On Dog Walking – Saturday 29th April

Sometimes, if a thousand tiny things click into place, a dog walk can become a memory so precious, it epitomises something too huge to put into words. I realise that sounds a bit pretentious, but I can’t think of how else to put it.

Ellie and I went walking on Saturday evening, and we were only going to whiz the block, because Ellie was desperate to watch The Voice. But when we reached the gate to Roger’s Field, Ellie hung off it, frowning.

Dog walking, Apr 13.
Dog walking, Apr 13.

‘Oh,’ she said. ‘I thought there’d be the sunset.’

‘Too early, my love. Get off the gate, let’s go. Dor! Dora-‘

‘Can’t we just go to the Sledging Field?’

She had the same querulous tone she’d had all day, just dying for a fight. So unnerving. Ellie is like a bad-tempered show-pony. Beautiful to look at, but lashes out without warning. She climbed the stile with poker legs, and stalked off up the track. Distracted by pale primroses (lemon laced on the edges with a pastelly pinky-peach), I didn’t follow immediately.

But this is where it happened – a kind of creeping joyousness, stealing over us like magic from a cauldron.

Ellie turned to me as I climbed the stile, her face alight. ‘Mummy!’ she said. ‘Let’s just keep going.’

The light had turned to mellow gold, painting the sledging hill emerald green. We could hear the laughing of the ducks down on the old Carp Ponds, and a blackbird sang in the spinney next to us, almost unbearable in its sweetness. Ellie started running down the hill, Dora at her heels, and I wished I could just hold my hands out and stop that moment, and lock it in my heart forever.

‘Mummy! Look-‘ She’d found a patch of daisies, about as big as a dustbin lid, all tightly closed against the coming of the night. They looked more pink than white against their cushion of grass.

Wriggling through the spinney, we could see into one of Dave’s fields, planted with oil seed rape. I ducked beneath a shattered ash, and looked up just to see a shock of yellow in the green – the first flowering of rape I’ve seen this year. But I couldn’t stand for long, Ellie and Dor were out of the spinney and haring up Ross’ field on the other side.

‘Why are you laughing?’ she said, when I finally caught her up. I bent over, trying to squash stitch back into my body.

‘Because I’m happy,’ I said, between gasps. She ran at me and swung round my neck to give me a kiss. ‘When I’m a farmer,’ she announced. ‘I’m going to have fives ewes and a ram. But they won’t be sexing all the time.’

We crossed Ross’ set-aside and the view on the other side of the hedge caught me, as always. The very tip of North Oxfordshire and the very bottom of Warwickshire, all rolling hills with Hornton tucked in its folds like treasure.  It’s the view to look at when you feel hopeless, or exhausted, or you’ve just bounced your mortgage for the last two months. A view in which to escape, and understand context.

We reached Clump Lane and more loveliness awaited us. Ellie and Jess invented a secret path, years ago, when they could barely toddle, and Ellie went to climb up to it, as always.

‘Mummy!’ she called. ‘You have to come up here. Right now.’

A bluebell had flowered. She knelt on the damp ground, her hands gently holding up so I could see. ‘That’s what you’ve been waiting for, isn’t it?’

I thought I might burst. Or cry, so instead I sang, and we danced up the lane singing the Romeo and Juliet song the children are obsessed with.

When we reached the end of Clump, the golden light had gone and it was dusk. The Voice was probably half way through, but we’d reached that place of high, silly nuttishness that doesn’t care about anything but right here, right now. The daffodils nodded yellow heads to us as we quick-stepped home, and my daughter swung from my hand, yelling, ‘Juliet marry me, then we’ll never be alone-‘

We both waved to every single passing random in their cars, their surprised or grumpy faces making us laugh even harder.

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.’

On Walking, Wednesday 24th April – Bats

The sun is out as Dora and I walk, and I can hear wood pigeons in the trees. I tip my head back for a minute to look up into an ash, and nearly get squashed by a fat blonde in a Range Rover. She revs angrily as she swings round me, and I can see her hunched over the wheel in her dark glasses. She doesn’t look particularly anchored in her seat, and I wonder if she’s hovering, and pretending her car is a chariot.

Chariots of ire. Probably serves me right, gawking into trees.

I’ve recently learnt something about ivy, and now I’ve become fascinated. Apparently, ivy is not at all as I thought, and a killer of healthy trees. Those little stubby suckery roots aren’t for feeding through (as a mistletoe would), but just to hold the ivy in place. The bushiness and height of the ivy depends on the tree and the level of light the tree canopy lets through. The older and weaker the tree, the more ivy it has.

Ivy is also, apparently, excellent for roosting bats. I like bats. I like their snubbed noses and blinking eyes, and secretive shyness.

I walk along, imagining having radar. I would love radar. My glasses are invariably on top of my head, tangled in my hair, so I spend a lot of time ignoring people I like and walking into low branches.

We’re in Dave’s field now, and bending down to see if the wheat’s growing, I notice the rich red-brown earth covered in little balls, like half-melted hail. *

We reach the tiny spinney with the deer-path between the two fields, and stop to look for fresh prints. Someone else walks my illegal trespassing way, and they have very large feet. Horley’s own BFG, blowing dreams at a gang of naughty Muntjacs.

By the bridge to Emma’s Bottom Meadow, I see my first Red Admiral of the year. Dora doesn’t chase it now she’s the Senior Dog, and has a reputation to uphold.

We cross the meadow and bump in the Gnash with her rotty-cross, Roxy. Roxy’s unnerved by Dora’s Jack-rat bolshiness, and tries to hide behind Gnash’s flowered wellies. We both agree how nice it is that we’re off-the-lead dog walkers, and how worrying it is when your dog gallumps up to a nervy on-the-lead walker. ‘Awful,’ we say. ‘Awful’.

Heading home up through Horley, we pass a group of waxy white narcissi, with backwards facing petals, like daffodils given a terrible fright.

At the crossroads outside the pub, I see the new Horley Wife whose house Dora rampaged through the other day. I really want to go and say hello, but nerves get the better of me. I flit away, battish,  thinking: next time.

* I later find out it’s fertiliser (which I’d guessed). It was nitrogen and sulphur. Apparently, sulphur helps plants absorb nitrogen, rather like white wine helps me eat scallops. I can do it without, but it’s rather more of a poor show.

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.’

On Walking, Monday 22nd April – Frogs

Have been working horribly hard all day, and only just have time for a quick yomp through the village before the school bus.

Am beginning to resent that bus. Even when I see it around Banbury, even when I actually have children in car with me, my heart quickens and my legs twitch to run and be waiting in The Place, my good-mummy-face plastered like pastry over my pie of my day.

I walk very fast through the village, straight down the centre of Wroxton Lane. If I go near the verges, Dora thinks that gives her license to crap. She particularly likes gravel drives, or the houses containing any Handsome Husbands or Beautiful Wives. Somehow, it’s less embarrassing to bag up poo outside the Beige people’s houses.

Buttery yellow forsythia has exploded everywhere, clashing with the delicate washed lemon of the primroses below. Once I notice the colour it’s everywhere – egg-yolk daffs, dandelions like defiant sun-bursts. Even the lichen on the style has gone a yellowish grey, like old lace.

The Cross’ have a stunning pink-and-white blossoming fruit tree outside their house, and I stare at it with an open mouth as I pass. Dora takes advantage of my inattention to sidle towards the verge. Luckily I realise and hurriedly drag her on. Bloody dog.

There’s a grim sight at the bottom of the village. Scores of dried, leathery frog-bodies, dead and starting to crisp. Quite a few are sadly entwined; coitus-flaticus. Dor tries to lever up bodies with her teeth, but the hold of the tarmac is too strong.

We bowl onwards, through the carnage. We reach the brook and I peer over, as always. There’s a dark mass just beneath the shadow of the bridge, and I tip closer. I’m pretty sure I’ve seen correctly. Handfuls and handfuls of frog spawn. The thought is uplifting and I smile stupidly at the water. Some of the poor little buggers made it.

Up The Clump – Friday 19th April

In the foulest, foulest mood when left house today – total hormone soup.

Poor Dora walked beautifully to heel in the hope I wouldn’t bawl her out. But by the time I’d walked up the Jackie Chan, I’d started to hear the swifts, and I could smell the battalions of daffodils, nodding their heads in sorrow above the last few drying snowdrops.

A fallen twig caught my attention as I drew level with St Ethelreda’s, and I stopped the angry-pants march to have a look. It was Horse Chestnut, the length of my forearm, the width of my finger, and had an exploded bud on the end. Glossy brown, with the palest green leaves beginning to splay forth. I felt a ridiculous tenderness for such waste, and had to be towed onwards by Dora.

We walked down Hornton Lane – still no blossom on Horley Manor’s fruit trees – and turned up the Clump. Green! Elder, reeking and making me think of goats. The leaves are still tiny, surrounding a little floret of buds, like sprouting broccoli.  When I was little, my Mum’s goats used to go mad for elder, and would climb the hedges on their hind legs, grunting their approval from deep in their chests. Every year I swear I’m going to make elderflower cordial, but never do. This year!

I carry on up the Clump, checking on the bluebell clumps (looking healthy, but no flower shoots yet), and I wonder why there’s no wild garlic around Horley. Why? All filched by mad vampire-fearing house wives?

I stop to look at some blackthorn, with its creamy buds like fat pearl-headed pins. Some of the flowers are out, perfect and white, with orange-yellow floating dots of stamen.

Ross has put a crow scarer in his field, and emerge from the hedgerow just as it goes off. I jump about two foot in the air and yelp, then feel very silly, and walk extra fast to hide it. There’s no one around, but you never know in those fields. Handsome ravaged-looking men in flat caps pop up in the most unexpected places.

Dora and I whiz over the brow of the hill and drop down into the spinney. Poor trees have had a horrible winter, and the snow and wind has torn branches from almost every one. A hawthorn is bravely pushing frilled green leaves out, and I think of how my Nanny Dot used to tell me how poor people ate them, and called them ‘bread and cheese’.

Clambering up the Toboggan Hill, a man planting fence poles waves at me, and I wave pathetically back, all my energy drained by the hill. I’m so low to the ground as I toil up that I can admire discs of daisies, close up and personal. I’m not so keen on the fox crap.

With all my note-taking and nature-gazing, I’m late for the bloody bus, and have to fling myself over styles and speed-walk down Little Lane. I don’t bother putting Dor back on her lead, and when I see a removal van at the bottom of the road, I just think, Oh, how nice. New people. With a really nice standard lamp.

I forgot about Dora and her huge crush on men in vans. A builder friend of ours (in a big white van) once gave her half a bacon sandwich, and she’s never forgotten it. She made a total bee-line for the van, ignoring my calls, little legs carrying her at bustling speed.

‘Oo,’ I cried, uselessly.

Two removal men in overalls were carrying something sheeted, and they didn’t smile. Dora decided they weren’t going to be forthcoming with sandwiches, and shot into Jeremy’s garden, and then straight through into the new people’s back door. At the school bus stop, we’d heard they were called Birch, were doctors, and seemed friendly. But no one is really going to be friendly when  stray dog bursts into their new kitchen, demanding bacon.

‘Oo,’ I said again, hovering at the gate. I flapped my arms, and the removal men ignored me and kept removalling.

‘Dora-you-bastard-bag,’ I hissed. No sign. Christ.

I dithered. The school bus due any moment.

The removal men had gone in after Dora, and I hesitantly crossed Jeremy’s gravel – so loud! – growling ‘Dor-Dor-Dor’.

Just as I reached the Birches’ new back door, scarlet in the face, Dora sped out, her mouth open, showing her pink tongue, grinning and ultra pleased with herself.

Unable to face anyone angry, I turned and fled, Dora under my arm like a laughing handbag.

Dog Walking – Meadows – 18th April

Oh! I’ve missed so much!

I’ve been at the London Book Fair this week, and then either racing the dogs round in the dark, or walking with lovely friends who stop me nature-gazing because we’re chattering too much. Ace for gossip, rubbish for my diary.

Utterly stuffed for time today, so Dora and I walked across Dave’s fields to the  Bottom Meadow. The wheat is just starting to come up through the heavy brown earth, and I can’t believe something so delicate can survive the ferocious squally wind. We pass a tiny velvet shrew on the path, and I want to stop to pick it up and take it to a hedge, but I don’t dare. It stands more chance of life with hawks around than it does if Dora were to notice it. I run on, just in case, and slip in the mud. Luckily no one around.

We reach the bridge between Dave’s fields, and someone’s broken the handrail. I wobble it, trying to figure out how it happened, and imagine a vastly wide rambler must’ve taken it out with their bum.

Over the next bridge, into Hamer’s Bottom Meadow, and a giant English Pointer bounds joyfully up to Dora and squashes her flat. Dora bristles but thankfully doesn’t snap. I’m blinded by my hood and the driving rain, but I just see Alison Carr being towed into sight by her golden Labrador puppy.

‘Bertie!’ she calls to the Pointer. Bertie rolls his eyes and rollocks off with Dora, both of them impervious to the rain and flirting like mad.

I realise Alison’s going the same way as me, but my brain’s stuffed with work, and I can’t think of a sensible line of conversation. Thankfully, she can, and we talk about dogs all the way back to the village.

We say goodbye, and I think how funny; despite sharing a dinner table, that’s the most we’ve ever spoken. I’m usually drunk and disorderly when I see her, once a year, at the village Progressive Dinner. I remember behaving dreadfully and eating lemon torte at her house once, and then Stevie and I wading through acres of gravel drive to get back to the pub. I had to wade back up it again the next morning to leave a thank you card, feeling like death. I kept thinking of Matthew Henry – He whose head is in Heaven, need to not fear to put his feet in the gravel.

I’m walking home as the sun breaks through, and suddenly the whole village is bathed in brilliant light and the sky is abruptly blue, as if the violent rain had never been. I put my hand to my hair to see if it’s wet, or if I just imagined it. Definitely wet, rats-tails style.

I’m just wondering how far down my cheeks my mascara may have run, when a handsome Daddy from the next village sweeps past in his Audi, blaring sports commentary. I’m too embarrassed and dishabille to wave, so I quickly study a budding willow, and pretend not to see him.

Oh vanity! This is why I have a reputation for being rude.