Rain is still falling and it’s growing dark as I march down the Banbury Road. Both dogs barge the back of my legs, using me as a wind-break. The tarmac is blackly slick beneath my feet; slippery and gravel-strewn. I can’t look up and around, because the wind hurls the rain in my face, so instead I watch my step, and wonder about moles. Do they drown, or do they sense the water coming, and briskly tunnel uphill?
The dogs and I turn down right by the bridge, across Dave’s fields. The Sor has risen by four feet, and has brimmed its banks. It’s hugely loud in its chatter, full of self-importance, and when I reach the deer’s cut through, I find it too flooded to cross. Dora sticks to my heels, miserable in her fluorescent yellow coat. Arfa runs his usual lassoos, but at half-speed, his skinny feet sinking deep into the orange-brown mud.
I’m forced to cross through the middle of the fields, stumping inelegantly. The rain is easing now but the clouds glower regardless. I slip and slide on greased boots, groaning when I see dog-less walkers in Emma’ Meadow ahead. They’ve spotted me too, and are practically running from the stile, shouting at their large child. Reluctantly, I whistle Pants and hoop on his lead. Now I’m at least five times more likely to do a comedy mud dive. I’m glare at the fast-retreating couple. Their child is playing in the massive puddles in the middle of the meadow, and they’re beckoning him. Can you not see, you silly people, that I’ve put the Pants on his lead? Surely they’re not afraid of Dora? She looks like a wet gerbil.
I start an argument with the couple, telling them exactly how rude it is to point at small women with dogs and then to run away. My rant lasts all the way through the meadow (they’re hiding now, on the old railway side of the top stile – do they not know I can SEE them? They keep peeking round an ash. Are they MAD as well as RUDE?). I clang through the kissing gate onto the Wroxton Lane, and wade splashily through the pot-hole puddle. The rain has stopped and I take off my stripy hat, glaring up the hill. My thighs are wet in my jeans, which further irritates me. The dogs walk beautifully to heel, knowing better than to mess.
We storm up the middle of Horley, and my temper’s ebbing to middling grump. Those poor moles. Opposite the Red Lion, I bump into the Legs of Horley, who kisses me and wishes me Happy New Year. She asks how I am, and I stand and blurt like some dreadful child that’s forgotten its grammar. ‘I’m sorry-‘ I grind to a halt. ‘I’ve been cooped up all day, with warring children.’ Legs laughs, and we talk about Robbie Burns and the upcoming village party.
I tell Legs about the strange running-away people, and we wonder if they’re the people who were moving into Liz Gatliffe’s old house, but now aren’t. I feel guilty now, for haranguing them so viciously in my head.
As we talk, we notice the sky behind Bramshill Manor. The unremitting grey has softened to apricot, but only in a faint arc behind the hill.
‘Oh,’ I say. ‘Look. The sun must be going down. I almost wish I could run up the hill to watch it go.’
‘Why don’t you?’
‘Oh,’ I say, gesturing. I mean to say I’ve been out too long; my house is a pig-sty, my dogs are shivering, my jeans are revoltingly wet. I’ve logs to get in, dinner to cook, beds to make. Promises to keep, and miles to go before I sleep. But something stops me turning, heading for the cricket and home.
‘Sod it,’ I say, as Legs starts off towards her field. ‘You’re right. I’m going-‘
And I do, like a rocket up Little Lane. The dogs run too, catching my change of mood. I’m racing the sunset; suddenly fiercely, madly, wildly desiring to see the day before it dies. I catch sight of pink now, and orange, streaking across the apricot, and I don’t look up, saving, saving, saving it. I swing easily over the gate, run along the top paddock to the broad new stile. Then I look, and look, and look.
Beautiful. Scarlet bonfire, thrilling my rain-soaked eyes. I sit on the stile until the ruby heart slips away, and then I clamber stiffly down, freezing cold. I whistle the dogs, turn for home. The day remembered now, as something more than ordinary.