Chapter 5 - The memory has a remarkable filing system
The memory has a remarkable filing system. While trivial incidents are carefully stacked away, important happenings are often thrown into the overflowing stream of things forgotten.
For instance, I can remember when I was a tiny child, watching a crowd of orange and brown butterflies, hovering and alighting continually on a michaelmas daisy one sunny day, making it quiver with life and colour.
My mind has one filing cabinet labelled ‘things that happened at Grove Farm,’ but they are not necessarily in any order, so they could have taken place any time during the four years we lived there.
Early one morning in summer, Father came into my bedroom and carried me in my nightie to the window, where there below was a deer feeding in the garden, its coat was a bright brown colour, and it looked as wild and slender as the cowslips that grew in the Little Meadow in springtime. So very unlike the farm cattle to which my eyes were accustomed, for they were sturdy in shape and slow in movement. The deer lifted its head. For a moment its startled gaze seemed to hold mine, then in an instant it was over the hedge, leaping as easily and gracefully as a puff of smoke and leaving as little trace. Later that day my brothers found that it had been sleeping in a cornfield, crushing the ripening corn. No doubt it had been chased out of its habitat and had rested hidden in the cornfield long enough to regain its strength. When I saw it in the garden that morning, it must have been leaving the sanctuary of our farm, to find the way back to its own kith and kin.
Dressed in my Saturday clothes, I breakfasted, then helped and hindered with the hundred and one tasks that hold a farm child’s interest.
Dinner, the main meal of the day, took a large part of the morning to prepare, but it was indeed something to look forward to.
Yeast dumplings, or ‘dumplings off the bread,’ as Mother called them, were delicous. We had them on a Friday with baked rabbit and roast potatoes. I can now almost feel my teeth biting into those white, spongy balls, soaked in gravy flavoured with onions.
To my regret, I could never manage to eat more than one, and was envious of my brothers who ate several.
Mother made the most marvellous puddings. When possible she used seasonable fruit from the garden, starting with rhubarb in the spring and ending the year with apples. The changes were rung with dates and other dried fruits. In very cold weather we enjoyed suet pudding with treacle.
Flour and suet was mixed with milk and a huge dumpling made, this was tied in a cloth, placed into a saucepan of boiling water on the fire and cooked till done. When the pudding was taken out of the cloth and placed on a dish, it was served with great dollops of golden syrup. This was very warming on a winter’s day and after a plate full of rabbit stew, it was a wonder we moved at all.
For apple pudding the suet crust was rolled out and filled with peeled and cored apples, the crust then folded round the apples like parcel. This was tied in a cloth and cooked in the same way. The water in the saucepan had to be kept boiling and the fire continually made up. This apple pudding was served with brown sugar which melted on the hot apple, making little golden rivers in the pale mountains of cooked apple.
But the pudding cloths had to be washed. Ugh! I still remember the horrid greasy feel of them in tepid water, with only washing soda to help dissolve the grease.
Today plum batter was on the menu. Plums picked from our own orchard, as we were pleased to call the few apple and plum trees that grew near the farmhouse. The apples were not yet ready for gathering. Codlings were the first to be picked at harvest time. Large green cookers that made excellent turnovers to be eaten in the harvest fields. Bramleys were known as ‘keepers’ and with luck would last till Valentine’s Day.
After dinner was eaten and strong cups of tea drank, the men of the family went back to work. Mother cleared away and I gave the scraps to the ever hungry cats that always appeared when I called, ’Puss.’
Swallows flew high in a sky that stretched above me like bright blue silk. A lean cat with a freshly caught mouse in her mouth, hurried towards the barn, where her kittens were safely hidden behind a clutter of old farm implements.
Mother came through the kitchen door with an empty water pail in her hand and I walked with her to the well.
The well stood just outside the dairy. A brickwork erection with a wooden lid. There was a large wooden roller above it with a handle to one side. A thick chain round the roller, unwound or wound up when the handle was turned. Just like in the nursery rhyme, ‘Ding Dong Bell.’
I had to stand well back as fetching a pail of water was considered a dangerous task, this always gave that simple chore a rather exciting flavour. Mother turned the handle and unwound the chain a little, she then fastened the snap end of the chain to the handle of the pail, and lowered the empty pail down into the well. ‘Twas then Calamity struck. As the pail touched the water, the snap on the chain disengaged itself from the pail. Mother watched helplessly as the pail slid gently down into the water out of sight.
The only other pail we possessed was the milk pail and as that was called into service twice a day, to use that would have been most inconvenient. To buy another was impossible, for it was Saturday. Market day was Wednesday and no one ever thought of shopping any other day. Besides money was scarce. So there was no help for it, the pail had to be reclaimed from its watery grave.
I was sent to find Father at once. He was in the stackyard mending a gate. This was the time of year between haysel and harvest. A newly erected haystack stood there, still smelling sweetly of the sun, while two brown heaps, all that was left of last years straw looked rather forlorn. Some rusty implements stood at one end of the stackyard almost overgrown with nettles, giving the impression they were discarded but when the season for them came round again, they would all come into active use once more.
Father put down his hammer at once when I explained to him what had happened and realising the urgency of the the matter, went off in a rush with me running behind. First he went to the shed next to the one where the coal was kept and reaching up, took down the ‘creepers’ that were hanging on a nail in the clay wall.
The only way I can describe ‘creepers’, is to say they resemble three handleless pitch forks, tied together with their tynes turned upwards to make hooks. Six hooks in a cluster.
We hurried towards the well, Sidney had joined us by this time and we were both ordered to keep our distance. Father attached the creepers to the chain and lowered them to the bottom of the well. The excitement was tense as he wound them up again. Yes, a pail was coming up, not our nice shiny zinc pail, but an old rusty one that must have been down there years and had belonged to previous tenants. The operation was repeated till about ten pails stood on the hard trodden earth around the well, which by this time had become thoroughly saturated. They were in various stages of decay, most of them quite hopeless but one or two in surprisingly good condition, would be called into use around the farm. Then at the eleventh try, out came our own precious pail. We hailed it with cries of delight, for we children had enjoyed it all and had likened it to the finding of buried treasure, but Father was getting very hot and irritable by this time, so when we tried to persuade him to continue, he refused. He had had enough.
Red in the face from his exertions, he carried a brimming pail into the kitchen, hung the creepers in the shed and went back to his hammering.
Chapter 4 / Chapter 6