On Village Life: Harvest Festival

We can always tell when it’s the children’s Harvest Festival coming up, as they both start chanting out songs about Michaelmas Daisies, purple in the border. I’m to attend the early showing, and I’m to brush my hair, not wear wellies and not to laugh too loudly.

My friend D ferries me to Hornton, and I look out over the fields as she drives. It’s proper Autumn today, and I admire the bright fireman-hat yellow of the blackthorn leaves. Mist lies like an exhausted child in the valley below the Hornton Road, and a silly pheasant heaves itself from the hedge, trying to claim right of way.

Autumn suits Hornton hugely well; its gorgeous golden houses are set off by the russets and acid yellows,  and the artless beauty of the falling leaves disguise the worse ravages of the retired gardener.  We manage to bag a decent parking space, and then walk down to the Chapel, the heels of our boots loud on the damp flagged pavement.Hornton Chapel, Hornton

Inside, it’s Arctic, and everyone’s still wearing their coats. D and I spot two chums on the third row back, and we slide into the chairs beside them. There’s lots of waving going on, and mouthing over heads. The New Parents are all in the front rows, having been here for half an hour to bag good seats. Us Old Parents grin and raise eyebrows, exchange rueful smiles – the here-we-are-again brigade.

The children start filtering in – oldest first – and my Elle waves with a tiny barely-there smile: she’s being cool next to a boy almost twice her height, whom she adores. Jess saunters in, one sock up, one sock down, her plaits already unravelling. She raises her hand in my direction, but doesn’t look, because audiences make her shy.  Both of mine disappear behind bigger, younger children, and I go back to gossiping with my mates.

Then there’s an endless pause, when half the children are in and Foundation are missing (‘Bet they’re all on loo breaks’ we say). The children all sit perfectly quiet, and the row of Old Mums are attacked by the giggles. The headmaster, Mr. Green, rocks on his heels and mutters something to his teachers. We only get worse when R’s handsome husband rolls up and sits behind us.  R and C grow particularly raucous and are shushed by me, because I like being bossy. ‘The children are behaving beautifully,’ I hiss. ‘You two are terrible.’ It only makes them worse.  ‘I’ve always got in trouble,’ says C, and we all collapse again.

Finally, all of the children arrive – the Foundation Year heart-breaking with their sparkly-bobbled plaits and brand-new uniforms.  ‘Can you believe they’re so tiny?’ we say. ‘Do you remember? And ours were like that so long ago-‘

And they’re off, the Michaelmas Daisy song belted out at full volume; Elle’s favourite teacher giving it the beans on the old up-right piano. ‘Big FAT leeks, STANDING up in order-‘. They’re following the words from a projector on the white vaulted ceiling behind us, each child tilting its head to look up. It gives them a touchingly angelic aspect, as if their singing was star-bound. Mothers bob up and down, taking photos on smartphones, loud with synthetic clicks.

Next up is a presentation on Water Aid, the school’s chosen charity of the year, which makes us all count our blessings. Two of the Year 6 girls tell us the stark facts of some other child’s life, and I touch my fingertips to the wooden surround of my chair, silently thankful that I am not the mother of that child. As the older ones speak, the younger ones gaze up at us, as if willing us into some sort of action.  I’m sorry, I think, impotently. I used to want to save the world.

Feebly, I slide my eyes to the left, and focus on a flower arrangement, gorgeous with gladioli and delphiniums. I imagine the hand that cut the stems, that arranged the blooms. I force myself to consider if the white spangles I see are chrysanthemums or late dahlias.

Thankfully, the presentation is swiftly followed by poetry, which is all very jolly and mostly in rhyming couplets, which always make me feel cheerful.

But the relief is not for long. The Year 6 girls stand up for ‘Global Child’, and their voices are so relentlessly sweet, the words so simple and affecting, that R and I turn to each other with pinkening eyes and pressed lips.

‘God,’ I say, at the end. I blink, in that face-up way you do when your mascara’s not waterproof.

‘Yeah,’ says R, sniffing. ‘Me too.’

It’s only near the very end of the Assembly that I realise something awful. I’ve rushed out of the house with my mobile, three crumpled green poobags and a tub of lip balm, but absolutely no money for the retiring collection. We’ve been told each new well for Water Aid is £40, and the school has so far bought two. I want, more than anything, to put my money in the plate with everyone else.

I’m forced to scav off my mates, and they all drop coins in my cupped hand, joking about me running off with it and going on a penny-sweet rampage. I laugh, and take their teasing, silently vowing to go on the Water Aid site when I get home.

And then the children are being shepherded back to school, and Jess files past me, refusing a kiss. I pout, and make her cross.

‘Silly Mummy,’ she says, severely.

We all start to leave: the fresh air soft on our faces, the rest of the day’s To-Do list ticking busily through our brains. I drift along with the rest, walking down the Chapel steps, still chattering.

On the last step, I’m almost knocked off my feet by Elle, racing to kiss me goodbye.

‘It was sad, Mummy, wasn’t it?’

‘You sang beautifully,’ I tell her, squishing her to me. I kiss her silky head, silently marvel at her height, her strength. She who was once so tiny.

She’s swept away in the stream of her friends, and she doesn’t turn back to wave. I watch her dark head weaving back down towards school, and I feel that thing in my heart; that knowledge particular to being a mother, that hurts as much as it fiercely pleases.

For a moment I touch my cheek, teetering on the  Chapel step. I feel a boundless gratitude; a tacit understanding of the absolute fluke of fortune. The recognition of grace, of sheer luck,  that enables our children to live the lives we choose for them.


And There Was A Secret Horley Fest

It’s already raining as we bounce down the Wroxton Road. Fine, misty stuff that makes crystal beads in the children’s hair. The tarmac gleams blackly-slick, and the chestnut on the corner of Little Lane totters beneath its weight of sodden leaves. It’s nearly eight o’clock, but feels later, darkness sneaking in on the rolling waves of a rain-grey sky.

We’re singing 1Direction ‘You don’t know you’re beautiful’ – the same line over and again -Oh, oh-oh, because none of us know the proper words. There’s me and four children, singing, screeching and twirling through Horley, party nerves sending us hyper. I’m the only one with gin in one pocket, and tonic in the other. I have a blue plastic beaker forced into the back pocket of my skinny jeans. I am wearing six earrings in my ears for the first time in fifteen years, and I feel as if I’m reclaiming a tiny something that used to be mine. The party is in a field, you see; a sweet, perfect festival. There’re bands. And tents. And volley-ball and a massive water-slide. Tonight, there’ll be Dave, and his glorious The Love Shack Disco.

There’re even porta-loos and a beach-hut bar, complete with beach. Years ago, before marriage and children and growing up, I used to do festivals, the wilder, more random, the better. I’m no stranger to dancing in fields, beneath open skies. But not tonight, I think, climbing the hill. I’ll have a few drinks, have a chatter, then round up the children and leave. This is the second night of the Secret Horley Fest, and everyone will be exhausted anyway.   And I’m so very responsible, and terribly grown up. I will soon be driving an estate car. With dog-bars.

We reach the field, and the four children are off, screaming like banshees into the gloom. From the gate I can see crowds of people around the beach-bar, lit by the bright lights of the disco. The bones of last night’s bonfire lie grey-white in the middle of the field, and the tents of guests are pitched above, pegged and billowing; electric blue, dark-green, navy and alien-snot green. The campers are on the only flat bit, the rest of the field field mostly slopes back down to Horley, as if to tip us gently home.

I’m too scared to brave the bar, so I plod up the hill, hoping I find chums in tents. I do – Shorty and Sporty, glugging beer outside their blue tent. I flourish my gin, and then there’re more chums coming up the hill – Lulu and Giddyup, and they scoff at my tiny measures and declare themselves mistresses of the gin bottle.

‘Can’t Stevie come,’ they say. ‘And pick up the kids?’

It all suddenly seems like such a fabulous idea.


I’m teetering now, on the edge, but my mother-programming is too hard to over-ride with children present. Miraculously though, Stevie rings, and offers to drive up, as the rain is sheeting now, and surely we must all be frozen?

‘Totally,’ I say, enunciating very carefully. ‘But would you mind awfully if you took the children and I stayed?’

‘Oh God,’ he says, but I hear the grin in his voice.

It’s too dark to see splattered hair and running mascara, and I’m on a gin rush now. Lulu and I pluck the children from the mosh pit and jolly them towards the gate. I can’t figure out if I’m upright or not, and we all hang onto each other in the darkness. Stevie arrives and the children are soundly kissed and strapped in the car and Stevie ducks forward as I go to shut the car door.

‘Have a good time,’ he says, making sure he catches my eye. I read the subtext. Call me, if you need me. Lulu and I stand there, rain dripping from our eyelashes, waving them off.

‘Oh Lordy,’ I say, when the red tail-lights are gone. ‘I’m going to drink more gin. And then-‘ I turn to Lu. ‘I might dance.’

Lulu rolls her eyes and we weave back to the Beach Bar. A big white gazebo has been put up, and everyone’s crammed beneath it, to keep out of the rain. We reach the others, and my beaker’s been topped up. I stand and sip, trying to spy who’s here. There’s a wide range of ages, from children to grand-parents, and lots of beautiful teenagers with long rippling hair, all laughing in parrot-shrieks.

I finish my beaker, and decide, owl-like, that Legs of Horley and Handsome Neighbour (our host and hostess) must need help on the barbecue. I reel over, arms flung wide. ‘I’ve come to help,’ I cry. ‘Although I’m a bit pissed-‘

‘Don’t worry,’ they say, welcoming me in. Then they move me briskly over as I make a grab for the burger tongs. I fall hands-down into some frozen bread rolls; rock-hard and weirdly domed, like pixie-skulls.

‘Frozen ones toast better,’ I’m told, as I pick one up in confusion. I nod, and even when I stop, my head’s still going. Someone comes over to photograph Legs, and she tries to hide behind the ketchup bottle without appearing rude.

‘Stand and smile!’ I shout, grabbing her in a head-lock.

They put me in charge of taking donations, but I’m useless. The Mistress of The Horse and Tommy Gun arrive, and they bring me more gin.

‘Revenge,’ murmurs Tommy Gun, handing me a plastic glass and kissing my cheek. I’m gazing in envy at his wife. The Mistress is wearing a beautiful tweed-and feather Titfers hat, and looks effortlessly stylish.

Our host is wearing a vast sombrero and does not. He abandons the barbecue to go down the slope to dance, the disco lights turning him pink then yellow, like an Irene Tyack man. We see his teeth flashing as a gaggle of ladies rush from the gazebo to join him for a bop.

Dave is playing Cold Play now, and Stereophonics, and oh, I so want to dance. My body keeps arching from my hips, and my legs twitch. I accidentally bin the Legs of Horley’s half-eaten burger, and I’m summarily sacked. I collapse with appalled laughter. It had contained the last of the cheese.

‘Go have another drink,’ she says, bundling me away from the barbecue.

Back under the gazebo, there’s the lairy roar of conversation as guests make themselves heard over the music. Big Steve pulls me in out of the rain, and I’m introduced to a pretty girl who works in fashion. We gesture at our jeans and wellies and anoraks, and bond over the shiteness of rain on straightened hair.

But then it’s Florence And The Machine, and I’m being pulled, towed out of the gazebo, into the sherbert lights and the noise and the madness and my hands are up, my body alive, alive, my anorak chucked in a pile around which we leap; fling our hands, our feet, our bones, our reserves. The rain is cool on my upturned face, my mouth open, shouting, shouting the words: You’ve got the love, got the love-‘

We dance in our wellies, in our vests and jeans. Lulu and Giddyup and me. Rain washes away the sweat and we don’t stop; we don’t stop even once. Stitch burns like fire in my side, my spine is disconnected from my thighs, my wellies chafe my shins raw. We don’t stop.

Then it’s the set Dave always plays, when it’s us, when it’s Horley. Born Slippy: Drive boy dog boy / Dirty numb angel boy / In the doorway boy / She was a lipstick boy / She was a beautiful boy / And tears boy / And all in your innerspace boy

The strobe is on, and I can practically feel a plastic whistle between my teeth; I’m sixteen, twenty-eight, thirty-four, eighty-five – ageless, careless. The music in me, around me, holding me, controlling and consuming, like the best kind of loving, the best kind of ecstasy.

We’re on our knees when he stops, lets us go. Spent, drugged with bliss. He plays us Green Day: Time of Your Life’, the way he always does, and we collapse together, as we always do, as many as we can, our hands high, bodies swaying together.

It’s something unpredictable/ But in the end it’s right/ I hope you had the time of your life.

God, yes. Thank you having me. Time of my life.The Love Shack Disco

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

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.


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?


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.

May Day – (Monday 6th May) Hornton, Oxfordshire

‘May Day Dancing, Mummy, is a Really Big Thing. Particularly when one is Queen.’

Crowning of May King and Queen

Jessica stands in her underwear in my bedroom, brushing her hair with my brush. She’s a small, pale despot in polka-dot pants.

‘Will you film it,’ she says. ‘So I can show my children when I’m old.’

I nod, and blink mascara into my eyebrows.

‘And you’ll stand where exactly?’ she continues. ‘And you’re not to keep talking. You’ve got to watch.’

I grimace into my tiny hand mirror. ‘And Mummy,’ she puts her hands on her hips. ‘No going to the pub in the middle.’

Daddy bloody does, I think, but don’t say.

It takes forever to get her into her new frock. She kicks off at wearing her patent school shoes, but I tie ribbons on them, to look less schoolish. We go downstairs, and the puppy freezes mid-launch when we all screech. Dora doesn’t even bother getting out of her bed – she knows best frocks mean hysteria and vertical pats.

We arrive at Hornton an hour before the Parade, because I love ferreting around the White Elephant and the second-hand books. My stomach actually squirms with the anticipation of what I might find. Hornton looks as beautiful as ever, aubretia frothing from walls. Red and white tulips stand in serried ranks, like ready-filled wine glasses at a summer party.

‘Mummy,’ says Ellie. ‘I might need more money.’

Stevie drops Ellie, Jess and me off, then goes off to find somewhere to park. I streak down the hill, desperate to score before Stevie can find me and ride me off. I look around for the children, but they’re gone, vanished like lurchers to filch cakes from their friends’ mummies.

‘Carles!’ I hear, and the next moment I’m kissed by a bevvy of mates, all in pretty summer dresses, toe-nails painted.

‘Can’t stop,’ I hiss. ‘Got to reach the White Elephant.’

Once there, I’m instantly transfixed by the possibilities of fabulousness. The chipped jug that would be gorgeous full of pink campions. The grimy oil painting that might just be School of Turner. I manage to purchase a metal colander with a long handle, a reproduction horse brass and a fish kettle.

‘Gotcha,’ says Stevie, grabbing my waist. He’s too late, I’ve paid, and I’m on a high.

‘Oh look!’ I say. ‘There’s the Curdies!’ Stevie goes to say hello and I beetle over to the books. In less than a minute I’ve selected 6, and I pay £4. One of them is a Nancy Mitford, and I’m practically hyperventilating.

One of the school mummies catches my elbow. ‘Shouldn’t you be up at the Joiners? Isn’t your Jessica queen?’

I blanch, and Stephen reappears to confiscate my sac magique, the weight of which is bending me almost double.

‘Where’s Jess,’ he says. ‘Apparently they’re lining up.’

Bad-mummy guilt makes me ball Jess out when I track her down on the bouncy castle.

‘Bloody bouncing in bloody fifty quid dress!’ Jessica takes my hand as we storm up the hill to the Joiners.

‘Stop stressing, Mum,’ she says. ‘I only did very little bounces.’ She thinks for a moment. ‘And I am the May Queen.’

She looks so sweet and pretty that I stop and sweep her up and kiss her neck, just below her ear. She laughs, because she knows that today she’s enchanted, and all-powerful.

We meet parents coming down the hill, having left their children with the brilliant Ian Harris, and whom the children call the May Day Man. We all exchange smiles at being part of such an ancient thing, in such a beautiful place. Jessica tows me onwards, before I can talk to anyone. With relief, I see Ellie’s already made it, standing looking cool with her nine-year old buddies.

‘She’s here!’ cries Mrs Joiner, catching hold of Ellie.

‘No,’ says Ellie, indignant. ‘You want my sister.’

Jessica disappears beneath a faded red velour curtain, then emerges a proud un-crowned Queen in a regal velvet cloak. She holds her head high and to the left, as if about to waltz. Her little King, Jack, comes to stand next to her, sweet in his white shirt and dickie-bow. I catch the eye of the King’s mother, and we both grin. Our children have known each other practically from birth, and were born, in fact, two weeks apart. They belong so completely in this village, in this parade, on this day.

I kiss Ellie for luck, then run off down the hill before I can cry.

There’s been May Day dancing in Hornton for over 100 years, and the children have always followed a musician to parade down the hill to the village green. They walk slowly, with immense pride, beneath arches of pink and white blossom.

The weight of that history makes me shiver, and I think of Rupert Brooke,  ‘dust whom England bore, shaped, made aware’ – I wonder how many share memories of May Day, and which of those children still live, and whether they lived to be old and watch their own children come down the hill.

The crowd around me is shifting now, and there’re ooh’s and clapping. Mr. Whitehead is playing his accordion and Keenan and Megan, the lead blossom bearers appear, closely followed by Jessica and her King. Both are poker-faced. The parade solemnly troops straight past the thrones and heads for the May pole.

‘Stop!’ bellows a capable-looking blonde. ‘Wrong way!’

‘Every year,’ says Mrs Joiner, as the parade buckles, then reverses.

A Hornton bigwig gives an inaudible speech, and everyone claps him because he’s such a nice man. Then the children are crowned, and Jess’ face splits into her biggest, most chuffed grin. Her crown is made of white roses, studded with pink carnations, and twists of baby breath. She sees me and waves, then pokes Jack in the ribs to whisper something that makes them both giggle. Stevie squeezes my shoulder and I tread backwards onto his toe.

‘Photos, mummies!’ comes a call, and then there all off again, to start the dancing proper. The ribbons – pink, green, blue, buttercup-yellow – are tent-pegged to the grass to stop them fluttering in the breeze.

The grownups jostle for space around the green, and we all put on sunglasses, so we can eye people up without being spotted. ‘Hasn’t Sally grown tall?’ murmurs my neighbour. ‘And look how tanned the Benneley’s are – St Kitts, wasn’t it? someone must be doing well.’

The music starts up and the children are handed their ribbons, the tent pegs carefully collected. The dance is announced, but I don’t catch it, trying to eavesdrop on Stevie and a Horley husband discussing drunken escapades. The tunes are timeless, belted out to bounce off the golden-bricked walls around us. The smell of barbecued sausages are driving me mad.

I turn around to Stevie, but can’t see him. Ellie is dancing now, looking very serious and trying to ignore the barracking from the rest of her class sat round the edge. The catcalls are led by Archie, whom she adores.May Day Dancing

Stevie reappears with a pint of bitter, and winks at me. ‘Arse,’ I mouth. He toasts me, and takes a long gulp.

The last dance begins, and husbands start wriggling off pub-wards. The Pees have arrived, and I tell Mum we must go and have afternoon tea in the school.

The music finishes and we all clap as the children bow and curtsey and then  leggit before their parents can re-capture them and make them go home. The ribbons are caught by the wind and soar joyfully for a moment, before tangling themselves around their May pole.

‘So lovely,’ people say as they drift away. ‘Such a lovely thing.’

May Day is in no way winding down, and there’s still the Morris Dancing to watch and stalls to visit. I feel the pull of the White Elephant again, but my dad takes my arm. ‘No more crap, Carlie.’ My mum hastily looks away from a soup tureen I know she admires. Stevie’s disappeared again, and we go to eat chocolate cake and drink very brown tea.

The school is inundated with punters needing refreshment, so I abandon the Pees and join the Mummies washing up in Class 3’s enormous Belfast sink. ‘Jessica looked so pretty,’ they say. ‘Did you cry? Or cry much, anyway-‘

I whisk away in yellow Marigolds, chattering, laughing, but feeling that nudge of history again. A mountain of orange-red used teabags smells like my childhood, playing behind the scenes at fundraisers whilst my mother brandished giant brown-enamel teapots. I slosh washing up liquid, and agree that fairy cakes are nicer than cup cakes.

Eventually, I sit with the Pees, and gobble my slice of cake before my dad can pinch it. Stevie turns up with another beer, and we sit in the afternoon sun, watching the crowds go by.

Jessica turns up with her mate Ruby, and they show us their giant gob-stopper dummies.

‘Their teeth,’ says Mum, distressed. Then, ‘It’s nearly four, we’ll shake a leg, let you catch up with your friends.’

I laugh, because shake-a-leg always makes me think of a man who’s peed on his own trousers.

Stevie starts listing our friends who are in the pub garden, and we kiss The Pees goodbye and start drifting that way. There’re so many people our progress is very slow, and somehow we’re separated. I stop to admire a baby in a pram, and realise I’m barely yards from the White Elephant. I spot a fractured standard lamp, and start to sidle over. My friend with the baby wheels with me, and suddenly we’re there, next to the lamp.

I nod and chatter, so casual. I feel my Emergency Fiver, hidden from children and Stevie in my cardigan pocket. I manage to slide it out and pass it to the nice chap manning the stall without anyone noticing. Stevie strides into sight.

‘Wife!’ he says. ‘What’re you doing?’

The nice chap quails, and disappears. My friend with the baby is accosted by another friend with a baby.

‘I’ve bought a lamp,’ I say. ‘For the living room.’

Stevie looks at it in horror. ‘Why? We’ve got lamps. We don’t need lamps.’

‘It was a pound,’ I say, hopefully.

‘I’ll give you ten to leave it here! Come on, come on. Pub! Now!’ And he frog marches me away.

Much later, we drive home to Horley. The children are exhausted, Maypole-axed with sugar, heads lolling in the back of the car. Jessica’s crown is skewed over her left ear. Ellie has candy floss in her hair. We pull up at our house, and everyone clambers wearily out but me.

‘What’re you doing?’ asks Stevie, unloading my previous bounty. I wait until he’s shut the boot before putting the car in reverse.

‘Back in a bit,’ I cry.

‘Where you going, darling? I thought we were having food?’

‘Yes, yes,’ I say, thrusting gaily into first. ‘Just got to pop to Hornton. That nice man’s holding onto my lamp.’

He swears at me in disbelief.

I wave an admonishing finger. ‘Now, now,’ I say, ready to accelerate. ‘It’s a lovely lamp. And I am still the May Queen Mother…’