On Village Life: The Burns Supper

It’s Saturday night, and the village Burns night, and I’m in the Red Lion, where I’ve popped in for one, but appear to have stayed. I’m with lovely new friends and my neighbour, R, and we’re at the table by the fire, glugging white wine and saying we really must go up the hill.

robbie burns

‘I’ve had no lunch,’ I say, draining my second glass. The new friends laugh when I say I can’t hold my drink. ‘Really,’ I say. ‘I’m a liability. And we really are going to be dreadfully late.’

J drains his pint and we’re off, roaring up the hill in the type of car that comes with a free Labrador. We park outside St Ethelreda’s, and for a moment J looks appalled. ‘Christ,’ he says. ‘Don’t tell me we’re eating in the church?’

We laugh, pulling him onwards, and I fall over the gate to the Old School. Oh, I think vaguely. Oh dear. Light from the long windows spills across the play ground, and we can hear the swell of polite conversation.

My party come to a stop at the door. C looks worried. ‘They won’t have sat down, will they?’

‘It’s barely eight-‘ It’s nearer half-past.

I take a deep breath and bowl in first, coming to a horrified stop in the entrance to the school proper. The tables have been arranged in a big horse-shoe, facing the door. Heads swivel towards us, and a fleeting hush pins us to the spot. Oh no. They’re all halfway through mains, in fact, most plates are empty, haggis devoured.

I can feel R, C and J hesitate behind me, and for a millisecond we all nearly step back, run away.

‘Where’ve you been!’ On the nearest table are two cricketing amigos, and I grin.

‘Sorry!’ I say, ‘got caught up…’

‘You’ll have to sit separately,’ says a voice behind me. ‘We’ve started.’

‘Sorry,’ I say. ‘Awfully sorry’. I whip off my coat and leap for a spare seat. Oh horrors. Between a pretty blonde who’s not drinking, and a terribly nice man who plays the church organ. I can’t disguise the fact that my cheeks are flushed, my eyes gleaming and I’m quite clearly deliciously, gloriously, pie-eyed.

‘Pleased to meet you,’ says the blonde, shaking my hand. One of the chaps opposite gives me a wink, and I realise the top button of my frock has come undone, offering inappropriate plunging views.

I hastily refasten and look around desperately for food. Something stodgy and easy to eat, immediately. I recognise the emergence of Bad Wifey; the version of me that laughs at all of her own jokes, and could flirt with a brick.

An old pub friend pushes forward a dram of whisky in a shot glass. ‘Good girl,’ she says, as I throw it back. I turn to the terribly nice man on my right, and say, ‘Marvellous evening, great to join you. So, do tell me: how’s your organ?’

‘The one in the church is great; the one waiting in here could use a bit of work.’

I scream with laughter, and call him very naughty. He looks mystified.

One of the young village girls gives me a plate, and I go up to the counter to collect my haggis. Thankfully, it’s all gone, so I’m given a Matterhorn of potato. I insist on kissing all of the serving wenches, as they’re all my old bus-stop buddies. One of them tells me to eat my mash, quick. ‘No, Carles, really. Eat something.’

Through puds I talk to the pretty blonde, and pretend to be au fait with discussing extensive acreage. I find myself saying, ‘Yarse. Of course, it would be super for a pony.’ My damn button keeps popping, and now more chaps are winking. A distinguished-looking man in a kilt keeps leaping to his feet, and demanding toasts, rolling his ‘r’s like a pirate. I’m alternating whisky with pints of water.

‘To absent friends,’ he cries, and we all jump up and thrust our arms in the air. R, C and J are sitting just off the top table, and collecting empty wine bottles in front of them.

‘Music!’ cries  Kilty. I go behind the counter at the back of the room, filling my pint of water from the tap.

‘What’s happening?’ One of my favourite Horley husbands is next to me, and I shamelessly wriggle beneath his arm. ‘What are they all doing?’

‘Singing,’ he tells me. ‘David’s playing the organ.’

I feel myself blanche. ‘Oh God,’ I say. ‘In real life? An actual piano-organ type job?’

His reply is lost in a rousing shout of Loving A Lassie. The organ had been waiting, apparently, around the corner. A bus stop amigo rolls up to help with the washing up, and the three of us sway mightily to My Bonnie Lies Over The Ocean. I throw back another dram as the only thing to do. One of the yummiest of the Horley mummies bends down and scribbles out the ‘i’ on a box labelled ‘paints’. We all laugh immoderately, and the crowd bellows Donald, Where’s Your Troo-sers?

Quite suddenly, it seems, the singing is over and people are standing up. Dancing! I think, but no, coats are being pulled on, chairs stacked.

‘I must help,’ I say, flapping ineffectually with a tea-towel. It’s taken from my hands. ‘What can I do?’

One of the MHT Trustees pats my arm. ‘Help get people out to the pub,’ she says. ‘Would be best.’

So I go and collect the gang. J insists I help him finish the last of the white wine. I boggle at the task: I’ve really, really drunk enough.

I feel horribly guilty not joining in the clearing-up, but recognise my important room-emptying job. ‘To the pub!’ I cry.

We pull on our coats, spill from the school. I fall over the gate for a second time.

‘Mind the fox poo,’ says R.

We clatter down the hill, the night air sharp, pinching our faces. Above our heads the sky is clear; the stars caught in the nets of the mighty beech tree. Wasn’t it lovely, we agree, and how awful to be so late. And the singing! Fancy having the singing.

‘Shame there was no dancing,’ we say. ‘Proper dancing.’

‘Reeling!’

We stumble onto Little Lane, sliding on the gravel. It’s freezing; our breath billows around our heads.

‘Onwards,’ I cry, ridiculous. ‘And downwards, down to the pub-‘

 

On Walking: Tuesday 20th January

It’s early afternoon, and in the lea of the hedgerows, the ground is still frozen hard. We’re walking down the Banbury Road, towards the bridge, and it’s so cold that my scarf is over my nose, my eyes are watering.

The dogs pull me over the verge, down to the ditch beneath the oak. The water here is unfrozen, and I let the dogs go before I slosh through. It’s too cold to look up, but I don’t mind: I’m looking inwards, pulling and pushing at thoughts that won’t settle. I’ve been reading a book, a murder-mystery, thrillery type, and it’s a word-worm: it’s got into my head.

It’s called ‘What She Left’, and it’s about a girl called Alice Salmon, who drowns aged twenty-five, right when she’s on the very edge of everything that could be fabulous.

The story of Alice and how she ends up dead is compiled by a professor at the university  she once attended, as a project to discover how much of a person you can recapture by what they left behind.

I tramp across frozen rape, thinking about this. There’s a line in the book: Before, we died to leave birth certificate, death and marriage, perhaps photos. Not now.

I don’t like thinking of accidental legacy, of disorganised evidence I’ve left behind. Hasty ill-judged one-liners on Facebook. Photographs! Laboured witticisms on Twitter, irritated emails sent to rubbish eBay sellers. I look up, pointlessly whistle the dogs, push the thoughts away.

At the first footbridge, I stop to look at nightshade berries, wanting to describe them, but none of the words will fit. In the book, T.R. Richmond writes, ‘How terrible to be inarticulate…To never be heard. Perhaps that’s why we write?

I don’t want to think about that either. I force myself to eyeball the berries, caught in the winter sun. Ovoid. Lit from within, as if candled.

I straighten, taking shallow breaths. If I breathe too deeply, the cold scalds my chest, makes me cough. Ahead, Emma’s meadow is indistinct in the  sunlit mist. When I look back, I can see the reflections of ice in the divots of Dave’s fields, they sparkle like shattered glass. I didn’t see them on the way past, and even such an ordinary observation now seems weighted: all we can do in Alice’s story is look back.

I’ve fallen in love with Alice Salmon: she’s so brave, so cool. So real. The Professor, ‘Cookie’, compiles letters, Facebook postings, tweets, emails, police transcripts…Alice feels like my daughter, my sister, my best mate. I feel as if I knew her, and that I’m grieving for her, and to move on, I must understand what happened to her. 

At home, on my Kindle, ‘What She Left’ is on 84% read. The Kindle’s lying on the top of the giantly-stuffed laundry basket, in sight of the estimates I must type, the emails I must answer, the half-thawed chunks of turkey I must put in a pie. The flour, from which I must make the pie-top.

Now, if I’m squashed by a tractor, between here and home, the world will forever know of the turkey pie. The woman who eeked out Christmas Day until 20th January. Reading the book feels like looking in a mirror, or two, three mirrors; that disorientating fascination with a rarely-seen perspective, yet it’s one others see all that time. It’s all very well being heard, but it’s whether you’re understood that really seems to matter.

I reach Emma’s meadow, and I can’t do it any more, my brain hurts. I jump the stile and start to jog, sing, flap my arms. Anything to put me living in the here, the now. The dogs jump around me, enjoying a bit of bonkers. Pants barks with approval and Dora tells him off. I crouch and growl, making him bark even more. Then we run over the crispy grass, doubling-backwards, forwards, until I can’t breathe and I have to stop. I heave for breath, my hands on my knees. The dogs are still tearing round.

‘Come on,’ I tell them. ‘Enough. Home.’ I give in, grinning to myself, relieved to admit my weakness. ‘I’ve got tea to make. Ironing to do. A book to finish.’

 

What She Left cover

PS. Here’s a link… http://www.janklowandnesbit.co.uk/tr-richmond/what-she-left

 

On Walking: Thursday 8th Jan

I don’t want to walk today. It’s cold; windy and raining, and I want to stay at home, use my sour mood to skip out the gritty-bottomed saucepan cupboard. But Pants keeps laying his silly face along my back as I scrub, and every time I straighten, Dora runs to the leads, claws skittering on the floor. I clatter pans and slosh bleach to express my irritation, but they win, like they always do.

The rain drizzles away and we go down the Banbury Road to the Spring Field, because we haven’t been there yet this year, and because there’s a scrap of blue sky in that direction. There are a double set of gates into the first field, and usually I like the satisfaction of foiling their idiosyncrasies to open them. Not today: today I haul myself straight over the top of both, perch like a grumpy crow, before splotting down to the mud below. Once, twice. I land square each time, heavy-thighed, heavy bellied: too many Christmas chocolates.

I quick-march around the first field, head down, eyes fixed on the soggy remains of greyed wheat stubble. I can hear my breathing and feel the sweat in the small of my back, and I walk faster, faster. By the time I complete the second circle, the sky and I have changed mood. I stand in the middle of the gateway to Spring Field, feel the sun on my face and hear the birdsong in the blackthorn hedges at either side of me. I try to see which birds they might be, but they’re too quick, flitting up the hedge in front of me. I follow the margin up the hill, imagining the fat from those chocolates melting off.

Halfway up, I pause, and ahead, Pants wheels left to avoid the giant muck heap, sending a power of woodpigeons up into the sky. I’ve never seen so many together and I stop in astonishment. I can hear the flap from tens of wings – maybe hundreds – and they whirl up into the sky like leaves caught in a curling wind. They move in a solid vortex towards the covert that runs the full flank of the field, and I catch a glimpse of something terrible. As they fly, the birds cast huge shadows in the low, winter sun, and for the most fleeting of moments, a basic flight-fear jolts my muscles. I instantly rationalise the shadows – I know they’re only woodpigeons, and birds have never scared me – but such an ancient reflex fascinates me.

Dora and I walk on, beside the top hedge. An elder lies shattered across the margin, the lichen on its bark has been nibbled by roe deer. The blackthorn protects the tuiles of Lords and Ladies, poking up from the winter leaves like glossy green cigars.

Pants is out of sight, but I can track him by the frantic pheasants that occasionally hurl themselves from the undergrowth.  In the top corner of the field, I stop to look at Horley on its opposite hill. In the horse’s field next to the Cricket, the sun gilds the top of the ridges, making the shadows seem deeper. I can see our house, with its one super-clean cupboard. From this side of the valley, the other cupboards don’t seem to matter.

I shuffle my feet to warm them, and notice charcoal, piled on the mud in a neat heap. There’s about enough to fill a dinner plate, and I wonder how it got there, and by whom. The only human footprints up here are usually only mine. I stretch, walk on.

At the bottom of the field, by the Sor Brook,  clouds of midges jig in sunshine. I stand and watch them for a moment; at a breath of wind, the midges squeeze together, like fish with a shark.

I walk on, thinking about genetically-influenced fears and phobias, mysterious piles of charcoal and the men that once worked those ridge and furrow. I take off my hat, tip back my head, grateful to the sun, the fields. Conscious of my luck.

 

Horley from Spring Field