And There Was A Secret Horley Fest

It’s already raining as we bounce down the Wroxton Road. Fine, misty stuff that makes crystal beads in the children’s hair. The tarmac gleams blackly-slick, and the chestnut on the corner of Little Lane totters beneath its weight of sodden leaves. It’s nearly eight o’clock, but feels later, darkness sneaking in on the rolling waves of a rain-grey sky.

We’re singing 1Direction ‘You don’t know you’re beautiful’ – the same line over and again -Oh, oh-oh, because none of us know the proper words. There’s me and four children, singing, screeching and twirling through Horley, party nerves sending us hyper. I’m the only one with gin in one pocket, and tonic in the other. I have a blue plastic beaker forced into the back pocket of my skinny jeans. I am wearing six earrings in my ears for the first time in fifteen years, and I feel as if I’m reclaiming a tiny something that used to be mine. The party is in a field, you see; a sweet, perfect festival. There’re bands. And tents. And volley-ball and a massive water-slide. Tonight, there’ll be Dave, and his glorious The Love Shack Disco.

There’re even porta-loos and a beach-hut bar, complete with beach. Years ago, before marriage and children and growing up, I used to do festivals, the wilder, more random, the better. I’m no stranger to dancing in fields, beneath open skies. But not tonight, I think, climbing the hill. I’ll have a few drinks, have a chatter, then round up the children and leave. This is the second night of the Secret Horley Fest, and everyone will be exhausted anyway.   And I’m so very responsible, and terribly grown up. I will soon be driving an estate car. With dog-bars.

We reach the field, and the four children are off, screaming like banshees into the gloom. From the gate I can see crowds of people around the beach-bar, lit by the bright lights of the disco. The bones of last night’s bonfire lie grey-white in the middle of the field, and the tents of guests are pitched above, pegged and billowing; electric blue, dark-green, navy and alien-snot green. The campers are on the only flat bit, the rest of the field field mostly slopes back down to Horley, as if to tip us gently home.

I’m too scared to brave the bar, so I plod up the hill, hoping I find chums in tents. I do – Shorty and Sporty, glugging beer outside their blue tent. I flourish my gin, and then there’re more chums coming up the hill – Lulu and Giddyup, and they scoff at my tiny measures and declare themselves mistresses of the gin bottle.

‘Can’t Stevie come,’ they say. ‘And pick up the kids?’

It all suddenly seems like such a fabulous idea.

***

I’m teetering now, on the edge, but my mother-programming is too hard to over-ride with children present. Miraculously though, Stevie rings, and offers to drive up, as the rain is sheeting now, and surely we must all be frozen?

‘Totally,’ I say, enunciating very carefully. ‘But would you mind awfully if you took the children and I stayed?’

‘Oh God,’ he says, but I hear the grin in his voice.

It’s too dark to see splattered hair and running mascara, and I’m on a gin rush now. Lulu and I pluck the children from the mosh pit and jolly them towards the gate. I can’t figure out if I’m upright or not, and we all hang onto each other in the darkness. Stevie arrives and the children are soundly kissed and strapped in the car and Stevie ducks forward as I go to shut the car door.

‘Have a good time,’ he says, making sure he catches my eye. I read the subtext. Call me, if you need me. Lulu and I stand there, rain dripping from our eyelashes, waving them off.

‘Oh Lordy,’ I say, when the red tail-lights are gone. ‘I’m going to drink more gin. And then-‘ I turn to Lu. ‘I might dance.’

Lulu rolls her eyes and we weave back to the Beach Bar. A big white gazebo has been put up, and everyone’s crammed beneath it, to keep out of the rain. We reach the others, and my beaker’s been topped up. I stand and sip, trying to spy who’s here. There’s a wide range of ages, from children to grand-parents, and lots of beautiful teenagers with long rippling hair, all laughing in parrot-shrieks.

I finish my beaker, and decide, owl-like, that Legs of Horley and Handsome Neighbour (our host and hostess) must need help on the barbecue. I reel over, arms flung wide. ‘I’ve come to help,’ I cry. ‘Although I’m a bit pissed-‘

‘Don’t worry,’ they say, welcoming me in. Then they move me briskly over as I make a grab for the burger tongs. I fall hands-down into some frozen bread rolls; rock-hard and weirdly domed, like pixie-skulls.

‘Frozen ones toast better,’ I’m told, as I pick one up in confusion. I nod, and even when I stop, my head’s still going. Someone comes over to photograph Legs, and she tries to hide behind the ketchup bottle without appearing rude.

‘Stand and smile!’ I shout, grabbing her in a head-lock.

They put me in charge of taking donations, but I’m useless. The Mistress of The Horse and Tommy Gun arrive, and they bring me more gin.

‘Revenge,’ murmurs Tommy Gun, handing me a plastic glass and kissing my cheek. I’m gazing in envy at his wife. The Mistress is wearing a beautiful tweed-and feather Titfers hat, and looks effortlessly stylish.

Our host is wearing a vast sombrero and does not. He abandons the barbecue to go down the slope to dance, the disco lights turning him pink then yellow, like an Irene Tyack man. We see his teeth flashing as a gaggle of ladies rush from the gazebo to join him for a bop.

Dave is playing Cold Play now, and Stereophonics, and oh, I so want to dance. My body keeps arching from my hips, and my legs twitch. I accidentally bin the Legs of Horley’s half-eaten burger, and I’m summarily sacked. I collapse with appalled laughter. It had contained the last of the cheese.

‘Go have another drink,’ she says, bundling me away from the barbecue.

Back under the gazebo, there’s the lairy roar of conversation as guests make themselves heard over the music. Big Steve pulls me in out of the rain, and I’m introduced to a pretty girl who works in fashion. We gesture at our jeans and wellies and anoraks, and bond over the shiteness of rain on straightened hair.

But then it’s Florence And The Machine, and I’m being pulled, towed out of the gazebo, into the sherbert lights and the noise and the madness and my hands are up, my body alive, alive, my anorak chucked in a pile around which we leap; fling our hands, our feet, our bones, our reserves. The rain is cool on my upturned face, my mouth open, shouting, shouting the words: You’ve got the love, got the love-‘

We dance in our wellies, in our vests and jeans. Lulu and Giddyup and me. Rain washes away the sweat and we don’t stop; we don’t stop even once. Stitch burns like fire in my side, my spine is disconnected from my thighs, my wellies chafe my shins raw. We don’t stop.

Then it’s the set Dave always plays, when it’s us, when it’s Horley. Born Slippy: Drive boy dog boy / Dirty numb angel boy / In the doorway boy / She was a lipstick boy / She was a beautiful boy / And tears boy / And all in your innerspace boy

The strobe is on, and I can practically feel a plastic whistle between my teeth; I’m sixteen, twenty-eight, thirty-four, eighty-five – ageless, careless. The music in me, around me, holding me, controlling and consuming, like the best kind of loving, the best kind of ecstasy.

We’re on our knees when he stops, lets us go. Spent, drugged with bliss. He plays us Green Day: Time of Your Life’, the way he always does, and we collapse together, as we always do, as many as we can, our hands high, bodies swaying together.

It’s something unpredictable/ But in the end it’s right/ I hope you had the time of your life.

God, yes. Thank you having me. Time of my life.The Love Shack Disco

On Walking: Wednesday 14th August

I am child-less, for the first time in weeks, and I can walk at the pace I choose, and think the thoughts I choose. I can decide what to serve for dinner (that marrow that keeps looking at me, balefully, from the dresser). I can examine any plant or insect that catches my eye, and I can stand stock-still in the middle of a field for five minutes, listening to ripe corn. I can then take a further ten minutes thinking of how to describe it. Not as plastic-beadily rattling as oats, is my conclusion so far.

The dogs and I are heading to the covert across the valley from the cricket pitch – through the corn fields that catch the very last of the evening sun. It’s mid-afternoon now, though, and the glorious morning has clouded to a  featureless dirty-white, like grubby bed-sheets.

We walk down the Banbury Road, and I notice the stems of the elder berries are stained purplish-red, although the berries themselves stay green. They remind me of the neck-flush of an older woman with a crush, and decide that when the time comes, I shall wear a silk scarf.

We turn past Jamie’s Mum’s stables, and walk up the grassy ride alongside the wheat. I think about something I recently learnt – what I thought was some sort of long-whispery type of wheat is actually barley, and what I thought was barley was just a longer-stemmed type of wheat. And corn can mean any cereal crop at all. The bit I don’t understand was how I mixed it all up in the first place – I grew up on a small-holding in the middle of fields. You’d have thought I could tell the difference.

There’s a path cut through the wheat and I follow it, stooping to admire the tiny love-hearts of Shepherd’s Purse. The red-brown soil of the path has been compacted by walkers – this route leads to Ratley, and the National Herb Centre.  There’s another plant here, sprawling rudely, holding its pink fingers up in defiance to passing boots. My Collins guide tells me it’s ‘Red Shank’, or Persicaria. Apparently, we used to eat it.

This thought occupies me all the way to the covert. How did we eat it? In salads? The guide says ‘the starch-rich fruits were formerly gathered and used as grain.’ Red Shank soup? Bread? I kick at a thistle, frustrated that ancient hedge-row knowledge is missing from my brain.

I reach the stile at the covert: my turning point. Not wanting to go home just yet, I perch on the stile like a silly fat pigeon, looking across the valley to Horley. I can see our house, the inexhaustible To-Do List scrawling out of our chimneys.

I turn my attention back to the Red Shank, and wish I were brave enough to serve it for dinner, mixed with pasta, some marrow (which I’d chop and oven-bake, with salt and rosemary and olive oil). Topped with pecorino and a few splinters of smoked streaky bacon.

‘Oh yes,’ I’d say. ‘Red shank. Or Lady’s Thumb. Delicious, don’t you think? Yes, of course…grown locally.’

Redshank - persicaria

Dog Walking: Sunday 11th August

We’ve been out for lunch with friends, and it’s early evening by the time we reel home, stuffed full of steak and sausage and lemon meringue with strawberries. The children swoop around us on their bicycles, and Stephen suddenly sprints up Hornton Lane, his arms outstretched like an adrenalised scarecrow. We all collapse with giggles.

We get home, and there’s talk of baths and setting the bread-maker and was Top Gear the last of the series last week or this week? But then Stephen opens the front door, and it catches, then slides on something horrid. We all gag on the smell. Two further steps in, and from the shattered dish it’s obvious. Arfa Pants has stolen and demolished an entire tartiflette left cooling for the freezer, and the rich cheese and potato has violently disagreed with his belly.

‘Who?’ hisses Stephen.  ‘The utter hell, left the dogs free?’

Me. Rushing, in a hurry, as usual. I feel faint, imagining the damage he may have done upstairs. The children’s carpet (our only one) wee’d on. Bathroom bin over-turned and scattered.

Dora skips out of the front door, ears flat at the shouting. Then somehow Pants is on the pavement, and his lead is in my hand. Stephen’s voice is flat with a dangerous calm. ‘Walk,’ he says. ‘Just walk.’

We walk. Lickety-split up the Jackie Chan and towards St Ethelreda’s, almost scuttling in case Stephen changes his mind, calls us back, hands me the rubber gloves instead.

We don’t stop until we reach the bend at Church Lane, Ross’ paddock above the Sledging Field. I let Pants go, watching his gallopy gormless enthusiasm as he wriggles through the gate, his troubles forgotten in the scent of rabbit. A thunder bug tickles my hand, and I blow at it. My diamond wedding rings gleam quietly on my finger, reminding me how lucky I am to have a husband au fait with bleach and scoops and scrubbing brushes.

In vino, I climb the gate after Arfa, clumsy in my short white skirt, my feet further away than I thought, my knees more bendy. The rusted iron is cold beneath my bare thighs, and  I shift to balance more comfortably, plucking mindlessly at the white electric fence twine winding around the top bar.

The light is falling now, the soft gloaming bleaching the valley of colour. The sky is the pale blue of old eyes, clouds sit in long cataractic banks to the west. To my left is the inky thumb-print smudges of the Scout Woods; in front the fields stretch dun and sand-beige, studded with black copses, like feasts of desert beetles. To my right, beyond Hornton, rises a cloud of dust. A combine, trying to beat the dew. Now I’ve seen it, I can hear it, the hum and thrash of summer’s end.

I think of AE Houseman, and a poem I can’t remember. I Google it, my fingers slow.

When summer’s end is nighing
And skies at evening cloud,
I muse on change and fortune
And all the feats I vowed
When I was young and proud.

Ouch. I turn off my phone and jump down, stinging the soles of my feet. I call Arfa Pants and he comes without a murmur, standing stock-still whilst I put on his lead.

‘Bit bloody late now,’ I tell him.

We drift down Little Lane, beneath the maw of the Copper Beech. At the bottom, we turn left, heading for the cricket pitch. Habit makes me glance at the pub, but it shuts at six on a Sunday.  I wander up the Banbury Road, balancing my steps along the kerb to prove I can.

We turn into the cricket, and I look up, for a moment stunned. I stand and stare, and stare. The wheat in the opposite valley is blazing gold, like the richest of treasures. The clouds have shifted, at the very last moment, to let the sunshine pour through. I feel my spirits rising like a cork in lemonade, and I let Arfa free to bound away.

‘Mummy!’ It’s Jess, wheeling and arcing down on her bicycle, like a  tropical bird in her Sunday best. ‘Mummy!’ she calls. ‘Good news! The poo’s gone, and Daddy’s taped Country File!’

I shout good-o! and wave, then am distracted by the swallows, flitting busily over the wicket, barely a foot from the ground.

‘Mum!’ Jess is exasperated now, her feet planted either side of her bike. ‘We’re waiting for you. Come on! And Daddy says don’t bring that bloody dog back…’Last of the sun

On Writing: On not.

I walk through Horley, on the Hornton Road. I walk beneath the dark belly of a ley lundai, smelling foreign woods in the Oxfordshire air: hot dust, pine resin. A woodpigeon coo-coo,cichoos above my head. It’s almost dark, goose-bumps rise like velcro teeth on my arms. A car pulls out from Sor Brook Farm, the driver flicking on its lights, not seeing me beneath the trees.

I walk on, watching my feet, my brown toes with dark-red nail polish, slow-moving in the heavy dusk. My once-sparkled silver flipflops are desultory in their sound: slip-slap. Slip…slap.

Then I feel his footsteps, sliding through mine.

‘Where’ve you been?’ he asks, and I hear his tone. Aggrieved. As if I’ve no right. ‘Why don’t you write any more?’

‘I do,’ I tell him. My voice is mild.

‘You don’t,’ he says. ‘Not what anyone can read, anyway. So what’s the point?’

I watch my feet. Slip-slap.

‘So’s that it?’ he says. ‘You’ve finished?’

I stop, pushing my hands down, past my denim shorts, them clumsily back, searching for the too-tight pockets. My hands. Usually so busy: dog leads, children’s plaits; zips, stuck dolly-clothes, un-stuck lego. Shopping bags, wooden spoons, fistfuls of flowers. The keyboard of my laptop.

I pull them free, and look at them. Feel the need in my fingers, the buzz of a strength that was gone, and is now returning.

‘I’ll write,’ I say.

He steps towards me. ‘You did it again,’ he says. He lifts a hand as if to touch my arm, but we both know he never will. ‘You got lost, didn’t you?’

‘No,’ I say. ‘Not so bad. I got tired, this time. Just tired.’

‘So you’ll write?’

I nod. ‘I’m back,’ I want to say, but my words stick fast to my teeth, like too many toffees. By the time my tongue works them free, he’s gone.

I turn for home, and I feel it again, through my bones. The beat of something joyous. The re-starting of an energy that I don’t control but depend upon utterly. The energy without which my world is miserable and beige, everything I love beyond a curtain I cannot draw.

I smile, suddenly, and fling out my arms as I walk. My feet hit the ground with a different rhythm, the old one, with purpose and direction. Slippety-slap, slippety-slap, echoing, repeating: vital and alive.