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.