On Walking

We’re the first of the walkers up into wood, I can tell by the single gossamer-light cobweb lines that catch my face. The hawthorns are heavy with deeply red berries, and they’ve bent to make a tunnel that meets just above my bare head. The early-morning sun lights the ash and goat willows in white-gold patches, and I have to steady myself, or else I’d run skipping like a loon, to dance in the richness.

Yeats wrote that ‘too long a sacrifice, makes a stone of the heart’. Jilly Cooper had one of her characters say the line when he’d waited for a woman he’d loved, and I’ve been thinking it these past few weeks, waiting, waiting to hear back from agents about The Badly Born.  Part of me whispers let it go, let it be still-born, like the others. The other part of me is defiant, and thinks good: be a stone. Stones endure. Stones hold down balloons of hope.

The agents have had my book for seven weeks, now, and with every passing day, I tried to make myself more stone-like, more weighted against lift-off and the possibility of a fall.

Last night, though, I had an email from one of them, telling me I was yet to be read, but would be soon, and I lay in bed, clutching my phone, recognising how utterly I’d failed in the stone stakes. I’ve no defences at all, no weight for that slippery, silvery bubble of hope. I can feel it rising despite all of the times I’ve trusted it and we’ve been so high, and I’ve fallen. Falling hurts so damned much.

What makes us do this? In love, or work, or art, or whatever it is that terrifies and fascinates us. To reach for something we’ve such little chances of touching. How much more content must people be, that can control their hope.

I’ve walked almost the length of the woods unseeing. I’m breathless with an exhilaration I know must not be trusted. I call in the bigger dogs, then let them go again. Dora stays beside me, shooting me suspicious, disapproving looks. She’s checking I’m still beside her, not spriting around in the tree tops.

Oh, that hope. It’s glimmering in the sky above my head, the dappled earth is falling away beneath my feet. Dora’s barking at something but I can’t look round, can’t look down.

Steady, I think. Steady. Just hang on, and don’t let go.

On Walking 21st August

There’s a deer running parallel to me, about twenty feet away, beyond the thick green of the covert. I can’t see it, but it leaps with a swished rhythm through the rattle of sprayed-off beans.

The dogs give chase, momentarily foxed by the sheep-netting. As one, they remember the stile, and squash each other to get over, get through. The deer’s long gone.

I walk on, thinking about the new story I want to write, trying not to think about the one that’s finished, that’s sat on its hands in an agent’s office, waiting to be read. I should’ve written here before, explained where I’d gone, but somehow I couldn’t. Sorry. I don’t mean to treat my readers badly, it’s just sometimes, I just can’t write aloud, only in private.

Anyway, we’re in Spring Field, where redshank sprawls intestine-like on the baked August ground. Small dark butterflies spring from my footsteps through the barley stubble, and everywhere are little alder cones, the sort to crumble in between finger and thumb. There are honeysuckle berries by gate, clustered together as bright as glass.

The dogs come back without me calling, and circle, pretending to catch scents, but really, watching me. They can feel the restlessness in my bones, the sense that I might burst into movement, run, take off and fly, swoop low over the valley, then up into the white-blue until I’m just a spec. The dinner-giver, a tiny, far-off comet.

We pass beneath an ash, its arms dropping beneath the weight of its keys. Down by the Sor Brook, the hawthorns are smeared with a gore of berries, as are the elders. Darker gore. Plates of purple-black fruit that are gritty between your teeth and tongue.

I felt like this at the fag-end of my first pregnancy, when you feel like a sausage, about to split. Or a pea-pod, or a microwaved egg, or a grain of corn in a hot, buttery pan. Pop. There’s change coming that is final and absolute, the end of one state of being, and the beginning of another.

The dogs don’t trust this unquiet me. They’re suspicious of my terrible energy, my sudden decisions to trespass new, untrodden paths, to take them where they’ve not been before, and had never planned on going. They’re confused at my abrupt stops to check my email, pressing refresh, refresh, refresh, or dredging Twitter, as if the answers I need are in there, if I could only find them. It’s as pointless as reading my stars, yet I still do, every week in Style, from the Sunday Times, seeing what luck will befall a Cancerian, whether this time, this time, it’s all going to work out okay.

I stop at the gate by the road, call the dogs closer. The story in my head is getting more insistent that I listen, and I fumble the leads. Pop, I tell them. Stand still. Pop.

Spring Field with barley in July.JPG
Spring Field with its barley, July.

 

 

 

On Walking: 20th February 2018

We’re in the ash meadow, and I’m dawdling, because I don’t want to go home, face all those things that must be done. The pastry for the quiche, the emails, the copy, the filthy dog towels, the answerphone, the fridge drawer with the mouldering sweet potatoes. I want none of it, not yet. I want this, this delicious scrap-of-blue-sky afternoon. I want to bite it.

I can feel Spring in my feet, in my knees. It makes my thighs ache and my belly tighten, and I feel I could run up that hill, leap that stream, swing upside down in a naked ash. The dogs feel it too, Pants looping and dipping in his circles, Dora leaping tussocks of reeds and last summers’ grass.

There’s a real reason I don’t want to go home. One of my books is out on submission (to an agent, not a publisher), and I can no longer bear the itch of waiting. I pick up my phone a thousand times a day, press refresh, refresh, each time hoping, and now I’ve become so restless and distracted that I can’t stand being indoors. I can’t stand having 4G either, which is why I’m here, in the ash meadow, out of service, watching buzzards wheel in the thermals above the Scout woods.

After a while, I walk on, admiring how the catkins are changing colour, lengthening. For weeks, they’ve been stumpy, tan-boot red, crooked like fat little fingers. Now they’re turning ochre through to sulpher yellow, stretching, vertebrae-like, wriggling with delight in the breeze. The dogs are unimpressed by my slowness, and start chasing each other in circles, perilously close to my knees. I shout at them and hurl a rotten baton of oak into the field of stuff that looks like vetch but isn’t.

Having a book on submission is worse than waiting for a lover to text, and you do stupid things, like go wild at parties, miss work deadlines, or not write to a dear friend (I’m sorry, I’m sorry) because you’ve decided that to do so would be a jinx. This weekend, at a bar, someone asked me what I did for a living, and I said I was a secretary, because I couldn’t bear to say I was a writer, then I realised I have no idea what a modern secretary actually does, so I said it was all a bit secret. I actually said, ‘hush-hush’.

Now, I close my eyes, hope that when I open them again, I’ll have stopped shuddering at my own idiocy. We’ve reached the gate to Wroxton Lane, and I catch the dogs, marshal them into order. I’ve got to go home – of course I have. But I go through the kissing gate, and turn to rest my arms on the metal bars. I look back at the awakening roll of the fields, the clean blue sky with its raggedy chasing clouds.

Please write, or ring, agent-with-my-book. I feel like a kite with a fraying string.

On Walking: Monday 2nd January

It’s just past nine and the dogs and I are slipping and sliding down the Banbury Road. We were just whizzing round the cricket, five minutes at most, but the beauty of the morning has untethered us, sent us spinning off down the valley beneath the drying barn. The dogs are bonkers with excitement; pulling like kites on their leads.

The air is so cold, and I take great gulps of it; I swoop down the hill, an unwieldy mummy-bird in my thick anorak and blue-and-pink bobble hat. The ground is stone-hard beneath my borrowed snake-skin wellies, and I’m reckless with my ankles, stumbling half-jogging, greedy to see and feel and be amongst the crystal gorgeousness that can’t be described, only lived.

We reach the bridge between the fields, still thickly silver despite the sun. The treachery of the bridge demands Empress-steps, and I pause, finally, when I reach the other side.

These are the fields that once held wheat, or rape; they are now farmed by someone else, and the change had filled me with dread. Idiot me. The tenants put the field to grass, for sheep, but today it’s empty of sheep. Instead, I see hundreds of starlings, almost a whole field of them,  bobbing and dipping in the wide bars of silvered shadows. I watch them, they seem so unafraid of me, of Pants wheeling his endless circles.

I stand in the pale gold of the sun, hearing the flit of the birds, seeing the new curves of the field. The frost on the grass nearest to me has melted to glass baubles, hung on the very tip of each grass blade, utterly perfect.

I walk on, carefully at first, but soon at a march. I want to see Emma’s Meadow, the Old Mill field, the ravages in the poplar wood. I want to see how frozen the path is to Drayton, how high the Sor Brook runs after yesterday’s day-long rain. I want to think about the scene I’m writing later, about my new book and my future and my family and all we’re going to achieve this year.

At home are jobs waiting to be done; meals to cook, ironing, paperwork, Christmas to put away. But the dogs and I are on Back Lane now, and there are puddles, thickly frozen, iced white. My borrowed wellies demand pay, and I jump, hop and smash-crack my way through the ice. Pants barks and tries to snatch at muddied shards, Dora disappears beneath a hedge, thinking we’re both mad.

We reach the last pot-hole in a chain, the deepest, and I jump with both feet, splashing freezing mud up behind my knees, inside my thighs. The shock makes me gasp, incredulous – I’ve forgotten how cold a puddle can be, how little it matters compared to the joy of snapping the ice.

We reach the poplar spinney, and I should go right, across the fields towards home, but instead I choose left, on to the old railway. The place of twisted blackthorn and broken ash trees. The place of divots and hollows, of the most fantastic, uncracked puddles.

I jump again and again, shouting at the cold, barking back at Pants, smashing and cracking and splashing, hooting with happiness.

Happy New Year to you, Reader. May 2017 bring you health, peace, and silly moments of pure joy.

Dora and The Pants

 

On Walking: Thursday 8th September

It’s a deeply golden morning, the sun diffused through the softest wisps of cloud. A breeze is ruffling the heads of the willows in the village, turning their leaves now green, now silver-white.

The dogs and I are walking down Banbury lane, beneath trees at their most thickly green. Pants is flinching and dancing on his lead: above our heads , two squirrels are in carnival mood, chasing each other from branch to branch, from oak to ash, flitting along impossible paths. The tarmac of the road is dappled by sunlight. The dapples slide over my arms, my shoulders, briefly warm my hair. The air smells of wood smoke and change.

The stems of the nettles are blackening, the leaves fading to yellow round the edges. There’s a sprawling blackthorn beside the oak, heavy with unripe sloes. They’re a smudged purple, yet to darken, and make me think of gin and stickiness and good times.

We reach the little brick bridge over the Sor, and we turn right, beneath the spreading arms of the oak. I bend to free the dogs from their leads – they’re off, squirrel-induced rockets – and then step through into the field-below-the-dryer. I can feel the heat of the field on my bare knees, earth that’s had its stubble raked, its underside turned uppermost.  New people are to farm the land, and the thought unsettles me. I know these fields so deeply, their rhythms, how the rain collects and flows, the muddy bits, the dry bits, where the elderberries grow. I’m afraid they might change.

This has been a hard year. Frustrating, full of unrelenting pressure and the sense that dreams should be grown out of and put away. Cowardice has stopped me writing, that and a sour sort of laziness, a self indulgent sulk with the world. I’ve martyred myself to housework and money-work, mopping and cooking and typing, producing immaculate accounts in bright folders, baking cakes and ironing shirts, all the while dying inside.

September has always been my time for new starts, new pencils, and these last few days I’ve found myself again, in amongst the crumpled beach towels and empty sun creams. Failure doesn’t seem to hurt as much now, my pride isn’t quite so flatly squished.

I stand beneath the oak, looking out at the field. The new farmers haven’t marked the footpath yet, the field is untrodden. Its hedges are newly-shorn, the margin reduced by half. It’s the same but different; there’s a faint tension, a hum in the air that vanishes when you try to listen.

The field is waiting, like me, to see what’s going to happen.

Field=-Below-The-Dryer, before harvestFor Paul Rogers. In gratitude.

Monday 14th March

It’s cold today, and I’m wearing a navy hat and pink, knitted gloves. It’s still early – half-past seven, and the sun is a formless glimmer between fat couches of cloud. Blue sky is promised for later, and the scything Easterly wind has relented.

Spring is pushing on. Among the hedgerows, the hawthorn has tiny green tips on its branches, and sprays of blackthorn have their tiny white flowers. Up close, they smell fleetingly sweet. Down by the nets are two clumps of red dead-nettle, which are much prettier than their name suggests. They are like little pink-flowered stingers, with soft, purplish leaves. From the nets you can see the bobbing heads of bright yellow daffodils, nodding as if agreeing with the echo of an umpire.

Mowing has started on the cricket field, and the whole outfield has now been done. The grass was so long, that now it looks like a June hay meadow, the grass cuttings sit in deep, regular ridges. The smell of the grass is delicious, but confusing: it makes you want to dig out your shorts, even as you’re pulling your bobble hat over your ears.

The dogs love the cuttings, and Pants does his silly bottoms-up nose-sliding through the ridges, rubbing his face on whatever revolting scents cling to the grass. Dora jumps each ridge like a show-boating pony, and turns to make sure I’m watching. As I walk, I keep my eyes on the ground, seeing what the mower’s revealed: rosettes of daisies, scalped moss, thousands upon thousands of worm casts. The new grass is very pale, almost white, and beneath the oaks, the empty acorn chalices have been chopped to blunted shards.

I suddenly remember it’s the start of the morning, and I’ve still got a child and husband to dispatch;  breakfast things to clear, chickens to feed. I whistle the dogs and start towards home from the bottom of the field. Halfway up, my shambling jog turns to proper run, and I leap a few grass ridges, my arms flung wide, just because Spring is springing and because I can.

Daffodil watching the cricket
Waiting fot the cricket…

Wednesday 24th February

The field is beautiful this morning, the kind of beauty that you can’t photograph, only feel. The sun is rising in a cloudless blue sky, and making brilliant every frosted blade of grass, every silvered twig. I walk slowly, listening to the polystyrene squeak of my boots, my nose burning from the coldness of the air.
It’s the funeral today of one of my neighbours, a private, sweet little lady who liked to see the children on their swings. Her house borders the cricket, and I walk past it every day, but I only ever went in to visit her once or twice, and I’m ashamed of that.
I know people will give me a ready excuse: that I’m too busy, a working mum, but that wasn’t the reason I didn’t knock on her door. The reason is a guilty, cowardly thing.

I’m frightened of being around very old people. I’m worried in case I don’t understand them, or they turn out to be mad and angry, or pass wind when they get up, or their false teeth fall out. All of those reasons are ridiculous, and say far more about my own po-faced insecurities than it does about anyone else. I’ve been both mad and angry, can fart like a drayhorse, and sometimes can’t keep even food in my mouth, so I imagine false teeth must be quite tricky.

This fear is absurd; a pursed-lipped mealy-hearted plip of a fear, and I know, rationally, that I can cope with any sort of conversation or behaviour. My clay feet only become apparent with elderly people outside of my immediate family. My own grandad is 92, and he still lives in his own house and looks after himself. He’s not at all mad. And I’m never frightened of him.
But when I was little, my Nan (who was not all old – in her fifties) used to take brother and me with her to do Visiting. She would wash the farm mud off our faces and hands and put us in her blue Dolomite to drive around Warwickshire, seeing people. Not just relatives, but friends of my great-grandmother, strays and waifs, oddballs and people who lined their armchairs with newspaper. We would be presented to frightening old men with sticks and enormous shoes, and be kissed by tiny, bristly old ladies who gave us sticky lolly pops in crumpled paper bags. Sometimes people in the houses we visited would smell extremely strange, and Nan would agree with my brother and me, that people ‘weren’t quite right’, but that we must be kind, because people liked to see children’s faces.

I’ve reached the low wall of the pavilion now, and I press my finger into a frozen  fairy-cushion of silvery moss. The ice melts instantly, and the cushion turns green. I press my finger against my cheek, to test the coldness.

It’s fine for me to be afraid, but it’s really not okay for that fear to make me a coward. I take a deep, cold-air breath, tip my face to the pale  winter sun. This morning, I’ve seen and understood something of myself that I can’t ever pretend I hadn’t. I am frightened of old people because of what they are, what they were. Once as strong-armed, straight-backed, as shrill-voiced and energetic, as I am now. I will be like them one day, and it’s that thought that frightens me, not the people themselves.

I press my finger to another cushion of moss, then another, another.

I think of Nan, and her Visiting, and wonder how to start.

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