I’m lying in the thick orange mud, the root of an elder root goring my hip bone, a vicious cilice-like bramble around my thigh. I’m scraping up clodded earth with my bare hands, gouging with my nails, dragging free lumps of Hornton stone, ash twigs, dried leaves. I’m up to my shoulder in the hole I’ve created, and I can see Dora’s darling foxy face beyond a lattice of roots, inches beyond my reach. She’s choking now, her breath rasping, ending each time on a thinly wheezed whine.
Pants is trying to dig next to me, crying with effort, scraping my arm with his long claws, flicking dirt into my face, down my navy anorak. But the earth’s too wet, I’ve compacted it – I need a spade. Dora’s cries are quieter now, the choking more pronounced. I imagine her harness, the buckle of it twisted and wedged in the clayed darkness, or her thin, nylon collar, hooked on some recalcitrant root.
‘Stay,’ I tell her, uselessly. I wriggle backwards, out of the hedge, fling the ketchup-red lead into a bush to mark the spot. Then I’m running up the short stretch of Clump Lane towards McNellie’s house. I can see her car, I tear across the lawn and leap down the stone wall, landing in a skitter of gravel. McNells opens the door as I’m almost to it, sane and beautiful, her hand on her baby bump.
‘I saw you running,’ she says. ‘What is it? What’s the matter?’
Ridiculously, I suddenly feel on the edge of tears. ‘Dora’s stuck in a badger hole,’ I say. ‘She can’t get out and oh-‘
I don’t add the last bit – I’m scared a badger might have bitten her – torn into her drumstick with those shark-sharp, yellow teeth.
McNellie, as practical as she is glamorous, tells me she’ll fetch a spade. I hang onto Pants’ collar, biting my lip, torn between embarrassment at making a fuss, and fear for the that silly little dog that doesn’t belong to me.
Oh God, oh God. Bloody dog in a hole and the school Music Assembly is in less than an hour, and I promised I’d be there for Jess’ clarinet song. I jiggle on the spot, agitation burning my feet. Guilt prickles my neck.
McNellie appears with a wooden-handled spade, and I grab it with thanks, turning to run back up the hill of the drive. I can hear Dora even from here, and I’m sprinting up the Clump, Pants barking beside me.
Dora’s not moved and I start digging, trying not to cry as the heavy earth falls inwards, blocking her from view. I’ve got to loosen it, I’ve got to. I cut and lift, cut and lift, then I lie down again, hauling out the spoil with my hand. Dora is beyong three thick roots, each the width of my wrist. I can touch Dora’s face now, and I can just get my finger tips around her neck. I free her collar just as McNells comes up the bank.
‘Have you got her?’
‘Nearly,’ I say. But I just can’t reach, and I can’t see how to dig out more earth – the ground is thick with roots, compacted from my body weight.
‘I’ve got to get to school,’ I say, pathetically. I feel tears threaten again. For goodness’ sake. She’s a Terrier. They belong in holes. Dora ups the crying, and I withdraw, pull out my phone, ring Stevie.
‘I’m still in Middleton Cheney,’ he says. ‘Knocking out a fireplace. Can’t you just drag her out?’
‘No,’ I say. ‘I can’t bloody reach.’
As I’m talking, McNells bends down into the hole, and starts pulling free rocks.
‘No!’ I shriek. ‘You’re not supposed to lift stuff!’
She rolls free a stone the size of a cabbage. ‘Stop it!’ I say.
She backs carefully out. ‘Who else can help? We need someone with long arms.’
‘The GFD,’ I say, without thinking. The screen of my smart phone is smeared in orange mud, and I swipe it on my filthy jeans.
The GFD is in bed, after lambing all night, and I wake him up.
‘Um,’ he says. ‘I’ll ask Chris-‘
As I gabble my thanks; McNells is sliding down the bank. Her toddler’s nap time is up. ‘Come and see me,’ she says. ‘When you get her out.’
I carry on digging, scooping. I can see a way of digging beneath the third root – it might just give Dora wriggle-room beneath. I scrape and drag, my shoulder muscles protesting, the cold dampness of the soil against my thighs, my belly. I have mud in my mouth, I can feel the grit as I push my tongue against my teeth. Dig, scrape. Pants is slobbering in my ear, trying to see down the hole. Images of angry cartoon badgers pop in my head, along with images of Elle and Jess scouring the Chapel audience, realising I’m not there, their smiles crumpling. I dig, dig.
My arms are like jelly now, sweat makes my glasses slide down my nose. Beneath my anorak, my newly-ironed going-to-school white shirt is stuck to my back. I hear the roar of an engine, and suddenly Chris is there in his blue 4×4. I sit back as he comes up the bank in his lambing overalls; tall, smiling. A spade in his hand.
‘Oh thank you,’ I say. ‘Thank you so much.’
Pants starts barking as Chris throws the blade of the spade into the ground. He digs twice as deep as I do with a single movement, then reverses the spade to drag the spoil. Pants barks, Dora cries, and I flutter uselessly with a girly running-commentary. Chris is kind, and doesn’t tell me I should’ve left the daft dog, she’d have got out by herself.
‘Her harness was caught,’ I gabble. ‘I should’ve taken it off, but she never goes in holes, never further from my feet than a few yards.’ As I speak, I realise this is untrue. She does bugger off, always with near-miss consequences.
Chris lays down the spade; the hole is vast now – a badger’s courtyard. He lies down, reaching to Dora, trying to push her head beneath that bottom root.
‘Damn thing,’ he says, meaning the root.
‘She doesn’t bite,’ I say. ‘Well, not usually.’
Chris is patient, coaxing her down, down, then hooking her collar. He drags her out, covered in clodded mud, orange-brown from head to tail.
I cheer, grabbing her, roughing her up as she tries to lick me. I stand up and she goes to dart down another nearby hole. My deepest, crossest shout stops her in her tracks.
‘Thanks Chris,’ I say. ‘Thank you, thank you-‘
Chris calmly fills in the huge hole, waves good bye as he climbs back in his 4×4 with his spade.
I clip both dogs onto their leads. It’s ten past two. Twenty minutes to get to school.
I fly back down to McNells’, delivering back the spade, flinging more thanks before I turn and make a run for it. No time for a shower, just change, wash hands. Bung the dogs in the extension until I can get at them with the hose.
I run home through the village, stitch needling my ribs, shoulder numb from digging. I’m unbeleivably filthy, and it takes me five minutes to scrub clean my hands with a nail brush. I’m out of clean jeans, and am forced to wear a denim skirt of unflattering length.
Then I’m in the car, driving as fast as I dare to Hornton. I can hear the children tuning up as I run down Hornton hill, wishing I’d thought to grab a glass of water. My chest is heaving, and I know I’m red in the face.
I slide in, moments to spare, next to Tightie.
‘Hello,’ she whispers. ‘Don’t they look grown up?’ Then she looks at me. ‘Did you know you’ve got half a bush in your hair?’
I reach up to pull the twigs free, catch the eyes of my daughters; one, two. They barely smile, full of nerves. I raise a hand to wave. My fingers are still faintly orange.