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-‘

 

On Walking: Tuesday 20th January

It’s early afternoon, and in the lea of the hedgerows, the ground is still frozen hard. We’re walking down the Banbury Road, towards the bridge, and it’s so cold that my scarf is over my nose, my eyes are watering.

The dogs pull me over the verge, down to the ditch beneath the oak. The water here is unfrozen, and I let the dogs go before I slosh through. It’s too cold to look up, but I don’t mind: I’m looking inwards, pulling and pushing at thoughts that won’t settle. I’ve been reading a book, a murder-mystery, thrillery type, and it’s a word-worm: it’s got into my head.

It’s called ‘What She Left’, and it’s about a girl called Alice Salmon, who drowns aged twenty-five, right when she’s on the very edge of everything that could be fabulous.

The story of Alice and how she ends up dead is compiled by a professor at the university  she once attended, as a project to discover how much of a person you can recapture by what they left behind.

I tramp across frozen rape, thinking about this. There’s a line in the book: Before, we died to leave birth certificate, death and marriage, perhaps photos. Not now.

I don’t like thinking of accidental legacy, of disorganised evidence I’ve left behind. Hasty ill-judged one-liners on Facebook. Photographs! Laboured witticisms on Twitter, irritated emails sent to rubbish eBay sellers. I look up, pointlessly whistle the dogs, push the thoughts away.

At the first footbridge, I stop to look at nightshade berries, wanting to describe them, but none of the words will fit. In the book, T.R. Richmond writes, ‘How terrible to be inarticulate…To never be heard. Perhaps that’s why we write?

I don’t want to think about that either. I force myself to eyeball the berries, caught in the winter sun. Ovoid. Lit from within, as if candled.

I straighten, taking shallow breaths. If I breathe too deeply, the cold scalds my chest, makes me cough. Ahead, Emma’s meadow is indistinct in the  sunlit mist. When I look back, I can see the reflections of ice in the divots of Dave’s fields, they sparkle like shattered glass. I didn’t see them on the way past, and even such an ordinary observation now seems weighted: all we can do in Alice’s story is look back.

I’ve fallen in love with Alice Salmon: she’s so brave, so cool. So real. The Professor, ‘Cookie’, compiles letters, Facebook postings, tweets, emails, police transcripts…Alice feels like my daughter, my sister, my best mate. I feel as if I knew her, and that I’m grieving for her, and to move on, I must understand what happened to her. 

At home, on my Kindle, ‘What She Left’ is on 84% read. The Kindle’s lying on the top of the giantly-stuffed laundry basket, in sight of the estimates I must type, the emails I must answer, the half-thawed chunks of turkey I must put in a pie. The flour, from which I must make the pie-top.

Now, if I’m squashed by a tractor, between here and home, the world will forever know of the turkey pie. The woman who eeked out Christmas Day until 20th January. Reading the book feels like looking in a mirror, or two, three mirrors; that disorientating fascination with a rarely-seen perspective, yet it’s one others see all that time. It’s all very well being heard, but it’s whether you’re understood that really seems to matter.

I reach Emma’s meadow, and I can’t do it any more, my brain hurts. I jump the stile and start to jog, sing, flap my arms. Anything to put me living in the here, the now. The dogs jump around me, enjoying a bit of bonkers. Pants barks with approval and Dora tells him off. I crouch and growl, making him bark even more. Then we run over the crispy grass, doubling-backwards, forwards, until I can’t breathe and I have to stop. I heave for breath, my hands on my knees. The dogs are still tearing round.

‘Come on,’ I tell them. ‘Enough. Home.’ I give in, grinning to myself, relieved to admit my weakness. ‘I’ve got tea to make. Ironing to do. A book to finish.’

 

What She Left cover

PS. Here’s a link… http://www.janklowandnesbit.co.uk/tr-richmond/what-she-left

 

On Walking: Thursday 8th Jan

I don’t want to walk today. It’s cold; windy and raining, and I want to stay at home, use my sour mood to skip out the gritty-bottomed saucepan cupboard. But Pants keeps laying his silly face along my back as I scrub, and every time I straighten, Dora runs to the leads, claws skittering on the floor. I clatter pans and slosh bleach to express my irritation, but they win, like they always do.

The rain drizzles away and we go down the Banbury Road to the Spring Field, because we haven’t been there yet this year, and because there’s a scrap of blue sky in that direction. There are a double set of gates into the first field, and usually I like the satisfaction of foiling their idiosyncrasies to open them. Not today: today I haul myself straight over the top of both, perch like a grumpy crow, before splotting down to the mud below. Once, twice. I land square each time, heavy-thighed, heavy bellied: too many Christmas chocolates.

I quick-march around the first field, head down, eyes fixed on the soggy remains of greyed wheat stubble. I can hear my breathing and feel the sweat in the small of my back, and I walk faster, faster. By the time I complete the second circle, the sky and I have changed mood. I stand in the middle of the gateway to Spring Field, feel the sun on my face and hear the birdsong in the blackthorn hedges at either side of me. I try to see which birds they might be, but they’re too quick, flitting up the hedge in front of me. I follow the margin up the hill, imagining the fat from those chocolates melting off.

Halfway up, I pause, and ahead, Pants wheels left to avoid the giant muck heap, sending a power of woodpigeons up into the sky. I’ve never seen so many together and I stop in astonishment. I can hear the flap from tens of wings – maybe hundreds – and they whirl up into the sky like leaves caught in a curling wind. They move in a solid vortex towards the covert that runs the full flank of the field, and I catch a glimpse of something terrible. As they fly, the birds cast huge shadows in the low, winter sun, and for the most fleeting of moments, a basic flight-fear jolts my muscles. I instantly rationalise the shadows – I know they’re only woodpigeons, and birds have never scared me – but such an ancient reflex fascinates me.

Dora and I walk on, beside the top hedge. An elder lies shattered across the margin, the lichen on its bark has been nibbled by roe deer. The blackthorn protects the tuiles of Lords and Ladies, poking up from the winter leaves like glossy green cigars.

Pants is out of sight, but I can track him by the frantic pheasants that occasionally hurl themselves from the undergrowth.  In the top corner of the field, I stop to look at Horley on its opposite hill. In the horse’s field next to the Cricket, the sun gilds the top of the ridges, making the shadows seem deeper. I can see our house, with its one super-clean cupboard. From this side of the valley, the other cupboards don’t seem to matter.

I shuffle my feet to warm them, and notice charcoal, piled on the mud in a neat heap. There’s about enough to fill a dinner plate, and I wonder how it got there, and by whom. The only human footprints up here are usually only mine. I stretch, walk on.

At the bottom of the field, by the Sor Brook,  clouds of midges jig in sunshine. I stand and watch them for a moment; at a breath of wind, the midges squeeze together, like fish with a shark.

I walk on, thinking about genetically-influenced fears and phobias, mysterious piles of charcoal and the men that once worked those ridge and furrow. I take off my hat, tip back my head, grateful to the sun, the fields. Conscious of my luck.

 

Horley from Spring Field

On Walking: Sunday 28th December

It’s all four of us walking, the last walk of the year, and we’re going on the Wroxton Loop, which the children and I love, and which Stevie’s never done.

‘There’re surprises,’ we tell him. ‘It’s not just all trees.’

It’s past eleven when we leave Horley, and the ground is still held tight by frost. Our breath plumes fleeting clouds in the windless air and our wellies slip on the frozen tarmac of the Wroxton Road. The dogs know we’re off on adventure and pull at their leads, towing the children up onto the crisped verges and down again; Pants high-stepping in excitement.

At the bottom of our village, we go left, across Emma’s Meadow, then right, across the new wheat field and towards the old rail track. The sun has melted the frost on the path and our feet squelch through rich, red mud. The acid-green and yellow crab apples that had been trapped, floating, in Martin’s new ditch, have all sunk, and turned silty grey.

The old railway is a busy walk, rutted and water-filled, thick with the fallen leaves of hawthorn, ash. The mud is crowded with footsteps, paw-prints and the tracks of bikes; all of the ice has been smashed and lies in shards over the path. The dogs run off ahead, hysterically intent, white-eyed, and the children follow, fitting their boots into the hoof-pocks of local ponies, momentarily morphed to unicorns. Stevie and I watch them gallop off and he catches my hand.

We reach Drayton, and cross the main road, hurrying to be off pavements and back into the fields. ‘There’s an amazing house,’ Elle says. ‘Dad. Come on-‘

The children pull Stephen past the Glebe House and to the footpath that curves back to Wroxton. We’re ankle-deep in Herb Robert and baby nettles; lush-leaved despite the cold. The path passes by Drayton’s tiny church, St Peter’s, tucked into its cushion of  meadow. It’s too low for the sun to see and remains frosted, as if popped into the deep-freeze to wait for summer.

We’re on our favourite stretch of the walk now, into the folds and creases of field and wood, Oxfordshire rolling on before us, ancient and benevolent; living to a beat of its own.

The children show Stevie the Wroxton Arch, one of the Wroxton Follies, high up on a ridge. ‘And there’s more, Dad. A massive needle and a tiny tower, but best of all is the bridge.’

The bridge is a low stone-built cattle-bridge over the Sor Brook, and we stop there to eat our picnic of turkey-stuffing rolls with pickle, and a box of grapes. The children dare each other deeper and deeper in the stream, and Pants splashes past, thrilled with his own fractured reflection.

There are long gouges in the wheat-field here, made from tractor-wheels, and finally Jess can stamp some unbroken ice. She does some slowly, some furiously, finally just jumping up and down, cracking, mashing. Pants barks encouragement.

Elle is balancing across the weir of rocks, inching her way through the water. ‘It’s slippy,’ we tell her. ‘Don’t fall.’

‘I won’t,’ she says, scornful.

Finally, we persuade the children onwards, up the Hill of Doom to the needle. It’s an obelisk, put there to commemorate the visit of the Prince of Wales in 1739. There are people circled around it, taking photographs, and we catch the dogs, wave and walk on.

The children, already grumpy at leaving the bridge and climbing the hill, start to revolt in earnest, and Elle tries to do a death-walk on a wall around a pond. Jess and I run away, hating it when Stevie and Elle lock horns. They finally trudge up the last hill to catch us; Elle sullen, Stevie impatient, stalking in his boots. We walk on in silence, past the Dovecote and down into Wroxton.

Somehow, the bad moods pass without comment, and our family equilibrium is restored as we pass the poor, empty North Arms.

‘Let’s buy it and live there,’ says Elle. We shake our heads.

‘It’s thatch,’ says Jess, as if that settles things.

We cross the main road onto the Horley Road, and Stevie walks slowly past the sport’s field.

‘What’re you doing?’ I ask.

‘Looking for cricket balls. We lost loads last season.’

I suddenly remember we’re now nearer to Midsummer’s Eve than away from it. The time’s gone so fast.

‘Last family walk of 2014,’ I say. The children are ahead with the dogs, racing each other, hooting. Loud and bright and now almost as tall as me.

‘There’ll be loads next year,’ says Stephen. He bends to check beneath a shadow of root, then straightens. ‘And next week, we can have the first walk of next year. And then a whole year’s worth. So you can moon about trees and nature-‘

‘I don’t moon.’

‘You do. You should look forward to it. A whole new year of mooning-‘

‘Oh,’ I say, taking his arm. ‘Shush. Or I’ll moon you.’

He laughs. ‘Dare you.’

 

On Walking: Monday 22nd December

It’s early afternoon and it’s the Monday before Christmas. The clouds are cobweb grey; drooping over the fields with the sad exhaustion of over-washed smalls.

The children and I are walking the Meadow Circle, round the margins of Dave’s fields. E and J aren’t talking to each other, both bitter and truculent after an aborted game of Monopoly. They fight to hold my hand, muttering she said, she said, and I try to swallow the ball of anxiety lodged in my throat.

I concentrate on the ever-running lists in my head, clicking through in a ticker-tape litany that I must get right. Christmas lunch, presents, wrapping, washing, ironing, cooking, buying, sorting, cleaning. The Christmas cards lie unwritten next to a recipe for Extra Special Stuffing, for which the ingredients remain unbought. The hens need skipping out; the hyacinth bulbs need planting. My boots swish this-that through last summer’s grass. Must do this, that; and this, and this and this.

The wind worries at the children’s hoods, whips my hair into my eyes. Pants barks at a naked blackthorn hedge and two wood pigeons sway above us on an ash. The children have fallen silent, but the frowns and glares have gone; the curled lips dropped.

We slip through the secret passage and look down at the Sor. It’s very unlike its normal December self; quiet and clear, sliding over tree-roots like transparent silk. We walk on, unspeaking, beneath the oak. There are barely any acorns this year, after last year’s glut.

We reach the bridge into Emma’s Meadow. Jess pulls my hand. ‘You can paddle now,’ she says. ‘Now you’ve got new wellies.’

The three of us wade into the brook, stepping over the frills of watercress and sinking into the silt. Pants charges up and tries to join in, splashing us, making waves that threaten the children’s welly-tops.

‘Away,’ we shout. ‘Away!’

I squelch back through the deep cattle prints, call him to me. ‘I’ll take the dogs round,’ I say, whistling for Dora. ‘Come and meet me.’

They both wave vaguely, already intent on finding a cray, the outrage of The Electric Company forgotten (in their rules, they do not allow each other to own both stations and utilities).  I go off, ticker-tape at full despairing chat.

I march now, my best pace, in my big circle, march, march. Somehow, by halfway, I’m thinking of the book I must deliver for the 6th of Jan, and the synopsis for the book after. But these are my favourite types of thoughts, with none of the heart-thumping anxiety of the ticker-tape thoughts.

I come back to the children, still in the stream. They are daring each other deeper and deeper, laughing, their hoods down, cheeks pink. I watch them for a while, then look back to Dave’s field at the shrivelled yellow matchsticks of sprayed-off wheat. This field is full of rape, ankle-height and looking like heartless cabbages.

The thought makes me smile: Fie! Thou heartless cabbage.

Eventually, the children’s feet grow cold, and they emerge from the brook, stamping. We’re about to leave the field when Elle points at Pants, twenty yards away. ‘Oh God, Mummy look-‘

‘No!’

But it’s too late – he’s rolling like a nightmare across a town of molehills, flinging up foamed earth and fox-shit, paws cycling in the air, mouth wide in soundless glee.

The children hoot with laughter, then scream when he runs at them. I catch him and nearly gag: bastard stinking dog, I hiss in his ear.

We walk back up Wroxton Lane, me in the middle with a daughter either side, each holding a dog. We sing, because it’s Christmas, and we screech whenever Pants veers off course and we walk through his waft of stench.

I’m smiling, because when we get back, I’m not doing any of that ticker-tape litany. I’m going to make hot chocolate and heat mince-pies and we may, if both children wash the dog, we may pile onto the new velvet sofa and watch The Snowman And His (non-stinking) Dog. We may even, if Stevie comes home early, eat a chocolate from the tree.

‘We wish you a Merry Christmas-‘ sing the children. I join in, ‘wish you a Merry Christmas-‘

We all goose-step to force Pants back to the side. ‘We wish you a merry Christmas,’

‘And a HAPPY NEW YEAR!’

Elle and Jess
My bonkers daughters, collapsed on a bench, a whole fifty yards from home…

 

On Writing: On The Very Start.

I am standing on Platform 3 at Banbury, waiting for the fast train to Marylebone. It’s barely twelve, I’ve hours until the meeting at 4:00, but I can’t bear to sit at home, compulsively tracing tube maps.

I am to meet a literary agent, who might perhaps sell my book.

My eyes are dry from lack of sleep; my wire-tight nerves have disrupted my household. The children have been mutinous over lunch box contents, the dogs restless, following me, endlessly, plucking at my attention until I shout at them.  I cannot remember my book, what I wrote, nor why. I feel terribly sick.

It’s not so bad now I’m on the move, on the way. I stare down the tracks towards Birmingham and will the London train on faster, faster. Come-on-now-faster.

The train arrives already packed,  and I stride down the platform in my boots, looking in for a table seat. I overtake a woman my age wearing a tight navy suit and impossibly high heels; she glances at me, at once pitying and envious. She sees my pink linen shirt, my skinny grey cords and my lucky pearls. She probably thinking I’m a country wife off for a bit of shopping, whilst she is headed for a conference; important names to remember, processed air to breathe.

I’m meeting an agent, I imagine telling her. Because for ten years, I’ve been writing a book.

I find my seat on the train, pull a large brown envelope from my bag. The postman gave it me as I was leaving home, I assume it’s something for the children, from Amazon, but it’s not. It’s a copy of Meadowland, one of my favourite books, sent to me by its author, John Lewis-Stempel. I am so pleased that I don’t even open it for a while, I just hold it on my lap, and trace the heart of the owl’s face on the front. Quite suddenly, I notice the awful, rushing sick-feeling has lessened. I had meant to spend the journey re-reading my latest edits, polishing a pitch for Book Number 2, but instead, I put my phone away, and I start to read Meadowland.  It’s about a year in the life of a field, and I’m in March by the time we reach Marylebone.

I get off the train and start walking towards Baker Street. I had planned to go to the Tate for a few hours, to cram my brain with whatever was on, but instead I walk, just walk. Eventually, I get on the tube and go to Little Venice, because I’ve never been. But it’s not how I imagine.

I still have almost two hours before my meeting, so I walk again, heading towards Kensington Gardens, because I think it must be nice there. A tramp asks me for a pound, and I give him two. ‘Bless you,’ he says. I don’t tell him I’m banking karma.

I reach the park and I sit in the Italian Gardens. Green parakeets swoop between the trees just behind me, and for a while I watch the dog walkers. I’m usually you, I think. About now. But not today.

There are other agents I might meet, that might like my book, but I particularly want this one. This agent. I wouldn’t even have approached her if my mentor hadn’t told me to try. A writer friend warned me: you’re going to be a very small fish, my darling. Practically plankton. In a very large pond.

But God, what a pond.

I pull out Meadowland, and eat an apple. I reach June, when it’s time to stop reading. I’m freezing from sitting still for so long, and when I look up and around,  young school children and Boden mummies have replaced the dog walkers. I think of my own daughters, the way they’d hung around my neck this morning – g’luck, Mummy, g’luck.

I march towards the tube, anaesthetised still, by Meadowland. The book describes the private life of a field on the English, Welsh borders,and it talks about the creatures that live there, the birds that return there, year after year, generation after generation. John tells of how he measures the depth of flooded grassland by the ‘plash of his wellingtons’ in the dark, and how geese remind him of irate drivers, grid-locked in LA.

Meadowland is a book that does funny things to your perception of time – to the way it’s spent, whether savoured or wasted. It does funny things to perspective, too, and reminds you of how you fit, really fit, into the grand scheme of things.

My nerves of earlier are almost gone: Meadowland as Mogadon. I can see my book now, clearly, perfectly.

I arrive at the street, the green door (Greene!), and I take a photo of it – the gleaming brass, the neat black lettering. The children wanted me to photograph everything, ‘so we can picture it properly, Mummy’. They know I’m an unreliable narrator.

I ring the bell, can’t stop myself grinning into the intercom.

‘Carlie Lee,’ I say. ‘To see Judith Murray.’

I touch a finger to the spine of Meadowland, in my bag. A beautiful, generous, unexpected talisman.

The door lock releases, and I push it open.

 

Door of Greene and Heaton

 

 

 

 

 

On Walking: Sunday 5th October

It’s barely eight o’clock when the dogs and I leave the house, and the sky ethereal blue.  There’s been a frost, and it’s cold; properly Autumn after the Indian summer.

The iced air sears my lungs and makes me cough. We set off through the village towards Bramshill; there’re no cars this early, no walkers or church-goers. Wood pigeons are noisily copulating in the chestnuts along the graveyard, and the air is still; expectant of good things.

As I walk up Church Lane, I can see the thick belt of the Scout Woods across the valley; a finer band of mist bisects it, as if the larches were caught in a smoke ring.  I imagine how beautiful the rest of the valley will look, and quicken my pace, hurrying as if to meet a lover.

I don’t let myself peek until the I reach the stile above the sledging hill, then I climb to my perch and sit, and look, and look.

The early sun is behind me, lighting the beeches golden, rust red, warm bronze. The fields behind roll green, clay-red, dun; the new shards of Winter wheat are a bright, plastic green, the grass of margins and hay meadows are a bleached white-yellow. I settle to watch the frost melt from the grasses in front of me, to listen to a nameless bird sing on a descending whistle. The ducks are joking the day to wakefulness and a fox slinks along the bottom fence. Pants and Dora are deep in the brambles to my right: ecstatic and hunting mice.

My fingers become painful, I’m gloveless, and the cold minces them red and white. But the sun is hot on my hair, my ear, and I tip my head back, as if I were a cat looking for fuss.

It is the morning after my wedding anniversary. Eleven years since becoming a wife –  six months scandalous later, a mother. I changed utterly and completely the day I married; grew up in a way that still leaves me breathless with fright. We thought I had miscarried our child the night before the wedding, and a doctor had patted me on the shoulder and told me, never mind, try again. You’re young.  I said my vows through lips numb with misery and shock, my eyes fixed on Stevie’s as if he could save the life in my belly. I remember nothing of the reception, except blood, more blood. Blood and the enormous hoop of my wedding dress.

The next morning, we went straight to the JR for a scan, Stevie reeling with hangover, me convinced I was still pregnant – I could feel it – and more blood. I still had confetti stuck in my tangled hair. We were supposed to be on our way to Gatwick for our honeymoon, but instead we waited, waited.

She was still in there, our daughter, laying on her back with one hand raised, as if to wave hello.

‘She was testing you,’ said a doctor. ‘Checking you really wanted her.’

Now, sitting on this stile, eleven years to the day since that scan, I feel more blessed and thankful than I can ever imagine. That baby – presumed gone – is now a thumping great ten year old. She has a sister, who’s nine, and we have built a family that exasperates and thrills us, drives us bonkers and makes us happy in a way we could never have known, eleven years and one day ago.

After we left the hospital, Stevie and I went to Boar’s Hill, in Oxford, to sit on ‘our’ bench. The view was once almost as precious as this one is to me now, and I remember thinking how today, everything that I was, is now only a part of everything I now am.

Looking out now, over Bramshill, I can feel that change starting to shift again. The 5th October. Always, for me, the start of something.

 

From gate on Church Lane, across to the Scout Woods.
From gate on Church Lane, across to the Scout Woods.

On Walking: Thursday 18th September

Today, walking down the Banbury Road, I notice the leaves on the limes are curling and starting to drop. The heavy green boskiness of late summer is beginning to lighten; the trees are beginning to draw into themselves. The banked lushness of comfrey has withered, the plants collapsing inwards, and the nettles have never been more beautiful. The smaller, higher leaves are a splotched bright green; the larger leaves are a peachy-pink, their veins and edges black, as if  inked in by a child.

Nettles

I can see through the verge now, to the secrets held in the wide, sandy-earthed ditch behind. The orange pixie-posts of Lords and Ladies stand beside the re-emerging crowns of primulas. Puff ball fungi swells in the dampest hollows beneath the trees.

It’s hot; the Indian summer warmth has amplified the smells of Autumn; leaf-litter, sheep-shit, elderberries, tarmac. I practically skip down the Banbury Road, it makes me so happy.

By the road bridge, I turn right, into the fields below the dryer. The margins have been cut, and the fields look at once bigger and smaller. They are roughly brown, stubble poking through at odd angles, and I wonder what’s been planted, what will soon start to grow. Pants circles off in search of deer, and Dora inspects and pees upon every single black mound of fox poo.

I reach the bridge to Emma’s meadow and eye the cows. They eye me back, barely ten yards from where I’m standing. I whistle the dogs, and turn left, down to Bra Corner. The closely-cut margins make for blissfully easy walking.

I haven’t walked here since the start of summer, but it’s like rediscovering something precious; the heap of stricken alder, covered in thick moss (must remember, for Christmas and the mistletoe ball), the rioting cricket willow. Pants still growls at the upturned roots of a tree, its bark rotted and its wood bleached dirty white, like giant bones.

The Sor Brook is quiet, unhurried. It’s loud for most of the Winter and Spring, foam trembles in its rushing tea-brown eddies. Now though, it’s palest amber in the sun-dampled shallows, darkly green in its depths. It slides slowly past, almost silent; serene.

Oak gall
An oak gall

Dead dry thistles and hogweed straws rustle beneath my boots. I walk on beneath old friends; the sweet chestnut with its glossy, scissor-cut leaves, the alder with its golden grace. Then to one of my favourites, an oak beneath which narcissus grow in the Spring.  It has hardly any acorns this year, the gall wasp has turned them all to odd round, dry, marble-type things.

I go on, and the secret passage is in front of me, strapped with brambles, prickling with blackthorn. I look at the defences consideringly, and eat a blackberry.
The dogs go through but I turn and walk up beside the hedge. Autumn needs to do its work here, then the deer will return. I pinch another blackberry, walking with my face to the sun. Some secrets, I decide, can be saved for another day.

On Walking: Thursday 11th September

God, I love September.

Hawthorn berries, rosehips and honeysuckle in North Oxon
Hawthorn berries, rosehips and honeysuckle

The dogs and I are over Bramshill, listening to the ducks telling each other off on the carp ponds. I’m sat on the stile, and I can smell great wafts of wild honeysuckle and sweet grass. I’m eating sun-warmed elderberries, pips and all, and watching a small brown bird inspect the rash of berries on the hawthorn bushes.

It’s almost six in the evening, golden time, and I’ve abandoned the washing up from the children’s tea to run away, up the hill.

As I watch, a fat Bumble Bee arrives to harvest the honeysuckle, and I creep up to take a photograph. Pants comes to see what I’m doing, then barks hysterically at the bee.

 

I laugh and  the bee retracts and reverses, louder than ever. Pants jumps away, then sits down as if in great trouble. The bee visits another flower, and the silly dog sits and trembles.

‘Silly Silky Pair,’ I tell him. ‘Silly boy.’

Bumble bee on wild September honeysuckle

Dora arrives to see what the fuss is about, then regards him with disgust.

We walk on, through the spinney and up through the stubble field, and I wonder about bees, and whether it’s true that their pollen can support our production of white blood cells. How does that work though? How do you get the pollen from the bee before it seals it into a comb? I really hope it happens without involving the death of the bee.

At the top of the hill, I pause, looking over one of my favourite views. Everything’s tipped with gold in the evening light; even the fields that have been drilled have a richness to the brown of their earth.

We walk on, Dora at my heels, Pants running away from his shadow ahead. I climb the stile leading to Clump, and notice the sloes – the most I’ve ever seen in this spot. I think joyous thoughts of gin, and hurry-up hurry-up to the first cold snap.

As I turn for home I remember the pasta pans and chopping boards from the  children’s tea. The ironing mountain and the bath with the grubby stripe. The new school uniform, still nameless, still heaped on the armchair.

Ripening sloes over Bramshill
Ripening sloes over Bramshill

But then I think of my saved Bombay Sapphire bottles, sat in dusty ranks, just waiting, waiting, for the sloes with that first kiss of  frost.

 

Chocolate Rye Cake (wheat-free)

As lots of you know, I’m on a low-salicylate, low-histamine diet. I’m lucky, because I don’t have to cut out food groups altogether, just not each too much of them. I also can’t eat wheat any more, which is gutting, because I love cake, bread and crumpets. God, I love crumpets.

Anyway, I’m learning how to cook without wheat (and I’m not mad keen on buying too much supermarket free-from food…lot of weird chemicals going on there…).

This is my Chocolate Rye Cake, and I love it. Possibly too much.Chocolate Rye Cake

Notes

I use a loaf tin, lined with grease-proof paper. I set the oven to about 180 degrees (although hard to tell with ours), and anyone who bakes will recognise a simple rule-of-egg cake. Our eggs are laid by different sized chickens, but four usually comes to around 250g.

4 free-range eggs

250g soft, dark brown sugar

250g rye flour

250g butter or margarine

Splash of full-fat milk

1 tbl sp of Cadbury Drinking Chocolate

Handful of dried fruit

Method

Put it all in an electric mixing bowl and mix thoroughly. If you’re doing it by hand, you’d probably want to cream the sugar and butter, add the flour and chocolate powder and mix, then the eggs (beaten) and milk, a little at a time.

Add dried fruit once mixture mixed. Put in loaf tin. Cook for about forty minutes, but check it after 30.

If you’re on a low-salicylate diet, and your levels are high, omit the chocolate powder and dried fruit. If you’re on a low-histamine diet and your levels are high: bad luck. Go and eat some lettuce.

If you’re gluten intolerant, you probably already know not to eat rye flour. This cake is wheat free, not gluten-free.

Anyway, it’s yummy! Give it a go…

 

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