On Dog Walking, 12th July

It is cooler today, and the dogs and I walk at lunch time, beneath a muffled white sky. Stevie walks with us, and Arfa Pants is on his best behaviour, without the ketchup-red harness he hates so much.

Despite the sun, it’s still hot – 23 degrees – and we don’t speak much. The air down Wroxton Lane tastes thick with pollen, and the tarmac creates heat shimmers from its softening surface. We pass Phlox Cottage, with its Alpine strawberry patch. The fruit glows like shiny red treasure, benefiting hugely from dog wee. The thick swathe of dying nettles and dock down by the stream look sadder than ever. I mutter dark words about the fluorescent-vested Council Workers and their obsession with poisons.

On our right is Brook Cottage, Liz’s little white house, almost disappeared in its hay-field of a garden. A sign advises us of the upcoming auction, and I tell Stevie I wish we could buy it.

‘It floods, you idiot.’

I tell him I don’t care, we could fix it. He grunts and turns left, into Emma’s Bottom Meadow. The grasses in here are spectacular – too many types to name. It’s tangled with clover and the last shreds of yellow vetchling. Sheep’s sorrell tucks itself in my shoes as we walk, cool with its rubbery red balls of pollen. The dogs charge through grass as tall as me,  Arfa’s big mouth open, as if he’s laughing with the joy of it all.

I spot tall, creamy-white flowers frothing through the newly-laid blackthorn hedge, and tell Stevie I think they’re meadowsweet. He hums and raises his eyebrows, and I laugh. I know he’s bored silly by my rhapsodising. Mid-way down the meadow, we turn right, into the meadow with the random springs. It’s been cut, and the grasses lie drying in rough lines. It smells of childhood summers and makes me think of French cricket. We decide to walk around the perimeter and follow a line, rather than march up the middle as the path dictates.

‘I’ve never walked along this hedge,’ I say, and Stevie turns around so I can appreciate his eye-roll.

I notice what I think is a row of huge blackthorns, but as I grow nearer, I notice their fruit – already the size of a walnut. Plums. Must be. I’m so excited.

‘But why?’ says Stevie.

‘Puddings! Crumbles! Pies! For free!’

‘I suppose I’ll have to pick them.’

I grin. We walk on, and I look back every couple of minutes to memorise their secret spot.

Back out on the lane, we meander along then turn left, heading back to the Banbury Road. Ewes bellow at us indignantly, and we notice the lambs are gone. Poor sheep. We slap at the horseflies landing on our shoulders, and then wait as the dogs slide down the steep banks of the stream for a drink.

Dora emerges with four black socks.

We cross Dave’s fields, catching silky-cased oats between our fingers and being leg-barged by Pants.

‘Bloody dog,’ says Stevie, as Arfa cannons into him again.

I suddenly realise he’s been talking to me, but I’ve no idea what about.

‘Sorry?’ I say.

‘God,’ says Stevie. ‘You never listen.’

‘I do,’ I protest, but I’m lying.

‘You’re thinking about bloody plums,’ says Stevie. ‘Aren’t you?’

‘Um,’ I say. ‘Yes. Yes I am. In jam.’

On The Leaning Tower of Pisa – 14th June 2013

All of my life I’ve wanted to see the Leaning Tower of Pisa, and now I shall.

We’re in Italy, in June, all four of us, and we’ve found our funny flea-pit of a hotel. The first thing we did this morning, when we landed, was to pile in the hire car (the Mighty Bling), and head to the beach between Pisa and Livorno.

Consequently, we’re now all covered in sand and shards of that translucent spreckly-brown seaweed. Stevie keeps pulling flakes from his pocket, and the children and I have it tangled in our hair.

We’re here in Pisa’s Old Quarter for just one night, and the four of us are sharing a room with an en-suite loo, shower and bidet. The bidet enthrals the children, and they desperately want to try it out. Our room is

Piazza Del Duomo Pisatiny,and the children can jump from bed-to-bed, yodelling and scattering contents of bags. Briefly, Stevie and I join in, but then one of us squashes the television controls, and the set blinks to life, throwing forth bursts of frenetic Italian and shots of some sort of gameshow.

The children are entranced, and Stevie and I keel over on the lumpy double bed to sleep.

We wake just before five, and the sun has slid a slanting finger through the gap between the shutters. I can feel it hitting my bare hip, pressing like the flat of a warm blade, and I’m smiling even before I’ve opened my eyes.

We’re in Italy. In Pisa. And we’re going to see The Tower. I think about being sixteen, and learning about the Piazza del Duomo in History of Art lessons from a fat, glossy grey textbook. I remember staring from the window in the stuffy classroom, out over the Warwickshire fields, and promising myself that one day I’d go to Pisa. I’d sit in a bar, smoking Camels and wearing sunglasses and a silk scarf in my hair. I would observe the campanile through half-closed eyes, and I would laugh at the tourists with their silly photo-poses. I wouldn’t be seen dead being so uncool.

The children don’t wake easily, a night of travelling and a day of beach and sea has exhausted them. We kiss their shoulders and blow raspberries on their necks, and when tenderness doesn’t work, we propel them into the shower.

‘Why do we have to have a shower,’ they say. ‘Why can’t we have a bidet?’

We leave at six, armed with a map of Pisa’s old quarter, and directions from the handsome but sad-faced concierge.

‘Ees two-minute walk,’ he tells us. ‘No more.’

We thank him, and cautiously mention the lack of bed, and the mouldy sandwich in our fridge, and the absence of drinking water.

‘I feex,’ he says, mournfully.

The hotel is on an ancient narrow road, paved with stone and with room for just one car to pass. The pavements are barely a foot across, and we ignore them, meandering up the road instead. People keep floating by on bicycles, their bells tring-tring around every corner. The city smells exactly how I imagined it might – sun-warmed oregano and thyme; jasmine and honeysuckle and the base city-notes of drains and exhaust and cigarette smoke.

We catch glimpses of deeply lush gardens through tall, wrought-iron gates – rhododendrons and clematis beneath orange and lemon trees in vast stone planters. The old city wall slips in and out of view, and the despite the cars, the city feels timeless.

We’re ravenously hungry, and keep spotting lovely-looking ristorantes and trattorias, but it’s too early to eat. We follow our instructions, and round a corner into a beautiful square. Two white-clad nuns carrying armfuls of dark-green fabric scuttle by, nodding at our smiles, and winking at the children.

‘Were they real nuns,’ asks Ellie, staring after them.

‘Yes,’ I say, but break off and stop, staring.

Jess tries to pull me onwards, but I point. ‘Look,’ I say. ‘There it is.’

We can see the top two tiers of The Tower, like an improbable cake above the houses of the square, and we all start hurrying, as if it might disappear.

‘Quick,’ says Stevie. ‘This way.’

We burst onto the Piazza del Duomo, our sandals slapping, and we slither to a stop at the sudden sense of space. The Tower – Torre di Pisa – is in front of us, its stacked marble loggias gleaming white-gold in the evening sun.

‘Wow,’ we say. ‘Wow. It’s beautiful.’

To our left are rows of tourist-tat shops, and they are shutting up now, testament to the departure of day-trippers. African street-sellers eyed us, but don’t approach – probably exhausted by a day of hustling. We stand and stare, and stare. I never expected the acres of green grass, nor the might of the Duomo and Baptistry and Tower together, each fiercely separate on a page in a text-book, here so vitally and powerfully linked.

I want to tell the children how the square was known as Piazza dei Miracoli, and that Galileo came here to do some thinking, and that it’s all been here for nearly a thousand years and is very important. But I can’t, because the children and Stevie have legged it, and are trying out camera poses against the Tower.

I watch them for a moment, the way they balance on the shiny black-painted railings, freeze-framing improbable poses and laughing, shouting instructions at each other.

‘Move! No! Not that way!’

My stomach gives an enormous hungry gurgle, and a couple next to me look over in surprise. I shrug.

Fame,’ I say.

Si,’ they reply, uncertainly.

Then one of the children call.

‘Mum! Mumm-eeee. Come on, come here. You need to do the thing. The photo thing. Come and do the thing, with all of us.’

‘Wife,’ says Stevie. ‘Hurry up. I look a prat. Come and look a prat with me.’

On Walking: Sunday 9th June

Sometimes, Horley is so beautiful, so enchanted, that I can’t bear to leave it. I’m walking early, and with a thumping post-karaoke head, because today we’re off to Cambridgeshire.

I like Cambridgeshire, but today I don’t want to go anywhere. I want to be at home.

The dogs seem to know they’re being abandoned for the day, and they misbehave – Arfa Pants snatching Dora’s lead in his teeth, Dora deliberately tripping him up on his silly gangly legs.

I’m supposed to be going quick, because Stevie wants to get off before the traffic, but my progress is slow, because I keep noticing new things – a clump of yolk-yellow cowslips beneath a cherry tree, a Warwick Rose clematis storming darkly up a telegraph pole.

Down by the stream, there’s a honeysuckle in flower. The delicate, delicate scent is just discernible above the stronger smells of lilac and nettle – it makes me think of being a child, and catching a glimpse of a very beautiful woman in a fabulous ball dress.

Arfa doesn’t think much to my mooniness, and starts talking (which sounds sweet, but is really NOT). Once he starts, I can’t make him stop, so I turn back up Wroxton Lane towards home, floating on a honeysuckle high. Thankfully, Arfa pipes down, and instead tries to chase Dora, who’s not on a lead.

I reach the bottom of Little Lane, and I really know I should go straight home. Stevie will have loaded the car, fed the cat, bawled the children out for roller-blading instead of cleaning their teeth.

I turn left, beneath a small horse chestnut with salmon-coloured blossom. I let Arfa pull me up the steep hill, and we stop half way to inspect some creamy-white rock roses, jaunty above drying aubretia. There are more rock roses further on, red this time, and with two fat, furry bees circling thoughtfully.

Outside the Manor is one of my favourite treats – an old copper beech in its absolute prime. From the outside, its leaves are a glossy aubergine, but inside the leaves are the most glorious gold-green, and as you gaze up, you feel that pulse of awe you get from cathedrals.

My phone beeps a text in my back pocket, and I know without looking it will be Stephen. I quicken my step, and jog the rest of the hill to Ross’ paddock, where I let Arfa off. Dora vanishes. The grass in there is higher than my knees, and in the distance, the rape fields are a soft green, just smudged now with yellow here and there. The Scout Woods are on the opposite hillside, and with its band of evergreens looks like an ironic eyebrow, lifted at the antics of Horley villagers.

Arfa gallops off after a Cabbage White, and I can hear a song thrush: hey Arfa, hey Arfa, hey Arfa. I think of Ted Hughes, and his line about birds having a single-mind sized skull. I wonder if it would be liberating or constricting to only ever have one thought at a time. It might be nice, though, to finish one line of thought, without another barging along, and another, another, until you wish you could lay your head inside a foxglove and go to sleep.

Eventually, I gather the dogs and head for home. Arfa strains half-heartedly to chase one of the Cousins’ Buff Orpingtons, the puffed Cheesy-Wotsit of chicken world. But I start to hurry now, suddenly guilty at bunking off for so long. We jog down Hornton Lane, past prim clumps of pink-and-white dianthus. The gutter’s full of creamy blossom blown from St Ethelreda’s horse chestnuts – as if the fairy folk had held an illicit wedding. I nod to the hats of the gnomes beneath the first chestnut. One day I’ll know what the plant is that makes them.

We thunder down our road, my best flat shoes slap, slapping. I can see Jess ahead on roller-blades, Stevie’s stood by our wall, watching the Sunday cricket and chatting to Raymundo, our neighbour. For a tiny, hopeful moment, I imagine he’s going to say we’re staying, and I can potter in the garden and read the Telly. But then he hears me and turns round.

‘Bloody hell,’ he says. ‘Bloody hell have you been? Late! So late!’

And then there was a mad scramble of last-minute loos, locking doors, checking dog water, checking chickarockas, forgetting open windows and car revving.

We finally roll out of Horley, a two-hour drive ahead.

‘Cheer up,’ says Stevie, giving me a mint. ‘Be home soon.’

On Wine Tasting

I love wine, but I like drinking it, or sloshing it into sizzling pans, not talking about it. I don’t like to offer an opinion, when asked if it suits my palate, and I loathe being the taster in a restaurant, even if I’ve been the one to choose the bottle.

So I wasn’t massively keen when I was invited to a ‘Wine Tasting Evening’ at the Old School. It was to be in aid of Horley Cricket Club, and would involve tickets and cheese-boards and local indie wine merchants, SH Jones.

I had dire images of clutching a thimble of  Chateauneuf Du Pape, and being asked if I could identify base notes of leather and tar. I knew I couldn’t. I once did a blind tasting, and confidently called Chablis as a Merlot, definitely.

On the plus side though, I was to go with a gang of Horley Housewives that I adore: Curdie, Jules, Damage (Mrs), and honorary HH, Lulu.

It’s Friday evening, and we all collect each other, like beads on a necklace, tripping up Little Lane in our jewel-bright going-out clothes.

‘Bloody shoes,’ says Jules. ‘Heels make me feel like a transvestite.’ We all snort with laughter and bump shoulders together as we walk. We’re gabbling already, gossiping and pointing, exclaiming and giggling.  The summer air is soft on our shoulders, and our voices are high with escapists’ excitement. We toss our hair, and the click-clack of our heels punctuate our practised social riffs: our children, our animals, our jobs. The ‘Have you heards’ and the ‘Do you know’s.

Horley is beautiful in June, and our progress is slow; we pause to admire tumbles of aubretia topped with rock-roses, and the final hurrah of the blossom in Charlie Cousins’ orchard.  Our eyes slide sideways as we pass Bramshill Manor, with the new people (Have you seen? No, have you? Oh. Perhaps we should…)

Walking beneath the Manor’s mighty copper beech, I tip my head back, admiring the green-gold beauty in the last of the day’s sun.

The Old School is just ahead, beyond the ‘Secret Path’; borage and forget-me-nots brush our ankles and hide lurking dog poo. The School is as familiar to us as our own houses, and is an ‘L’ shape with high ceilings and those glorious long windows particular to Victorian schools. We all brought our children here as babies to Horley Toddlers’, and later birthday parties – later still, discos. It’s where the local  AmDrammers hold their plays, and where rain-soaked village fêtes stash the book stall and serve afternoon tea.

We clatter in, shushing each other, eyeing up the little tables set with jolly blue-checked cloths. At the far end of the room, beneath the window facing St Ethelreda’s, is a table set out with bottles. A dapper-looking man with a sweet chipmunk face stands behind his bottles, next to lady with a dark bob, who keeps beaming smiles out at the audience.

Jules procures a bottle of  rosé from the bar to get us going, and we find a side table and gulp gratefully.

‘Thank God for that,’ says Lulu. ‘I’ve had a pig of a day.’ She regales us with stories of her work – Paris, Frankfurt, Monaco. She tells us about her upcoming stint at Glastonbury, and we all try not to be too jealous. ‘Knackering,’ sighs Lulu.

Jules and I get into a fascinating nose-to-nose about broody chickens.

We work our way down the rosé, then find a lovely cheese platter beneath a port-red paper napkin. On our table, there’s a bottle of water, a forest of glassware, and a thick wodge of print-out. It contains notes on what we’re about to drink, and a hideously hard, wine-related quiz.

‘Oh God,’ I say. ‘I’m going to be so crap at this.’

‘Pass me the pen,’ says Mrs Damage. ‘No one can read my writing anyway.’

The room is almost full now, an equal mix of sexes and a wide age-range tucked around the card-tables. I spot my friend Wrightie, and wave like a windmill. There’s the steady roar of a cocktail party, and people are already swaying forwards to hear what their neighbours are saying to them.

None of us can answer a single question in the quiz. ‘Bloody ridiculous,’ we grumble, and I feel slightly ashamed. I hate being ignorant.

Rose, a teenaged cricket-club stalwart (and the evenings’ organiser), steps forward to thank us for coming, and to introduce the team from SH Jones. We all clap, genial and approving. Tables nod at each other, and smile, and then we’reHorley_Crest2 off – a short introduction from Janet (who, it turns out, is the manager from the Banbury SH Jones), whilst the chap with the sweet face whizzes round, filling glasses, patiently answering questions. The first drink turns out to be Prosecco, which smells revolting but tastes lovely. On our ‘To Buy’ sheet, we all give it a resounding tick.

We’re starting on white, swirling, sniffing then slugging, before we’re topped up, again and again. Very soon, we’re shrieking with laughter over un-funny things.

Janet holds the next wine up. She has a very clear way of speaking, and explains all of the terms she uses without being patronising.

‘This one is a ‘frizzante’ she says (pronouncing it ‘friz-ont’, rather than the Italian way), ‘which means sparkling, and less bubbly than champagne.’

‘Good name for a bantam,’ hiccups Julie.

Lulu and Curdie are agreeing they’re not all that keen whilst they drain their glasses and hold out for a top-up. All the bread from our cheeseboard has gone, as we try to mop up the alcohol.

We’re introduced to a Chilean white, and we all pull yak faces. It reminds me instantly of awkward pre-school fund-raisers, when you stand in stilted groups trying to trade your children’s key-workers.

‘Bucket,’ hisses Curdie. We don’t want to be seen as rude, but we definitely can’t drink it. In our notes, it tells us it should be paired with curry.

‘Yes,’ says Jules. ‘A vindaloo.’

Mrs Damage calmly takes our glasses and discreetly disposes of their contents into the bucket. Her cool insouciance makes us laugh even harder. We gasp like fishes, and as Janet moves on to reds, I stagger to my feet to go to refill our water bottle.

The handsome boys from the cricket club are arranged like skittles along the back of the room, behind the long counter of the bar. I cannon into them, heading to the sink, and they put down their red tins of coke to steady my progress.

‘Make way for Mrs Lee,’ I hear. ‘She’s definitely swallowing.’ They all laugh and I try hard not to blush.

Back at the table, the others are getting stuck into Beaujolais and doing Derek Trotter impressions.

Then we all discuss why our mothers loathe the word ‘belly’, and made us say ‘tummy’ as children.

By now, the bridge of my nose is sore from trying to get it into too-small glasses.

‘Tip your head back,’ says Curdie. ‘You’re drinking with a stiff neck.’ We discover that I cannot raise my chin to drink without feeling horribly self-conscious. I choke in the attempt, and the others pat my back.

Outside, the new leaves of the birches are inked against an ethereal silver-grey sky. Practising head-tipping, I see the last rose-pink streaks of sunset.

Next comes a most amazing wine, that as soon as we smell we all coo in appreciation. It’s American, and called Scotto Old Vine Zinfandel 2009. It tastes like memories of the best sort of dinner parties, with excellent food and attractive men with which to flirt. The sort of wine that makes you feel deliciously grown up and wearing a satin frock.

We’re advised that the wine has a ‘good length,’ and when we ask the sweet-faced chap to explain, he goes bright red and zips off back to his table. We barrack noisily, and make him come back with top-ups.

‘Sorry, sorry,’ we say. ‘We’re being serious, we promise.’

‘It’s to do with mouth-feel,’ he says earnestly, then freezes in horror as we all swoop on the double-entendre. He legs it again as we all howl.

We’re free-wheeling now, utterly out of control and enjoying ourselves enormously.

Janet is telling us about a Grenache grape.

‘Grenache?’ I say, puzzled. ‘Is it chocolately?’

‘That’s Gan-ache, you dope.’

Several people are starting to look similar to the stuffed owl, high on one of the School’s shelves, except they’re all smiling.

Our last drink, and Janet holds up a slim bottle. ‘It’s Trentham Noble Taminga,’ she tells us. ‘From Australia.’

I wrinkle my nose: I loathe dessert wine, and it always seems to smack of pretension, if anyone orders it in a restaurant.

Oh I’m an idiot! It’s a total revelation – utterly gorgeous, like the sweetest nectar with no cloying after-taste. It makes me think of the Illiad, and the stories of gods laying around topping up their ichor.

I raise a silent toast to Dionysus, and fail once again to tip back my head.

The tasting is over now, and there’s speeches, then continued top-ups and people ordering cases. I wave my arms.

‘I’ll take the lot,’ I shout.

‘No you won’t,’ says Curdie, and she confiscates my handbag. ‘Go to the shop with Stevie in the morning.’

We call thank you and goodbye, wincing at the guilt of leaving our chairs unstacked.

‘Too pissed,’ says Julie, briskly.

We try to take Lulu to the pub, but she’s clinging onto Big Steve with her pretty eyes crossing.

Outside, it’s pitch-black, and we follow Julie’s white trousers down the hill. We can smell lilac and new-mown grass, and somewhere there’s music. Our heels skitter on gravel and we’re all holding each other up.

‘What a lovely night,’ we say. ‘Brilliant fun.’

‘First thing tomorrow-‘

‘Very first thing-‘

‘Must get to SH Jones.’

‘I wonder if they’d do a tasting session for other fundraisers?’

‘We’d go.’

‘Yes, we would, most definitely.’

‘Go where?’

‘Wine tasting, cloth ears.’

‘God, yeah. Absolutely. Like a shot.’

SH Jones, Banbury

On Animals – Dora The Jack-Rat

Dora is a Jack Russell Terrier, and belongs to Ellie and Jess. Stevie came home after work one day, soaking wet, absolutely shattered, covered in soot, and said, ‘Oh yeah, by the way. We’re getting a puppy.’

El and Dora
El and Dora on the dead oak

‘Oh,’ I said. ‘When?’

‘Just been born.’

I boggled. It was Octoberish, which meant we’d have the puppy for mid-December. Nightmare. Especially as Stevie added it could be the children’s dog. Exactly what no child should ever have for Christmas.

Worse was to come. ‘What is it?’ I asked.

‘Jack Rat.’

God. I had immediate images of bristly malevolence and snapping teeth and peeing up trouser legs. By now, Stevie had stripped his clothes off in the kitchen. It’s hard to get cross with a tired man in underpants.

The children were ecstatic, and only Archie (our German Shepherd) and I were grumpy.

But when Dora came to live with us, we all fell head-over-heels, probably Archie and I the hardest. She was about the size of a guinea-pig, and was so sweet and merry she enslaved all of us. Her legs were tiny, and on walks Stevie would put her in the pocket of his wax jacket, or she’d demand I carry her under my arm. She once spent the day at a CLA Game Fair carried around in a hessian shopper, and earned the nick-name ‘The Dor-Bag’.

Archie was given new life. He was six when Dora came, but already showing signs of suffering from an illness he was diagnosed with at two. We’re completely convinced that it was Dora that helped Archie on and reach nearly nine.

Dora guarding fire from Merlin
Dora: ‘Ha. I’m closest.’
‘Merlin: ‘Pah. You’re singed.’

As I type this, Dora is curled up on my chair behind my back. She’s still quite tiny (about the size of a rabbit), and  the new puppy, Arfa, keeps trying to pull her down. She rumbles with continuous growls, like an old kettle coming up to the boil.

She doesn’t really behave like a Terrier, and we think it might be because she considers herself a German Shepherd. She’s not at all interested in going down rabbit holes, although she will chase rabbits. Considering she’s of working stock (hence her docked tail), she’s completely rubbish at ratting. We have the odd rat sneak over into our chickarockers, and Dora will just watch from the French windows, with a sort of detached fascination.

Her favourite thing is to be babied by the daughters. When Dora was a puppy and the children younger, they would put her in a tutu and wrap her in a blanket, wheel her around in a pram. Now, aged 9 and 7, if the children are tired or angry or tearful, Dora is the first one there, burrowing into their raised knees, licking their hidden faces until they smile and cuddle her.

Dora has a terribly cavalier attitude towards traffic. She recently shot out of the cricket field and cavorted up the Banbury Lane.  Ellie and I froze in horror, as three cars beeped and screeched behind the hedge. We stood open-mouthed, terrified, me thinking desperately how to stop El seeing Dora’s poor squashed body.

But then a horn beeped again, and Dora nipped through the hedge, unharmed,  full of perky jack-ratty insouciance. Ellie burst into tears and I shouted ‘Come ‘ere you f*ing dog’.

I’d make a crackingly fine fish-wife. Two of the cars had stopped and I could hear the whine of gears meshing to reverse. Please God let none of them be in the ditch.

I jumped the hedge into the next field down, where I could get to the lane, and floundered through the deepest plough ruts known to man. I had to grab Dora before she made a second pass. She ran out of reach, laughing, and I swore again, red in the face, spitting with embarrassment; rage and fear making me shrill. Ellie was sobbing by now, and I shouted to pack it in, it’s not bloody helping.

The next moment I heard a voice. ‘Carlie? Carlie, hullo? Is that you? Is everything all right?’

Shame, shame. One of the cars was a little Audi TT, belonging to Dr. Nicely-Tightly, an attractive local GP. He had his window down and his daughter in the seat next to him, and must have heard everything. He reversed until we faced each other over an open gateway, and I waved weakly. He seemed to double-take, as if stunned by the sight of a mad scarlet-faced woman screeching (and now slightly snivelling) in a field. He always looks so very neatly pressed. He blinks.

I blush. There’s mud up my legs and hawthorn twigs in my hair.

‘Sorry,’ I manage. ‘I’m so…sorry.’

‘As long as you’re okay-‘

Dora, little rat, wriggles back through the hedge and trots briskly home.  Ellie and I wave the doctor off, calling thank you, thank you for not squashing her, sorry, so sorry for you all being nearly ditched.Dora The Bag

‘That bloody dog,’ Ellie says, as we trail up the field. ‘But, Mummy. It’s true. That you only  realise how much you love someone.’

‘When?’ I snarl.

She puts her hand in mine. ‘When they’re very nearly properly dead.’

I scoop her up and give her a kiss.

‘You’re right,’ I say. ‘I do love her. And you. Sorry I shouted at you for crying.’

‘That’s okay, Mummy. Anyway. You were crying too.’

I’ve written this for all those people who keep asking me to write more about Dora – my constant walking, writing and driving companion. She’s bugging me for a walk RIGHT NOW! 

On Plants: Celandine

I’ve fallen in love with a new wild flower – well, new to me. It’s called celandine, and now I’ve learnt it, I keep finding it everywhere.

It belongs to the  Papaveraceae family (the same as a poppy), and its flowers are a glorious sort of splayed buttercup (with which it has nothing to do). According to my little flower book, the plant was recognised as a handy plant for detoxifying as far back as Pliny The Elder.

Sometimes called Swallow Wort
Sometimes called Swallow Wort

I smile as I read, instantly fifteen and back in a sweltering June classroom, doggedly translating Pliny (although it couldv’e been Younger), and dreaming of Glastonbury and escape.

The memory makes me like the plant even more. The summer I left Twycross (and turned sixteen) was completely enchanted – one long round of sunshine, festivals, parties and watching dawns break. I didn’t sleep in a bed for two months.

I tell my daughters the outrageous stories as we wander the lanes of Horley, hunting celandine. We find some tumbling down the Church-Lane side of St. Ethelreda’s, all the stalks shaped upwards like umbrella handles to lift the flowers to the sun.

‘They’re happy flowers,’ says Jess.

By far my favourite Celandine place is through Emma’s Bottom Meadow, and onto the Old Railway field. There’s a wide, shallow ditch beneath a Watership Down type ridge (and millions of rabbits). The ditch is edged by reeds, still brownish after the slow Spring, but in the centre of the ditch, hidden until you’re quite close up, runs an enormous swathe of Greater Celandine, defiantly, richly, brilliantly yellow; glowing and so pretty you have to stare for ages.

The thought drives me to my feet, and I whistle the dogs, call the children, pull on my wellies.

‘Somebody grab a key,’ I shout. ‘We’re going for a walk.’

Frightened of the wind – 24th May

Fear of weather is such an ancient, instinctive thing. I’m never scared of snow, rain or cold, but howling wind sometimes terrifies me beyond all logic.

All day I’ve watched the weather, feeling a nameless anxiety pinch at my heart. It’s freezing, and the wind is hurling itself around Horley like a vicious drunk – stripping magnolia brides, smashing the cups of tulips.

The dogs and I set out around half-two, both of them full of nervous energy, winding their leads around my legs, yapping at young leaves blown end-over-end along the lane. I shout at them and pull their leads to get them to heel, but two seconds later they’re launching themselves in opposite directions, and I haul them back. Through my general wind-induced bad temper, I’m aware of a flicker of something positive: hard to get bat-wings when you walk two dogs.

I stomp up the Jackie Chan, heading for The Clump, which I reason will at least be sheltered. Walking any of the meadows would be awful – the wind snatches at my cap, and shoves rude cold fingers up my jacket. It’s not May. It’s some dreadful mis-shuffle with the worst of March. A branch of lilac is torn free, and lands at my feet. The dogs leap on it, mangling the flowers, barking now. My eyes are stinging, my nose and mouth numb.

Outside St Ethelreda’s, there’s carnage. The wind is ripping free the blazing candles of the horse chestnuts, and I can hear the groan of the stiff old branches. There’s a lighter, skittering noise, like someone rifling a tray of bones; it’s the huge holly, shuddering on the corner of the graveyard.

I put my head down and march on, holding onto the dogs as if they were all that is sensible and rational.

I reach The Clump, and catch my breath, sheltered for a moment by the final fold in the hill to Hornton. I hesitate for a moment before letting the dogs go, but then tell myself off.

Of course there’s no malevolent spirit. Of course the dogs aren’t my protection.

I think of the stories of the Gytrash, and remember my own hell hound, with whom I was never frightened. For the millionth time: I miss him.

Our own benevolent hell-hound, Dark Archer (Archie). He died in September 2012.
Our own benevolent hell-hound, Dark Archer (Archie). He died in September 2012.

Arfa-Pants and Dora disappear in seconds, launching themselves into the banks of swaying cow parsley.

On my left is a field of rape, the flat light rendering the field a sickly yellow, liverish. Unwholesome.

I walk up The Clump, pulling faces and daring the wind to stick me. At the top of the first hill, I start to lose my nerve. Here, the wind has a run-up from one of the Taylors’ fields, and smacks full force into the side of The Clump. Great wands of sycamore spin down like shot game, and the noise is starting to hollow-out my head. It’s a low roar that I feel as well as hear – the resonance makes my guts shiver, my bones loosen, as if I’m about to fly apart in pieces. I clutch my jacket with both hands, and promise that the minute I reach the stone table, I’ll turn back.

I want my dogs to be here, in front of me, but the wind snatches my voice, renders my whistles and shouts puny and ridiculous. I keep my eyes up, scanning the branches of ash, of sycamore. Watching the treacherous elder, and knowing how suddenly they can fall.

I reach the stone table, tag it with my hand and turn for home, determined not give in, crumple up and hide in a badger hole.

Halfway back, I notice a gap in the hedge I’ve never seen before, about four yards wide. The wind has come through it as a solid thing, crushing flat the cow parsley and bluebells, ripping free their petals and sending them in a blue-cream swathe against the dried red-mud of the lane. I’m too afraid to cross. Both dogs are back with me now, fretting around my legs.

‘Go off!’ I shout. ‘Go on. Go off!’ But Dora just whines, and neither dog will go forward. A tiny, sensible part of my mind is telling me there’s nothing to be frightened of, but I am frightened, horribly. Every sense and nerve is at full-alert, telling me there is something evil, something there that will do me harm. The roar changes pitch around me, and I hear the rubbery squeak of two branches forced to move against each other. The light darkens still further, and I feel an awful desperation that spins me round to face whatever it is coming after me. The lane behind me is empty.

I swing back, just as the dogs dart forward. There’s a black cat, sat in the lane ahead. I’ve never seen it before, and it doesn’t move as the dogs pelt towards it. There’s a crack behind me, as distinct as a pistol-shot, and I run, flat-out, down the hill, as fast as I ever have.

Dora and Arfa-Pants are nowhere to be seen, but by my side is a black shadow, running with me as he always did. Keeping me safe.

Jolly Cricketing Mummy – 17th May 13

I am ambivalent about cricket. I love playing it, but I loathe watching it, even when there’s a rakishly handsome silly mid-on, or a bowler with rippling, um…action.

At the very least, there has to be sunshine and Pimms. This Friday evening, there’s neither. It’s six o’clock, and the sky is sullen, battle-ship grey. It’s my daughters’ first tournament, and both of them are almost incandescent with excitement. Tournaments, I’m told, are great for kids, as they get to play three or four games with a set amount of overs, and no one hangs around getting bored and becoming destructive. I don’t ask about the grownups.

Horley_Crest2

We pull into Cropredy car park, and the children spill from the car before I’ve even pulled up the handbrake.

‘Mummy-‘ Ellie is momentarily agonised. ‘Everyone’s in Whites and

we’re not.’

‘So?’ says Jess, voice clear and high. She pauses to survey the field. Lots of teams are warming up, passing around credi-balls and twirling their blue bats. Parents gather in knots on the sidelines, shouting last minute instructions. ‘Ball low, Sebastian. Low. Aim for the knees.’

A small boy batting in pristine whites catches Jess’ eye, and her face lights up still further. ‘Ellie, Ellie. It’s okay, look. He’s crap. Way crapper than us.’

I grab Jess in a headlock and tow her away to the clubhouse. Ellie trails behind, crunched with nerves, looking like a tiny skater-chick in my navy Horley CC hoodie. As I wave to the rest of the team, I wonder how quickly I can slink away to the car. I have a new Sarra Manning book. And a flask.

Ellie tries to cling to me like a barnacle, but Claire effortlessly chips her free and sweeps her off to practice. Jess is gone without a backwards glance.

I suddenly feel horribly naked and exposed without my daughters. I flap my hands ineffectually and dither. I need a wee, but am suddenly too shy to go and find the loo. God, what’s the form? What do I do? Is it like a gymkhana, where I can bugger off until their slot? Or am I expected to cheer?

There are three be-suited daddies in front of me, all on their phones. One of them is talking about a Porta-loo.

I duck a cloud of midges, and go to lurk behind a sight-screen. A glamorous-looking blonde has pulled up next to my scruffy Vauxhall in a very shiny Mercedes. Two Range Rover Vogues are revving nose-to-nose, each refusing to give way. I wish I’d brushed my hair. And weren’t wearing my padded dog-walking coat with the bramble-slashes on the hips. I occasionally ooze white stuffing, like a defeated old sofa cushion. Two Yummies in gilets and glossy knee-high boots appear next to me. There is no frizz in their hair. I run away.

The glamorous blonde is still sat in her car, and I veer sharply to the right. I’m not completely sure I could open my drivers’ door without bumping her shiny wing. Horley CC are about to start playing, and I know Ellie will want to see me watching (Jess won’t care). Dither, dither.

Suddenly, I see salvation. One of the loveliest Hornton School Mummies, sat on a rug, out to the left of the pavilion, smack in front of our part of the pitch. She’s the sort that always smiles, and is so friendly and funny you forget to be nervous. I go over to say hello, and within minutes we’ve set up a little camp, and we’re breaking open mini-donuts for the children subbed out (we’re fielding), and R is asking me the rules. One of my old team mates, and one of the children’s coaches, L, rolls up, and the three of us have great fun deciphering the game and whooping when the children play well.

‘Start Over,’ says Richard, one of the umpires.

The midges are above our heads, in three separate little hell-clouds above our scalps.

‘We need a smoker,’ I say, already itching.

The sky has darkened, and the grass suddenly that deep green, as if made from vinyl. ‘Bloody rain,’ says someone. Several fathers aim key-fobs into the car park, zipping up cabriolets.

My Ellie is bowling, ecstatic when it goes in straight, hiding her face when the umpire calls wide. It must be hell to keep score with four matches running at once. Balls keep flying into the wrong games. The air hums with the threat of downpour.

‘Don’t you dare,’ says Claire, looking up at the sky.

Jessica does a sneaky handstand as a batsman trails out. We all clap the batsman, but Jess does a little shimmy, as if pretending it might be for her. She pirouettes, then turns to grin and wave. A team mate tells her off.

R and L and I all agree that it’s lovely to watch the children play, and how we can see how the training is paying off. One of Horley’s star players dives for a brilliant catch. The Coach from the other team congratulates him, which we all think is very good of him.

‘Keeping it all fun,’ says L. The batsman leaves at the end of the over, in tears. ‘Oh dear,’ we all say. ‘Oh dear.’

It’s hard to imagine our Horley lot in tears. They seem like the most boisterous and happy of all of the teams – most of them have grown up together since babyhood. They seem to rampage a lot off the pitch – children used to village-life free-reign – but on the pitch Claire is steely with her determination to make them focus.

‘Oi!’ she shouts, as one of our batsmen takes guard. ‘Stand properly!Properly! That’s better. Go.’

My favourite time to watch is batting, when we roar the children on. ‘RUN William! RUN!’ ‘No! Don’t run – Oh God, can’t watch. Is she? No. Go! RUN Mia! RUN’

I have to get out of my green folding chair and jump up and down.

‘Well done DARLING’ I bellow, when Ellie clouts a wide ball. Ellie pauses to give me a filthy look. I’m not allowed to shout loudly so everyone looks. I keep forgetting.

It’s the last match now, and some of the Horley Daddies have joined us. We barrack and cheer, and say isn’t it a pity we’ve got to drive. We make do with soggy little donuts, alternating between clapping and smacking at midges.

‘Imagine Scotland,’ says a Daddy. ‘Tossing a caber, slapping a midge.’ We all giggle, high on sugar.

The sky’s miraculously cleared, and is like the palest watered silk, strewn with scallops of cloud. Around us, horse-chestnuts are in leaf, and starting to hold up their candles, although they’re still unlit. There’s no breeze to rattle the bare-limbed Ash trees, with their sepulchral black buds. Swallows arch overhead, flitting and diving above the children.

‘Come over here,’ we say, waving our arms. ‘Plenty of midges here.’

We argue the difference between a swallow and a swift, just as the children finish. We don’t know who’s won, or where Horley have come in the tournament, but the children converge on us, full of the game and the batting and bowling and did-you-sees?

‘Oi!’

Claire makes them all march back out to the field to shake hands with the opposition. They do so, sheepish, but proud to be so grownup.

And then the children are off, chasing rumours of hotdogs and sweeties. The light’s falling, and we strike camp, saying next time we’ll have more flasks, or we could split a few beers (yuk). I load the car up, and see the glamorous blonde still in her shiny Merc. Her boy is playing for Horley.

I suddenly feel sorry for her, stuck on her own whilst we all had such a giggle. I bend down to wave and smile, but she’s not looking.

Next time, I think. Next time I’ll knock on her window, and see if she’d like to join us.

On Plants – Garlic Mustard – ‘Jack In The Hedge’

I’m getting really irritated with my lack of Nature Knowledge. I come from farming and water-gypsy stock (my mum’s side), and I really ought to know better.

With that in mind, I now sally forth with mobile, poo-bags, puppy bribes and a flower book. I look like a tinker, my pockets bulge so much.

The new flower I find today is Garlic Mustard, which apparently has an aggressive habit. I immediately imagine it swathed in starched black and white, marching forth against beautiful, feckless bluebells.

It has other names – Jack In The Hedge (presumably with Jill), Hedge Garlic, Sauce Alone (Sleep Alone, too, I should think).

Garlic Mustard

Garlic Mustard has tiny white flowers made of four petals in a sort of Maltese Cross. They cluster together at the end of long stalks, and their leaves look rather like  glossy nettle leaves. The dogs and I are walking up The Clump, and the plant is thick under the newly-green hawthorns. I pick some to roll between my finger and      thumb – my flower book says it should smell and taste garlicky.   My sense of smell is hopeless, and I don’t want to eat it as it’s the perfect height for a peeing Labrador.

Apparently, people eat it in salads, and I think of my great-grandmother, ruling the world from the stern of her boat, sending my grandmother off to forage.

Farmers remove it from cows’ fields, as it taints the cows’ milk with garlic (handy, though, I should’ve thought, for bagna cauda).

I’m also advised it’s excellent for white butterflies, who lay their eggs beneath the leaves. It’s this thought that puts me off.

Popping butterfly eggs between my teeth.

The thought makes me grimace all the way home, my lower lip turned down in a way I know to be unattractive, but simply can’t control. Pop. Shudder.

I wimp out of the Garlic Mustard in our salad, and poke the lot through the wire to the  Chickarockers. They gobble it down in a minute, crooning, then looking at me in expectation.

‘Maybe tomorrow,’ I say, remembering, too late, the problem it causes in cows.

On Walking, Hungover. Sunday 12th May

Today is Bean Planting Day, in the world according to my Grandad. Grandad is 89, and he’s grown beans every year since forever, and they’ve become a symbol; something to hope for. Every year, we have to trench and double-dig, build a special wigwam, winkle out stray dandelions right down to their root-tip.Runner Beans

We’re to be at his house for 11 ish, which means leaving at 10 ish. So forced to walk dogs at 9 ish, and did not go to bed until 3 ish.

Am scared to open eyes in case bleed to death.

I can’t bear to think in any way, so dogs and I are trundling around the bottom meadows. The sun is very bright.

We reach Emma’s meadow, and I have to shut my eyes completely, I cannot cope with so many dandelions. They appear to be roaring. I get half way across the meadow, and decide to lie down.

The dogs think I’ve gone mad and try to bounce me back on my feet, but I play determinedly dead, and eventually they give up.

Lying here is very naughty, and I know that, which makes it all the sweeter. The damp grass is like a cool ruff around my aching head, and the weird rules of Sound mean the sheep’s cries are no longer grating my brain. I can smell oil seed rape and rusting blackthorn blossom. There’s a thrush nearby, singing very carefully: Hey-Arthur, Hey-Arthur.

I think about dinner last night – the food, the laughing. The tremendous gossip. I really can’t believe –

After a while, I can open my eyes. The sky above is a deep, brilliant blue, the clouds ragged and fast-moving, but still dodging the sun. I prop myself up on my elbows, and I can see into the Railway Field, and up into Dawn’s field, with Mary and Taz two dark shadows, endlessly cropping grass.

I roll onto my belly, knowing I must get up, get on, but am distracted by a little black beetle in a buttercup. It keeps lifting up one foot, then the other, like a lizard in a desert.

My knees are wet, and when I look, muddy. I stand up and stretch, my head back, my hands reaching up, as high as I can, feeling my life right to the tips of my fingers. I hold it, hold it, until my muscles burn.

I look like a loon, but I feel much better. My thoughts are no longer pickled in gin, red wine and Baileys (Why? Why did that happen?)

The dogs and I walk home, ready to load the car, drive to Coventry. Ready to help Grandad plant those beans.

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