On Barn Dancing

It’s a Friday evening, and it’s raining. We’re all knackered, and we don’t want to go out.

‘It will be fun,’ I say. ‘And we’ve bought our tickets.’

We get in the car. There’s no cash in the house, so we have to schlep to town. Radio Two has gone weird and the children have demanded KISS, which means I have my hands over my ears. I stare from the car window at the rain, and think longingly of the blue velvet sofa, and my book*.

We eventually find the barn – it’s at Hornton Grounds Farmshop, to which we’ve never been, up a long winding lane flanked by glossy black bullocks.

We pull into the yard; someone has spray-painted ‘car park’ in huge yellow letters onto black silage bales. I can see Portaloos and bunting; people in checked shirts. It all reminds me of Young Farmer’s parties when I was younger, and I start to cheer up. Stevie parks and immediately gets told off for parking with too much space between our car and our neighbour. The children and I cringe with embarrassment, and Stevie mutters darkly, wheel-spinning slightly in the oozing orange mud.

The rain is redoubling its efforts, and we run to the cover of the barn. The barn itself looks perfect: a great, arching Dutch affair, made of corrugated iron sheets and supported on sturdy iron girders. It’s divided into at least four huge bays; the bay on the end is where we shall dance; the other two are given up to a smart red and grey tractor  and a bit of cow poo. The fourth holds the Portaloos.Hornton Barn Dance 4

We’re amongst the first to arrive, and Stevie and I make a bee-line for the bar, which is opposite the hog-roast. The bit where we’ll dance is lined with over-sized straw bales; the concrete floor has been hosed clean. There are zinc buckets of wildflowers tied to each girder, and the roof is criss-crossed with bright, patterned bunting and ropes of lights.

The children have spotted their amigos, and dump us without a backwards glance. I always hate this bit of a party, when there’s too much space and I’ve forgotten every opening line to any sort of opening chit-chat. I sidle up to a local builder, and agree that the rain’s terrible.  Hornton Barn Dance 3

I perk up, half-way down my wine, and start to enjoy myself. More Horley friends arrive, and lots of parents from school. The band aren’t playing yet, but the crowd is really starting to thicken. I eavesdrop on a conversation behind me. ‘Two hundred tickets sold,’ says a woman with Heidi plaits. I boggle as I do the maths. Blimey: that’s without bar and food takings. As village fundraisers go, this is a whopper.

‘Will you be dancing later?’ asks a very tall man in a cowboy hat.

The area between the bar and hog roast is very full now; the roar of conversation drowning out the taped music. One of the yummiest of Horley’s mummies, has turned up with her hair in pigtails. ‘My daughter had to get them straight,’ she says. ‘Another drink?’

Children are starting to catch the buzz from too many Fruit Shoots, and dare each other to run in the rain. I see my own daughters, huddled in a gang of six or so girls, taking selfies with a mobile phone and squealing with laughter.

The band are fiddling with their instruments, tuning up, calling partners for the first dance. The caller is Ian Harris, whom the children adore, and who organises the May Day Dancing every year.

‘This is an easy one,’ he says. ‘Take your partner by the hand.’

I squeeze from the crush at the bar to go and dump my gilet on a bale. I balance my wineglass on the frame of the barn, remembering the days when it would have been a Malibu and Coke, and I would’ve been wearing hot-pants and Doc Martens. ‘Welly Waiting Area’ reads a sign to my left. My eldest daughter crashes into me, and demands that I dance with her.

‘The next one,’ I say.Hornton Barn Dance 2

The dancers all look exhilirated; they end their dance with a spin in ball-room hold, laughing into their partners’ faces. The back of a lady in a long black cardigan is covered in straw, as if she’d sloped off for an earlier romp.

We line up for our dance, which involves weaving and swapping partners. People keep bumping into others they know, and buckling the circle whilst they kiss them hello. I’m seized by an energetic octogenarian, who thrusts me around as if I were the gear-lever to a recalcitrant tractor. I get terribly confused, and shoot into reverse, treading on the cowboy-boot of a tiny lady in a large hat.

‘Wrong way-‘ she hisses. I end up holding her hand; it feels as if she’s wearing a knuckle-duster.

After that dance, there’s another, and then another. I pelt off to the Portaloos; the rain’s heavier than ever. At least it washes the sweat away, and cools my face. My hands sting from clapping, and in the mirror of the loo, my eyes are over-bright, my cheeks pink. I’m escorted back from the loos by an attractive man with a very large broll.

‘I’ve been grasping strangers,’ I say, nonsensically. We agree it’s all great fun.Hornton barn dance 1

I watch the next dance; laughing as two teenage boys mince through a promenade. Stevie is dancing with  some of our friends; they all keep reeling the wrong way. There are several tiny tots dancing on the outskirts of the grownups. A gorgeous short-haired black terrier keeps scoring scraps from the children’s dropped burgers.

‘Raffle!’ someone cries. ‘We must call the raffle.’

I buy my eldest a burger, not realising they are vegetarian. ‘I said pork, Mummy.’

‘You didn’t.’

‘I did! I said pork burger.’

She eats it anyway, because it’s slathered in apple sauce. We queue at the bar for more drinks; I see Jean, a blonde I only ever see when I’m half-cut. I introduce her to Stevie: ‘So you are married,’ she teases.

Our youngest daughters speeds past, and I catch her, tell her to put her hood down.

‘Oh, Mum-‘ she growls.

It’s nearing eleven, the last dance has just been announced. We have to strong-arm the children into the car; they’re chewing bubble-gum, which is strictly verboten in our house, and speaking at the tops of their voices. We get home and wrangle them upstairs. I come in from shutting up the hens to find Stevie and the daughters cross-legged on the bedroom carpet, eating chocolate Digestives and re-enacting every dance.

When we tuck them in, I ask if they’d had a lovely time.

My youngest bunches the duvet beneath her chin.  ‘Yes, Mummy,’ she says.

‘Would you go again?’

My eldest hangs off the top bunk. ‘Yeah. I would, definitely. It was fun. But next time, Mum, I’ll have the pork.’

NB: The book, should any of you bibliophiles be wondering, is ‘The Sea Between Us’, by Emylia Hall.

On Walking: Sunday 22nd March

I’m sitting on the fallen oak, the sun on my face. I’m protected here from the wind, a bare-twigged hedge of elder and hawthorn rears high behind me.

From here I can see the line of the Sor Brook, with its alders. One of my favourite oaks is in the middle of the line. I can’t see them from here, but I know that below the oak are the long blue spears of nascent daffodil bulbs, in amongst the Herb Robert. There are no flowers yet, but they will come.

My legs are hot and I’m sleepy from getting up early to write. It has been an endlessly grey week, filled with self-doubt and cold bones, deleted paragraphs and stunted scenes. But now the blackness has dissipated, dissolved, despite my Prosecco head.

My finger nails are dirty from digging. Earlier, I moved my fruit bushes, tackled my middle veg bed. I worked steadily, methodically, turning the earth, twitching free the weeds.

Now, on my oak, I blink slowly. There are midges in a cloud to my left, each a tiny conductor for a silent bug symphony. I can hear the faint cry of sheep, the frantic snuffle-pause-pounce of Pants voling. Dora is by the side of me, leaning against my thigh. Her ears twitch, ready to dive in and snatch Pants’ prize.

There are a pair of bonking woodpigeons, flapping frantically in the next oak down. A kite browses the land further down the valley, but the pigeons are oblivious to everything but the demands of hot blood, Spring sun. I look down the hill, along the line of the margin on which I’m sat. Above the bleached debris of last summer is the faintest shimmer of heat haze.

Recently, I had a conversation with a friend about mindful happiness, and how difficult she believed it was to achieve. She tells me that I must fight to define the moment; cup it, keep it, as if it’s something wild, unpredictable and must, above all else, be controlled.

I think she’s wrong. I lean back on the oak in Dave’s field-below-the dryer, tip up my chin, close my eyes. My t-shirt has risen up, and I feel the cool air on my skin. I imagine my pale sickle of winter-weight belly, secretly snaffling sun-light. I breathe in, breathe out.

Here is happiness. Right here. Right now.

March 22

 

 

On Foxes: On Fury. On Hatred.

It’s late, past midnight, and I’m walking home full of good food, good chatter. Champagne has loosened my limbs, and I smile up at a star-strewn sky. Stevie has long since gone to bed, and I take out the dogs, bank up the fire. I slip into bed, press my cold feet to Stevie’s shins, sleep.

I’m woken barely two hours later, by a sound that catapults me instantly out of bed. I’m out of our room, down the stairs before my eyes are even open, and I fly through the house, wrench open the conservatory doors, run out into the night. I’m barefoot and wearing daisy-print knickers.

The hen house is twelve feet from the back door, and I see immediately that the fox is still in there. I run back inside, snatch on my wellies, shout the dogs. My black anorak is on a chair, and I yank it on as I get outside.

The noise is fearful: Whitey with her shrill alarm, Sandy smashing hopelessly against the wire mesh of the fence; terrified. The fox is a black blur within, panicking now, knowing I’m there and I’ve got dogs and a rage so murderous I could rip it apart with my bare hands. I’ve got to open the gate, got to. Sandy is most definitely still alive, and I can’t risk the fox going for her: this I rationalise after. In the moment, the mad, blood-crazed moment, I just want to get that fox.

Kill it – my voice comes from my boots; raw, guttural.  Kill it. I smash open the gate, the dogs dive into the coop, the fox dives out. I strike it a glancing, pathetic blow with my welly, then Dora streaks between my feet, sets off in pursuit. Pants gets confused, and tries to grab a hen.

‘Leave it!’ I shout. ‘Bloody leave it-‘

He drops a bird, legs it after Dora. I leap out of the coop, senselessly clash the gate close, then I hold onto it because my legs are shaking so much. Whitey is a ghostly bundle of feathers in the corner; I can’t see Sandy anywhere. I press my face to the gate, and I’m sobbing, saying oh no, oh no. I’m sorry, so sorry; over and over. The guilt is like a hook around my guts.

I hadn’t shut their hatch.

Stevie comes out, with a stout stick and a torch. He pulls me into his arms, briefly. ‘Are they dead?’

They’re not; not yet, anyway. There are feathers everywhere. Sandy was badly injured last time the fox got in, on Christmas Eve. Then, it broke Josephine’s neck, flayed her back to the white of her spine. We had to kill her on Christmas morning. Sandy had had deep bite marks just above her saddle, but she survived.

We go to Whitey, huddled in a corner of the coop. The torch shows Sandy behind her, and both hens are covered in blood. I pick them up, put them in the laying box, one after the other. I can’t see if Sandy’s wounded, but she’s already in shock. Whitey has a very obvious injury; deep bites across her saddle, as Sandy had at Christmas. Neither bird puts up any resistance.

We barricade them in, wedging lengths of two-by-four across the nesting box, a brick and a pallet across the guillotine-door of the hatch. We work quietly, grimly, suddenly remembering our neighbours. The dogs are out running in the darkness; crazed by the night-scents.

Stevie runs the torch around the coop. We can’t see how it got in.  The doubled-up mesh is secure, the tough nylon mesh that starts around five foot is un-holed. But then I see. ‘Look.’ The roof of the coop is covered in the same heavy-duty nylon mesh. It’s eight-foot from the ground. A large hole has been gnawed, almost in the middle. For a moment, we’re both  silent. Stevie flicks the torch around the perimeter, but we’re right. It got in through the top net.

There’s no more that we can do now, not in the freezing dark, so we whistle the dogs. Stevie stands on the plinth by the French doors, and the light from the new kitchen illuminates him. For a moment I’m cheered: he’s wearing wellies, a wax jacket and has bare legs. He catches my eye. ‘In,’ he says.

I don’t go back to sleep. At first I prowl around the house, wrapped in a red dressing gown. I stare out of windows, my eyes burning with effort. I know it’s out there. I know it will come back. I fantasise about it climbing back in, through the torn net, landing lightly on the hen house, its claws barely clicking. Then it being trapped. There for me to find in the morning.

The sodium street light out the front of our house illuminates the chestnut tree, the chain-link fence bordering the cricket. That’s where he’s run to; I see fox poo often enough out there. Every filthy pile gives me bubbles of blackness: I hate that fox on a level within me that’s ancient, primeval.

I think about the fox’s right to hunt. He’s wild, conscienceless; he kills to eat. He’s innocent when tried in a court of morality.

I think all of these things, and rationally, agree. It was my fault for not doubly-protecting my birds. Birds that don’t even lay any more, and haven’t for over a year. No one could blame a fox for being a fox.

Except I know, that come morning, if that fox comes back, and becomes trapped in my coop, such thoughts won’t be in my head. I’ll have a garden fork in my hand; a spade, an axe, a damn butter knife if I have to.

And this time, it won’t get out of the gate. Not alive, anyway.

 

NB: Both hens are still alive. As for the fox: I can wait.

 

On Walking: Monday 22nd December

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-‘

‘No!’

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!’

Elle and Jess
My bonkers daughters, collapsed on a bench, a whole fifty yards from home…

 

On Writing: On The Very Start.

I am standing on Platform 3 at Banbury, waiting for the fast train to Marylebone. It’s barely twelve, I’ve hours until the meeting at 4:00, but I can’t bear to sit at home, compulsively tracing tube maps.

I am to meet a literary agent, who might perhaps sell my book.

My eyes are dry from lack of sleep; my wire-tight nerves have disrupted my household. The children have been mutinous over lunch box contents, the dogs restless, following me, endlessly, plucking at my attention until I shout at them.  I cannot remember my book, what I wrote, nor why. I feel terribly sick.

It’s not so bad now I’m on the move, on the way. I stare down the tracks towards Birmingham and will the London train on faster, faster. Come-on-now-faster.

The train arrives already packed,  and I stride down the platform in my boots, looking in for a table seat. I overtake a woman my age wearing a tight navy suit and impossibly high heels; she glances at me, at once pitying and envious. She sees my pink linen shirt, my skinny grey cords and my lucky pearls. She probably thinking I’m a country wife off for a bit of shopping, whilst she is headed for a conference; important names to remember, processed air to breathe.

I’m meeting an agent, I imagine telling her. Because for ten years, I’ve been writing a book.

I find my seat on the train, pull a large brown envelope from my bag. The postman gave it me as I was leaving home, I assume it’s something for the children, from Amazon, but it’s not. It’s a copy of Meadowland, one of my favourite books, sent to me by its author, John Lewis-Stempel. I am so pleased that I don’t even open it for a while, I just hold it on my lap, and trace the heart of the owl’s face on the front. Quite suddenly, I notice the awful, rushing sick-feeling has lessened. I had meant to spend the journey re-reading my latest edits, polishing a pitch for Book Number 2, but instead, I put my phone away, and I start to read Meadowland.  It’s about a year in the life of a field, and I’m in March by the time we reach Marylebone.

I get off the train and start walking towards Baker Street. I had planned to go to the Tate for a few hours, to cram my brain with whatever was on, but instead I walk, just walk. Eventually, I get on the tube and go to Little Venice, because I’ve never been. But it’s not how I imagine.

I still have almost two hours before my meeting, so I walk again, heading towards Kensington Gardens, because I think it must be nice there. A tramp asks me for a pound, and I give him two. ‘Bless you,’ he says. I don’t tell him I’m banking karma.

I reach the park and I sit in the Italian Gardens. Green parakeets swoop between the trees just behind me, and for a while I watch the dog walkers. I’m usually you, I think. About now. But not today.

There are other agents I might meet, that might like my book, but I particularly want this one. This agent. I wouldn’t even have approached her if my mentor hadn’t told me to try. A writer friend warned me: you’re going to be a very small fish, my darling. Practically plankton. In a very large pond.

But God, what a pond.

I pull out Meadowland, and eat an apple. I reach June, when it’s time to stop reading. I’m freezing from sitting still for so long, and when I look up and around,  young school children and Boden mummies have replaced the dog walkers. I think of my own daughters, the way they’d hung around my neck this morning – g’luck, Mummy, g’luck.

I march towards the tube, anaesthetised still, by Meadowland. The book describes the private life of a field on the English, Welsh borders,and it talks about the creatures that live there, the birds that return there, year after year, generation after generation. John tells of how he measures the depth of flooded grassland by the ‘plash of his wellingtons’ in the dark, and how geese remind him of irate drivers, grid-locked in LA.

Meadowland is a book that does funny things to your perception of time – to the way it’s spent, whether savoured or wasted. It does funny things to perspective, too, and reminds you of how you fit, really fit, into the grand scheme of things.

My nerves of earlier are almost gone: Meadowland as Mogadon. I can see my book now, clearly, perfectly.

I arrive at the street, the green door (Greene!), and I take a photo of it – the gleaming brass, the neat black lettering. The children wanted me to photograph everything, ‘so we can picture it properly, Mummy’. They know I’m an unreliable narrator.

I ring the bell, can’t stop myself grinning into the intercom.

‘Carlie Lee,’ I say. ‘To see Judith Murray.’

I touch a finger to the spine of Meadowland, in my bag. A beautiful, generous, unexpected talisman.

The door lock releases, and I push it open.

 

Door of Greene and Heaton

 

 

 

 

 

On Digging: Jack-Rat In A Badger Hole

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.

Dora, out of the Badger Hole

Lambing Live at Hadsham Farm

LL1 Expectant ewes at Hadsham Farm, Horley
Expectant ewes

Oh, I love sheep. And lambs, and the whole lambing time with all the drama and fight for new life. It’s Thursday in February half-term, and Jess and I are driving to collect Elle. She’s been lambing with GFD (God-father Dave*), and has been unbelievably excited for days. This morning, she woke us up at 6:06 to ask what to do if a lamb comes out dead.

‘I’m worried it will be yellow.’

We pull her into the warm fug of our bed and tuck her between us, juggling mugs of tea and a William Fiennes. ‘You’ll cope,’ we say, breezily, as if it’s no big deal. We look at each other above her silky head, widen our eyes, grimace.

Now, in the car going up to fetch Elle, Jess has her buddy Tightie with us, and both girls are shrieking and bouncing in the back, singing 1Direction with guessed-at words. We pull into Hadsham’s courtyard, and the girls are out before I’ve even turned off the engine.

‘Boots!’ I yell, before they disappear. I climb out of the car more slowly, looking up and around. The grey corrugated walls and roofs of the barns segue into the grey of the sky above. The air is thick with the peremptory bawls of ewes, the anarchic shrills of lambs.

I look up at the sky as if checking for rain. Then I look at my car, as if assessing its parking place. Jess and Tightie have gone, vanished into the biggest of the barns. To the casual observer, I look as if I’m just taking my time over pulling on my boots, zipping up my navy anorak. But really I’m nervous. I’ve never left Elle on her own here before, with no other children, and she’s not here to play, she’s here to help, to work with the GFD, Giddyup and Chris, and GFD’s father, Wyck. I hope she’s not been frightened, or felt silly, or been bored (and announced that fact, clearly, in her high, carrying voice).

I hope she thinks the whole thing is everything she thought it might be. Ever since she was tiny, Elle’s dreamt of running her own farm, and this is the first time she’s been on the bloody, messy , muck-ooze side of things. Getting stuck in and sweating, rather than watching and messing about on straw bales. I take a deep breath, shake my hair out of my eyes.

The Lambing Barn is split roughly into thirds. One long third contains panting, swaying ewes in labour, then another third contains the pens for single ewes and their newborns, then the final third is manic, like the worst kind of children’s play centre- a creche – ewes and lambs all in together, making a ginormous racket; lambs rushing around in excitement, ewes barging past each other, stamping.

I see my girl as soon as I walk into the big barn, so tall, her yellow anorak too small. Her hair’s springing loose from the long plaits I put in the night before, and her face is very serious.

LL4 Elle in the madness of the sheep creche, Hadsham Farm
Elle in the madness of the sheep creche,

‘Mummy!’ she hisses. ‘Shush!’

Jess and Tightie have joined her at the hurdles, balancing on a long trough, avid to watch the drama in the corner of the ewes’ pen. GFD is up to his elbow in a sheep, and Chris looks like he’s sitting on its head. The children are open-mouthed, entranced. There’s blood, and brown goo.

‘Hellooooo’ I say to GiddyUp, who’s watching, and my mummy-manners kick in without thought. ‘Has-she-been-good-have-you-had-fun?’

GiddyUp says yes, just as GFD announces he can’t find the head. Schmallenburg, I think, horrified. But then I remember a conversation with Wyck, who told me about natural immunity, and how unlikely it would be this time round. We watch, our hands over our mouths.GFD and Chris helping a ewe in difficulties

GFD withdraws his hand, sits up. ‘Need Dad,’ he says, and GiddyUp and I hurriedly distract the younger children, hustle them off the hurdles and across to the other side of the barn.

‘Oh dear,’ we say. ‘Um…Do you think?’ And we don’t finish our sentences.

Jess and Tightie catapult into the raucous creche, intent on cuddling a lamb. Elle follows, slow and steady, scolding her sister for being too loud, pointing and instructing. Imperious. Utterly at home amongst in the deep, yellow straw, one eye on the stamping ewes.

‘Not that one,’ she says. ‘It’s got a new mother. She’s a bit fussy.’

Giddyup and I laugh, although I’ve still half an eye behind to my left. Please, please don’t let that be a dead lamb in that ewe.

Jess and Tightie are juggling wriggling limbs, Giddyup helping.

Giddyup catching lambs
Giddyup catching lambs

Elle slides across to me, for a moment dropping her cool act. ‘Mummy,’ she hisses. ‘Mummy. I’ve eaten a KitKat and went for a wee and there’s been four lambs. Tell Jessie to stop shouting.’

The other two have finally captured a lamb to squeeze, and Elle goes to supervise.

LL5 Ewe adopting a lamb at Hadsham Farm
Ewe adopting a lamb

I turn, and stand on the lower bar the single-pen hurdles, looking over to where GFD and Chris were wrestling with the ewe. They’ve gone, and my breath catches, ridiculously. Then I see Chris scooting round holding a lamb by its forelegs. Its head hangs horribly, and it’s covered in blood. The next minute, he’s leant over a hurdle, laying the lamb at the feet of a ewe, rubbing at it briefly with a twist of straw.

‘Come on,’ he says. The ewe noses the lamb, then starts stropping it with her tongue. ‘Its head was right back,’ Chris tells me. ‘Tucked on its shoulder.’ He demonstrates and I laugh with relief. Of course it had a head.

I tell him about my mum’s goats, and helping them kid. ‘Never had a lamb from a goat,’ he says, and waits for me to get it, grinning at me when I do.

‘There’s another going,’ he tells me, and I follow him back to the labour pen.

LL2 Chris watching the pregnant ewes at Hadsham Farm
Chris watching the pregnant ewes

A ewe has had twins, without fuss, and they lay in the straw, wet-looking, but already trying to sit up. ‘I’ll get the ewe,’ says Chris, and I’m left with the lambs. I try to pick them up the way I’ve seen the others do them, by their two forelegs, above the knuckle, one to each hand. But my grip’s not strong enough, they wriggle and they’re slimily wet and I’m terrified I’ll drop them. I take one at a time, running after Chris, chattering rubbish to the minutes-old lamb. ‘Lambikins,’ I say, laying it next to the ewe in the single pen. I leg it back for the second, anguished at the thought of it alone amongst the panting, pregnant, stamping ewes.

When they’re both in with the ewe, Chris shuts the hurdle and reaches for a spray bottle. Iodine, for their umbilicals and mother’s udder. He checks for colostrum, and then we back away, watching.

‘So incredibly slippery,’ I say, looking at my hands, and Chris takes me to the roll of blue hand towel paper. I wipe and blot, exhilarated by even such a small part to play.

There’s a lull now, a re-gathering. GFD is skipping out single pens, carting away the dirty straw, down to the concrete, sprinkling lime, sweeping, filling the barrow. I go back to the first lamb, the one we thought might have died. The ewe’s accepted it and it’s in there with a new sister, bleating on unsteady legs.GFD lambing at Hadsham Farm

‘So cool,’ says a voice beside me. Elle slides her hand through mine. It’s covered in blue-spray paint, her nails rimed black. ‘Oh,’ she sighs. ‘Look, Mummy.’ The lamb’s nosing around, as if to feed.

GFD’s in the creche, with Jess and Tightie.

‘Had a good day then?’ I whisper, nudging her with my hip.

‘The best,’ says Elle. ‘Awesome.’

I put my arm around her, squeeze her close despite her protest. My clever, long-limbed growing-up daughter. Dreams still intact.

My El with a new lamb
My El with a new lamb

* We have lots of Daves in our lives. God-father Dave (above), but also Opposite Neighbour Dave, Up-A-Bit Neighbour Dave, Landlord Dave, Cousin Dave and Jack Russell Dave (who really is a Jack Russell). Hence GFD.