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On Walking: Thursday 8th September

It’s a deeply golden morning, the sun diffused through the softest wisps of cloud. A breeze is ruffling the heads of the willows in the village, turning their leaves now green, now silver-white.

The dogs and I are walking down Banbury lane, beneath trees at their most thickly green. Pants is flinching and dancing on his lead: above our heads , two squirrels are in carnival mood, chasing each other from branch to branch, from oak to ash, flitting along impossible paths. The tarmac of the road is dappled by sunlight. The dapples slide over my arms, my shoulders, briefly warm my hair. The air smells of wood smoke and change.

The stems of the nettles are blackening, the leaves fading to yellow round the edges. There’s a sprawling blackthorn beside the oak, heavy with unripe sloes. They’re a smudged purple, yet to darken, and make me think of gin and stickiness and good times.

We reach the little brick bridge over the Sor, and we turn right, beneath the spreading arms of the oak. I bend to free the dogs from their leads – they’re off, squirrel-induced rockets – and then step through into the field-below-the-dryer. I can feel the heat of the field on my bare knees, earth that’s had its stubble raked, its underside turned uppermost.  New people are to farm the land, and the thought unsettles me. I know these fields so deeply, their rhythms, how the rain collects and flows, the muddy bits, the dry bits, where the elderberries grow. I’m afraid they might change.

This has been a hard year. Frustrating, full of unrelenting pressure and the sense that dreams should be grown out of and put away. Cowardice has stopped me writing, that and a sour sort of laziness, a self indulgent sulk with the world. I’ve martyred myself to housework and money-work, mopping and cooking and typing, producing immaculate accounts in bright folders, baking cakes and ironing shirts, all the while dying inside.

September has always been my time for new starts, new pencils, and these last few days I’ve found myself again, in amongst the crumpled beach towels and empty sun creams. Failure doesn’t seem to hurt as much now, my pride isn’t quite so flatly squished.

I stand beneath the oak, looking out at the field. The new farmers haven’t marked the footpath yet, the field is untrodden. Its hedges are newly-shorn, the margin reduced by half. It’s the same but different; there’s a faint tension, a hum in the air that vanishes when you try to listen.

The field is waiting, like me, to see what’s going to happen.

Field=-Below-The-Dryer, before harvestFor Paul Rogers. In gratitude.

On Walking: Monday 2nd January

It’s just past nine and the dogs and I are slipping and sliding down the Banbury Road. We were just whizzing round the cricket, five minutes at most, but the beauty of the morning has untethered us, sent us spinning off down the valley beneath the drying barn. The dogs are bonkers with excitement; pulling like kites on their leads.

The air is so cold, and I take great gulps of it; I swoop down the hill, an unwieldy mummy-bird in my thick anorak and blue-and-pink bobble hat. The ground is stone-hard beneath my borrowed snake-skin wellies, and I’m reckless with my ankles, stumbling half-jogging, greedy to see and feel and be amongst the crystal gorgeousness that can’t be described, only lived.

We reach the bridge between the fields, still thickly silver despite the sun. The treachery of the bridge demands Empress-steps, and I pause, finally, when I reach the other side.

These are the fields that once held wheat, or rape; they are now farmed by someone else, and the change had filled me with dread. Idiot me. The tenants put the field to grass, for sheep, but today it’s empty of sheep. Instead, I see hundreds of starlings, almost a whole field of them,  bobbing and dipping in the wide bars of silvered shadows. I watch them, they seem so unafraid of me, of Pants wheeling his endless circles.

I stand in the pale gold of the sun, hearing the flit of the birds, seeing the new curves of the field. The frost on the grass nearest to me has melted to glass baubles, hung on the very tip of each grass blade, utterly perfect.

I walk on, carefully at first, but soon at a march. I want to see Emma’s Meadow, the Old Mill field, the ravages in the poplar wood. I want to see how frozen the path is to Drayton, how high the Sor Brook runs after yesterday’s day-long rain. I want to think about the scene I’m writing later, about my new book and my future and my family and all we’re going to achieve this year.

At home are jobs waiting to be done; meals to cook, ironing, paperwork, Christmas to put away. But the dogs and I are on Back Lane now, and there are puddles, thickly frozen, iced white. My borrowed wellies demand pay, and I jump, hop and smash-crack my way through the ice. Pants barks and tries to snatch at muddied shards, Dora disappears beneath a hedge, thinking we’re both mad.

We reach the last pot-hole in a chain, the deepest, and I jump with both feet, splashing freezing mud up behind my knees, inside my thighs. The shock makes me gasp, incredulous – I’ve forgotten how cold a puddle can be, how little it matters compared to the joy of snapping the ice.

We reach the poplar spinney, and I should go right, across the fields towards home, but instead I choose left, on to the old railway. The place of twisted blackthorn and broken ash trees. The place of divots and hollows, of the most fantastic, uncracked puddles.

I jump again and again, shouting at the cold, barking back at Pants, smashing and cracking and splashing, hooting with happiness.

Happy New Year to you, Reader. May 2017 bring you health, peace, and silly moments of pure joy.

Dora and The Pants

 

Monday 14th March

It’s cold today, and I’m wearing a navy hat and pink, knitted gloves. It’s still early – half-past seven, and the sun is a formless glimmer between fat couches of cloud. Blue sky is promised for later, and the scything Easterly wind has relented.

Spring is pushing on. Among the hedgerows, the hawthorn has tiny green tips on its branches, and sprays of blackthorn have their tiny white flowers. Up close, they smell fleetingly sweet. Down by the nets are two clumps of red dead-nettle, which are much prettier than their name suggests. They are like little pink-flowered stingers, with soft, purplish leaves. From the nets you can see the bobbing heads of bright yellow daffodils, nodding as if agreeing with the echo of an umpire.

Mowing has started on the cricket field, and the whole outfield has now been done. The grass was so long, that now it looks like a June hay meadow, the grass cuttings sit in deep, regular ridges. The smell of the grass is delicious, but confusing: it makes you want to dig out your shorts, even as you’re pulling your bobble hat over your ears.

The dogs love the cuttings, and Pants does his silly bottoms-up nose-sliding through the ridges, rubbing his face on whatever revolting scents cling to the grass. Dora jumps each ridge like a show-boating pony, and turns to make sure I’m watching. As I walk, I keep my eyes on the ground, seeing what the mower’s revealed: rosettes of daisies, scalped moss, thousands upon thousands of worm casts. The new grass is very pale, almost white, and beneath the oaks, the empty acorn chalices have been chopped to blunted shards.

I suddenly remember it’s the start of the morning, and I’ve still got a child and husband to dispatch;  breakfast things to clear, chickens to feed. I whistle the dogs and start towards home from the bottom of the field. Halfway up, my shambling jog turns to proper run, and I leap a few grass ridges, my arms flung wide, just because Spring is springing and because I can.

Daffodil watching the cricket
Waiting fot the cricket…

Wednesday 24th February

The field is beautiful this morning, the kind of beauty that you can’t photograph, only feel. The sun is rising in a cloudless blue sky, and making brilliant every frosted blade of grass, every silvered twig. I walk slowly, listening to the polystyrene squeak of my boots, my nose burning from the coldness of the air.
It’s the funeral today of one of my neighbours, a private, sweet little lady who liked to see the children on their swings. Her house borders the cricket, and I walk past it every day, but I only ever went in to visit her once or twice, and I’m ashamed of that.
I know people will give me a ready excuse: that I’m too busy, a working mum, but that wasn’t the reason I didn’t knock on her door. The reason is a guilty, cowardly thing.

I’m frightened of being around very old people. I’m worried in case I don’t understand them, or they turn out to be mad and angry, or pass wind when they get up, or their false teeth fall out. All of those reasons are ridiculous, and say far more about my own po-faced insecurities than it does about anyone else. I’ve been both mad and angry, can fart like a drayhorse, and sometimes can’t keep even food in my mouth, so I imagine false teeth must be quite tricky.

This fear is absurd; a pursed-lipped mealy-hearted plip of a fear, and I know, rationally, that I can cope with any sort of conversation or behaviour. My clay feet only become apparent with elderly people outside of my immediate family. My own grandad is 92, and he still lives in his own house and looks after himself. He’s not at all mad. And I’m never frightened of him.
But when I was little, my Nan (who was not all old – in her fifties) used to take brother and me with her to do Visiting. She would wash the farm mud off our faces and hands and put us in her blue Dolomite to drive around Warwickshire, seeing people. Not just relatives, but friends of my great-grandmother, strays and waifs, oddballs and people who lined their armchairs with newspaper. We would be presented to frightening old men with sticks and enormous shoes, and be kissed by tiny, bristly old ladies who gave us sticky lolly pops in crumpled paper bags. Sometimes people in the houses we visited would smell extremely strange, and Nan would agree with my brother and me, that people ‘weren’t quite right’, but that we must be kind, because people liked to see children’s faces.

I’ve reached the low wall of the pavilion now, and I press my finger into a frozen  fairy-cushion of silvery moss. The ice melts instantly, and the cushion turns green. I press my finger against my cheek, to test the coldness.

It’s fine for me to be afraid, but it’s really not okay for that fear to make me a coward. I take a deep, cold-air breath, tip my face to the pale  winter sun. This morning, I’ve seen and understood something of myself that I can’t ever pretend I hadn’t. I am frightened of old people because of what they are, what they were. Once as strong-armed, straight-backed, as shrill-voiced and energetic, as I am now. I will be like them one day, and it’s that thought that frightens me, not the people themselves.

I press my finger to another cushion of moss, then another, another.

I think of Nan, and her Visiting, and wonder how to start.

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Monday 8th February

Today is a day of restlessness, I can feel it fizzing in my feet, my hands. Last night’s storm is still here, the wind spiteful and violent, sending rain to rattle on the pavilion windows like hard-flung pea-gravel.

The clouds are torn as they pass across the sky; ripped veils of ragged grey.  The sun glimmers from behind them, featureless; a dull silver, like a too-used coin.

I put my head down to walk, not wanting the wind to snatch at my cap, flip it from my head. I look out at the field sideways, cataloging the week’s changes. The elder reduced the stumps by the electricity people, the cream-and-yellow primrose quietly flowering beside the stile.

The wickets were mown, late last week, and are a lighter square against the dark green of the out-field. An orange rope, the one they use sometimes as a boundary rope, is suspended around the square’s perimeter. It is a grubby white in places, where the orange has frayed free, and reminds me of crumbed ham.

The wicket is the sacred bit of the cricket field. It’s tended by men who stand on it with arms folded and their heads bent; they gently kick at it with the toes of their boots. Sometimes they stamp, as if daring the worms to push up their casts.
In summer it is iron-hard, beaten flat by the roller and running feet. Each end is bald of grass, the greyish dirt that remains is sometimes cracked, baked hard by the sun. The grass that grows on the wicket is finer than the rest of the field, and kept far shorter; it’s trimmed of millimeters each time.

Sometimes, children from out-of-the-village are drawn to play on it, riding thick-wheeled bikes across its tender plains, or chasing a football. The of-the-village children barrack them, their eyes both scornful and wary.

I’m on the Lane Close straight now, nearly opposite our house. As  I look at the wicket I can almost see summer; almost hear the lull, thwack and roar; the unending notes and chords of the game.  I think of the first team with their cannon-quick bowling, their rightful arrogance. They play each game with a tension that’s irresistible, hard not to watch.

I think of the second team, with their dogged persistence and the way they shout to each other, in an ascending tone, as if their words run up a hill. ‘Come on, keep-it-up NOW.’ The rhythm is always the same: da-de-da-DA. Deedly-dee DA. It’s irritating and horribly infectious. Chicken-and-chips-TEA. Put-your-clothes-WASH.

Then I think of the games through which I have to sit, paying attention, trying not to gossip and miss something vital. The under-elevens, with the daughters poker-faced, playing with a hard, dark-red match ball, knowing that if they catch it wrong, it will break their fingers.
The rain hits my face, numbs my chin, my cheekbones. The wind snatches at the branches of the oaks, bends and clatters the horse chestnut against itself. There’s no coin of sun now, it’s lost behind low whitish-grey. A lone daffodil nods frenziedly beneath the telephone pole, and the air smells of rain-soaked earth.
I take one last look at the wicket, then whistle Dora, to go inside.

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Sunday 31st January

It’s Sunday morning, and rain is falling in the softest of veils across the field. It’s not cold though, and I let it fall on my face. We had village friends for dinner last night, and my head swishes and squelches in time to my feet, moving through the grass. I walk slowly for once; my eyeballs feel too big, and I half-close my eye-lids in case my eyes pop out and roll away. My ears still echo with the glug-after-glug from the tawny port bottle.

I’ve already walked Pants clockwise, and now I’m walking Dora anti-clockwise. I pause to wait for her beside one of Tony’s silver birches, looking around the field. The hedge bordering Banbury lane is covered by mildewed netting. It bulges and sags, like a pair of old-lady knickers.

The oak by the gate worries me. Years ago, someone strung netting from it, high above the ground. They tied thick cord around its bole and the cord is now strung tight, biting into the bark like a cilice. I fantasise about pinching a ladder, shinning up to snip the cord. I imagine the relief the oak will feel.

We walk on, and I become fascinated by the raindrops caught on the blackthorn. Raindrops bead almost every downward junction of a thorn or a bud. The slightest touch of wind and they shiver, like tears on an eyelash.

We reach the corner by the nets and turn up hill, towards the pavilion with its shuttered winter-face, its empty flagpole. The flag pole makes an impatient, metallic ticking sound when the wind blows, some cleat beating another.

The uphillness slows my steps still further, and I practically wallow in my wellies. It doesn’t matter though; today is a day for shirt-ironing and beef-roasting. I’ll be helping the daughters with homework, baking a cake, planting out spent narcissi. This afternoon, we’ll walk the dogs properly, then it’ll be the Sunday Times and a fire, and pots of tea that cool as I read.

I’ve reached the Pavilion now and Dora runs ahead to get home. I follow her, squinting up at the smooth-tipped buds of the horse chestnut.  I walk slowly past the empty flag pole; listen to it ticking a time known only to the field.

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Monday 25th January

Dawn is breaking as Pants and I come back from morning walk; great cracks of crimson and violet splitting the dome of the sky. We’ve been to the orchard field, and we go down to the cricket so I can walk clean my boots.

I know my cheeks must be flushed pink, and my hair is wild. I feel vitally, wonderfully alive; the wind is soft against my face, and the air smells of green-things and earth, of new life and living.

We’ve been away for a week, playing in the French Alps, and I walk the cricket a much stronger and renewed person than before we left. Things that seemed black and impossible before have shrunk to a more reasonable size: nothing hard work and determination couldn’t fix.

I swish my boots through the over-long grass, making my strides big and looped. In places, the grass is past my shins; it’s been too wet to cut, and grows in thick, green shocks. There are lighter circles and darker circles; distinctly patched in colour.

Pants suddenly starts and then leaps in circles, barking at new horses arrived in the Prickett’s field.  One is a grey that looks familiar, and I wonder if she’s the mare that lived here before. Her coat has a faint, pinkish sheen in the dawn.

I reach the pavilion, and sit briefly on the low wall that protects sun-bathing supporters in the summer. Now, the wall is empty of pint glasses and abandoned flip-flops, and gently prickles with seed-setting cushions of moss. I press one lightly, with my finger, testing the springiness.

Walking has made me warm, and I roll my sleeves. My forearms look pale and oddly bone-like in the early light. I hold one up, out from my body, and see the intense pink of the sky reflected from my winter skin.

The sky almost couldn’t be more beautiful, more ecstatic, and I know that it heralds rain and greyness to come, but I don’t care. I stand and stretch, pulling in the pink air around me.

Sometimes it’s worth the bad bits, in order to revel in the good.

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