Saturday, 31 March 2012

I Blame Shirley Conran

It was that "Superwoman" thing in the seventies when somehow women were going to be able to hold down high-powered jobs, work all hours and then rush home and play the little home-maker; cooking delectable meals while re-upholstering the lounge furniture, at the same time being funny and flirtatious with the man in their life.

Somehow, some of that over-aspirational perfectionism still sticks with me.  So when we invite friends round for supper, it's not enough to prepare a meal.  I want the food to be delicious, the house to be spotless, the garden manicured, the planters over-flowing with flowers, the kitchen clean and tidy and me, relaxed and unstressed in some "little number" that I happen to have found at a local flea market for a song.

Needless-to-say real life's not like that, even with Tod's sterling help. It's a miracle if I've managed to shower and get changed by the time our first guests arrive and I'm usually hot and bothered in the kitchen with still wet hair, peeling the spuds and wondering if the burnt sauce can be rescued.

The problem is, anything less than Superwoman perfection can feel like a failure.  And it's only afterwards that I realise that perhaps we all did enjoy ourselves, even if the paving round the swimming pool (which nobody could see anyway from where they were sitting on the terrace with their drinks) did need weeding and cleaning.

It took a friend to remind me of Leonard Cohen's words ...

"Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering.
There is a crack in everything,
That's how the light gets in."

Thanks N.  And yes, we did have a good time.

Saturday, 24 March 2012

Tonight ...

... I close the shutters of the cottage and through the big window on the landing - the window that used to be the doorway into the hayloft - I can see in the dark north western sky Venus, Jupiter and a red crescent moon low on the horizon of Monsieur F's field where he will shortly be planting maize.

As I close the shutters to the small window on the other side of the landing, the one that looks towards the south, through the branches of the lime trees I can just see Orion's Belt.

The air is mild and the night is clear.  We are in for a week of warm, sunny weather and this is the last night we will sleep in the cottage.

Tomorrow we will move back to the house for the summer and the cottage will become once again the place where our friends stay.

Friday, 23 March 2012

Bitten Off ...

I think my mother considered she married well.

The ninth in a late Victorian / Edwardian family of ten children to a policeman, she more or less had to bring herself up.  Her mother died when she was eight and all the older sisters were much too bored by then with their small siblings to care how she coped.

She met my father - a bright, only child - when she was in her teens and I think he offered her the space and aspiring middle-classness she needed to move away from her big extended family.

When I was a toddler my parents moved to a bungalow in Bookham on the edge of the North Downs.  Through the whole of my life, my mother made much of the fact that the bungalow came with "a third of an acre" - so different to the tightly packed terraced houses of Beckenham where she grew up, with their small gardens, outside toilet and alleyway along the back, .

Something of that desire for that space of "a third of an acre" has rubbed off on me.  No doubt she would be thrilled to know that her daughter is now living in a house surrounded by five acres.

But then I also know the family folklore that the third of an acre was too much for Dad, working full-time, singing in the choir, attending council meetings and squeezing gardening into late evenings and long weekends. He had bitten off more than he could chew and the garden became a burden, not a pleasure. So they moved - to my mother's chagrin - to a smaller garden.

At this time of the year, everywhere I look around the five acres there is work to be done and Nature is running ahead of me laughing.  My father is standing at my shoulder and I know exactly how he felt.

Tuesday, 13 March 2012

Fig Weed

When we first moved here and the cottage was but a bramble covered ruin open to the sky, on the far side, partly hidden by elder bushes and barricaded by stock fencing on worm eaten wooden posts, there we found an old fig tree.

"How wonderful!" we thought, imagining some future where our guests, sheltering under its branches from the afternoon sun, would reach up casually to pluck a ripe fruit, to be eaten sweet and juicy with fresh sheep's yoghurt.

Our second summer, one evening we sat on the veranda by the house and, intrigued, watched a flock of starlings swoop round the derelict cottage below us.  Having seen the figs begin to ripen and thinking that one or two might just be ready, I investigated the next morning to find the starlings had been busy. Not a single fig remained. Not even the tiny unripe ones. We would have to wait another year before we would be tasting our own soft, sweet figs - starlings permitting.

Four years on, this great thug of a plant alongside the now restored cottage terrace is not a thing of unalloyed joy.  Too close to where our friends sit on late summer evenings, the rotting figs high in the branches beyond human reach are a magnet for marauding hornets and wasps - an unwelcome presence for those guests of a nervous disposition.  So each spring now, before the rising sap burns and stings I take pruning saw, secateurs and loppers and bring back to ground level all but a handful of branches furthest from the terrace.

The fig weed thrives on my harsh ministrations.  In a few months a thicket of new growth will be eight, ten feet into the air - the most enticing of figs yet again high above, there for the taking by starling and hornet.

Nevertheless, I know come late summer this brute will delight me. I will wander down to the cottage in the early morning, through the still wet long grass and pick from the lower branches the sweetest of breakfasts and be glad that the tree is there.

Saturday, 3 March 2012

Saturday Morning

Bertie lies under the kitchen table, warm body, soft fur against my bare toes.  With much cracking and squeaking of plastic on plastic, he happily chews an old battered water bottle.

A tentative beam of sunlight briefly appears through the window and lights up muddy dog footprints, a film of pale dust over the dark red tiles of the kitchen floor. The sun doesn't linger and the view down to the stream and the small bridge returns to a subdued misty grey.

Elbows on the table, pink scruffy dressing gown sleeves pushed back, gardening magazine read, tea cup empty in my hands, the sweet-sour taste of Tod's home-made bread just a memory on my tongue. It's time to face the day.

Or maybe linger a while longer, with another cup of tea?