’s the look she tossed. Thank God I had my catcher’s mit on.

Monday, 14 May 2007

The Postman's Pants

Never lend your husband’s clothing to another man. I did that last month. Leant a pair of gloves to the village postman whose fingers were perishing. It was the least I could do for a man who is my main connection with non-edible consumer goods of every kind. I confess, I am a catalogue queen. Whenever I feel guilty about this I remind myself how much money I am saving in petrol and parking (not to mention how vastly I am shrinking my carbon footprint – practically the size of a geisha’s). Garden supplies, children’s toys, soft furnishings, clothing, gadgets, everything, it seems, that we do not immediately consume (and even a fair bit that we do – Inverawe smoked trout and salmon— fight over the last morsel) can come to me at the click of a mouse.
When the phone rings I suffer from a sudden attack of familial deafness. When the postman or DHL man knocks, I thrill. A parcel. For me? How perfectly lovely. I like signing the little bits of paper they produce. It almost makes me feel as if I have a secretary. Print here sign there. Madam. Vanish flour dusted apron and cords, and yanked back hair; enter alternative me in a neat suit and bob. For that one moment I hold the pen.

And then there is the delicious menu of choices the catalogues afford. The Garden menu – David Austin’s Shropshire Lass or The Countryman on the terrace trellis? Those deep dark tulips from Parkers this year? Or the crimson? Followed by the clothing menu – Boden again – reliable with a light seasoning of playful -- or the slightly more exclusive if less about town Brora? Yummy skirts that make tweed flirt, cashmere to die for. (Or at least give up your monthly membership at the not quite local health club for). And the secret side benefit of shopping by catalogue -- you avoid looking at your thighs in a badly lit (by that I mean unflatteringly – shall I say brutally, lit) dressing room.

Which brings me back to the postman. Gloves were one thing. A simple act of charity. He returned them a few days later, silently, posting them through the letter box so that when I returned from wherever I was they could be run over conveniently by the pushchair, immediately at home again in their rightful chaotic mileu of childmud and floordust. But last week in our brief unseasonable pretence of summer it was shorts. Poor postman on laden bike rings, then in the shuffle of envelopes and packets, drops small parcel onto floor. Instead of getting off the bike, which is heavy and difficult to balance, he leans forward to pick up parcel still astride the bike. Either he has eaten too much curry last night or his shorts (that have not seen the light of day since last year) catch on part of the bike, because there is an audible rip from somewhere near his seat. Am just beginning to be grateful again for onset of familial deafness when I see his hand instinctively check out the seat of his shorts.
“Oh god, torn um haven’t I” he says.
Do I let this denizen of postal provision cycle off home in tatters, his smalls on show to the entire village? Perhaps I should have, but I do not. I glance at his girth, make a quick calculation about the size of my husband’s old cut off cycling shorts (not of the Lycra Rob variety) and invite him in to change.
I thunder up the stairs, have a quick rummage in chest of drawers and descend already wondering if I have done the wrong thing with a capital WR.
“Look, try this pair,” I say sliding my hand round the door of the downstairs loo as if he were my self-conscious ten year-old son in a high street changing room. Half chagrined and half relieved, he re-emerges, hops on his bike and speeds off, absentmindedly leaving his torn shorts behind him (more ten year-old there than I thought).

These same shorts I folded, left ready in the porch where they hung around waiting for the opportune moment. When out of the corner of my eye I caught a glimpse of a red bike go past the window this morning I hurried to the porch, grabbed the shorts and, wanting to catch him this time before he had gone, shouted, not very loudly, but loud enough.
“Here. The shorts. You left them the other day.”
There she was. Old Lady Marlow. All ears and eyes, all techni-colour memory and mouth of her. Right there across the road from me, stick, cardigan and sensible tie-up shoes included. With a cat that got the cream look written on her face. The rotten luck of it.

Wednesday, 9 May 2007

Their Magic Eyes

We’ve got company. And it’s two too many for me. Both of them are nice people, kind people, generous people. They’ve driven down from Scotland to see us. They’ve been the epitome of perfect guests, trinkets for the children, bought me a David Austin rose for the garden. Sceptered Isle -- a pink rose in that gorgeous loose old English rose shape with a musky scent. It even repeat flowers. So I feel lower than a paving slab admitting my frustration at their being here.

Thing is, they’re people for whom a Saturday at a National Trust house counts as a day in the country. For me this is emphatically not so. Anything involving queues and car parks starts me off on the wrong foot. Walking on a neat gravel path with two families in front of you and three behind wanting to walk at different paces, needing passing places for buggies. This is not, in my book, a country walk. It is not decent family time. It is not freedom or space or wonderment. Much as I love the National Trust (the card in my wallet, if not the sticker on my car), a perfect spring Saturday was meant to be taken somewhere else. But guests must go where guests want to go. Hey ho.

“May we be finding a hungry place?” my two-year old said when the crowded path had opened into space enough for the millions to mill about.
“Sorry? A what?”
“We may be finding a hungry place?” she repeated with the syntax rearranged.
I took this to mean, roughly translated, “I’m peckish”.
I’m hungry too, I thought. Hungry for more of you, my sweet, for more of us. For less of this.
“She’s peckish,” I pulled on my husband’s sleeve a little grumpily. (The friends are his fault).

It is perhaps one of the geniuses of childhood that children just take what they need. On the way to the inevitable cafĂ©, the eldest spied the gate to Narnia under a bush, ducked in and called. The two year-old naturally followed, dragging me along. What bliss. We hid. We burrowed way back into the undergrowth, found some furniture made from tree stumps the previous occupants, speaking Beavers undoubtedly, had left behind. “Magic!” the eight year-old said, scooping up fallen leaves, rolling them between her palms till they fell to the ground in crumbs. “Magij” the little one replied, doing the same. When we had made ourselves some brown leaf tea, cooked and eaten twig biscuits, and gathered enough nuts and berrystones, green leave salad and pinecones for the winter, we made soft pine-needle beds, slept in them (for all of two minutes). And started the day again. Bliss my babies. I love you.

I bless them for taking me along. And that leggy old laurel for laying its arms at quirky angles along the ground, lying like for fifty years to make itself the open den. The smell from the blossom, the leaf mold and moss. What joy my children bring me. I bless their magic eyes.

Tuesday, 8 May 2007

Elixir of Youth

How is it that some people just don’t age? Where did they find that hidden bottle of elixir?
I took the girls for tea yesterday to Mary’s, the large Georgian house on the green, with wrought iron railings and long windows, shutters folded back. ‘Took them to tea’. It sounds so formal and stuffy, starched tablecloths and scratchy petticoats. What I mean is I took them around unannounced, they pounded the door, knocked the knocker, rang the bell, then the eldest charged round to the back garden whilst the younger one lifted the letter flap and called in her most insistent tone “Maaa-weee” (she hasn’t got the hang of r’s yet). You never make appointments with Mary. You call round when you can. If she’s in she’s glad to see you; if she’s out she’s having a nice time somewhere else. She treats each day like an empty beach with its own tide washing up what it will. She says she likes every day full of surprises. I admire this arrangement with life; it is how I too would like to live when the season of school runs and ballet lessons and swimming lessons and piano lessons and flute lessons and playgroups and pony for a week, and netball and governor’s meetings and (you get my drift) is over. And so we roll up and bang on the door curious and hopeful, is Mary in? Is she upstairs, in the garden? Is she out? Harrumph.

A loud hurrah from the back garden where, of course, Mary would be on a gloriously sunny day like today. I grabbed Baby Houdini’s hand and we hare round to find Mary, not rising from her weeding or brushing down the paths, but caught in the middle of a hopscotch game, hastily chalked squares in front of her, a pebble in her hand.

Mary will be 80 today. She’s had MS for years and years and lately she’s started having a fluttery heart they can’t figure out. I’ve seen her on the carpet with my girls teaching them her leg exercises. I’ve seen her spraying them with water in the garden, playing limbo, throwing and catching balls, but I have to admit hopscotch is a first.
“Look at you,” I hug her, laughing.
“Cup of tea?” she asks, tossing the pebble into the rose bed.
Inside the kitchen I notice a birthday card with a photo on it of a lady almost exactly Mary’s age and size, shape and agility, feet astride a hopscotch square on a municipal park path. Two ancient friends on the bench in cardigans and sunglasses applaud. The caption reads: ‘Getting Old is Inevitable. Growing Up is Optional’. I wave it at Mary who is busy with the kettle.
“I was trying it out.” she says.
I remember the time a few years ago when I reminded my eight year-old, then about four, to be careful when she was playing in the garden with Mary. “You can’t run at her so hard, honey, you might knock her down. She’s old, you know.”
She stopped in her tracks, perplexed. “She’s not old, she’s new,” she insisted.
When I told Mary she roared and then reassured me, “I won’t break.”
So I learned not to wrap her up. Sometimes, when she falls with the MS, she stays inside for a week or so till the bruises on her face go away.

Mary’s biscuit barrel is legendary, a galaxy of dark and white and milk chocolate biscuits that only come in a giant tin. Homemade buns, a slice of Victoria sponge. She rattles up a platter of treats while the girls sniff about the larder “Mummy, why don’t we have nice labels on everything like this?”. (What do you mean? A tin of beans already has a label). I warm the teapot. Mary treats them like wine connoisseurs in her store of fresh pressed apple juices – Discovery? Cox? Golden Delicious? Jonogold? So many things to taste in Mary’s house, though in truth, despite the dignity of the architecture, restrained taste is not her thing. She likes her colours bright, and lots of them. Especially all together in one room. Her late husband painted murals on the walls. Above the Georgian fireplace in the green panelled drawing room one panel depicts Mary in clouds with pastel angels all around her looking like the Queen of Heaven.

A lot of things have gone wrong for Mary. Her parents didn’t bother to educate her much. True, the farm she bought with the cash instead did end up a better investment, she says, than 12 years of school fees. But in the things that matter she has suffered. Wanting nothing more than children she married young to a man who, when babies did not appear promptly exchanged her for a more fecund model. When she did find love again, he was married to someone else, and a priest, and the end of that marriage gave him guilt he could never shake, much as he adored the queen of his new heaven. She nursed him through his stroke, and watched him die, got MS. You know the rest.

Today she will be 80. Since her heart started doing its little bird routine I have started to worry, though doing so contravenes every law of her house. In her drawing room this afternoon, under the guardian eyes of Mary of the mural, unstarched, we took our tea. The little one, perched too high for the coffee table on a teetering piano stool swirled her pointing finger over the plate of heavenly biscuits like a game spinner, trying to choose. “Mmmmm… this one!” her finger leapt to decision. I caught Mary’s eye and she caught mine, we caught the eye of the elder one. Delighted, we made her do it again. Just to see the finger of fate play with chocolate. And then I spied it. On the tapestry cushion of the chair behind hers was written in lilting letters
“Live Well,
Laugh Often,
Love Much”.

Mary’s elixir.