The Year of The Cricket

Every day, every single day, I walk around the cricket field. It’s where I go when I’m happy or miserable, when I’m in a tearing hurry, or whether I’ve got hours. Every dog walk ends or begins with the Field, and I’ll go alone, or with the daughters, or S, or with friends. I walk it clockwise, anticlockwise, traverse as if tacking a dinghy, diagonally or all over randomly, like a big ant.

This year, I’m going to write about my circles of the Field and how it enriches my life. Walking in general has always been a sort of catharsis for me – a way of balancing soaring highs and gut-wrenching lows – but it’s the Field that has become my centre. My children have grown up playing in it, my dogs have chased a million balls in it, and I’ve watched a hundred cricketers smack sixes from it. I’ve had some brilliant nights in it and made life-long friends in it.

It acts as my barometer; my Nature calendar and a place in which to be gloriously mindless, or earnestly mindful. I’ve walked it wearing ski-gear in minus 6, and I’ve streaked across it at dawn, wearing nothing but wellies and granny-pants, after a fox.

I’m not going to write about any cricket gossip, nor village gossip for that matter, because I can’t bear it when people ask me (repeatedly) when they’re going to be in the blog, or add ‘don’t write about this, will you?’ on the end of every sentence. Yes, because you’re so fascinating. I don’t promise not to satirise any of the more silly comments, but if I do, it won’t be here.

Whenever I walk, regardless of weather, mood, footwear (often unsuitable), company or time, I never stop being grateful for the fact I can. Thank you to Horley Cricket Club for the privilege, and for keeping the field in exactly the perfect way they do.

On Barn Dancing

It’s a Friday evening, and it’s raining. We’re all knackered, and we don’t want to go out.

‘It will be fun,’ I say. ‘And we’ve bought our tickets.’

We get in the car. There’s no cash in the house, so we have to schlep to town. Radio Two has gone weird and the children have demanded KISS, which means I have my hands over my ears. I stare from the car window at the rain, and think longingly of the blue velvet sofa, and my book*.

We eventually find the barn – it’s at Hornton Grounds Farmshop, to which we’ve never been, up a long winding lane flanked by glossy black bullocks.

We pull into the yard; someone has spray-painted ‘car park’ in huge yellow letters onto black silage bales. I can see Portaloos and bunting; people in checked shirts. It all reminds me of Young Farmer’s parties when I was younger, and I start to cheer up. Stevie parks and immediately gets told off for parking with too much space between our car and our neighbour. The children and I cringe with embarrassment, and Stevie mutters darkly, wheel-spinning slightly in the oozing orange mud.

The rain is redoubling its efforts, and we run to the cover of the barn. The barn itself looks perfect: a great, arching Dutch affair, made of corrugated iron sheets and supported on sturdy iron girders. It’s divided into at least four huge bays; the bay on the end is where we shall dance; the other two are given up to a smart red and grey tractor  and a bit of cow poo. The fourth holds the Portaloos.Hornton Barn Dance 4

We’re amongst the first to arrive, and Stevie and I make a bee-line for the bar, which is opposite the hog-roast. The bit where we’ll dance is lined with over-sized straw bales; the concrete floor has been hosed clean. There are zinc buckets of wildflowers tied to each girder, and the roof is criss-crossed with bright, patterned bunting and ropes of lights.

The children have spotted their amigos, and dump us without a backwards glance. I always hate this bit of a party, when there’s too much space and I’ve forgotten every opening line to any sort of opening chit-chat. I sidle up to a local builder, and agree that the rain’s terrible.  Hornton Barn Dance 3

I perk up, half-way down my wine, and start to enjoy myself. More Horley friends arrive, and lots of parents from school. The band aren’t playing yet, but the crowd is really starting to thicken. I eavesdrop on a conversation behind me. ‘Two hundred tickets sold,’ says a woman with Heidi plaits. I boggle as I do the maths. Blimey: that’s without bar and food takings. As village fundraisers go, this is a whopper.

‘Will you be dancing later?’ asks a very tall man in a cowboy hat.

The area between the bar and hog roast is very full now; the roar of conversation drowning out the taped music. One of the yummiest of Horley’s mummies, has turned up with her hair in pigtails. ‘My daughter had to get them straight,’ she says. ‘Another drink?’

Children are starting to catch the buzz from too many Fruit Shoots, and dare each other to run in the rain. I see my own daughters, huddled in a gang of six or so girls, taking selfies with a mobile phone and squealing with laughter.

The band are fiddling with their instruments, tuning up, calling partners for the first dance. The caller is Ian Harris, whom the children adore, and who organises the May Day Dancing every year.

‘This is an easy one,’ he says. ‘Take your partner by the hand.’

I squeeze from the crush at the bar to go and dump my gilet on a bale. I balance my wineglass on the frame of the barn, remembering the days when it would have been a Malibu and Coke, and I would’ve been wearing hot-pants and Doc Martens. ‘Welly Waiting Area’ reads a sign to my left. My eldest daughter crashes into me, and demands that I dance with her.

‘The next one,’ I say.Hornton Barn Dance 2

The dancers all look exhilirated; they end their dance with a spin in ball-room hold, laughing into their partners’ faces. The back of a lady in a long black cardigan is covered in straw, as if she’d sloped off for an earlier romp.

We line up for our dance, which involves weaving and swapping partners. People keep bumping into others they know, and buckling the circle whilst they kiss them hello. I’m seized by an energetic octogenarian, who thrusts me around as if I were the gear-lever to a recalcitrant tractor. I get terribly confused, and shoot into reverse, treading on the cowboy-boot of a tiny lady in a large hat.

‘Wrong way-‘ she hisses. I end up holding her hand; it feels as if she’s wearing a knuckle-duster.

After that dance, there’s another, and then another. I pelt off to the Portaloos; the rain’s heavier than ever. At least it washes the sweat away, and cools my face. My hands sting from clapping, and in the mirror of the loo, my eyes are over-bright, my cheeks pink. I’m escorted back from the loos by an attractive man with a very large broll.

‘I’ve been grasping strangers,’ I say, nonsensically. We agree it’s all great fun.Hornton barn dance 1

I watch the next dance; laughing as two teenage boys mince through a promenade. Stevie is dancing with  some of our friends; they all keep reeling the wrong way. There are several tiny tots dancing on the outskirts of the grownups. A gorgeous short-haired black terrier keeps scoring scraps from the children’s dropped burgers.

‘Raffle!’ someone cries. ‘We must call the raffle.’

I buy my eldest a burger, not realising they are vegetarian. ‘I said pork, Mummy.’

‘You didn’t.’

‘I did! I said pork burger.’

She eats it anyway, because it’s slathered in apple sauce. We queue at the bar for more drinks; I see Jean, a blonde I only ever see when I’m half-cut. I introduce her to Stevie: ‘So you are married,’ she teases.

Our youngest daughters speeds past, and I catch her, tell her to put her hood down.

‘Oh, Mum-‘ she growls.

It’s nearing eleven, the last dance has just been announced. We have to strong-arm the children into the car; they’re chewing bubble-gum, which is strictly verboten in our house, and speaking at the tops of their voices. We get home and wrangle them upstairs. I come in from shutting up the hens to find Stevie and the daughters cross-legged on the bedroom carpet, eating chocolate Digestives and re-enacting every dance.

When we tuck them in, I ask if they’d had a lovely time.

My youngest bunches the duvet beneath her chin.  ‘Yes, Mummy,’ she says.

‘Would you go again?’

My eldest hangs off the top bunk. ‘Yeah. I would, definitely. It was fun. But next time, Mum, I’ll have the pork.’

NB: The book, should any of you bibliophiles be wondering, is ‘The Sea Between Us’, by Emylia Hall.

On Walking: Monday 26th May

I am walking through the margins in the fields below the dryer, where the grass reaches my mid-thigh, and soaks my jeans above my wellies. I’m walking very slowly, suddenly noticing that there’s a world around me, and that it’s changed completely from the last time I looked.Dora the Jack Russell Terrier

I have been finishing a book, and for the last two months or so, have thought of little else. The book has been sent away now, to Judith, my agent, and I feel as if I’m returning from someplace I can’t explain.

Stevie is relieved it’s over, and both children seem to have grown an inch or so.

But it’s the land that has really changed; the earth has warmed up, and you can smell summer on the air. Down in Bra Corner there’s a clump of pink campions, flowering as high as my hip, and nettles, growing even higher. The Sor Brook is low and slow; its depths bronzed in the sunlight. The sheep on the other bank blare at the dogs, and their half-grown lambs stamp impudent feet.

I drift onwards, catching my fingers through the lacy heads of cow parsley. Hogweed grows along this part of the margin, and a single stem has shot past its mates as if to compete with the rape. The flowers are a deeper cream than the froth of cow parsley, and its stems far more sturdy.early hogweed and oil seed rape

Knowing I shouldn’t, but unable to resist, I float up the field to Ellie’s fallen oak. I have to flatten nettles and a few very green thistles  in order to jump up. I’m awkward and land heavily; two months of intense writing have given me a fat bottom. I vow to jog.

Its hot up here; I take off my jumper to sit in my vest. Dora sits by my side; Pants is nowhere to be seen. Twelve inches from my right is a dead fieldmouse, recently decapitated. It’s tucked into a kink in the rough bark of the oak, ignored even by flies.

Last year’s stickybuds still scrawl a net over this year’s hawthorn, and I examine the leaves beside my face. The new stems of the hawthorn are dark pink, the tips of the new leaves are a darker scarlet, like the innards of the poor mouse. A tiny caterpillar clings to one leaf; it is black and white with a scarlet spine (I later find it will be a hawkmoth). We’ve seen so many caterpillars this week; the children and I use dock leaves to scoop them off the tarmac of the lane. I don’t let the children keep them in jars, after childhood horrors of cooking a dozen ladybirds to death in the sun.

I finished writing the book on Friday, almost three days ago. I know I won’t hear any feedback until the third week of June, and that I must absolutely not start messing about with it before then.  But I can’t help that terrible feeling of vertigo that I seem to get after finishing every book; that I must start the next, or I might forget how to do it.

I gaze across the valley to the Scout Woods. I can see the tips of the larches against the sky; dark green and pointed; a mountain range that surely must be much further away. The chimneys of the village are to my right. I can hear children playing, and the engine of a tiny red tractor in the opposite valley. This is the start of the half-term week, and I’ve promised the daughters park-trips and swimming; friends to play, picnics and French cricket.

Pants emerges to lay his head on my lap. His brown, speckled coat is greenish yellow, he has pollen furring his eyelashes and a blade of meadow foxtail caught in his collar. Dora tries to push her head beneath my arm, jealous of the fuss.

I’ve sat here for so long that my bum must be ridged red and white by the bark. I jump down, landing squarely on both feet. ‘Home,’ I tell the dogs. ‘Home.’

It’s early afternoon, the children are still away at a friend’s house. I’ve tried not to – I’ve really tried not to – but in my head I’m already typing: Chapter 1.

On Walking: Monday 6th April

It’s the Easter Bank Holiday, and I’m walking before the family arrive, before the house is filled with mad, chocolate-stuffed children, claw-clattering dogs; veg peeling, gravy-making, beef-carving (Are We Sure It’s Done?) and the best of the family gossip. It’s barely eight o’clock, and I slide away from the breakfast dishes muttering about willow branches, their immediate collection deadly necessary for the Easter flower arrangement. It’s still misty down here by the Sor Brook; I’m hidden, hiding.

I hear the rusting-hinge shriek of a pheasant, see Pants shoot off to my right, like a speckled rocket. I follow the deer tracks along the margin, Dora stepping carefully in my wake. Some of the cloven hooves are less than an inch long, and I think of dancing fauns and Rites of Spring.

In Emma’s Meadow, the mist thickens, and I turn left, into the wall of it. The end of the meadow is where the old mill once stood, although all that can be seen of it now are bergs of broken concrete, a few worn red bricks beneath the glide of the Sor.

I go because it’s supposed to be haunted, and I want to dare myself.

I cross the troll bridge, my rubbery feet almost silent. On the other side, skeins of dirty grey wool hang on the gnarled hawthorn, dulling the fluorescence of the lichen. The children’s paddling pool is drained and nothing moves but the dogs, who have drawn close to me. Beyond the bridge, I turn to look back at the village, but it’s gone, lost in the mist.

A bird scarer explodes in the next field, echoing oddly, bouncing weirdly through the valley. My heart jumps and I run, laughing at my own silliness, but running all the same.

I stop when I reach the lane, and then walk sedately on, suddenly too hot in my navy fleece, my pink woollen gloves. The sun is breaking through. I reach the lay-by the children and I are alternatively fascinated and repelled by. It marks where the old railway once ran, and reeks of wee and nefarious night-doings.

We once found an entire sheaf of empty Durex wrappers. ‘Don’t touch!’ I shrieked. ‘They’re, um…grown up sweet wrappers.’ I regretted the fib the moment it left my mouth. But there were at least five torn wrappers, how would that sit in an impromptu birds and bees talk? And five? Was the unwrapperer particularly inept, or spectacularly stud-like? Or went for all five at once?

Every time I walk here, I wonder.

I reach the splendid goat willow, and pinch three sprays of fat, yellow-speckled catkins for my daffodil jug. Elder wands are sprouting new leaves like miniature palms. I notice the hazel; new leaves the size of my thumb nail, dropping down just so, like a fop’s handkerchief. The stingers and sticky buds are ankle height, no match for my wellies.

I climb the bank to the stile and pause, looking out over the valley towards Horley. The mist has almost burnt away now, the village has reappeared in the early sun. I shimmy through the uprights of the stile, holding the goat willow, swinging the dog leads high so they won’t catch.

Beyond the brow of the hill is our house, smelling of roast beef and rosemary. There’s still a pudding to make, the loo to clean, the napkins to iron, the washing to peg out, the kitchen to mop. I look at my willow, and smile. Willow catkins, hazel wands and daffodils to arrange.

goat willow

 

On Walking: Sunday 22nd March

I’m sitting on the fallen oak, the sun on my face. I’m protected here from the wind, a bare-twigged hedge of elder and hawthorn rears high behind me.

From here I can see the line of the Sor Brook, with its alders. One of my favourite oaks is in the middle of the line. I can’t see them from here, but I know that below the oak are the long blue spears of nascent daffodil bulbs, in amongst the Herb Robert. There are no flowers yet, but they will come.

My legs are hot and I’m sleepy from getting up early to write. It has been an endlessly grey week, filled with self-doubt and cold bones, deleted paragraphs and stunted scenes. But now the blackness has dissipated, dissolved, despite my Prosecco head.

My finger nails are dirty from digging. Earlier, I moved my fruit bushes, tackled my middle veg bed. I worked steadily, methodically, turning the earth, twitching free the weeds.

Now, on my oak, I blink slowly. There are midges in a cloud to my left, each a tiny conductor for a silent bug symphony. I can hear the faint cry of sheep, the frantic snuffle-pause-pounce of Pants voling. Dora is by the side of me, leaning against my thigh. Her ears twitch, ready to dive in and snatch Pants’ prize.

There are a pair of bonking woodpigeons, flapping frantically in the next oak down. A kite browses the land further down the valley, but the pigeons are oblivious to everything but the demands of hot blood, Spring sun. I look down the hill, along the line of the margin on which I’m sat. Above the bleached debris of last summer is the faintest shimmer of heat haze.

Recently, I had a conversation with a friend about mindful happiness, and how difficult she believed it was to achieve. She tells me that I must fight to define the moment; cup it, keep it, as if it’s something wild, unpredictable and must, above all else, be controlled.

I think she’s wrong. I lean back on the oak in Dave’s field-below-the dryer, tip up my chin, close my eyes. My t-shirt has risen up, and I feel the cool air on my skin. I imagine my pale sickle of winter-weight belly, secretly snaffling sun-light. I breathe in, breathe out.

Here is happiness. Right here. Right now.

March 22

 

 

On Foxes: On Fury. On Hatred.

It’s late, past midnight, and I’m walking home full of good food, good chatter. Champagne has loosened my limbs, and I smile up at a star-strewn sky. Stevie has long since gone to bed, and I take out the dogs, bank up the fire. I slip into bed, press my cold feet to Stevie’s shins, sleep.

I’m woken barely two hours later, by a sound that catapults me instantly out of bed. I’m out of our room, down the stairs before my eyes are even open, and I fly through the house, wrench open the conservatory doors, run out into the night. I’m barefoot and wearing daisy-print knickers.

The hen house is twelve feet from the back door, and I see immediately that the fox is still in there. I run back inside, snatch on my wellies, shout the dogs. My black anorak is on a chair, and I yank it on as I get outside.

The noise is fearful: Whitey with her shrill alarm, Sandy smashing hopelessly against the wire mesh of the fence; terrified. The fox is a black blur within, panicking now, knowing I’m there and I’ve got dogs and a rage so murderous I could rip it apart with my bare hands. I’ve got to open the gate, got to. Sandy is most definitely still alive, and I can’t risk the fox going for her: this I rationalise after. In the moment, the mad, blood-crazed moment, I just want to get that fox.

Kill it – my voice comes from my boots; raw, guttural.  Kill it. I smash open the gate, the dogs dive into the coop, the fox dives out. I strike it a glancing, pathetic blow with my welly, then Dora streaks between my feet, sets off in pursuit. Pants gets confused, and tries to grab a hen.

‘Leave it!’ I shout. ‘Bloody leave it-‘

He drops a bird, legs it after Dora. I leap out of the coop, senselessly clash the gate close, then I hold onto it because my legs are shaking so much. Whitey is a ghostly bundle of feathers in the corner; I can’t see Sandy anywhere. I press my face to the gate, and I’m sobbing, saying oh no, oh no. I’m sorry, so sorry; over and over. The guilt is like a hook around my guts.

I hadn’t shut their hatch.

Stevie comes out, with a stout stick and a torch. He pulls me into his arms, briefly. ‘Are they dead?’

They’re not; not yet, anyway. There are feathers everywhere. Sandy was badly injured last time the fox got in, on Christmas Eve. Then, it broke Josephine’s neck, flayed her back to the white of her spine. We had to kill her on Christmas morning. Sandy had had deep bite marks just above her saddle, but she survived.

We go to Whitey, huddled in a corner of the coop. The torch shows Sandy behind her, and both hens are covered in blood. I pick them up, put them in the laying box, one after the other. I can’t see if Sandy’s wounded, but she’s already in shock. Whitey has a very obvious injury; deep bites across her saddle, as Sandy had at Christmas. Neither bird puts up any resistance.

We barricade them in, wedging lengths of two-by-four across the nesting box, a brick and a pallet across the guillotine-door of the hatch. We work quietly, grimly, suddenly remembering our neighbours. The dogs are out running in the darkness; crazed by the night-scents.

Stevie runs the torch around the coop. We can’t see how it got in.  The doubled-up mesh is secure, the tough nylon mesh that starts around five foot is un-holed. But then I see. ‘Look.’ The roof of the coop is covered in the same heavy-duty nylon mesh. It’s eight-foot from the ground. A large hole has been gnawed, almost in the middle. For a moment, we’re both  silent. Stevie flicks the torch around the perimeter, but we’re right. It got in through the top net.

There’s no more that we can do now, not in the freezing dark, so we whistle the dogs. Stevie stands on the plinth by the French doors, and the light from the new kitchen illuminates him. For a moment I’m cheered: he’s wearing wellies, a wax jacket and has bare legs. He catches my eye. ‘In,’ he says.

I don’t go back to sleep. At first I prowl around the house, wrapped in a red dressing gown. I stare out of windows, my eyes burning with effort. I know it’s out there. I know it will come back. I fantasise about it climbing back in, through the torn net, landing lightly on the hen house, its claws barely clicking. Then it being trapped. There for me to find in the morning.

The sodium street light out the front of our house illuminates the chestnut tree, the chain-link fence bordering the cricket. That’s where he’s run to; I see fox poo often enough out there. Every filthy pile gives me bubbles of blackness: I hate that fox on a level within me that’s ancient, primeval.

I think about the fox’s right to hunt. He’s wild, conscienceless; he kills to eat. He’s innocent when tried in a court of morality.

I think all of these things, and rationally, agree. It was my fault for not doubly-protecting my birds. Birds that don’t even lay any more, and haven’t for over a year. No one could blame a fox for being a fox.

Except I know, that come morning, if that fox comes back, and becomes trapped in my coop, such thoughts won’t be in my head. I’ll have a garden fork in my hand; a spade, an axe, a damn butter knife if I have to.

And this time, it won’t get out of the gate. Not alive, anyway.

 

NB: Both hens are still alive. As for the fox: I can wait.

 

On Walking: Tuesday 24th February

The wind is cold, strong. It flips up my dress, pulls my hair from its pins, boxes my face. The dogs and I jump the ditch, cross into Dave’s field. The sun gleams in a line along the beaten mud of the footpath. I eschew its slippery promises of speed, take to the margins.

‘So will I live, so grow, so die,’ I say. I push my way through the secret passage, stumbling, as I’m trying to read my phone, and I’m not looking where I’m going.

No one can hear me out here but sheep across the Sor; which is good, as I’m saying the same words over and over, with different inflections. I accost an alder, and tenderly swear, by Cupid’s strongest bow, that we shall elope tomorrow. Pants play-barks into the wind, as if shouting bonkers, bonkers.

My hair is blinding me in the wind, so I sneak up to the fallen oak, heave myself up and anchor my hair behind my ears. I stare fiercely at my phone.

‘Help me, Lysander, help me!’

I’m impeaching the uncaring sky, the February trees. The latter are heedless, shivering despite their green-ivy leg-warmers. ‘You are not nigh,’ I say, sadly. ‘Not nigh.’ Dora leaps up beside me, as if to comfort.

Last night, I went to the first rehearsal of the play I’m in: the village production of Midsummer’s Night Dream. I haven’t stood on a stage since school, and I had completely forgotten the agony of learning lines. I am to play Hermia, who is a young lover and about fifteen. I shall lose a stone and tape up my 35 year old face. ‘Perhaps,’ suggested a friend. ‘Botox might be an option?’

And although it was the Old School, and not a stage at all, I still had that awful sick feeling that comes from acting in public: the thundering pulse, the sweat in the small of my back.

‘You mustn’t gabble,’ instructs our sprite of a Director.

My words came out wrong, my knees popped when I crashed down on them before Theseus. But in amongst the cringeing and the the botchedness, there was a glory to be had here. An echo of a self once remembered.

I was once as brave and strong as any young lover, with a narrow waist and hair that brushed the floor if I bent my back. I fought tooth and nail for the best parts in any play about which I heard. I scrapped for Nancy; Lady Macbeth, boring old Cordelia, and Sweet Miss Charity, who got kidnapped by handsome Indians (and shoulder-carried by savage Nev, crying ‘you beast, you beast!’).

That cast-iron confidence, the utter certainty that I’d be good and loved, has long since rusted away. Sometimes, it’s as much as I can do to meet the eyes of a neighbour, or mutter hello at the school gates.

Sitting on my log, I hunch down from the wind; imagine the expression  I would need in a clinch with Lysander. ‘Oh hell! to choose love by another’s eyes!’ I raise a hand, purpled with cold, gesture with despair at a field of wind-torn rape.

Then I realise I can still do it. In the middle of an Oxfordshire field, in freezing February and sat on a long-dead log, I can still believe I’m Athenian royalty, adored by a man called Lysander. And if I can believe it, and the rest of the cast can believe it, then perhaps that magic might happen, the magic known by any actor and that I remember: the audience might, too.

 

Dream script

On Walking in Half-Term: Tuesday 17th February

I am perched on a stile in the sun, feeling its warmth on my black-clad legs, on my forehead, my hair. I close my eyes, tip back my face further, breathe in, breathe out. The children are crashing around in the covert further down; I can hear a blackbird scolding them. My daughters continue their secret mission, calling to each other in the American accents of their private play world. We’re in the Spring Field. The Sor Brook runs through the bottom of the valley, and Horley stretches cat-like over the hill beyond.

I can smell the resin of the spruces around me; the pureness of the cold air. I straighten my back, stretch out my arms, balance, imagine the sun soothing, heating; enlivening every inch of me. I don’t need to think, speak, react. Just be. Right here, right now. Blissful.

When I open my eyes, I’m smiling. Grinning out at a field of growing wheat. The dogs are pheasant-baiting and I can hear the children a way away, down the bottom of the field, maybe in the next. They can never stay away from the brook for long; it fascinates them, and they spend hours trying to cross it, dam it, wrestle from it any secrets or Signal cray it may carry.

I slide from my perch, looking for signs of life in the patch of mares tail. None yet, just last year’s exhausted stalks, bent and folded like articulated bones. I walk beside mole hills, arranged in a neat line beside the wheat margin, as if the moldywarp was asking for tolerance if he kept out of the crop. On the last of his hills, there’s a shard of glass, thrown on the very top like a sky-light. It’s thick, greenish, half the size of my palm. I imagine the mole wrestling with it, determined to eject it from his tunnel. I pick it up and nestle it into a fold of ivy around a fence post.

I reach the bottom of the field, hearing screams and crows of delight: the children have found a fallen tree across the water. They’ve crossed into a small copse, are inspecting a rogue clump of snowdrops with their sharpened spears.

‘You must see, Mummy, you must see.’

I clamber the fence, trespass with impunity born of life-long practice. The fallen tree is a spruce, mossed and slippery, but I cross it anyway, followed by Pants, wobbly on his long legs. We become a team of intrepids, and we fight our way through brambles and grasses to discover lofty bull-rushes and bogs and a bush with bright red bark that one daughter thinks might be flammable. She breaks some off and tries to put it in my pocket. ‘But Mum, it might set light in mine, and I need to Google it’. We decide it’s safer to put the twig in the brook, and we congratulate ourselves on disaster averted, a deadly danger diffused.

They’ve slipped back into their play voices now, and are deep in their world. I stand and watch a moment, listen. I could nip back to the sun, bask a while longer.

‘There’s snakes, y’all!’

I tamp down my smile, pick up a stout stick. Join in the play.

 

Carlie and daughters

 

On Walking: Monday 2nd February

I am sleep-walking down the Banbury Road, pulled along by Pants. We’ve left Dora at home, guard-dog for Elle, who’s been tremendously sick, and who is now lying supine on the sofa, drugged with cartoons. Pants leads me over the verge, down to the ditch; beneath the oak and into Dave’s field. I let him loose from his lead, watching as he wheels away.

I shiver, duck my nose into my old silk scarf. The air is so cold it feels thin, leaving me breathless. The clouds are a viscous grey; the sun an indistinct silver coin; false treasure in a treacherous sky.

Last night had been unending, holding Elle’s hand and trying not to catch her fear. ‘It’s just a bug.’ I said it over and over. ‘You’re going to be all right’.

‘But Mummy, it hurts.’

This morning, bombed from lack of sleep, I gave Stevie and Jess half-raw porridge. Tepid, gritty. The same colour as the sky.

Now, I start a lumbering jog, flapping my arms to warm up. I pass yellow catkins, hanging in pairs, no longer than half the length of my little finger. The birds are noisy; wood-pigeons clatter from an ash ahead of me. I put my head down, run on, inelegant in my wellies.

By the time we reach the bridge into Emma’s meadow, I’m warm. I don’t linger on the bridge; I don’t want to leave Elle for too long.

When she was a baby, I would hold Elle’s hand in the night. I’d put my arm through the bars of her cot, awkwardly bending, hold those precious tiny catkin-fingers. I’d be there for hours sometimes, unable to pull away in case I broke our hearts. Her hand is barely smaller than mine now, and the nails are half-varnished, bitten, the fingers long, clever. A great big ten-year old’s hands. As the waves of sickness twisted her body last night, her hand was tight, tighter still on mine.

‘Make it stop,’ she’d cried, and I’d wanted to cry with her, snatch the pain from her body and bear it, beat it, myself. Even the memory brings a sting of tears to my eyes and I stand in the field, blinking furiously. I glare at the jammy-scarlet of the blackberry wands; the unearthly chartreuse of the lichen on the hawthorn above.

I know that she’s over the worst, and that it was only a bug, but that same old nameless need that used to wake me in the darkness, is propelling me up the field, hurrying me past the cricket-bat willows; molehills go un-inspected.

I can feel the layered imprints of my daughter’s hand; the new-born, the toddler, the endlessly confidant six year old, the strong and brave almost-eleven year old. And I can hear the words she said last night.

‘Mummy, don’t let go.’

Elle walking

NB: After racing up the village like an idiot; red-faced and sweating, I found Elle serene on the sofa, tucking into a handful of dry cornflakes. Kids! Who’d ‘ave ’em?

 

 

On Village Life: The Burns Supper

It’s Saturday night, and the village Burns night, and I’m in the Red Lion, where I’ve popped in for one, but appear to have stayed. I’m with lovely new friends and my neighbour, R, and we’re at the table by the fire, glugging white wine and saying we really must go up the hill.

robbie burns

‘I’ve had no lunch,’ I say, draining my second glass. The new friends laugh when I say I can’t hold my drink. ‘Really,’ I say. ‘I’m a liability. And we really are going to be dreadfully late.’

J drains his pint and we’re off, roaring up the hill in the type of car that comes with a free Labrador. We park outside St Ethelreda’s, and for a moment J looks appalled. ‘Christ,’ he says. ‘Don’t tell me we’re eating in the church?’

We laugh, pulling him onwards, and I fall over the gate to the Old School. Oh, I think vaguely. Oh dear. Light from the long windows spills across the play ground, and we can hear the swell of polite conversation.

My party come to a stop at the door. C looks worried. ‘They won’t have sat down, will they?’

‘It’s barely eight-‘ It’s nearer half-past.

I take a deep breath and bowl in first, coming to a horrified stop in the entrance to the school proper. The tables have been arranged in a big horse-shoe, facing the door. Heads swivel towards us, and a fleeting hush pins us to the spot. Oh no. They’re all halfway through mains, in fact, most plates are empty, haggis devoured.

I can feel R, C and J hesitate behind me, and for a millisecond we all nearly step back, run away.

‘Where’ve you been!’ On the nearest table are two cricketing amigos, and I grin.

‘Sorry!’ I say, ‘got caught up…’

‘You’ll have to sit separately,’ says a voice behind me. ‘We’ve started.’

‘Sorry,’ I say. ‘Awfully sorry’. I whip off my coat and leap for a spare seat. Oh horrors. Between a pretty blonde who’s not drinking, and a terribly nice man who plays the church organ. I can’t disguise the fact that my cheeks are flushed, my eyes gleaming and I’m quite clearly deliciously, gloriously, pie-eyed.

‘Pleased to meet you,’ says the blonde, shaking my hand. One of the chaps opposite gives me a wink, and I realise the top button of my frock has come undone, offering inappropriate plunging views.

I hastily refasten and look around desperately for food. Something stodgy and easy to eat, immediately. I recognise the emergence of Bad Wifey; the version of me that laughs at all of her own jokes, and could flirt with a brick.

An old pub friend pushes forward a dram of whisky in a shot glass. ‘Good girl,’ she says, as I throw it back. I turn to the terribly nice man on my right, and say, ‘Marvellous evening, great to join you. So, do tell me: how’s your organ?’

‘The one in the church is great; the one waiting in here could use a bit of work.’

I scream with laughter, and call him very naughty. He looks mystified.

One of the young village girls gives me a plate, and I go up to the counter to collect my haggis. Thankfully, it’s all gone, so I’m given a Matterhorn of potato. I insist on kissing all of the serving wenches, as they’re all my old bus-stop buddies. One of them tells me to eat my mash, quick. ‘No, Carles, really. Eat something.’

Through puds I talk to the pretty blonde, and pretend to be au fait with discussing extensive acreage. I find myself saying, ‘Yarse. Of course, it would be super for a pony.’ My damn button keeps popping, and now more chaps are winking. A distinguished-looking man in a kilt keeps leaping to his feet, and demanding toasts, rolling his ‘r’s like a pirate. I’m alternating whisky with pints of water.

‘To absent friends,’ he cries, and we all jump up and thrust our arms in the air. R, C and J are sitting just off the top table, and collecting empty wine bottles in front of them.

‘Music!’ cries  Kilty. I go behind the counter at the back of the room, filling my pint of water from the tap.

‘What’s happening?’ One of my favourite Horley husbands is next to me, and I shamelessly wriggle beneath his arm. ‘What are they all doing?’

‘Singing,’ he tells me. ‘David’s playing the organ.’

I feel myself blanche. ‘Oh God,’ I say. ‘In real life? An actual piano-organ type job?’

His reply is lost in a rousing shout of Loving A Lassie. The organ had been waiting, apparently, around the corner. A bus stop amigo rolls up to help with the washing up, and the three of us sway mightily to My Bonnie Lies Over The Ocean. I throw back another dram as the only thing to do. One of the yummiest of the Horley mummies bends down and scribbles out the ‘i’ on a box labelled ‘paints’. We all laugh immoderately, and the crowd bellows Donald, Where’s Your Troo-sers?

Quite suddenly, it seems, the singing is over and people are standing up. Dancing! I think, but no, coats are being pulled on, chairs stacked.

‘I must help,’ I say, flapping ineffectually with a tea-towel. It’s taken from my hands. ‘What can I do?’

One of the MHT Trustees pats my arm. ‘Help get people out to the pub,’ she says. ‘Would be best.’

So I go and collect the gang. J insists I help him finish the last of the white wine. I boggle at the task: I’ve really, really drunk enough.

I feel horribly guilty not joining in the clearing-up, but recognise my important room-emptying job. ‘To the pub!’ I cry.

We pull on our coats, spill from the school. I fall over the gate for a second time.

‘Mind the fox poo,’ says R.

We clatter down the hill, the night air sharp, pinching our faces. Above our heads the sky is clear; the stars caught in the nets of the mighty beech tree. Wasn’t it lovely, we agree, and how awful to be so late. And the singing! Fancy having the singing.

‘Shame there was no dancing,’ we say. ‘Proper dancing.’

‘Reeling!’

We stumble onto Little Lane, sliding on the gravel. It’s freezing; our breath billows around our heads.

‘Onwards,’ I cry, ridiculous. ‘And downwards, down to the pub-‘