It’s early afternoon and it’s the Monday before Christmas. The clouds are cobweb grey; drooping over the fields with the sad exhaustion of over-washed smalls.
The children and I are walking the Meadow Circle, round the margins of Dave’s fields. E and J aren’t talking to each other, both bitter and truculent after an aborted game of Monopoly. They fight to hold my hand, muttering she said, she said, and I try to swallow the ball of anxiety lodged in my throat.
I concentrate on the ever-running lists in my head, clicking through in a ticker-tape litany that I must get right. Christmas lunch, presents, wrapping, washing, ironing, cooking, buying, sorting, cleaning. The Christmas cards lie unwritten next to a recipe for Extra Special Stuffing, for which the ingredients remain unbought. The hens need skipping out; the hyacinth bulbs need planting. My boots swish this-that through last summer’s grass. Must do this, that; and this, and this and this.
The wind worries at the children’s hoods, whips my hair into my eyes. Pants barks at a naked blackthorn hedge and two wood pigeons sway above us on an ash. The children have fallen silent, but the frowns and glares have gone; the curled lips dropped.
We slip through the secret passage and look down at the Sor. It’s very unlike its normal December self; quiet and clear, sliding over tree-roots like transparent silk. We walk on, unspeaking, beneath the oak. There are barely any acorns this year, after last year’s glut.
We reach the bridge into Emma’s Meadow. Jess pulls my hand. ‘You can paddle now,’ she says. ‘Now you’ve got new wellies.’
The three of us wade into the brook, stepping over the frills of watercress and sinking into the silt. Pants charges up and tries to join in, splashing us, making waves that threaten the children’s welly-tops.
‘Away,’ we shout. ‘Away!’
I squelch back through the deep cattle prints, call him to me. ‘I’ll take the dogs round,’ I say, whistling for Dora. ‘Come and meet me.’
They both wave vaguely, already intent on finding a cray, the outrage of The Electric Company forgotten (in their rules, they do not allow each other to own both stations and utilities). I go off, ticker-tape at full despairing chat.
I march now, my best pace, in my big circle, march, march. Somehow, by halfway, I’m thinking of the book I must deliver for the 6th of Jan, and the synopsis for the book after. But these are my favourite types of thoughts, with none of the heart-thumping anxiety of the ticker-tape thoughts.
I come back to the children, still in the stream. They are daring each other deeper and deeper, laughing, their hoods down, cheeks pink. I watch them for a while, then look back to Dave’s field at the shrivelled yellow matchsticks of sprayed-off wheat. This field is full of rape, ankle-height and looking like heartless cabbages.
The thought makes me smile: Fie! Thou heartless cabbage.
Eventually, the children’s feet grow cold, and they emerge from the brook, stamping. We’re about to leave the field when Elle points at Pants, twenty yards away. ‘Oh God, Mummy look-‘
But it’s too late – he’s rolling like a nightmare across a town of molehills, flinging up foamed earth and fox-shit, paws cycling in the air, mouth wide in soundless glee.
The children hoot with laughter, then scream when he runs at them. I catch him and nearly gag: bastard stinking dog, I hiss in his ear.
We walk back up Wroxton Lane, me in the middle with a daughter either side, each holding a dog. We sing, because it’s Christmas, and we screech whenever Pants veers off course and we walk through his waft of stench.
I’m smiling, because when we get back, I’m not doing any of that ticker-tape litany. I’m going to make hot chocolate and heat mince-pies and we may, if both children wash the dog, we may pile onto the new velvet sofa and watch The Snowman And His (non-stinking) Dog. We may even, if Stevie comes home early, eat a chocolate from the tree.
‘We wish you a Merry Christmas-‘ sing the children. I join in, ‘wish you a Merry Christmas-‘
We all goose-step to force Pants back to the side. ‘We wish you a merry Christmas,’
‘And a HAPPY NEW YEAR!’