The Carol Service – 22nd December 2013

We spill out of our house, noisy and chattering, calling ahead and behind – have we got everybody? Are we all here? Stevie and Weaze are still in the house, ostensibly sorting the dogs. Really, topping hip flasks.

We’re going up the hill towards St Ethelreda’s, where the children are in the Nativity: El is Mary and Jess is The Star. We’ve all been drinking port and eating Warwickshire Extra Strong, and an amazing Oxford Blue with home-made quince jelly. All apart from Little Sausage, who is not yet two and prefers crumbed chicken goujons.

We’re forced single-file as we hurry up the Jackie Chan, and I feel a squinch of pleasure as we see the church on our left –  ancient windows lit gold, promising the carols of childhood. The Sausages are up ahead, crossing the Hornton road with the buggy, and Lulu and Giddyup and I hurry to catch them, our heels loud on the pavement, our breath misting in the night air.

Inside, it’s already packed, almost the whole of the right pews full of Horley children in costume – an entire population of sheep, kings and angels, faces bursting with importance and excitement. The older village children are up on the stage, in thick Christmas jumpers and bobble hats. They all look very serious as they survey the milling congregation below, and there is no fidgeting. Stalwart church types whiz to and fro, organising extra heaters, sorting out service sheets.

‘Patrick!’ stage-whispers a tall older lady in tweed. ‘Who on earth are all these people?’

‘Tourists,’ answers a younger man, steering her towards a heater. Extra benches are appearing now, from out of the Vestry; newcomers continue to pour in.

We nip quickly into the left aisle, with me on the end, so I have a good view of Mary and the Wandering Star. On the stage, above the children’s heads hangs a glitzy cardboard star turning slowly on an invisible string. It should look deeply naff, but instead it’s oddly touching, and just as it should be.

‘I must take notes,’ I mutter, thinking of a scene in my book. I pat my pockets, and realise I’ve forgotten my little notepad. Far worse though; I’ve forgotten the ‘thank you’ flowers for Tess and Brenda, both of whom spend weeks rehearsing the children and planning the Nativity. I clap my hands to my mouth in case I swear, and then see Stevie has arrived at the bottom of our row.

‘Go home!’ I mouth. ‘Forgotten, forgotten!’

Stevie rolls his eyes and grins. He mouths back ‘silly cow’, shaking his head as he edges his way out of the pew. The organist – fabulous organist – is playing In The Bleak Mid-Winter, and Lulu and Giddyup have found me a pen for my notes.

I sigh with pleasure, looking round at the glossy bunches of holly with their blood-red berries, the fat white candles flickering in the draught from the constantly-opening door. We can smell the mulled wine with its oranges and cloves, warming for after the service, and the burnt-dust smell of gas heaters. There’s a steady roar of conversation from the impious, and occasional yelps of laughter from the inebriated. Lulu and Giddyup are making up names for people to go in the blog, and keep collapsing with giggles.

‘Yarp, yarp, yarp,’ says Giddyup, as one of the more handsome stalwarts pass, flapping his arms. He pauses by our pew, one hand in his pocket, the other held crooked like a teapot. ‘Lord Yarp,’ she says, her voice low. ‘Completely perfect.’

The church is stuffed full now, and everyone is waiting. Opposite our pew is a school-buddy with her two pre-schoolers, Charlie and Holly, who are dressed as a shepherd and sheep respectively. They wriggle on their mother’s lap, anxious for the off.

‘Where’s the vicar?’ someone says, in puzzlement. One of the Stalwarts leap to the stage, and the congregation watch expectantly. He exhorts us to enjoy the Nativity, then purses his lips and asks us not to clap.

And then the whole thing is under way: one of the serious crew on stage is up and solo-ing Royal David’s City, then we’re all on our feet, feeling our way through the tune, tackling the high bits and trying not to break on the impossible ‘And’s.

It soon becomes evident that there will be no vicar, but that the service will be done entirely by the children of Horley. Somehow the readings and carols take on greater meaning, as we hear words spoken since we were children ourselves, and heard by our own parents, and grandparents, who in turn heard those words before we were even thought of. We get to that bit in The Bleak Midwinter about cherubim and seraphim and tears are falling down my cheeks, taking with them my mascara and my self-conciousness. By the final verse, the beauty of the words have affected everyone, and hands are squeezed, glances exchanged. Forgiven. Loved.

In turn, the children appear in their places: Mary is visited by a star, the Inn Keeper is duly knocked up. Every time there’s any action on the stage, Holly the Sheep makes a bid to join in, and her mother catches her by the ankle. We’re belting through O Little Town of Bethlehem, and Holly the Sheep is prone in the centre aisle, crawling commando-style towards the action. Her mother pulls her back on her belly, trying to sing at the same time. On our row we sway with laughter, and I wipe away yet more tears.

Angels arrive and the children break our hearts with ‘Away In A Manger’. Holly finally escapes and gets on stage, standing pleased as punch and baa-ing, waving and smiling to an adoring crowd. My Elle gets the giggles, and her Baby Jesus, (Thomas: a huge brute, once mine), won’t fit in the manger. She squashes him in, and he springs free, his chubby plastic arms waving.

Soon we’re onto Hark The Heralds, and I wish I was standing near Chris Howell, Tess’ husband, because I like his singing. I can hear some voices doing lovely fancy bits and I wish I could gather all the singers up so I could hear them properly together, without the awful braying coming from a few rows back.  But then our local choir-mistress, Debbie, comes forward to lead the Serious Crew in Gaudete, which is the first ever time I’ve properly listened to a madrigal. It is a moment like glimpsing the most beautiful face, or eating the most perfect mouthful – astonishing and fleeting, leaving me wide-eyed, blinking. It’s immensely hard not to clap.

Then one of the Serious Crew boys stands up on his own. He puts his hands in the pockets of his tracksuit bottoms and sings the opening verse of ‘Silent Night’, his expression transformed – radiance beams from thy holy face. We all join in the second verse, fortissimo.

It seems so quickly that the kings do their bit (complete with brilliant tantivy on the trumpet) and we’re belting out God Rest You Merry Gentlemen, the children trawling congregation for the collection. All around there’s the chink of change. There’s a flash of  orange and gold down our row, and the women all swivel forwards to see which of their men gave a tenner. Stevie’s laughing, so I’m guessing not us.

We’re all giving it welly to Come All Ye Faithful (once a year, at any rate), and then the children are all up on stage, posing for photos and it’s time for the mulled wine, mince pies and didn’t-they-do-wells.

I can feel my cheeks are flushed from all of the emotion, and I surreptitiously rub mascara from beneath my eyes.

‘So lovely,’ we all say. ‘So lucky.’

Jess speeds past, blowing a kiss and stuffing her mouth with sweets. She joins the rest of the children, all of her little buddies, now rioting unchecked behind the blue Vestry curtains. Lord Yarp is supervising the snuffing of candles, Stalwarts are gathering chairs, abandoned service sheets. There’s great talk of the new bells, and when they’ll be ringing.

I’m just upending my glass when Stevie catches my eye, gives the nod. We wrangle the daughters into coats.

‘I’ll see if they want help with the glasses,’ I say. ‘See you in a minute.’

The ladies manning the mince pie station tell me not to worry, it’ll all be dealt with in the morning. I’m relieved, thinking of the washing up waiting at home, the presents still unwrapped, the Christmas cake still un-iced.

”Night,’ I say. ‘Thank you, thank you.’

Outside the air has crispened, and feels wonderfully cool on my face. I’ve no torch but I don’t mind, I know every step of the way home. I think of the packet of crumpets in the bread-cage, and of how I’ll make a pot of tea and Stevie will’ve done the fires. The children will be in their nighties, and Country File will be on the telly. I quicken my step, smiling into the darkness.

Happy, happy Christmas. To one and all.

Bonfire Night! Tuesday, 5th November

Every year, we whiz down the Warwick Road to Warmington, for Warmington’s Bonfire Night. It’s always on the actual 5th, and the bonfire is always a whopper.

Warmington Bonfire, Warwks, 05.11.13
Jess’ earmuffs!

This year, we’re off with our chums, the Always-Sprightlies, and it’s half past five, and we’re eating a vast tea of jacket potatoes and Bolognaise with buckets of grated cheddar to keep us going. The children are already screechy with excitement, and are winding up the dogs, which worries me.

‘But will he be okay?’ I say, for the hundredth time. It’s the Pants’ first experience of fireworks, and he’s already tried to wee on the stairs. Dora is in her cage, grumbling away like an old kettle.

Just as we’re agreeing that wouldn’t it be lovely to have a glass of that red, someone notices it’s almost six, and then we’re all swirled into activity – grown ups clearing the table, children all crammed in the hall wellying up, me turning on the television and RadioTwo full blast.

‘What’re you doing?’ asks Stephen in horror.’I suppose you’re going to leave all the bloody lights on, as well?’

‘Yes,’ I hiss. ‘And where the hell is Merlin?’

We open the front door to all pour out, and the missing cat streaks in, straight upstairs to hide beneath a bed. I can hear Pants whining, and I hesitate on the doorstep. Dora joins in with her clockwork bark, and feeling horribly guilty, I pull the front door closed and run to the van in the darkness.

The Sprightlies beat us there, and save us the last  space in the lay-by above the village. We’re all pleased, because it’s the best get-away spot and crammed with cars from Horley and Hornton. We all get out and discover we’ve two working torches between eight.

‘Gosh,’ says S, when Stephen puts the Maglite in her hands. ‘What a whopper,’

We skirt St Michael’s (which is beautiful, incidentally – but more grey-in-the-stone than our lovely St E’s), stumbling only slightly in the starlight. ‘Come on,’ say the children, and drag us down the hill into Warmington proper.

Oh, but it’s pretty, even in the dark. Warmington can trace its roots back to the Mesolithic age, and it spills gently down a hill like a tipped treasure chest. The houses are grouped round two generous greens – the top one has a big pond, and I always think that if I could draw my perfect village, I would definitely steal bits from this one. We pass the pub – The Plough – all yellow-lit and heaving with handsome farm-types in checked shirts.

Village children are rushing around coat-less, brandishing light-sticks, and we can smell sparklers and hot dogs and onions, and behind all that, the hot, crackling smoke of the mighty fire.

‘Can we go, can we go, can we go?’ say our children. The men slide off to ‘bring you hot drinks, darling,’ and S and I are left to peer through the darkness, trying to identify the flame-licked silhouettes of local buddies.

‘I’m sure that’s Tasha’s hat,’ I say. ‘Or not. Oh, I’ll wave anyway…’

The men come back empty handed – no tea! – and the children are racing about playing It in the crowd. S and I natter on, as is our way.

Just as I’m starting to shiver (no tea!), the fireworks crack and vhisp into extraordinary, pointless life, lighting all the faces around, eliciting oohs and aahs, as parents try to jolly surprised young children

‘Too loud, Mummy!’ wails a boy in the crowd. Our four are transfixed, and Stephen pulls me against him, sheltering me from the wind. He keeps pretending to jump at the bangs, and I slide my hand to horse-pinch his thigh: hard. This is the first year I’ve not had to hold Jess – she was always petrified of the rockets and anything that does that crackle thing. I look at her profile now – eyes wide-open, mouth laughing and chattering. She’s wearing enormous grey furry earmuffs, and I smile, privately, and wonder if they’re boosting this new-found bravery.

Warmington Village Bonfire Nov 2013
Sorry for rubbish camera, but you can just see the reflection in the pond…

The fireworks last the perfect amount of time for me with no tea.

‘Can’t we stay?’ say the children, as we call them to us. ‘Please, please?’

‘No,’ we say. ‘School tomorrow.’

We start walking back up the hill to the layby, sharing bags of Haloween Haribo to keep us going.

We’re full of plans for next year, what we’ll do.

‘And whatever else,’ I say, navigating the cars. ‘We’ll bring some tea in a flask.’

‘And hot chocolate,’ says Ellie.

‘Yes,’ I say. ‘And hot chocolate. More torches. More flasks. It’ll be excellent.’

On Walking – Monday 4th November

We’re walking up the Hornton Road – marching really. There’s a sly wind that keeps nipping rudely beneath my blue woollen skirt, and despite my stripy beanie, I’m cold. The dogs grumble as I drag them past favoured wee spots. From the Jackie Chan I can see sunshine spilling like treasure from behind the huge, dark holly tree on the edge of the churchyard.

We’re going so fast, I hardly pause at St Ethelreda’s horsechestnuts. Barely a week ago they were gorgeous; their leaves dipped in tumeric, in smoked paprika. But now their branches are bare and vulnerable, awkwardly crooked. A few mustardy leaves cling on, but the rest are on the pavement, rasping their exhaustion against my welly boots. I’m gone – I want to be over Bramshill, the panacea to the heavy black-poker pressure of stoves-in-before-Christmas.

It works every time. I perch on the stile, looking and listening; drinking deep of the peace. The frantic trapped-bird of my brain, that flutters and bashes against insolvable problems, finally begins to still.

Pants and Dora near the Spinney

Ahead of me, I can see the smart stripes of the new wheat, shooting pale-green through the  rough stubble. That sly wind is ruffling its way through the beech woods now; the young beeches beneath me are are darkly copper in the sun, now sage, now dun. To my left curves the dark arm of the Scout Woods, and as I watch, the sun races across the grazing beneath the wood. For a moment, the distant grass is luminous; a  glorious, wild, velvet emerald. Even as I reach for my phone, it’s gone, the magic raced onwards, beyond.

I slide down the stile, galumph down the slope, vault the fence to prove I still can. As I go through the spinney, I hear the clown-in-a-box laugh of the ducks from the ponds.

I whistle the dogs, climb out of the trees and slog up the long flank of the wheat field to the crown of the hill.  I keep my head down, tucked away from the wind, keeping the moment when I reach the break in the hedge, and the valley spills before me; all for me to savour.

God, do I savour. I see brown-and-white cattle in the crease, the neat patches of maize, the biggest rhododendrons in the world surrounding the pheasant pens. And above it all, arching blue sky, strewn with sharp-edged clouds.Bramshill's Valley

Pants, bored of my mooning, canons into my legs, then runs away laughing. I glare, but walk on. The stile onto Clump Lane is broken, its top bar loose from one side of its moorings. It’s lethal, crotch-wise, for anyone who puts their weight in the wrong place. I step over, careful of my sensible, thick tights.

We start walking up the Clump, towards Horley, the dogs weaving, play-fighting around my legs. I shout at them to go off, to go away, but then I shout to come on, faster, let’s go, come on. I’m chasing them up the hill, hooting to wind them up. My coat’s undone, my hat off. Warmed through. Happy.

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

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 Walking – Saturday 11th May

Horribly, horribly busy, but sent dog walking by Stevie because apparently I’m grumpy. I’ve been welded to my lap top for three straight hours, trying to crack a piece, and all I’ve produced is a painfully convoluted paragraph on the town of Abingdon.

‘Just bugger off,’ says Stevie, unplugging me. ‘Sun’s out. Move it.’

I de-crunch my limbs, and we go, me with Dora, Ellie with the puppy. Ellie chatters away, but I don’t listen, still deep in booksellers. I grunt, at intervals, irritated with the world.

At the end of the Jackie Chan, I trip over Arfa Pants, and do a comedy fall to avoid squashing him flat. There’s a clump of Ladies’ smock, pinkish-white petals inches from my nose. Elle looks at me sideways, unsure whether she’s allowed to laugh. She looks away, hand over her mouth, and spots a squirrel.

‘Mummy!’

We watch it shin one of St Ethelreda’s horse chestnut trees, and disappear into the new leaves.

‘Don’t they look like hankies?’ I say.

‘What,’ says Elle. ‘Already covered in snot?’

We walk on, arguing whether to go over Bramshill, or up and around the Allotment field. I win. We walk to the Allotment field.

My grump lasts until half way across the field, when Arfa Pants makes me laugh by going head-over-heels down the steep slope. Ellie’s laughing so hard her legs give way, and we lean together, hooting as Arfa shoots off again.

A huge rain cloud is coming over the hill from Hornton, and Ellie spots it and shouts to run for the bridleway before it gets us. We pelt down the field, and collapse breathless on the tiny bench tucked beneath a tree I don’t know the name of. The rain falls in great splats, and we put our hoods up. Great wafts of scent reaches us, and I realise it’s oil seed rape – the first time this year I’ve smelt it. Beneath its sheet-metal butteriness is a lighter, sweeter scent: bluebells. The rain stops as abruptly as it started, and Elle and I stand up and look behind us. Bluebells cover the whole of the bridleway bank, for as far back up the hill as we can see.

‘Oh,’ I say. ‘Look at that.’Ellie and Arfa Pants in the bluebells, May 2013

‘Good for fairies,’ says Elle. I ask her why, and she gives me one of her rolling-eyes ‘duh’ looks. ‘For their hats, Mummy…?’

Love her.

We walk back towards the Horley-Hornton Road, and see the damage wreaked by recent storms. Halfway up the track is completely blocked by a gnarled elder. It’s torn in half, and took out a huge blackthorn bush on the way. Blackthorn blossom lies thick on the ground, like confetti from a woodland wedding.

Further up, a young sycamore has been wrenched in two, its bright young leaves dying across the path. Even as I’m feeling sorry for it, I’m weighing up the burning potential.

We reach the top of the bridleway and come out onto the road into blazing sunshine. The Hornton cloud can be seen rampaging towards Banbury. Elle and Arfa Pants walk on the wide verge that the gypsies camped on last winter. The grass their ponies cropped is higher now than Elle’s wellies. I smile blindly at a passing car, and can feel Elle looking at me, re-evaluating my mood.

‘Mummy,’ she says. ‘You know tonight?’

We’ve friends over for dinner.

‘Can Jess and I be waitresses?’

I ask her why, although I already know the answer.

‘Well,’ she says. ‘We could watch a bit of telly. And then you don’t need to pay us.’

‘Pay you!’ I shriek.

‘We’ll even pour wine,’ she says, skipping past the Horley sign. ‘If you let us stay up until nine o’clock. And Mummy-‘

‘What?’

‘If me and Jess lay the table, you can finish your bookshop essay.’

‘Not an essay,’ I say, frowning. Elle knows I mean ‘thank you’, and she takes my hand.

On School Run – Thurs 25th April

Released from the tyranny of the school bus, by driving to Hornton to collect children at 4.30.

Hornton considers itself rather more posh than Horley, as it has less bungalows, a bistro pub, and a green full of limes and weeping willows. And famous people.

It also has a tennis court, dominated by strident navy-knickered ladies and suave, very tanned men in cream poloshirts. They call ‘love’ to each other with ever deepening inflection.

The tennis court is next to Hornton Pavilion, which is where the children are, practising May Day dances. Last year Jessica came out of the first practice saying she was very disappointed. ‘I’m not even a hand-made, Mummy.’

All of the children are desperate to be the May King or Queen, and be driven up the high street in a taxi.

Hornton is tucked like a tawny jewel in a dowager’s bosom, and I’m always struck by how beautiful it is. Today I’m particularly envious of the aubretia, falling from the golden stone walls in perfect lilac and green ovals. The gardens here are very different from Horley – the topiary glossed-leaf-perfect, the lawns clipped to fuzzy felt.

I park at the end of Bell Lane, too early, as usual, and wander down the very steep lane to the Pavilion. The Sports field has begun its recovery from the football season and looks the cool, dark green of a Rosseau painting. I want to run onto it and turn a few Spring cartwheels, but I don’t, because the school-gate crowd make me nervous and awfully shy. It doesn’t help that I can never match children to parents, and I never know which year groups they all belong to.

I sit on the Pavilion steps in the sunshine, listening to Pop Goes The Weasel and thinking about an article I’m writing about booksellers. I idly run my hands over my bare shins and freeze in horror. Like pig-skin prior to singeing. I should be wearing a smock and reading Germaine Greer. I jump up and eye the knee-long grass to the side. Consider planting myself in it.

An athletic grandfather (presumably) comes striding down the hill. ‘Are they here?’ he demands.

‘Yes,’ I say, to his departing back.

Other parents are filtering down now, the sun-frocked mummies gathering in knots of chatter, ignoring their manic pre-schoolers.  The daddies stand to one side, leant nostalgic glamour by their open-necked shirts, ties poking from trouser pockets.

My Pan legs are making me self-conscious, and I’m grateful when another mother speaks to me. She is the only one of the whole crowd that I can match with children, year group and name.

I really need to make more of an effort.

‘Oh look,’ says A. ‘Here they come.’

The doors to the Pavilion open, and I step sideways, trying to see through the sudden scrum.

‘Mummy!’ Jessica is in front of me, grinning fit to burst. She hurls herself into my arms. ‘Mummy!’

‘Oh,’ I say. Hand made at last?

Ellie emerges and dumps her rucksack at my feet.

‘Ugh,’ she says. ‘So unfair. Jess is only the bloody May Queen.’

‘Are you?’ I say in delight, lifting her up.

‘Yes,’ she says, in tones of huge satisfaction. ‘I’m going to be going in the taxi.’

Tue 23rd April – On Walking

Dora and I meet up with the Curdie-Wurdie, one of my favourite people, but rubbish at nature-spotting with, unless it’s birds.

Curdie likes birds, and volunteers for the RSPB Garden Watch every year. ‘Have you seen the swallows, yet?’ she asks. ‘And the swifts?’

I tell her I knew they were here, but I hadn’t really noticed. I don’t say that I’m unsure of exactly what a swift looks like. A smaller, faster swallow?

We tramp up to the Old Allotments, and I tell Curdie all about my dreams of a communal orchards, and some allotments, and fencing for fat village ponies.

‘Why do you want an orchard?’ asks Curdie.

‘To collect fruit,’ I say.

We march about the field, pacing imaginary borders and assessing angles of incline. Emma’s pigs are in the field below, and they watch us from beneath their ears. Dora tears around, driven mad by the scent of fox.

It’s a glorious day, and the sun makes last year’s grass a brushed metallic khaki. If you bend over and look closely, you can just see the acid green of this year’s growth beginning to come through.

Curdie and I walk up the old bridle path – useless as such as it’s bombed with huge badger and fox holes. Someone’s evidently been down there, tidying up. The ash trees that fell over winter have been sawn up and moved, and the path is littered with broken twigs. There are clumps of bluebells everywhere (no spears yet), but no wild garlic. WHY? Has it never grown round Horley? Did local farmers take exception to it? Or have I lost my sense of smell to the point I can’t find it? Like my non-flowering aubretia, I’m beginning to become obsessed.

We walk down the Hornton Road towards Horley, and bump into E with lovely Jumble, Dora’s brother. The dogs instantly wind themselves into a lead tangle, and E and I awkwardly unthread them. Jumble briskly humps Dora’s head. Dora rolls her eyes.

‘Wrong end,’ says E.

We all agree the weather is beautiful, and how much cheerier life is with the sun. Then we all agree how fast our children are growing up, and how old we feel.

Eventually, Curdie and I wander on. I try to be discreet as I peer into a skip outside a cottage.

We see some lung-wort, purply-blue, still flowering its speckled socks off. Walking past Bramshill Manor, Curdie spots the fruit trees on their lawn.

‘An orchard!’ she says. ‘See?’

‘So?’ I say, gazing through the iron fence. ‘We can’t get to them.’

Curdie’s eyes gleam, she savours the word as she says it: ‘Scrumping.’

We laugh at the thought, and Curdie points out a tree. ‘Look,’ she says. ‘Look!’

Thinking she’s spotted a particularly lovely bird, I say ‘Where, where?’

‘There!’ She’s triumphant. ‘A mulberry tree.’

‘Mulberry tree?’

‘Mulberry tree.’

‘Oh?’ I say, peering at it. It’s not very tall and has gnarled bark that makes me think of walnut shells.

She nods sagely as we walk on down the hill. ‘Mulberry. Yup. Good for going round.’