On Walking: Monday 26th May

I am walking through the margins in the fields below the dryer, where the grass reaches my mid-thigh, and soaks my jeans above my wellies. I’m walking very slowly, suddenly noticing that there’s a world around me, and that it’s changed completely from the last time I looked.Dora the Jack Russell Terrier

I have been finishing a book, and for the last two months or so, have thought of little else. The book has been sent away now, to Judith, my agent, and I feel as if I’m returning from someplace I can’t explain.

Stevie is relieved it’s over, and both children seem to have grown an inch or so.

But it’s the land that has really changed; the earth has warmed up, and you can smell summer on the air. Down in Bra Corner there’s a clump of pink campions, flowering as high as my hip, and nettles, growing even higher. The Sor Brook is low and slow; its depths bronzed in the sunlight. The sheep on the other bank blare at the dogs, and their half-grown lambs stamp impudent feet.

I drift onwards, catching my fingers through the lacy heads of cow parsley. Hogweed grows along this part of the margin, and a single stem has shot past its mates as if to compete with the rape. The flowers are a deeper cream than the froth of cow parsley, and its stems far more sturdy.early hogweed and oil seed rape

Knowing I shouldn’t, but unable to resist, I float up the field to Ellie’s fallen oak. I have to flatten nettles and a few very green thistles  in order to jump up. I’m awkward and land heavily; two months of intense writing have given me a fat bottom. I vow to jog.

Its hot up here; I take off my jumper to sit in my vest. Dora sits by my side; Pants is nowhere to be seen. Twelve inches from my right is a dead fieldmouse, recently decapitated. It’s tucked into a kink in the rough bark of the oak, ignored even by flies.

Last year’s stickybuds still scrawl a net over this year’s hawthorn, and I examine the leaves beside my face. The new stems of the hawthorn are dark pink, the tips of the new leaves are a darker scarlet, like the innards of the poor mouse. A tiny caterpillar clings to one leaf; it is black and white with a scarlet spine (I later find it will be a hawkmoth). We’ve seen so many caterpillars this week; the children and I use dock leaves to scoop them off the tarmac of the lane. I don’t let the children keep them in jars, after childhood horrors of cooking a dozen ladybirds to death in the sun.

I finished writing the book on Friday, almost three days ago. I know I won’t hear any feedback until the third week of June, and that I must absolutely not start messing about with it before then.  But I can’t help that terrible feeling of vertigo that I seem to get after finishing every book; that I must start the next, or I might forget how to do it.

I gaze across the valley to the Scout Woods. I can see the tips of the larches against the sky; dark green and pointed; a mountain range that surely must be much further away. The chimneys of the village are to my right. I can hear children playing, and the engine of a tiny red tractor in the opposite valley. This is the start of the half-term week, and I’ve promised the daughters park-trips and swimming; friends to play, picnics and French cricket.

Pants emerges to lay his head on my lap. His brown, speckled coat is greenish yellow, he has pollen furring his eyelashes and a blade of meadow foxtail caught in his collar. Dora tries to push her head beneath my arm, jealous of the fuss.

I’ve sat here for so long that my bum must be ridged red and white by the bark. I jump down, landing squarely on both feet. ‘Home,’ I tell the dogs. ‘Home.’

It’s early afternoon, the children are still away at a friend’s house. I’ve tried not to – I’ve really tried not to – but in my head I’m already typing: Chapter 1.

On Walking: Monday 6th April

It’s the Easter Bank Holiday, and I’m walking before the family arrive, before the house is filled with mad, chocolate-stuffed children, claw-clattering dogs; veg peeling, gravy-making, beef-carving (Are We Sure It’s Done?) and the best of the family gossip. It’s barely eight o’clock, and I slide away from the breakfast dishes muttering about willow branches, their immediate collection deadly necessary for the Easter flower arrangement. It’s still misty down here by the Sor Brook; I’m hidden, hiding.

I hear the rusting-hinge shriek of a pheasant, see Pants shoot off to my right, like a speckled rocket. I follow the deer tracks along the margin, Dora stepping carefully in my wake. Some of the cloven hooves are less than an inch long, and I think of dancing fauns and Rites of Spring.

In Emma’s Meadow, the mist thickens, and I turn left, into the wall of it. The end of the meadow is where the old mill once stood, although all that can be seen of it now are bergs of broken concrete, a few worn red bricks beneath the glide of the Sor.

I go because it’s supposed to be haunted, and I want to dare myself.

I cross the troll bridge, my rubbery feet almost silent. On the other side, skeins of dirty grey wool hang on the gnarled hawthorn, dulling the fluorescence of the lichen. The children’s paddling pool is drained and nothing moves but the dogs, who have drawn close to me. Beyond the bridge, I turn to look back at the village, but it’s gone, lost in the mist.

A bird scarer explodes in the next field, echoing oddly, bouncing weirdly through the valley. My heart jumps and I run, laughing at my own silliness, but running all the same.

I stop when I reach the lane, and then walk sedately on, suddenly too hot in my navy fleece, my pink woollen gloves. The sun is breaking through. I reach the lay-by the children and I are alternatively fascinated and repelled by. It marks where the old railway once ran, and reeks of wee and nefarious night-doings.

We once found an entire sheaf of empty Durex wrappers. ‘Don’t touch!’ I shrieked. ‘They’re, um…grown up sweet wrappers.’ I regretted the fib the moment it left my mouth. But there were at least five torn wrappers, how would that sit in an impromptu birds and bees talk? And five? Was the unwrapperer particularly inept, or spectacularly stud-like? Or went for all five at once?

Every time I walk here, I wonder.

I reach the splendid goat willow, and pinch three sprays of fat, yellow-speckled catkins for my daffodil jug. Elder wands are sprouting new leaves like miniature palms. I notice the hazel; new leaves the size of my thumb nail, dropping down just so, like a fop’s handkerchief. The stingers and sticky buds are ankle height, no match for my wellies.

I climb the bank to the stile and pause, looking out over the valley towards Horley. The mist has almost burnt away now, the village has reappeared in the early sun. I shimmy through the uprights of the stile, holding the goat willow, swinging the dog leads high so they won’t catch.

Beyond the brow of the hill is our house, smelling of roast beef and rosemary. There’s still a pudding to make, the loo to clean, the napkins to iron, the washing to peg out, the kitchen to mop. I look at my willow, and smile. Willow catkins, hazel wands and daffodils to arrange.

goat willow

 

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?

 

 

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