autumn


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.

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.

As I poured in the sugar syrup and put the mouse guards on the hives tonight, I remembered the strange case of the mad mouse. It all began as I sat looking out the kitchen window and spotted something small running about on the roof of the wood shed. It was one of those strange moments when it is absurd enough to take a few seconds to sink in; a mouse running about on the roof in broad daylight.  Soon The little man and I were perched at the window with binoculars watching this mouse and its nonsense.  It ran over the roof as if looking for something, then ran to the apex and slipped under a bit of bent corrugated iron.  It might disappear for a few seconds only to reappear and carry on with its quest.  What this was, we were never sure. It never went into the gutter or near any moss, it just seemed to run about the roof.  The three seemingly overfed cats never put in an appearance as it ran about for a very long time. The little man asked mouse themed questions.  One of these was, “what do mouse bones look like? Are they like our bones?”  This might just prompt me to do a little experiment that I read about a long time ago.  Catch a mouse, kill it, then place it in a wire cage.  This can be left at the bottom of the garden.  As long as it is left long enough, and as long as the holes in the wire are small enough, no larger animals should steal the bones.  So, after a while the bones will be left and it ends up as a little mouse jigsaw puzzle of sorts. Is it bad that I think this is a fine father and son activity? At the very least we will have reduced the pest population by one.

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My old friend autumn has returned to me.  I felt it a few weeks ago as the air began to cool and the horse chestnuts began to put on their yellow and rust.  There are many things that mark out this season here. The tomatoes are harvested from the greenhouse as often as we can, before the exhausted golden plants drop them wearily.  Tomato soup, beetroot soup, tomato and beetroot soup. Then the bees need fed again, and some of their honey sits in the corner still to be extracted and destined for porridge on dark mornings.

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There are many things that add to the feeling of autumn, but tonight it felt closer than ever.  The darkening evenings and the ritualistic closing of the gate are two things that synchronized tonight.  As I walked down the lane the quarter moon hung low in the south west.  Earlier that evening we added the ‘see the moon’ game to the little people’s night time routine.  Bath time, milk, clean the teeth, hang out the window in the roof and find the moon, stories, prayers, then bed…..then IT’S TOO DARK!…then THAT WARDROBE LOOKS SCARY…..then the torrent of random questions that flow from a five year old mind unfolding: “Why do flies die in winter?”  “Is it possible to go to sleep and still count all the stars?”  “Who will look after all the baby flies in winter?”  Tonight the little man found the moon quickly and declared that he could see the hare in the moon; “just the beginning of it”.
With the little people filled with stories, I rumbled a bin down the lane and closed the gate.  The clouds left big holes for the moon and hints of autumn constellations to shine through. Sygnus migrating. The air was cool and the fields were filling with the thin fog that clings to everything gently and begins to make the moon and stars really feel like they are up there and you are down here; grounded.  The sights and smells of the night filled me and I could not shake the autumnal feeling and the thought of halloween not being far away.  To be honest that was probably because the lane runs beside a few acres of turnips.

I wonder if the most efficient gardening is done in the rain.  Under a steal grey autumn sky I put my head down and dug out the weeds of the raised beds.  I don’t remember ever doing this kind of digging at this time of year.  I would usually dig out the weeds sometime in the middle of winter.  This year I am trying the experiment of Hungarian Rye Grass.  In the main vegetable patch it was sown a week or two ago and seems to be getting itself settled in.


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The sowing for this kind of grass ends in a few days, hence the weeding in the rain.  A couple of espressos and the colour of the beech trees keeps me warm in the drizzle. Being in the garden lets me see all the jobs that need done.  I classify many of the jobs as just dreams and I try and add them to my blind areas.  Then there are jobs that I need to create time for; the crab apples need transformed into jelly with cloves and rose hips.

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One of the hives needs its block of winter insulation under the roof.  Both the hives need mouse guards fitted; too late in many beekeeper’s eyes.

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Books.  We guiltily took the little people to their nursery school and had a day for ourselves.  Over the course of the day I watched the lovely Sharon relax a little and un-knot her neck and shoulders.  She is a mother, a full time teacher, and a carrier, incubator, of a little soul.  As part of our day off we visited the big city and were drawn like magnets to the old second hand book shop.  We spent ages in the narrow passages with books pilled at awkward angles feet above our heads. We browsed shelves of books two books deep.  We filled a couple of bags with our foraging.  I carried the bags.  The lovely Sharon is quite independent with such things and protested on several occasions.  I stood my ground.  I would love to think that chivalry is not dead, but in truth, it is not out of chivalry that I carried the bags.  It was just so I could say, “you have enough to carry.”  Those were heavy bags and it was a long day but it was worth it to deliver a cheesy line and see her roll her eyes and hold back a smile.

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