It’s early, early enough for my eyes to feel fat, for silvered strands of cobweb to catch on my face. The dogs nag to be let off their leads. They rush around, noses down, greedy for the night-scents.
The sledging hill is frosted, and I slither down past badger-plundered cow pats to the spinney. The spinney’s mainly beech, and its beauty in the first shafts of sun light takes away my breath. Golden, amber fire.
I’m supposed to be in a hurry, but all this richness has caught at me. Up over Bramshill, the clay-red path is strewn with black, business-like slugs, neat and intent, half the length and width of my ring finger.
At the very top of the hill, the valley is half-couched in mist, but the thick band of fir woods are free, the oaks above them catching fire in the sun.
I can hear crows and pheasants, smell the skunkiness of a fox. Far away I can hear the road, carrying people to work, children to school. I stop at the wonky stile onto Clump, look back. The rosettes of thistles are glittering, thousands of them.
There’s a blackthorn beside the stile, heavy with round, lilac-bloomed sloes. I touch my finger-tip to one, carefully, leaving my print.
Oh. Oh, how superior I was. I politely grimaced at mid-week steak and I’m sniffy at round-cut carrots. I imagined that our Lee Family Dining Experience was far more sophisticated…we eat moules! On a Wednesday!
But the reality has turned out so different. I wanted to roll out a whole month of smug house-wife cooking, say ‘no, really, barely more effort than opening beans’, when people marvelled at how I find the time, the energy, the sheer determination to deliver three lots of veg and selected lean proteins with restrained carbs.
Was I mental? I fear I’ve asked this before. The whole month so far has been a litany of pasta, pasta, pasta, broken up by supermarket frisbee pizza and twice-a-week chip-runs. The chip man actually sees me coming and starts my husband’s scampi. The freezer is jam-packed with leftovers, but even opening the door makes me feel defeated and inadequate. There’s only one bolognaise portion, so whoever gets the chicken casserole will moan, or there’s the chicken tikka, but I put too many chillis in, so whoever eats it will cry all night and be afraid of morning.
So. A lesson learnt. I’m a Country Housewife Ordinaire, not a woman who de-frills scollops at the drop of a hat. In light of such a realisation, I’m going to present tonight’s dinner, with the thought that actually, it’s not too bad. It’s Fridge-Bum soup (again), but when they all groan and make sick noises, I also have a tray of home-made sausage rolls. Ha. So no huff-storming, because all three of them have a sausage roll fetish, and these ones are good.
The soup, for anyone interested, was 3 wizened parsnips, four small sweet potatoes, 3 cloves of garlic, five ridiculous (home grown) onions, 4 speckled carrots. I roasted that lot with olive oil, salt and snipped-up rosemary, for 50 min on 200, then blitzed it with a pint of chicken stock (cube), and a slosh of white wine, slosh of milk. Sounds a bit grim, but I love it. And it’s bright orange, which always cheers me up.
So, right. Tomorrow. I will NOT stagger into the chippy.
Oh! And celery. In the soup. Even the leafy bits, which you shouldn’t, because they’re bitter, but hey-ho. Crock-pot was full.
I found a family’s dinner diary on Twitter the other day, and was riveted. The grown ups ate steak with sauces (midweek), and the children ate Quorn fingers. They all had chocolate mousse for pud. It was fascinating.
So I thought I’d copy the dinner diary family, and start ours on the 1st October, especially as I’ll have my new kitchen by then, and can take arty fabulous photos. Was I mental? OF COURSE I don’t have a new kitchen yet, I still have the old one, where the oven door is lasciviously licked clean by a frequent-guest Labrador.
Never mind, all day long I’ve vaguely thought about making quiche, because Next Door delivered some home-grown freshly-julienne’d coleslaw, and how lovely, to start a Dinner Diary with a quiche? Love quiche. But HA! That was not to be. A crisis involving a cherry picker and a man called Dennis blew up about 2pm, and tipped me into cope-mode, which means doing anything domestic at top-speed and half-quality. At five, it was clear that the quiche was not going to happen. At about quarter past, I realised that fact.
So dinner this evening was Fridge Bum Soup or Emergency Pasta, whereby you fry 2 slices of bacon and then bung in a brick of frozen (home-grown) oven-baked tomatoes (with covert peeled marrow), then leave the eldest daughter in charge whilst you charge around the countryside looking for pony poo to scoop up in the semi-darkness. Eldest daughter dislikes cooking, even more so when left in charge of half-chopped fridge-bum soup (3 wizened carrots, 3 yellowing leeks, an onion, really quite sprightly celery and a stock cube).
Peeled soaking child from pony, rushed home (bloody top road closed, so we have to detour, literally, to the next county). Eldest daughter had done everything perfectly (just in case she reads this), but insisted on using a half packet of linguinie pasta and half packet of ancient Reginelle, which everyone hates because it’s like sucking octopus legs.
Dished up both soup (blitzed, with a few strings of linguinie and a slosh of pasta water) and pasta. On the table were also two heels of cheapo-rip-off Parmesan and Orange Cheese, which is the only cheese eldest daughter will now eat.
Smothered my soup in last of Cheddar, ate it with buttered bread. It was HEAVEN.
Emergency Pasta had lots of rolled tomato skin shards left parked on bowls, and enough left for the dogs. Posh Reginelle was declared still awful. But at least the Parmesan heels are gone, and it’s another dinner dealt with (why are there so many? Day after day after day? Why can’t we all eat bloody cereal?).
Pudding hasn’t happened yet, but I confidently predict it will be a crap wafer bar from the lunch-box-only cupboard.
It’s the first of September, and there are new pencils and ideas and starts. New hope.
The dogs and I are in Spring Field, walking on oat stubble so golden and sun-filled it gleams on my arms, up my shins. Crows circle in rival gangs to the white flashes of gulls, and there’s the ear-worm mew of buzzards.
There’s a single and mighty Spear thistle collapsing on the margin, the flowers not yet turned to fairies. I like the spiky green sputnik seed heads, the punk ruff of purple petal bits. There are two furry bees, bustling their way across the spines to each flower.
I have come back to myself this summer. There’s been camping and walking and the dogs and the pony (the darling pony!). There’s been the round, blue paddling pool and the new lounging chairs (I am now a woman who lounges). There’s been beans in the garden, and a zillion courgettes, roses as big as my hand. I have turned forty, and it was like being woken up, as if someone had poked me, and said hey. Remember how to live. I’d forgotten.
Now, my ridiculous navy-spot welly-bobs swish and crunch through the yellow stubble. The sun is warm on my hair, my cheek, my bare arm. Later, I’ll read the papers in the garden, eat soft, pink raspberries straight from the canes. There’s going to be paella for dinner, and we might have gin and tonics with pistachios as a starter. Then the last walk, in the dusk, when the jasmine smells strongest, and our footsteps are slow, wandering, and we don’t need to talk much.
The crows and gulls wheel above in the endless blue sky, the buzzards wheel higher still.
We’re on our third hour of walking. We’re slow, now, and I turn my face to the winter sun, half-close my eyes. I’ve reached that blissed-out state, where my steps weave, and my thoughts spin free and wide. I’ve been catkin collecting.
We’re going to run over time, but I like this spaniel, he’s easy company, and when I swing up on a gate, he sits beneath me. Pants and Dora vanish. The scrubby hill to my left leads up to the Scout Woods, the best rabbiting slope in the whole of Horley.
There’s a bank of pussy willow at the bottom of the slope, catkins wriggling pinkish yellow against the blue sky. I can see Dora, shooting up secret paths between rain-black roots.
The gate is a hard line beneath my bum bones, and my bare arms are cold. I pull my woolly hat lower on my neck, wriggle the coat tied around my waist into a better position.
To my right runs Horley stream, beneath thick bristles of cricket-bat willow. These willows do not carry catkins. I’ve known this meadow for fifteen years, and before that, there were other meadows, other gates. The best catkins are on goat willows. They’re glorious furry bunny-tail things, then they morph into a firework, all quivering silver fluff and saffron pollen. My favourite goat willow is a mile from here, down along the old railway. I once kept an early catkin from its branches for a whole year, tucked in my pocket. I would rub the velvet nub of it, very gently, with the pad of my thumb.
There are midges just before me, joy-jigging. February sun is precious.
Beneath me, the spaniel yawns, looks up at me with his spaniel eyes. Bugger off, my friend. I have thoughts to think, new things to see. But it is all new. All new and different, every time. The newness and difference are frightening and thrilling, they make me want to surge forward and still hold back. I want the newness, but I want everything to stay the same.
I would like a catkin, from the goat willow.
My feet land heavily in my wellies, I hobble to get the blood back. The spaniel huffs and follows and I whistle, one short, one long, loud, loud, loud. Catkins shiver.
Pants and Dora are back, running beside and around, checking me and the spaniel are the same. That we haven’t changed, that there’s nothing new.
What can I tell you? I say. My loves. It’s all new. Every time.
We’re walking over Bramshill, up the long steepness before you reach the top. The ground is hard and greasy, clay-red, strewn with skinny black slugs the quarter length of my finger. It’s not quite eight, and foggy, and the dogs circle close to me, checking I’m still on the path they expect.
I am not on the path that I expect. I seem to keep climbing up a slimy bank and sliding back, over and over, again and again.
I read a blog last night, by Antonia Honeywell, the writer of ‘The Ship’. She wrote about failure, of difficult second books, and she said, ‘And I looked at my narrowing life and wondered what I’d done to it.’ That line has sat on my mind all night, it was the last thing I thought about in the dark, and the first thing I remembered when I got out of bed.
I feel that way, too. An awful narrowing of once-wide horizons. So many people have re-tweeted Antonia’s blog, that it must be a common thing, this hemming in, this reduction. We wonder if we’ve caused it ourselves, somehow stymied our own potential. Built our own walls.
I know Antonia has four children, and I have two; two beautiful, silky teenagers, who scrape clean the inside of my head with a spoon. We all have some version of this – the job, the family, the dogs – when does it all conspire to constrict, and suffocate?
I realise I’m angry as I slog up the hill, and I stop when I reach the top, the gap in the hedge. The roll of the valley is hidden in the fog. Either side of me, the blackthorn is darkly wet.
I am angry with myself. The narrowness is in my mind, something I’ve created as an excuse for not writing the best I can. The opportunities are there, but I haven’t been seeing them, I’ve been fussing instead, about too much money-work, grubby house, un-done homework. Those things have always been there, always will be there, but I can choose to change things. I can tell people no, sorry, can’t help, I’m writing, I’m making stories and reading books and I’m pushing at the walls I thought were there and are not.
I didn’t realise they were not, until I read Antonia’s blog.
Ahead are the bulky shadows of ash trees. In my heart is starting a thud of determination, and I push back my hood, look around me in the fog. I touch my finger to a drop of rain caught on the blackthorn. Then another, and another.
I don’t need to get up that bank to join that path. I can follow the path I’m already on. I don’t need to see it to know the direction it goes in, I just need to follow it, one step after the other, knowing that it will take me the way I need to go.
I whistle the dogs, yoddle their silly nicknames into the fog, then start to walk.
I’m trespassing, along the margins of a crop that last week was barely more than seedlings. It’s stubble turnips, for sheep, and now the leaves curl like tongues above the bridge of my boot.
I like this field, it has lemon-yellow toadflax in it and a small neat peachy flower called (fabulously) scarlet pimpernel. There’s a wide swag of wildness across the top, and we’re walking beneath it, looking up at blonde grasses taller than me. The hogwart skeletons are laced and beautiful against the blue of the sky. Today is the sort of day that refills my happiness banks, far quicker than they can ever be depleted. Which is a good job, because earlier, I heard back from an agent who had my book, and it was a no. A nice no.
When an agent turns you down, it’s a relief, meaning I can be disappointed and get it over with. It’s the anticipation of the disappointment that’s so horrid – the bit where you peer over the edge of the balloon, and imagine the fall.
But recently, I’ve learnt something from my teenage daughters, the way they are with ponies and their dream of having one for their own. They fall passionately in hope, then once the pony’s proved unsuitable (too loopy, too small, too much money), they’re quiet for a bit, then out comes Horse and Hound or Pony Mag, and they start looking for the next one.
Their determination is rock-solid, they’ve saved every penny from baby-sitting and dog-walking and lizard-wrangling. Their complete faith that it will happen, that they’ll find their pony, makes my heart afraid for them. Their budget is so small, their dreams are so big. But they’re so inspiring, and the reason why I’ll be re-writing my synopsis and intro letter. Why I’ll start trawling agent websites and blogs and Twitter hashtags.
According to my daughters, there’s always another chance for hope.
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.
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.
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.