by Jenny Palmer
As the fog cleared, the geese came into view. They were flying in a V formation, one out in front and the rest of the flock following behind. A sign of spring, perhaps.
According to the Royal Horticultural Society everything was about three weeks late this year. The garden birds had only just started singing and the first celandines hadn’t appeared yet. The sheep were bleating. The farmer must be about. He would be bringing them some mangolds. The grass still hadn’t started growing and they had new-born lambs to feed. It had been a long winter. What was happening to the weather?
Seeing the birds reminded her of Tom. Once when they were courting, he’d taken her to see an air show. They’d been watching a flypast by the Red Arrows.
‘Why do they fly in that formation’ she’d asked.
‘It’s to do with aero dynamics,’ he’d explained. ‘The V formation reduces fuel consumption and minimises drag and that increases the range. For planes it’s good for mutual defence and concentrates fire power. They got the idea from the birds. With them it spreads flight fatigue and helps their communication en route.’
That was Tom all over. He’d been a Spitfire pilot during the war and prided himself on his technical knowledge. He was like a walking encyclopaedia. But how had the birds learnt to fly in formation in the first place, she wondered? And why did swallows return every spring and salmon swim upstream to spawn, for that matter? It must be something innate.
Tom took things at face value. It was because of his military training, she imagined. He’d never been one for spontaneity. Over the years they’d had lots of holidays away with the children, in Europe mainly. He’d always been the one to make the arrangements. Organised. That was what he was. And an early riser. Morning was the best part of the day, he used to say.
Nowadays she got up when she felt like it. If you couldn’t have a lie-in when you were retired, when could you? After he’d died, she’d thrown herself into all manner of social activities. It helped to pass the time. And there was no shortage of things to do when you put your mind to it. She’d volunteered at the local Oxfam shop, joined a book club and become chief tea and biscuit monitor. She’d attended coffee mornings and quizzes, garden clubs and history groups. Her latest passion was patchwork quilting. It was her friend Marion from the Oxfam shop who had suggested it.
‘It is important to keep the brain active as you get older,’ she’d said.
‘According to the latest neuro-scientific research, the brain of a seventy-year-old can develop as many brain cells as that of a twenty-year-old, if kept active. Patchwork is one way to do that. It’s known to be good for the brain on a par with doing sudoku or crosswords. These days they use it in maximum security prisons as therapy for both women and men.’
‘Is that so?’ said Jean.
She liked the fact that in the class they sat around in a circle of tables with their machines in front of them. You could go around and chat if you felt like it or if you needed inspiration, but it was a social occasion as much as anything.
At first, she’d followed the patterns laid out in books. They stipulated the shapes and dimensions you could use and were often illustrated so that you didn’t even have to choose the colour combinations. You could buy a jelly roll, which was material, already cut up and with the colours all pre-matched. Once you’d acquired a few basic skills and got the hang of understanding patterns, it was quite relaxing. A bit like painting by numbers.
‘Haven’t you got enough quilts yet?’ Marion commented one day. ‘Your house is starting to look like little house on the prairie.’
‘Well, it was you who got me into it in the first place,’ Jean retorted.
But it was true. The quilts had just seemed to grow exponentially. Every surface of the house was covered. There were quilts on the beds and thrown over the furniture. There were quilted cushions, curtains and draft excluders for the doors and windows.
She had an idea for a new quilt now. This time she wanted to stamp her own personality on it. After all, she wasn’t in prison, was she? After Tom had died, she’d had the open fireplace taken out and a fuel burner installed. But there was an empty space above the mantel piece. A wall-hanging would fit there perfectly. Just as she was about to start work, the phone rang.
‘Oh Jean, so glad I caught you,’ said Marion. ‘We’re one down today. Could you cover, do you think?’
‘Sorry,’ she found herself saying. ‘I’m afraid I can’t today. I’ve got something on.’ She put the phone down before she could be persuaded otherwise.
The phone rang again. It was Judy this time from the book club.
‘Sorry to ask you at such notice but someone has dropped out. Could you prepare the presentation for the next meeting?’
The answer was a definite No. It was easy once you got the hang of it. Why had it taken her so long to learn that? Fear of upsetting people, fear of being thought badly of, or not knowing her own mind? But when all was said and done, what did it matter what people thought. There came a point in life when you should do what you wanted, surely.
She wasn’t going to follow a pattern this time. She’d chosen the medallion style because it lent itself to improvisation. She’d start with a central motif and then add one border after another, in any design or colour she liked. What could be simpler? The artistry lay in the colour combination and choice of border designs.
She remembered seeing a programme once about the late Matisse when he was going blind. He’d abandoned his former style of painting, in favour of cutting out origami shapes in vibrant, bold colours and making artwork out of them. People criticised him because it wasn’t what they expected of him. But he was right. The world was short of colour. You only had to remember the daily commute in London when you could have been forgiven for thinking everyone was going to a funeral. In South America, people weren’t afraid of combining shocking pink with yellow and green or red even. And in India people wore all the colours of the rainbow and they never seemed to clash.
She would construct this quilt from scraps. It was a good way of using them up and there was the added advantage that they would blend in with her other furnishings. The central square would be in verdant green and this would be surrounded with strips of almond blossom and eucalyptus. In the next border she would pick up these colours and add contrasting shades. The quilt would grow organically. It could be as large or small as she wanted.
The outer border would be a series of triangles, set against a sky-blue background, rotating around the whole. It was called the flying geese pattern in quilting circles. On the central square she would applique a motif of a single goose, flying.
But before she did any of that, she would book her flight. It didn’t
really matter where, preferably somewhere hot. It could be India, Peru or Timbuktu.
Jenny Palmer writes short stories, poems and local history. She has
self-published two memoirs ‘Nowhere better than home’ and ‘Pastures New’ and a
family history ‘Whipps, Watsons and Bulcocks: a Pendle family history
1560-1960,’ available from The Pendle Heritage Centre, Barrowford. She has
co-edited four anthologies of women’s short stories, published by the Women’s
Press and Serpent’s Tail. Her forthcoming collection of short stories ‘Keepsake
and other stories, published by Bridgehouse publications will be available soon