On Walking: Tuesday 24th February

The wind is cold, strong. It flips up my dress, pulls my hair from its pins, boxes my face. The dogs and I jump the ditch, cross into Dave’s field. The sun gleams in a line along the beaten mud of the footpath. I eschew its slippery promises of speed, take to the margins.

‘So will I live, so grow, so die,’ I say. I push my way through the secret passage, stumbling, as I’m trying to read my phone, and I’m not looking where I’m going.

No one can hear me out here but sheep across the Sor; which is good, as I’m saying the same words over and over, with different inflections. I accost an alder, and tenderly swear, by Cupid’s strongest bow, that we shall elope tomorrow. Pants play-barks into the wind, as if shouting bonkers, bonkers.

My hair is blinding me in the wind, so I sneak up to the fallen oak, heave myself up and anchor my hair behind my ears. I stare fiercely at my phone.

‘Help me, Lysander, help me!’

I’m impeaching the uncaring sky, the February trees. The latter are heedless, shivering despite their green-ivy leg-warmers. ‘You are not nigh,’ I say, sadly. ‘Not nigh.’ Dora leaps up beside me, as if to comfort.

Last night, I went to the first rehearsal of the play I’m in: the village production of Midsummer’s Night Dream. I haven’t stood on a stage since school, and I had completely forgotten the agony of learning lines. I am to play Hermia, who is a young lover and about fifteen. I shall lose a stone and tape up my 35 year old face. ‘Perhaps,’ suggested a friend. ‘Botox might be an option?’

And although it was the Old School, and not a stage at all, I still had that awful sick feeling that comes from acting in public: the thundering pulse, the sweat in the small of my back.

‘You mustn’t gabble,’ instructs our sprite of a Director.

My words came out wrong, my knees popped when I crashed down on them before Theseus. But in amongst the cringeing and the the botchedness, there was a glory to be had here. An echo of a self once remembered.

I was once as brave and strong as any young lover, with a narrow waist and hair that brushed the floor if I bent my back. I fought tooth and nail for the best parts in any play about which I heard. I scrapped for Nancy; Lady Macbeth, boring old Cordelia, and Sweet Miss Charity, who got kidnapped by handsome Indians (and shoulder-carried by savage Nev, crying ‘you beast, you beast!’).

That cast-iron confidence, the utter certainty that I’d be good and loved, has long since rusted away. Sometimes, it’s as much as I can do to meet the eyes of a neighbour, or mutter hello at the school gates.

Sitting on my log, I hunch down from the wind; imagine the expression  I would need in a clinch with Lysander. ‘Oh hell! to choose love by another’s eyes!’ I raise a hand, purpled with cold, gesture with despair at a field of wind-torn rape.

Then I realise I can still do it. In the middle of an Oxfordshire field, in freezing February and sat on a long-dead log, I can still believe I’m Athenian royalty, adored by a man called Lysander. And if I can believe it, and the rest of the cast can believe it, then perhaps that magic might happen, the magic known by any actor and that I remember: the audience might, too.

 

Dream script

On Walking in Half-Term: Tuesday 17th February

I am perched on a stile in the sun, feeling its warmth on my black-clad legs, on my forehead, my hair. I close my eyes, tip back my face further, breathe in, breathe out. The children are crashing around in the covert further down; I can hear a blackbird scolding them. My daughters continue their secret mission, calling to each other in the American accents of their private play world. We’re in the Spring Field. The Sor Brook runs through the bottom of the valley, and Horley stretches cat-like over the hill beyond.

I can smell the resin of the spruces around me; the pureness of the cold air. I straighten my back, stretch out my arms, balance, imagine the sun soothing, heating; enlivening every inch of me. I don’t need to think, speak, react. Just be. Right here, right now. Blissful.

When I open my eyes, I’m smiling. Grinning out at a field of growing wheat. The dogs are pheasant-baiting and I can hear the children a way away, down the bottom of the field, maybe in the next. They can never stay away from the brook for long; it fascinates them, and they spend hours trying to cross it, dam it, wrestle from it any secrets or Signal cray it may carry.

I slide from my perch, looking for signs of life in the patch of mares tail. None yet, just last year’s exhausted stalks, bent and folded like articulated bones. I walk beside mole hills, arranged in a neat line beside the wheat margin, as if the moldywarp was asking for tolerance if he kept out of the crop. On the last of his hills, there’s a shard of glass, thrown on the very top like a sky-light. It’s thick, greenish, half the size of my palm. I imagine the mole wrestling with it, determined to eject it from his tunnel. I pick it up and nestle it into a fold of ivy around a fence post.

I reach the bottom of the field, hearing screams and crows of delight: the children have found a fallen tree across the water. They’ve crossed into a small copse, are inspecting a rogue clump of snowdrops with their sharpened spears.

‘You must see, Mummy, you must see.’

I clamber the fence, trespass with impunity born of life-long practice. The fallen tree is a spruce, mossed and slippery, but I cross it anyway, followed by Pants, wobbly on his long legs. We become a team of intrepids, and we fight our way through brambles and grasses to discover lofty bull-rushes and bogs and a bush with bright red bark that one daughter thinks might be flammable. She breaks some off and tries to put it in my pocket. ‘But Mum, it might set light in mine, and I need to Google it’. We decide it’s safer to put the twig in the brook, and we congratulate ourselves on disaster averted, a deadly danger diffused.

They’ve slipped back into their play voices now, and are deep in their world. I stand and watch a moment, listen. I could nip back to the sun, bask a while longer.

‘There’s snakes, y’all!’

I tamp down my smile, pick up a stout stick. Join in the play.

 

Carlie and daughters

 

On Walking: Monday 2nd February

I am sleep-walking down the Banbury Road, pulled along by Pants. We’ve left Dora at home, guard-dog for Elle, who’s been tremendously sick, and who is now lying supine on the sofa, drugged with cartoons. Pants leads me over the verge, down to the ditch; beneath the oak and into Dave’s field. I let him loose from his lead, watching as he wheels away.

I shiver, duck my nose into my old silk scarf. The air is so cold it feels thin, leaving me breathless. The clouds are a viscous grey; the sun an indistinct silver coin; false treasure in a treacherous sky.

Last night had been unending, holding Elle’s hand and trying not to catch her fear. ‘It’s just a bug.’ I said it over and over. ‘You’re going to be all right’.

‘But Mummy, it hurts.’

This morning, bombed from lack of sleep, I gave Stevie and Jess half-raw porridge. Tepid, gritty. The same colour as the sky.

Now, I start a lumbering jog, flapping my arms to warm up. I pass yellow catkins, hanging in pairs, no longer than half the length of my little finger. The birds are noisy; wood-pigeons clatter from an ash ahead of me. I put my head down, run on, inelegant in my wellies.

By the time we reach the bridge into Emma’s meadow, I’m warm. I don’t linger on the bridge; I don’t want to leave Elle for too long.

When she was a baby, I would hold Elle’s hand in the night. I’d put my arm through the bars of her cot, awkwardly bending, hold those precious tiny catkin-fingers. I’d be there for hours sometimes, unable to pull away in case I broke our hearts. Her hand is barely smaller than mine now, and the nails are half-varnished, bitten, the fingers long, clever. A great big ten-year old’s hands. As the waves of sickness twisted her body last night, her hand was tight, tighter still on mine.

‘Make it stop,’ she’d cried, and I’d wanted to cry with her, snatch the pain from her body and bear it, beat it, myself. Even the memory brings a sting of tears to my eyes and I stand in the field, blinking furiously. I glare at the jammy-scarlet of the blackberry wands; the unearthly chartreuse of the lichen on the hawthorn above.

I know that she’s over the worst, and that it was only a bug, but that same old nameless need that used to wake me in the darkness, is propelling me up the field, hurrying me past the cricket-bat willows; molehills go un-inspected.

I can feel the layered imprints of my daughter’s hand; the new-born, the toddler, the endlessly confidant six year old, the strong and brave almost-eleven year old. And I can hear the words she said last night.

‘Mummy, don’t let go.’

Elle walking

NB: After racing up the village like an idiot; red-faced and sweating, I found Elle serene on the sofa, tucking into a handful of dry cornflakes. Kids! Who’d ‘ave ’em?