On Plants: Celandine

I’ve fallen in love with a new wild flower – well, new to me. It’s called celandine, and now I’ve learnt it, I keep finding it everywhere.

It belongs to the  Papaveraceae family (the same as a poppy), and its flowers are a glorious sort of splayed buttercup (with which it has nothing to do). According to my little flower book, the plant was recognised as a handy plant for detoxifying as far back as Pliny The Elder.

Sometimes called Swallow Wort
Sometimes called Swallow Wort

I smile as I read, instantly fifteen and back in a sweltering June classroom, doggedly translating Pliny (although it couldv’e been Younger), and dreaming of Glastonbury and escape.

The memory makes me like the plant even more. The summer I left Twycross (and turned sixteen) was completely enchanted – one long round of sunshine, festivals, parties and watching dawns break. I didn’t sleep in a bed for two months.

I tell my daughters the outrageous stories as we wander the lanes of Horley, hunting celandine. We find some tumbling down the Church-Lane side of St. Ethelreda’s, all the stalks shaped upwards like umbrella handles to lift the flowers to the sun.

‘They’re happy flowers,’ says Jess.

By far my favourite Celandine place is through Emma’s Bottom Meadow, and onto the Old Railway field. There’s a wide, shallow ditch beneath a Watership Down type ridge (and millions of rabbits). The ditch is edged by reeds, still brownish after the slow Spring, but in the centre of the ditch, hidden until you’re quite close up, runs an enormous swathe of Greater Celandine, defiantly, richly, brilliantly yellow; glowing and so pretty you have to stare for ages.

The thought drives me to my feet, and I whistle the dogs, call the children, pull on my wellies.

‘Somebody grab a key,’ I shout. ‘We’re going for a walk.’

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.


We pull into Cropredy car park, and the children spill from the car before I’ve even pulled up the handbrake.

‘Mummy-‘ Ellie is momentarily agonised. ‘Everyone’s in Whites and

we’re not.’

‘So?’ says Jess, voice clear and high. She pauses to survey the field. Lots of teams are warming up, passing around credi-balls and twirling their blue bats. Parents gather in knots on the sidelines, shouting last minute instructions. ‘Ball low, Sebastian. Low. Aim for the knees.’

A small boy batting in pristine whites catches Jess’ eye, and her face lights up still further. ‘Ellie, Ellie. It’s okay, look. He’s crap. Way crapper than us.’

I grab Jess in a headlock and tow her away to the clubhouse. Ellie trails behind, crunched with nerves, looking like a tiny skater-chick in my navy Horley CC hoodie. As I wave to the rest of the team, I wonder how quickly I can slink away to the car. I have a new Sarra Manning book. And a flask.

Ellie tries to cling to me like a barnacle, but Claire effortlessly chips her free and sweeps her off to practice. Jess is gone without a backwards glance.

I suddenly feel horribly naked and exposed without my daughters. I flap my hands ineffectually and dither. I need a wee, but am suddenly too shy to go and find the loo. God, what’s the form? What do I do? Is it like a gymkhana, where I can bugger off until their slot? Or am I expected to cheer?

There are three be-suited daddies in front of me, all on their phones. One of them is talking about a Porta-loo.

I duck a cloud of midges, and go to lurk behind a sight-screen. A glamorous-looking blonde has pulled up next to my scruffy Vauxhall in a very shiny Mercedes. Two Range Rover Vogues are revving nose-to-nose, each refusing to give way. I wish I’d brushed my hair. And weren’t wearing my padded dog-walking coat with the bramble-slashes on the hips. I occasionally ooze white stuffing, like a defeated old sofa cushion. Two Yummies in gilets and glossy knee-high boots appear next to me. There is no frizz in their hair. I run away.

The glamorous blonde is still sat in her car, and I veer sharply to the right. I’m not completely sure I could open my drivers’ door without bumping her shiny wing. Horley CC are about to start playing, and I know Ellie will want to see me watching (Jess won’t care). Dither, dither.

Suddenly, I see salvation. One of the loveliest Hornton School Mummies, sat on a rug, out to the left of the pavilion, smack in front of our part of the pitch. She’s the sort that always smiles, and is so friendly and funny you forget to be nervous. I go over to say hello, and within minutes we’ve set up a little camp, and we’re breaking open mini-donuts for the children subbed out (we’re fielding), and R is asking me the rules. One of my old team mates, and one of the children’s coaches, L, rolls up, and the three of us have great fun deciphering the game and whooping when the children play well.

‘Start Over,’ says Richard, one of the umpires.

The midges are above our heads, in three separate little hell-clouds above our scalps.

‘We need a smoker,’ I say, already itching.

The sky has darkened, and the grass suddenly that deep green, as if made from vinyl. ‘Bloody rain,’ says someone. Several fathers aim key-fobs into the car park, zipping up cabriolets.

My Ellie is bowling, ecstatic when it goes in straight, hiding her face when the umpire calls wide. It must be hell to keep score with four matches running at once. Balls keep flying into the wrong games. The air hums with the threat of downpour.

‘Don’t you dare,’ says Claire, looking up at the sky.

Jessica does a sneaky handstand as a batsman trails out. We all clap the batsman, but Jess does a little shimmy, as if pretending it might be for her. She pirouettes, then turns to grin and wave. A team mate tells her off.

R and L and I all agree that it’s lovely to watch the children play, and how we can see how the training is paying off. One of Horley’s star players dives for a brilliant catch. The Coach from the other team congratulates him, which we all think is very good of him.

‘Keeping it all fun,’ says L. The batsman leaves at the end of the over, in tears. ‘Oh dear,’ we all say. ‘Oh dear.’

It’s hard to imagine our Horley lot in tears. They seem like the most boisterous and happy of all of the teams – most of them have grown up together since babyhood. They seem to rampage a lot off the pitch – children used to village-life free-reign – but on the pitch Claire is steely with her determination to make them focus.

‘Oi!’ she shouts, as one of our batsmen takes guard. ‘Stand properly!Properly! That’s better. Go.’

My favourite time to watch is batting, when we roar the children on. ‘RUN William! RUN!’ ‘No! Don’t run – Oh God, can’t watch. Is she? No. Go! RUN Mia! RUN’

I have to get out of my green folding chair and jump up and down.

‘Well done DARLING’ I bellow, when Ellie clouts a wide ball. Ellie pauses to give me a filthy look. I’m not allowed to shout loudly so everyone looks. I keep forgetting.

It’s the last match now, and some of the Horley Daddies have joined us. We barrack and cheer, and say isn’t it a pity we’ve got to drive. We make do with soggy little donuts, alternating between clapping and smacking at midges.

‘Imagine Scotland,’ says a Daddy. ‘Tossing a caber, slapping a midge.’ We all giggle, high on sugar.

The sky’s miraculously cleared, and is like the palest watered silk, strewn with scallops of cloud. Around us, horse-chestnuts are in leaf, and starting to hold up their candles, although they’re still unlit. There’s no breeze to rattle the bare-limbed Ash trees, with their sepulchral black buds. Swallows arch overhead, flitting and diving above the children.

‘Come over here,’ we say, waving our arms. ‘Plenty of midges here.’

We argue the difference between a swallow and a swift, just as the children finish. We don’t know who’s won, or where Horley have come in the tournament, but the children converge on us, full of the game and the batting and bowling and did-you-sees?


Claire makes them all march back out to the field to shake hands with the opposition. They do so, sheepish, but proud to be so grownup.

And then the children are off, chasing rumours of hotdogs and sweeties. The light’s falling, and we strike camp, saying next time we’ll have more flasks, or we could split a few beers (yuk). I load the car up, and see the glamorous blonde still in her shiny Merc. Her boy is playing for Horley.

I suddenly feel sorry for her, stuck on her own whilst we all had such a giggle. I bend down to wave and smile, but she’s not looking.

Next time, I think. Next time I’ll knock on her window, and see if she’d like to join us.

On Plants – Garlic Mustard – ‘Jack In The Hedge’

I’m getting really irritated with my lack of Nature Knowledge. I come from farming and water-gypsy stock (my mum’s side), and I really ought to know better.

With that in mind, I now sally forth with mobile, poo-bags, puppy bribes and a flower book. I look like a tinker, my pockets bulge so much.

The new flower I find today is Garlic Mustard, which apparently has an aggressive habit. I immediately imagine it swathed in starched black and white, marching forth against beautiful, feckless bluebells.

It has other names – Jack In The Hedge (presumably with Jill), Hedge Garlic, Sauce Alone (Sleep Alone, too, I should think).

Garlic Mustard

Garlic Mustard has tiny white flowers made of four petals in a sort of Maltese Cross. They cluster together at the end of long stalks, and their leaves look rather like  glossy nettle leaves. The dogs and I are walking up The Clump, and the plant is thick under the newly-green hawthorns. I pick some to roll between my finger and      thumb – my flower book says it should smell and taste garlicky.   My sense of smell is hopeless, and I don’t want to eat it as it’s the perfect height for a peeing Labrador.

Apparently, people eat it in salads, and I think of my great-grandmother, ruling the world from the stern of her boat, sending my grandmother off to forage.

Farmers remove it from cows’ fields, as it taints the cows’ milk with garlic (handy, though, I should’ve thought, for bagna cauda).

I’m also advised it’s excellent for white butterflies, who lay their eggs beneath the leaves. It’s this thought that puts me off.

Popping butterfly eggs between my teeth.

The thought makes me grimace all the way home, my lower lip turned down in a way I know to be unattractive, but simply can’t control. Pop. Shudder.

I wimp out of the Garlic Mustard in our salad, and poke the lot through the wire to the  Chickarockers. They gobble it down in a minute, crooning, then looking at me in expectation.

‘Maybe tomorrow,’ I say, remembering, too late, the problem it causes in cows.

On Walking, Hungover. Sunday 12th May

Today is Bean Planting Day, in the world according to my Grandad. Grandad is 89, and he’s grown beans every year since forever, and they’ve become a symbol; something to hope for. Every year, we have to trench and double-dig, build a special wigwam, winkle out stray dandelions right down to their root-tip.Runner Beans

We’re to be at his house for 11 ish, which means leaving at 10 ish. So forced to walk dogs at 9 ish, and did not go to bed until 3 ish.

Am scared to open eyes in case bleed to death.

I can’t bear to think in any way, so dogs and I are trundling around the bottom meadows. The sun is very bright.

We reach Emma’s meadow, and I have to shut my eyes completely, I cannot cope with so many dandelions. They appear to be roaring. I get half way across the meadow, and decide to lie down.

The dogs think I’ve gone mad and try to bounce me back on my feet, but I play determinedly dead, and eventually they give up.

Lying here is very naughty, and I know that, which makes it all the sweeter. The damp grass is like a cool ruff around my aching head, and the weird rules of Sound mean the sheep’s cries are no longer grating my brain. I can smell oil seed rape and rusting blackthorn blossom. There’s a thrush nearby, singing very carefully: Hey-Arthur, Hey-Arthur.

I think about dinner last night – the food, the laughing. The tremendous gossip. I really can’t believe –

After a while, I can open my eyes. The sky above is a deep, brilliant blue, the clouds ragged and fast-moving, but still dodging the sun. I prop myself up on my elbows, and I can see into the Railway Field, and up into Dawn’s field, with Mary and Taz two dark shadows, endlessly cropping grass.

I roll onto my belly, knowing I must get up, get on, but am distracted by a little black beetle in a buttercup. It keeps lifting up one foot, then the other, like a lizard in a desert.

My knees are wet, and when I look, muddy. I stand up and stretch, my head back, my hands reaching up, as high as I can, feeling my life right to the tips of my fingers. I hold it, hold it, until my muscles burn.

I look like a loon, but I feel much better. My thoughts are no longer pickled in gin, red wine and Baileys (Why? Why did that happen?)

The dogs and I walk home, ready to load the car, drive to Coventry. Ready to help Grandad plant those beans.

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.


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-‘


‘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.

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

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

Crowning of May King and Queen

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

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

I nod, and blink mascara into my eyebrows.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Wife!’ he says. ‘What’re you doing?’

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

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

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

‘It was a pound,’ I say, hopefully.

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

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

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

‘Back in a bit,’ I cry.

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

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

He swears at me in disbelief.

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

On Walking, Monday 6th May

I’d forgotten the nightmare of puppy walking. Arfa-Pants is a drunken lolloper, flinging himself at traffic, or trying to flatten Dora (who’s not amused), or star-gazing and tripping over his own silly feet.

He’s half German pointer, and half English, and both of his parents are elegant and beautiful. Hard to imagine Arfa ever untangling his limbs to become the same.

We walk down the Banbury Road with me holding my arms out wide, the dogs practically hanging from their collars either side. If I relax for a moment, Arfa jumps joyfully on Dora and then we all fall over. A silver Range-Rover creeps past and I nod regally, as if I look perfectly normal. I can see blossom from my peripheral vision, but I daredn’t stop for a good gawp.

At the edge of Dave’s wheat, I take both dogs off their leads, then shriek my head off when Pants does a U-turn towards the road. He careers back into the field and hares off up the green ride, ignoring my handful of dog treats, full of sunshine and irrepressible naughty-puppy life.

My phone beeps a text: How long? Stevie, coping with two daughters, crackers with excitement about May Day dancing. Jessica is to be May Queen, and her best shoes have gone AWOL. Bloody hell, says text.

I pocket my phone and start jogging, no dogs in sight. I whistle and whistle and finally Dora shoots out of the stream, streaking up the field like a stout, furry rocket. She’s closely followed by the Pants, whose back legs overtake his front legs. He skids past me, ears flapping. I pounce before he can get up, clipping his lead back on. He doesn’t realise, and tries to take off again.

Eventually, we reach Emma’s bottom meadow, and it looks so beautiful in the early sun that I forget I’m in a hurry. I walk to the middle of the field and release Arfa, hoping all that space will buy me at least five minutes gazing time. He tears around in ever-increasing circles.

The grass is deeply green, and studded with thousands of practically stalk-less yellow-orange dandelions. The overall effect, especially with the dotted white cloud-bursts of blackthorn, is like a pointillist painting. It makes me think of Wordsworth, and the hour of splendour in the grass, glory in the flower. Which, on reflection, sounds like someone having a jolly bonk.

Someone’s walking down the upper field towards the meadow, and I gather up the dogs, towing them towards the Wroxton Road. I wave an arm as if to make up for the rudeness of obviously legging it.

I’ve almost made it home when I bump into a handsome neighbour on his tractor. We shout good mornings, and then he calls that he’s pulling over. My heart sinks. I don’t like talking to handsome neighbours with no make-up on and my hair scrunched in a pineapple up-do. I hear all about the Chelsea Flower Show as I try to subtly pull the elastic band from my hair.

But then Legs of Horley comes out to join us, and I admit defeat. ‘I’ve not done my face,’ I say.

‘Me neither,’ chorus Handsome Neighbour and Legs of Horley.

I very nearly joke about us all being naked, but know that Stevie and I have a shocking reputation as it is, and Handsome Neighbour and Legs are coming for supper next weekend.

We all avert our eyes as Dora wantonly stretches on her back for Ted the Labradoodle, who looks surprised.

‘Neither Martha nor Arthur,’ says Legs, and then we’re all giggling and the sun is shining and we talk about Bank Holiday plans and more Chelsea. I say I’d love to see photos and Legs tells me about her wire cockerel.

My phone rings. Stevie: Bloody hell. Bloody hell ARE YOU?

Sorry! So sorry, I say. Got distracted.




On Walking – Thursday 2nd May

Leaving the house and crossing the green sward of the cricket pitch, I am already stripped down to a sun frock and cardi. I leave my raincoat on the bottom gate and push my glasses into my hair. I may be blind, but at least I won’t have a framed tan.

Dave’s dad, Wyk, is sledge-hammering a bib of rubble at the entrance to the field below the cricket, and I wish I could ask if he was putting a gate in. The cricket club have recently sealed up the dog-walkers’ gap (WHY? Why would they do this?), and I’ve been nipping over the stile and reaching the road through Dave’s field.

Wyk though, is the strong, silent type, and you can never quite work out what he’s thinking. He always makes me feel deeply silly and shy, as if he were in upper sixth and I were in lower fourth, and had a bit of a crush.

Wyk’s dog Pippa is Dora’s mother, and Dora is always so touchingly pleased to see her. Pippa usually looks surprised, as if she’d forgotten Dora existed.

As usual, I can’t think of anything witty nor intelligent to say, and Dora and I jog off, still burbling, as if in a great hurry. I don’t see Wyk shake his head, but I can imagine it.

I can’t seem to slow my pace, and whiz down the Banbury Road without even noticing how the trees are coming along. We jump the oozy-mud ditch and duck beneath the still-bare oak into the wheat field, sending a load of sheep catapulting up the hill.

The sun is so warm! There’s no one in sight and I walk with my arms outstretched and my head back. All my deadlines and mummy-stuff and house-stuff and stuff-stuff seem very far away. I walk the entire field like some mad scarecrow woman, breathing deeply and balancing the sky on my head. A plot point that has been driving me crackers suddenly resolves itself, and I scrabble for a pen to write it down.

Reaching Emma’s meadow, we stop so Dora can have a drink and a paddle. I sit on the bridge and stare at some beautiful lime-green and silver lichen. I wonder if perhaps emerging naiads might use it as lace. The thought reminds me of Jessica’s May Queen dress, which I still haven’t sorted out. Guilt drives me to my feet and I resolve to go home immediately and order it from Joules.

I’m marching and trying not to look left or right, but then a butterfly crosses me, a glorious stinging yellow (Cloudless Sulpher?). I whip my phone out to try to photograph it, and then I’m lost again, smiling at clumsily bonking woodpigeons and startling a great, grey heron. It flies off  like a prehistoric bag of bones, and I hope it doesn’t go to our house, and pinch our last fish.

Walking through the bottom of the village, I can smell the faint burnt-rubber of dying daffodils. There are grape hyacinths everywhere, school-ink blue.

A sooty-black orange-bottomed  bumble bee passes me as I reach Gulliver’s Close, and I see our black van parked on the corner. Stevie is putting a stove in for a lady, and he waves as I walk up.

‘Hello darling,’ he says. ‘Nice walk? Have you rung the Smiths’? Been to the vet? Ordered Jess’ dress?’

Bugger. No. No and no. Doing it now.