Clare Mackintosh: A Cotswold Family Life
PUBLISHED: 07:23 17 December 2019 | UPDATED: 07:23 17 December 2019
© Thousand Word Media
Sadly we will be waving goodbye to our wonderful columnist, Clare Mackintosh, in the New Year. We’ve loved following her Cotswold Life, and the trials and tribulations from her home town of Chipping Norton have been well documented in our pages over the years. Here, she shares an extract from her new book, A Cotswold Family Life
I have always loved the Cotswolds. I think I loved them even before I found them, in that half-formed vision one has of where to put down roots. Somewhere peaceful and green, where the road meanders between drystone walls and from village to village, and a strip of blue bursts from brook to river and back again. In 2005 my husband Rob and I started house-hunting, spending weeks exploring towns and villages, before finally finding a place in which to hang our hats. Chipping Norton had a bustling high street, a theatre, a bookshop. Being there felt like a holiday, yet at the same time it felt like home. For ten years, it was.
The fields have turned from gold to brown, deep furrows ploughed up and down each one. You have raked the leaves from the garden into a pile in one corner for the hedgehogs, and collected a whole bag of conkers because someone once told you they keep away spiders. The grass is peppered with windfalls, and you peel and core and chop and stew the fruit with cinnamon and sugar. On Hallowe'en you buy a pumpkin, and the children cut wonky eyes and a toothy grimace. You find candles from somewhere, and you wedge one inside and turn out the lights, and the children are amazed. You sit the pumpkin by the front door; the bowl of sweets just inside.
Trick or treat? Treat. It is always a treat.
I have always dreamed of having an Aga. They featured heavily in my favourite books - almost exclusively about ponies, or boarding schools - where the warming oven would be permanently occupied by sickly lambs or labrador pups. My fictional counterparts would wake early for Pony Club rallies to find their jodhpurs warming on the rail; mine would be crumpled at the bottom of my laundry basket where I left them. On visits to my friend Caroline, I would lean casually on her parents' Aga, imagining curling up in an armchair next to it to do my homework. It would surely improve my algebra … As I grew up, my obsession waned. It wasn't until I had children that my love blossomed anew, sparked by the sight of Babygros drying on an airer in the kitchen of an NCT friend. Oh, if only I had an Aga! No more damp muslin cloths draped over radiators. No more soggy bibs waiting for the tumble dryer. No wonder we had tears at bathtime, with no warm towels fresh from the Aga … And now it's finally happening. The new house has an Aga. I am impossibly excited. The Aga will keep my tea warm in the morning as I run up and down stairs, chivvying the children. It'll dry our laundry and heat our water. We'll defrost chilly fingers after a winter's snowball fight, and hang up our swimsuits after a dip in the river.
The Aga will be the heart of the home. There's just one thing: how the hell do I cook on it?
Without their summer dresses the trees are stark against the sky. Through their naked limbs you see the curve of the hills and the shape of the hedgerow. Bonfires are built and lit, crackling with autumn leaves and casting a golden glow on children's faces. There are baked potatoes, crisp in their skins, and mugs of parsnip soup with sprinklings of crispy bacon.
The fireworks go off one by one at first - rockets and flares and comets - and then two fly at once, and then three, and then more, faster and faster and faster. It is, you know, leading to the grand finale: the super-duper giant flare that shoots to the moon then spins and whirls and dissolves into a million tiny stars. A drum-roll begins, a countdown from ten. Three, two, one … Afterwards, another round of sparklers is lit, and you stand in the darkness, hugging happiness to yourself.
Life was easier before the children learned to read. Gone are the days when I could leave suggestive notes for my husband in lipstick on the bathroom mirror, or caustic quips on the fridge. Every shopping list, every milkman-message is deciphered out loud. 'Wh-ot-a-wuh-a-n-k- urr,' George said, peering over my shoulder at a text message I was sending. I pressed delete and wrote 'Quel cochon!' instead. French became my encryption of choice. 'Il faut acheter du vin - les enfants sont vachement horribles!' I'll text, hoping to divert Rob to the off-licence on his way home. 'Oui,' he will reply. 'Mais tu devrais pas drink it all, tu vieux soak.' It simply isn't practical, however, to write everything in French. 'I've just read the start of I Let You Go, Mummy,' Josh said the other day. He added encouragingly, 'It was very good.'
'Are you okay?' The prologue of my first novel begins with a traumatic hit-and-run. It's dark, gritty, and somewhat different to Five Go Off in a Caravan. 'Yes,' Josh said, 'although there is one thing …' He took a deep breath, preparing me for bad news. 'I think you need to use more adjectives.' Quel petit vilain!
There must be more to December than Christmas, but it is hard to find it beneath the preparations for what - as you keep having to remind yourself - is only one day of the year. There are lists to write, and gifts to wrap, and food to make ahead of time. As festive fever grows, you escape the madness and head for the hills. You forget your lists, and the cards you haven't written, and the last delivery date, which you have no doubt missed. You march and you march, so fast you are soon too hot in your layers of fleece. You pull off your scarf, but you don't stop until you reach the very top. Sprawled out below, beneath the fields, are a hundred houses filled with families just like yours. Christmas-ready and Christmas-not-so-ready; Christmas-keen and Christmas-not-so-keen. With twinkling lights, and full fridges, and stockings stashed ready for morning. All ready for a Cotswold Christmas.
A Christmas tree decorated by children is a wonderful thing, isn't it? Gold ribbon lovingly draped across the branches, family treasures strung on silver thread. A Sunday evening filled with laughter and happiness, with King's College choir on CD and the log fire crackling... Except there's no fire, because you forgot to order a load, and you're not giving an arm and a leg to Daylesford for kiln-dried logs you'll burn in a day. And the kids have insisted on the Frozen soundtrack. Again. Oh, and the tree's a disaster. Because let's face it: Christmas trees decorated by children look … well, shit. If you made the mistake of letting the kids actually choose the tree, it's either ten-foot tall and now bent over beneath the ceiling, or it's a stubby bush with not even a nod to symmetry or grace. Around this lurid green shrub will now be wrapped several yards of tinsel. The baubles will be gathered so far to the left that the entire tree is now listing to one side. It looks drunk. You're tempted to join it. One side of the tree will be totally bare. There will be no lights at the top, but so many at the bottom you can't look at them without thinking of Gestapo interrogation rooms. Every decoration the children have ever made will have found a home on the branches.
'Where's the wise man's camel?' Josh asked me one year.
'What wise man's camel?' I said, playing for time.
'The one I made at pre-school.'
'Do you mean the egg box with the piece of yellow string stuck on one side?'
'Yes,' he said impatiently, 'the wise man's camel.'
'Um, I think I packed it away in my special box in the loft,' I said, knowing full well I put it in the recycling at least two years ago. Come nine o'clock, when the Frozen CD has finished its fourth loop, and the kids have trooped off to bed, it's down to work. Off with the tinsel and the lopsided baubles, and back on with artfully, intelligently placed objects of beauty. Last year the children raced down at first light to gaze at the tree they had so lovingly decorated the night before. 'It looks so beautiful,' Evie said in awe. Her siblings sighed with happiness.
'Although it looks sort of …' George hesitated. 'Sort of different.'
I held my breath. Had I been too obvious? Josh's eyes scanned the tree from tip to trunk. 'It's not different,' he said with conviction. 'We just did an even better job than we thought we did.'
A Cotswold Family Life is in aid of the Silver Star Society at the John Radcliffe Hospital, who support families experiencing high risk pregnancies. Find out more at claremackintosh.com