There is cattle (cattle!) in Emma’s Bottom Meadow, and I don’t notice until I’m through the gate. I look up and there they are; tiny-eyed. Frisky.
I reverse, sharpish. We go further up the Wroxton Lane, and go in a field I look at almost every day, but hardly ever set foot in. We call it the Ash Field, on account of the whacking ash tree in what used to be the middle. When the children were little, they’d always insist on touching the tree before turning for home. There’s usually cattle in here too, but I’m guessing they’ve been moved for a final munch on longer grass. The grass in here is pocked with dark mud, cropped short. Badgers have been ravaging the cow splats.
The field is on the Wroxton side of the village; the Scout Woods are up on my left, the Sor boarders my right. Across the valley is Bramshill, and our favourite walk. For a moment, I feel discombobulated, as if I’d stepped into my own postcard. I wish I could walk, straight from here, straight to there.
Instead, I whistle the dogs, wade through the bog, and head to the ash. I look up at the hawthorns banding the Scout Woods, and the sky is sat down low upon the Scouts’ firs, so grey and sullen. It’s only about two o’clock, but the light is odd; yellows and oranges are made almost fluorescent. The Sor is loud, rushing, swollen with rain.
We reach the ash and I touch the bark, thinking of the toddler daughters with their bright woollen mittens. Most of the leaves have fallen now, and lie on the bleaching grass, like twists of wet black ribbons.
We slog on up the field, climbing the steep slope to the edge of the hawthorn bank. The hawthorns are bare, their jigsaw leaves filling the hoof prints left from the cattle. I turn and look again to Bramshill, over the Carp Ponds that feed the stream. Almost directly opposite is the glass face of Bramshill Manor, and I imagine what they must see – a little figure in a blue, stripy hat and wellies. I straighten up, to avoid looking dumpy.
There are brown and white striped feathers in a circle to my left – a hen pheasant, efficiently disposed of. I wonder what ate its feet. The dogs have vanished into the bramble thickets beyond the hawthorn, and I walk on, slow in the mud. There are bright green crab apples scattered around, a legacy from the vanished railway.
Half way along the bank, I see the cart track that fascinates us. The bank is just wide enough for a car, or a very small tractor, and there are always the indents of wheels for fifty yards or so. But we can’t figure out what it is that drives here, nor why – nor how you never see their tracks going up and down, only across. It’s a mystery.
I follow the track back towards the Wroxton Lane, looking at Horley, higgledy-piggledy up the hill. It’s starting to rain, and I put my face up, almost tripping into one of the huge rabbit scrapes.
Suddenly, three pheasants burst out above my head, shocking in their outrage. Pants shoots out of the brambles, eyes rolling white with fear, Dora a lightening streak behind him. I don’t even turn, don’t even look. I’m running down that hill after them with my biggest galumphing strides, fast as I can; faster, pell-mell towards the gate and home. I don’t care if anyone’s watching from the Manor, nor from anywhere else – fight or flight has kicked in, and I don’t want to be as thoroughly dealt with as that poor pheasant.
I’m walking again by the time I’m on the lane, and feel like an idiot. Of course there’s no monster, no ghosts. What is wrong with my silly brain? We pass the cows, in the Bottom Meadow and I pause a moment, eyeing them up.