First thing in the morning it sometimes feels like I am tech support for the little people. During the holiday season we allow half an hour of screen time. It usually involves minecraft, but it all has to work first.  The devices are temperamental. One of them is old and requires the occasional reboot, or its certificate refreshed with the router (by turning it off and on again of course).  The other device behaves most of the time.  Although sometimes it refuses to see the shared minecraft worlds.  I don’t know why. All I do know is that when it doesn’t work the little lady throws a mini tantrum declaring, “Just give me the world! That’s all I want!”

 

Today I decided to try and fix two very annoying noises.  One was a bad belt in my car.  For weeks now a little high pitched whine has developed while idling the engine.  A dodgy alternator? A dying pulley bearing?  I hoped it was simply the belt.  Tightening it helped a bit, which is a good sign. I could call it a fan belt, however in most engines it is not connected to the fan at all. Calling it a fan belt is engineering nostalgia, a bit like windmills that no longer mill anything but electrons. The other annoying noise was something I did not want to face fixing.  So, I started by replacing the belt and the first noise went away.  Unfortunately this did not take very long, which meant I had to move on to the other noise.

 

For a very long time now our shower has been problematic.  It got stuck at a particular temperature; quite hot.  Not scalding hot, just bearable hot as long as I kept the thermostat low on the boiler that heats the water. I even tried to fix it once, a long time ago.  The direct cut off valves to the shower were nowhere to be found in the crawl spaces around the cottage.  Instead, I let the water tank drain and then tried to remove the “thermostat cartridge” from the shower.  It did not move.  I threw everything I had into it but it did not budge. I gave up, retreated to give the problem time and thought. That was many months ago. Then it began to call to me.  Drip. Drip. Drip.

 

The drips were slow at first, a small reminder that the problem would not go away.  Fix me……………………………….Fix me……………………………….Fix me ……………………………… Then, Fix me……….Fix me……….Fix me………. And for the last few weeks; FIX ME FIX ME FIX ME FIX ME FIX ME FIX ME.

 

The system was drained and I faced the stubborn shower. It was a showdown of brass and steel meets determination.  I gave it an ultimatum; today I will not give up.  You will be fixed, and if that fails, I might call a plumber. In the end it was all about having the wrong tools for the wrong job. I might have drawn some blood, maybe crushed a finger tip, but it did get fixed.  Instead of a spanner for the stuck cartridge I used a strange device I found at the bottom of my toolbox.  It looks like a handle attached to a bicycle chain and is used for removing oil filters from cars.  It is just the device I might use for a stuck filter out of futile politeness, right before I resort to stabbing a screwdriver into the filter and then unscrewing it with the screwdriver acting as a sort of chisel.  So, the cartridge unscrewed with this bicycle chain device, and a hammer.  I always find a hammer useful in plumbing jobs.

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The cartridge was stripped down and all the relevant washers were replaced.  Now there is silence.  To be fair, there was silence a few hours ago and no hot shower, only stone cold freezing water.  After draining the system, removing the cartridge again and a little tinkering, there is now a hot shower with controllable temperature, and silence.  No dripping water torture, just the delightful quiet of a house full of children running and yelling and generally behaving like children do.

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The air outside feels damp but not yet cold. I can see my breath in the air if I choose to look for it. Heading out to get some more fire wood the sound of Amazon’s Disney station blasts out the door before it is shut and the sound is muffled and contained. Only one of the little people can read, yet two of them can interact with the A. I. connected to the cottage. “Alexa, how can I stop the little lady repeatedly playing Frozen songs?” “Sorry, I can’t help with that.” 

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the moon tonight

I walk away trying to shake the song out of my head, but I can’t let it go….let it go…..ahhhhhh.  Then the moon is in the corner of my eye and I take a step back for a better look. It snags me? No. That would imply it might unravel me. Catches me? No, I am not as ensnared as the tide. It is more like correcting a picture on the wall that you spot is not quite straight. I am the picture, corrected, realigned by the image of the beginning moon. I simply stop and see the movement of the sun, earth and months, yet I cannot see anything actually moving. Slow time. I take a deep breath. The wood stove has only just been lit. As the air is still and October cool, the smoke falls around the cottage and fills my lungs with the sweet smell of Hawthorn. Seasoned Hawthorn I cut in the spring over a year ago. Many moons ago.

I needed to be home before I lost the light.  A chimney needed repaired after Ophelia ripped off the cowling.  The actual repair did not take that long, the preparation did.  A small scaffold platform had to be dragged out of the corner of the woodshed, behind the bikes, the toy trucks and the empty beehives.  The beehives had been brought in from the garden a few days before.  They had sat out in the weather looking forlorn for two winters.  It was a disgraceful thing to leave them out. Bringing them in was a job I had kept putting off due to the sadness of not having the bees and the time it would take to strip all the frames from the old wax and mess. The thing that finally made me sort them out was the approaching hurricane.  I suspected Ophelia had her eye on the beehives.

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Ophelia

The chimney job was done in time for the little people arriving home.  They were well into homework when I slipped my welly boots back on intending to head outside for more work.  This was spotted by the littlest man who declared that he would help, then they all suddenly wanted to be helpful.  I sighed, very little work would get achieved now and it would be achieved at a much slower pace. The little man, little lady, littlest man and I hammered in a wooden stake and tied up an apple tree that Ophelia had tried to take for a short walk.  We picked up twigs and fallen branches.  We played tip around the house.  I pointed out that it was called tig when I was a boy.  Nobody listened, nobody cared.  We ran, we laughed. The littlest man and little lady tripped over a couple of times. I used this as an opportunity to encourage; “Why do we fall? So we can learn to pick ourselves up.” There are not many Batman quotes that are useful in parenting, but this is my favourite.  I spotted lots of jobs that needed done when I had the time, yet I didn’t really care at that moment. Playing in the low golden autumn light seemed more mindful.  Maybe this is what the little people meant when they said they wanted to be helpful.

The final job was closing the gates before returning to the homework. We said hello to the donkey who seemed happy about the company and we promised him some apples from the fridge tomorrow.  As we closed the gates the little man looked at them and told me that I needed to paint them, “maybe some waterproof paint.”  Helpfully reminding me of the jobs that need to be done seems to be something he got from his mother. We said goodbye to the donkey who was not as happy at this and bayed as loud as he could.  The little lady and the littlest man lost it at this; screaming and running with fear for their lives.  The donkey needs to work on making friends and saying goodbyes.

We spoke to some tired looking parents this morning. It seems that some little people are not very good at going to bed, and going to sleep. Our own little people have settled into an acceptable routine now; toilet, teeth and then two stories. It wasn’t too long ago that the littlest man would not go to sleep easily.  Every night there was an extra part of the routine.   I would lie on the floor and my hand would be held in the bars of his cot by my wrist.  I would hold his hand and gently sing a lullaby.  Eventually the lullaby would turn into a hum, and then silence. If I moved my hand slowly away and his did not grasp mine more tightly, then I would know he was asleep. Now he chuckles and giggles at his older brother, the little man, at the other side of the room. Then both of them usually drift off to sleep in silence. I thought this was a good thing; progress.  Until tonight, when I thought differently after reading some Rilke. They grow up so fast.

To Say Before Going To Sleep

by Rainer Maria Rilke

I would like to sing someone to sleep,

have someone to sit by and be with.

I would like to cradle you and softly sing,

be your companion while you sleep or wake.

I would like to be the only person

in the house who knew: the night outside was cold.

And would like to listen to you

and outside to the world and to the woods.

The clocks are striking, calling to each other,

and one can see right to the edge of time.

Outside the house a strange man is afoot

and a strange dog barks, wakened from his sleep.

Beyond that there is silence.

My eyes rest upon your face wide-open;

and they hold you gently, letting you go

when something in the dark begins to move.

It has changed. The day length has changed; the darkness is winning.  It’s the fastest rate of daylight change. The air has changed, the leaves are changing. Autumn has arrived.  Even the word “Autumn” is believed to come from the Etruscan word “autu”, meaning change of season.  I used to think that I enjoyed all seasons equally; no favourites as a policy. I was wrong, this is it; a winner by a mile.

Now I feed and water the chickens with a head torch on and the air around the cottage has the faint smell of wood smoke.  With the darkness the evening sky is now my seasonal clock as I walk down the lane.  Cygnus, the swan, is beginning its annual migration across the night and, if its dark enough, marks the arc of the milky way. The swan reminds me to keep an eye out for the skeins of birds in the sky. I usually spot the during the commute to school.  Sitting in the static traffic gives me a chance to look up.

It’s strange to have an autumn without bees.  No syrup feed, no honey harvest. The hives were left empty in the hope that maybe a stray swarm might move in; no joy.  To add insult to injury I found a wasp nest in one of the old spare hives.

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Then there is the apples. The trees are older and the pruning, feeding and weeding is beginning to bear some fruit. James Grieves, McIntosh Red, Cox’s Orange Pippin, Katy, Russet and some other unknown varieties. Although the Russet is not really a Russet. We bought it five years ago and planted it as a thin sapling.  Five years latter and we discover that it had been mislabelled. Should I have kept the receipt?  This is the consequence of growing trees, proper slow food.  The taste and textures of the apples are quite different and we eat apple and cheese sandwiches, baked apples, fried apples on toast (which is quite nice; thank you Nigel Slater), apple crumble and simply eat the apples. We have even filled a couple of boxes with apples individually wrapped in newspaper and hidden away in a cool dark place.  Yet, a little while a go I went looking for apples to buy at the market.  I wanted Russet apples as they add to the flavour of autumn for me.  I intended to buy them for my A Level class to try and convince them to branch out (sorry) and try other varieties that the supermarket keep hidden from them.  The market didn’t have any.  Later that day there was a knock on my classroom door in the middle of my A Level lesson.  It was a past pupil with a bag of twenty five russet apples. She works part-time in a fruit shop and when they arrived in, she knew I would like them; a thoughtful and wonderful gift. After they were distributed there was still one or two left to set on my desk.  Although it is nowhere near as neat as the clichéd teacher’s desk.

It’s hard to describe the busy nature of life with three little people to look after.  After a long day at school I arrived home just after the lovely Sharon; also just home from a long day at school.  We hit the ground running; the dinner needed made, the little man’s homework needed to be supervised, the little lady demanded that I listened to the debrief of her nursery school day, and the littlest man simply demanded my attention with duplo. The lovely Sharon and I juggled these tasks with no time to ask each other how our days had been.  As if to demonstrate how our priorities and perspective on life has shifted; it was only about half an hour later that the lovely Sharon remembered to mention, “Oh, yeah, I forgot to say that our school was on fire today.  We were evacuated and the fire brigade had to put it out.” At that point somebody screamed.  It might have been a duplo block that wouldn’t fit, a spelling written back to front, or someone needing to go to the toilet.  I can’t recall the details, but that was the end of the small talk.

During the Neolithic period the bones of the dead were buried inside their houses, beneath the floor, or close to them. There must have been a motivation to keep the physical memories of their loved ones so close.  Contrasting with this was the practice of keeping the bones of a few people interred inside passage tombs on the high places. Why? Were these people important? Chiefs? If they were important people then I would imagine their bones would have been kept close, like family.  This puzzle has never sat well with me. Of course I realise it is all a wild leaping of conjecture with so little evidence, but I like to let my imagination run.

Slieve Gullion passage tomb is the highest passage tomb in Ireland.  It sits in the Ring of Gullion; an area steeped in folklore. A few months ago a friend took me on my first trip to see the summit passage tomb.  I had wanted to see it, to sit inside it, for a long time. It did not disappoint.

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It is said that this passage tomb is aligned to the sunset on the winter solstice and could be up to 6000 years old. When I visited I was under the impression that it was the house of the dead; a pilgrimage place.  I imagined the long midwinter walk with the bones of lost family or friends.

Yet, there is a new possibility. The prehistoric tombs that may have been used as ‘telescopes’.

Sitting in the inner chamber allowed a better, darker, view of the small patch of sky down the narrow passage.  I imagine that most of the stargazing would have been done in the darker winter months.  Inside the dark stones on the high places; the coldest places. A fire would have been impractical to the astronomers dark-adjusted eyes. Presumably they spent long hours wrapped up and watching that one patch of sky to time or measure the stars movements.  When to plant a particular crop, when to slaughter the surplus animals before winter, when to carry out ceremonies. It would have been a strange and lonely place to spend your time, but maybe it was a kind of home.  Maybe it makes sense that these places were the resting place for the bones of ancient astronomers.