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: 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 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-‘

 

Herb Walk and Lecture by Fiona Taylor at Hadsham Farm, Oxfordshire

I’m the first to arrive at Hadsham Farm, and Fi appears through an archway, beneath an exuberant pink-and-white rambling rose.

‘Hello!’ she says, and I grin. I’ve been looking forward to tonight: Hadsham’s a beautiful place and Fi’s always interesting – I’ve never once been bored listening to her.

The other guests start to arrive the moment I’ve parked my bicycle, and we all start with a glass of ice-cold wine. I only know two of the other guests, but the rest are lovely; everyone’s smiling. I start to feel the stresses of an ordinary chase-around Thursday slide off my shoulders.

There’s a big jug of home-made elderflower cordial on the table, and it smells gorgeous. An old-fashioned pump spills water down to a little trough, and we can hear the farm’s sheep in the distance. The evening sun is slanting through the willow, and we all agree that that the evening couldn’t be more perfect.

Fi’s spent forever building up her gardens, and broadly speaking, they’re in five main sections arranged in a big backwards ‘C’ around the house. Directly in front of the house is the terrace, where we’re standing, and it falls away past a weeping willow to a lawn, bracketed by another big bed at the bottom. The lawn is protected from the valley beyond (the one I can see from the very top of Bramshill) by Leylandii, and there are odd gaps so we can see the splendid views. The third section is a sweep by the drive and the fourth is my favourite: the kitchen garden. The fifth is a lovely square outside the boot room door, and the place for hanging laundry and snatching quick handfuls of herbs for the cooking pot.

The sweep beside the drive - Fi explaining Achillia, also known as 'Soldiers' Woundwort'.
The sweep beside the drive – Fi explaining Achillia, also known as ‘Soldiers’ Woundwort’.

The tour is about to start, and we meander obediently after Fi, carrying our drinks, pointing things out to one another. Roses clamber everywhere, like inquisitive children, and I notice them in each of the gardens. I admire a massive trough beneath the kitchen window, planted with trailing red geraniums.

We begin the tour at the sweep by the drive. Practically every plant is either medicinal or useful in some way, and we learn about cat mint (which looks like a cross between culinary mint and a nettle) and rue. There’s Rhodiola growing in the gravel beneath the shade of a tree, and Fi explains how it can be used by athletes to enhance mental and physical performance by increasing the oxygen in the blood. It also goes by the name Aaron’s Rod, which sounds rather dubious.

We continue to the bottom of the lawn. ‘Anyone for Angelica seeds?’ asks Fi, and her eyes widen in surprise as we all shout yes. I love angelica; it looks like a souped-up cow parsley, or a less-thuggish hogweed. We look at horse-heal, burburis, digitalis. No medical herbalist is allowed to use fox gloves any more, its active ingredient is too variable in strength and impossible to measure without a lab. We move onto the serious big boys: Rheum, gelsenium. Fi mixes the latter with lobelia, so if anyone accidentally overdoses, they’ll be sick.

About digitalis - the valley you see from the top of Bramshill is through the trees behind
About digitalis – the valley you see from the top of Bramshill is through the trees behind

We start to move up back towards the house, Fi pauses to point out Vitex, a purple-flowered shrub talked about by Pliny-The-Elder in the days of the Roman Empire. Its alternative name is ‘chaste-berry’, and it’s used for lowering libido. I have an image of Aaron’s exhausted wife, crumbling the leaves into his supper.

Two of Fi’s dogs are at the conservatory window, scrabbling madly for attention and clambering all over the back of the sofa. ‘Off!’ shouts Fi, to no effect.

Molly and Pip, gorgeous little terriers (Pip is Dora's mother). Tryiong to lick my reflection
Molly and Pip, gorgeous little terriers (Pip is Dora’s mother). Molly’s trying to lick my reflection

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

She shakes her head and leads us all through to my favourite bit, the kitchen garden. Here, everything is as perfectly McGregorish and neat and productive as you could wish it might be. Potatoes stand in perfect lines along their long ridges; sweetpeas gaggle up a twenty foot wide net; feverfew and borage flower  in esoteric pattern alongside marching cabbages and neatly-staked tomatoes.

A fork left for digging potatoes for supper - the amount of work that's created this garden is evident whichever way you look.
A fork left for digging potatoes for supper – the amount of work that’s created this garden is evident whichever way you look.

To the left, there’s a huge bank of raspberry canes, and there are two cages of strawberries. My daughters think of this garden as something akin to heaven. We listen to a bit on thyme, and its modern use in fighting super-bugs. No thyme leaf is exactly the same, so a bug can never change to become resistant to it. Fi is a great believer in the use of a plant as a whole, rather than extracting just one aspect of it. Happily, modern medicine is beginning to share similar thoughts.

I admire the calendula blooming around my legs. Marigolds; bright orange and yellow, like sunshine caught on stalks.

We move up the garden past the wall of sweetpeas to a tower of mallow.

The pharmacy in a flower-bed.
The pharmacy in a flower-bed.

‘A pharmacy in a flower bed,’ says Fi,pointing to the valerian. She tells us about wood bettany –  good for those who’ve been ‘away with the fairies’. Fi has an strong interest in plants to treat dementia, and her sons bought her a Ginkgo tree for a birthday. It grows just outside the kitchen garden and is distinctive with its frilly-cape leaves. Ginkgo’s are known as ‘living fossils’; they date back 270 million years, and, fascinatingly, drop all of their leaves all at once.

Next up is the boot room garden, and by now, I’m in a state of complete zen. The sun has dropped from the horizon, and I’m surrounded by beautiful, benevolent plants that smell  like holiday memories, childhood memories – everything happy I can think of.

I wander slowly at the back of the group, letting words and scents and gentle calm roll over me.

Fi ben
Fi beside her Gingko Tree

I stand dreamily by a tall, gnarled rosemary and imagine how wonderful it must be to grow a garden full of food and medicine.

The last point on the walk is Fi’s dispensary and consulting room. We try tinctures and diffusions, sigh over how lovely everything has been. ‘Perfect, completely perfect.’

I thank Fi and drift out to find my bicycle, clutching bottles of elderflower and lemon balm cordial.  I take one more look at yet more roses, high against the wall of the house.

Rose petals, hips, bark, all good for the heart, the soul. Rather like Fi herself.

 

Links

http://www.fionataylor.org.uk/

http://www.hadshamfarm.co.uk/

On Birthdays In The Pub – Good Times

We’re all going to the pub, our pub, to celebrate a fiftieth birthday. It’s the first fiftieth I’ve ever been to where the birthday boy is an adored chum, rather than some wild-haired uncle in mustard corduroys. It’s also the first night of the Red Lion Beer Festival, which is always raucous, and always involves a lethal light cider called Black Rat.

We can hear the noise from the top of our road, and Horley’s high street is nose-to-tail with cars.  Stevie and I are with the Sausages, and McNellie and I pause outside to admire Tash’s tulips, whilst the boys forge us a path in. The pub is heaving, with no free tables; the bar is two-deep in jolly flushed-looking rugby types buying enormous rounds.

I see Doctor Nicely-Tightly, who kisses me and renders me tongue-tied before I’ve had my first drink. He’s disappeared before I can think of anything sensible to say.

I’ve forgotten my lenses, and have no idea who anyone is unless they’re very close. McNells and I are given drinks and we’re caught in the general stream of people heading towards the back door. We strike an eddy by the defunct cigarette machine, and somehow end up in the low-lit corridor outside the ladies’ loos.

‘I must just kiss the Birthday Boy,’ I say. ‘Send me his way.’

At the last minute, I trip over my own feet, and fall head-long into the Birthday Boy’s arms, my lips brushing just below his ear. ‘I’m so sorry-‘

‘I enjoyed it-‘

‘Happy Birthday, lovely man.’ He is by far the most attractive fifty-year-old I’ve known. His wife, my mate Curdie, is laughing at something Stevie’s just said to her.

Yet more people are still squeezing in, and a bevvy of gorgeous blondes with perfect skin descend on Birthday Boy. I wriggle away, back to the lavatory corridor and my gin. McNellie and Mother Hen are deep in pregnancy stories.

‘Oh God,’ I say.

The Cheese Lady from Carpenter’s is suddenly next to us, with a yellow Lab. ‘Don’t worry,’ she says. ‘Only a puppy.’ Then she looks up, recognising us each in turn. ‘Oh! It’s all of you!’

‘Hi,’ we chorus, and grin.

She  gives us the puppy to hold whilst she goes to the loo. ‘Is it always this mad in here?’

Another local doctor (there are so many) squeezes between us. ‘Not always,’ he says. He has the naughtiest, darkest, come-to-bed eyes. ‘Sometimes it’s much worse.’   We laugh easily, and the Cheese Lady rolls her eyes.

‘We should nick the back table,’ I say, pointing. From where we’re standing, it looks empty, but as we push our way through we realise there’s two men sharing it. I recognise one of them as the man married to the beautiful French girl from Bramshill. The other is a stranger; a tall man with the lazy feral look of a big cat that’s just had its tea. I half expect to see an impala hoof  beside his beer.

When we see them, we say sorry and go to back away, but they wave to us to sit down. The man married to the French girl is very charming, and reminds us of the Crystal Maze.

The night rolls on; the music louder, the gossip more outrageous. More and more locals flood in; Black Rat renders the mouths of young men rubbery and their words oddly chewed.

‘Ow’rya Pants?’ I’m asked, and it takes me a moment to realise he means the dog. Lord Yarp is down the front of the pub, being very well behaved, with Doctor Nicely-Tightly, who is not. The middle of the pub is thick with the people in their early-twenties with early-fifties hair styles.

Do they use much hair oil, we wonder. And do their mothers use antimacassars?

More gins arrive, with some revolting crisps. The French girl’s husband has gone, and the darling Sausages. A loud crowd have taken their seats, packing us all thigh-to-thigh along the benches. I fall into a fascinating conversation about Heller’s Catch 22, which I know I’ve read but can’t remember. I’m quickly convinced to read it again, nose-to-nose with the Massey Man. ‘Everything Heller says comes true.’

Massey Man farms, as well as selling tractors, and we’re soon arguing about the Spring Field (which is his), and why he turned it all brown. ‘Clover,’ I say. ‘Plant clover.’ He tries to distract me with talk of cowslips.

‘I must go home,’ says Mrs Damage, visiting our table. ‘Need a cup of tea.’

‘Have another drink!’ we cry, so she does. We all talk about The Three Peaks Challenge, and how brilliant it would be. Birthday Boy is squished in next to me. ‘Yes,’ he says. ‘I could do that.’ We howl and throw insults about his knees.

Soon, there’s talk of Jagar Bombs and Sambuccas, which I loathe. ‘Yes, yes,’ cries Massey Man. ‘And you set in on fire and drink it and then you stick it to your naked chest!’

I mutter about Big Steve babysitting alone, and that I really must go. It takes forever to say goodbye, and a tremendously strong will.

I look for Stevie, to extract babysitting money from his wallet. He’s up near the bar with Curdie and the Legs of Horley, his Man Friends gathered around him. He’s in typical Stevie pub-pose, beer glass hugged to his chest, rocking on his heels. He’s very flushed, and doesn’t want to notice me in case I tell him to go home.

‘Come home with me!’ roars a neighbour, squeezing me in a hug. ‘Steve – give me ten minutes head start-‘

I wriggle free amongst the laughter and there’s a wicked whisper in my ear, ‘Take that vision to bed with you, Carles. Savour it, go on-‘

I catch his eyes, shuffling visions, aping horror.

‘Bye darling,’ I say to Stevie. ‘Enough of the Rat.’

I so, so want to stay. My husband grins as I back out, waving, calling good night, dashing back to kiss another cheek I’d missed.

I’m finally out, the heels of my boots loud on the road as I cross. I reach the pavement and then turn back, looking through the yellow-lit windows. Landlord Dave has Jager Bombs lining up on the bar; Mrs Damage still hasn’t gone home for her cup of tea.

I turn to walk home, savouring the cold air, babysitting money in my fist.

Black Rat Cider

 

 

 

On Pub-Going – The Rose and Crown in Ratley

I push open the heavy oak door to The Rose, and I’m instantly hit with the roar of Friday-night conversation. The air rushing out to greet me smells of good wine gravy and old pub, and I pause for a moment, blinking at the crowd.

I haven’t been here for perhaps five years – the old gang have all grown-up, moved away. The last time I remember, we’d been the only ones here, our voices carelessly loud in a mid-week hush.

Now though, it’s Friday night and it’s packed – so many people that it’s hard to squeeze in the door. My black-rimmed spectacles steam up and I snatch them from my face, suddenly terribly nervous of walking into a newly-strange place.

‘Carles!’ It’s The Ferg, a local farmer I’ve not properly seen for years, and who has a terrible reputation for havoc-making. It’s The Ferg’s brother and his wife that I’m to have a quick drink with, and I barely say hello before I demand if he’s seen MinanRuss. I run the names together, as if they’re a trusted brand I can rely on.

‘No,’ he tells me. ‘Are they coming here? Do you want a drink?’

I’m flustered by the crowd and the sense of no longer being cool, and I  shake my head, start sliding away through the checked-elbows towards the bar. I forget that I prefer spirits with mixers, and I order a Pinot Grigio; tonight, Matthew, I shall be – God, I’ve no idea.

Discomforted, I take my wine glass to the last table in the tiny bar dining area. It’s a table for four, and I put down my wine, phone and car keys in a semi-circle in front of me; earthworks of technology, fending off invaders. I can’t remember the last time I drank alone in a pub (the Red Lion doesn’t count), and I feel so self-conscious on my table that my shoulders are up near my ears, my hair over my face.

I pick up my phone, pretending I’ve got a signal and have an important message I must send immediately. I want, more than anything, to ring Stevie, tell him I’m coming home. Weed, I hiss to myself. I try not to bolt my wine, and instead force myself to look around me, although I make sure I don’t catch any curious eyes. Every table is crammed with people; laughing, sharing tales of their week gone, planning the weekend ahead.

A woman behind me keeps saying ‘clearly’. Clearly the situation in Crimea is volatile. Clearly the Kremlin must not be allowed – her voice drops, confidingly – clearly the woman in the grey cashmere has been stood up by her date. I put my hand out and my wedding rings catch the light. Clearly you can get stuffed.

The bar is mostly covered in farmers, unmistakeable with their capable, red-chapped hands and sensible Country Wide shirts. They all know each other and talk in half sentences, agreeing with each other in ascending chorus. There is a woman laughing, over and over, and I resent her easy belonging. I hate not belonging – the inevitable by-product of not knowing who to be. I feel awkward.

I turn my glass, thinking how I should stand up, smile, go and hang on the bar and get chatting.

I slug at the dregs of the  Pinot for courage. I stand up just as a man behind me speaks into a microphone, and I end up jumping, clutching my heart. I laugh with him as he introduces the evening’s singer, then I catch the eye of a woman in a black cardigan watching me, speculatively. She’s wondering what I’ll do next.

Put on my coat, run away. Or fling myself at the bar, chat up farmers. The woman’s watching from her busy table, her half-eaten supper ignored.

I decide to go for the farmers.

I make my way towards The Ferg, who is rocking with laughter at a neat-looking blonde man who’s describing something with his hands.

‘Carles!’ says The Ferg again, when he spots me. ‘Drink with us! Come on! Say yes this time!’

For a moment I freeze, but then my smile unsticks itself.

‘I can’t,’ I tell him. ‘I’m too shy.’

‘Rubbish,’ says The Ferg. He comes and collects me, sweeping me up in his arm. He introduces me to the farmers he’s standing with, and I instantly forget their names, but am charmed by their smiles.

I launch into a dreadful have-you-come-far conversation with the blonde. He has naughty twinkling eyes and his girlfriend is the one in the red skirt over by the piano. We stutter through another few stock-phrases (he farms at Avon Dassett. A few sheep, but mostly arable. No, no, he’s not been pleased with the weather either). But then he mentions returning from skiing, and we’re off – ‘It’s my most favourite thing in the world to do,’ I tell him. ‘I just never really have anyone to do it with.’

He tells me all about a deliciously scandalous holiday a few years ago, and we compare resorts.

We’re deep in the merits of Austria versus France when the pub door opens, and two familiar heads appear, pushing through the crowd.

‘Minanruss!’ I cry, waving. ‘That’s who I’m meeting-‘ But suddenly I’m torn. I want to stay with this nice man, and talk about snow, and really, we should wear helmets, but we don’t.

‘Go,’ he says. ‘Go say hello-‘

‘Thank you for chatting to me,’ I say. ‘And being so nice.’

Min is trying to take off her gilet, creating space by wagging her elbows.

‘Good God,’ she bellows. ‘It’s like a Range Rover convention out there! Who the bloody hell is it? Where’ve they come from?’

There’s a cheer from beside the piano.

‘Drink?’ I say, squeezing through, kissing them both hello. ‘So brilliant to see you! Let me get you a drink-‘

It’s past ten when Min and I manage to snaffle a table, and the singer has got into his stride. We’re chattering non-stop, catching up on gossip, who’s doing who, and oh-my-life, I can’t believe that. Are you sure? Outrageous.

I don’t tell Min how nervous I was before, how I nearly went home.

A tall, dark vaguely-familiar brunette comes to say hello. ‘You have such a lovely voice,’ I shout against the music. ‘All deep and raspy.’

‘Oh no,’ she says. ‘I’ve had this ever since that night.’ She and Min exchange significant looks. ‘Let me buy you a drink,’ she says. ‘And I’ll come and join you.’

‘She’s with The Ferg,’ says Min, in my ear. I look at The Ferg with new respect. He really does pull some crackers.

Min introduces us, and I tell Max we might have met before, at the Red Lion. ‘Probably my sister,’ says Max. ‘She’s way more beautiful than me.’ She says the words flatly, with no intention of prompting denials and fluttery compliments.

Min and I raise an eyebrow each. ‘You’re hardly fugly,’ we tell her. I like this girl. We then indulge in premium-rate gossip, the sort of stories friends always start with ‘Carles, don’t blog this, but-‘. God it was exciting.

The singer was really belting out his tunes now, the bar staff were still smiling and smiling.

Something rockabilly-like came on and Min was whooping, shouting I should dance with The Ferg, who once literally swept me off my feet for several minutes years ago, for which the old gang used to tease me mercilessly.

‘I’ve not had enough wine,’ I say, shaking my head, protesting. But then I’m up anyway, being towed down the bar towards the singer; there’s cheering and applause. No one else is dancing, but that doesn’t deter The Ferg. He flings me into a spin, narrowly missing a table of eight. Then he scoops me up, rocking out, and I’m laughing so hard I’ve got a searing stitch, and my hair’s come loose, and I’m not wearing my glasses, so everything’s a warm blur full of music and noise and steps that were out-of-time but exhuberant. The Ferg whizzes me around, still astonishingly strong.

As a finale, he bends me backwards, so I can see the room upside down. I feel like all of the glittery-glee has gone to the top of my head, shaken free from the boring grey silt of the every-day. I’m grinning as we take a bow to the applause, and I catch the eye of the woman in the black cardi.

She’s clapping, smiling, nodding at me as if she knows me. As if I belong.

RoseandCrowninRatley

 

On School: Athletics Festival

Today is the great Athletics Tournament, with which the daughters have been preoccupied for days.

The Warriner School in Bloxham is holding its afternoon of athletic endeavour in their cavernous sport’s hall. This year, there are to be 7 primary schools taking part, including Hornton’s arch-rivals, Shennington. Jess is particularly excited, and keeps telling us she can’t believe she was picked for the team. Hornton Primary is sending thirteen pupils, and Jess (aged 8) is one of the youngest and definitely the smallest.

‘We’ll race against Year Sixes,’ she tells us at breakfast. ‘So we’ll lose. But as long as we try our best, it doesn’t matter if we don’t win.’

I slap hands across my mouth as Stevie agrees with her – that’s right, my darling. He sends me a Significant Look.

So now I’ve arrived in Bloxham, thanking the Parking Angel for guarding me a space on the muddy lane. As I get out of the car, I can hear that particular shrieky noise of massed primary school children – like hunt kennels the morning of a meet.

The huge sports hall is across the car park, and as I walk towards it, two Warriner pupils in duck-egg blue go to dash out of the door. They jam the brakes on when they see me, and let me go first.

Inside the hall, the noise becomes more distinct, in waves, corresponding to some sort of action. The whole space is full of dashing figures in bright colours; cherry red, satsuma-orange, the egg-yolk yellow of Shennington. Warriner pupils are supervising, and two Warriner  PE teachers are waving their arms and calling encouragement. The one nearest to me has short, sandy hair and good legs.

Parents are gathered in the viewing corridor that runs along the hall, watching their children through green netting, chattering, laughing. I wriggle amongst them, smiling apologies for jostled elbows.

I spot the royal-blue of Hornton in the far right corner. Some Hornton School mum-chums are on the bench against the wall – Tightie and Damage. They’re talking to Mr. Green, Hornton’s Head, who is looking very serious. He is holding a clipboard. The children are racing up and down in front of them, practising running and turning on the push-off boards against the walls of the hall, and I see a tiny figure streaking backwards and forwards, long pony tail flying. It’s Jess, and I give an inward groan. She’s the only child in the whole place wearing pink and navy-striped leggings.

Around me, the strange mums are talking about the same things Hornton mums always talk about: swimming lessons clashing with ballet, babysitters cancelling last minute, and did you watch the One Show yesterday? A good-looking father arrives in a navy overcoat. ‘Made it,’ he says to a woman in a Joules gilet. ‘Not been here before. Rather smart for a comp.’

You can hear the hiss from the mums, feel the cringe of the wife.

Husbands should be seen and not heard.

A whistle is blown by a very tall man in racy red socks. The children are to line up on their benches against the far wall.

It’s now time for the relay race, and mats are put out in a line down the centre of the hall. Each school are to field four children, running from one end of the hall to the other, before passing a baton. The Warriner pupils do a demonstration, genuinely racing, putting their all in; their trainers thumping like police-kicks on the push-off boards.

The PE teacher with the good legs comes to announce the parents’ race through the netting. For a moment, I ridiculously imagine kicking off my boots and socks for better floor-purchase and increased speed. I forget I’m thirty-four and not wearing adequate rigging. The other parents all laugh, knowing he was joking, and he goes away, smiling.

The primary schools are to go now, and I squeak with excitement when I see Jess standing up, then giving it the Tiggers, boinging on the spot. She seems to be leading a team, and is marching towards a mat with a fellow Year 4 and two Year 6’s. She sees me, but only gives a blink of recognition; too cool to wave to mummy.

Hornton School runner at the Warriner Athletics Festival
My super-speedy little  Jess

Jess is the first to run, and I can feel my own heart-beat start to thump as she gets in position, baton poised. The other children racing are at least two-heads taller; gigantic children in orange and yellow. A Warriner pupil starts the race and they’re off, running flat-out to the push-boards – the noise of the supporting crowds is ear-shearing. Quick turn then they’re up our end, Jess’ pink and navy leggings blurred with speed, ponytail a caramel banner. I think I might pop with pride.

I think Jess’ team have come third, but before I can find out, the next lot of teams are lining up, Hornton racing in the lane closest to us.  Hornton’ve put up their speediest Year 6’s, and we’re level-pegging with the orange children when disaster happens. Hornton’s last runner turns on the push-off boards and somehow drops her baton or trips, either way, the baton hits the floor with a bell-like clink, and the runner is down, landing heavily on her hands and knees. The cheers turn off like a switch, and there’s a collective gasp. But then the Hornton runner staggers to her feet in the silence, obviously hurting, and runs for the finish line. The cheers almost take the roof off.

‘Brave little girl,’ says the mother next to me.

We watch as she finishes, disappears into the comforting arms of her team. She’s crying now, ow,ow,ow, but post-race tears in no way detract from the fact she got back up, finished the race.

There’s another few more heats to go, and then the whistle’s blown and the children all waved to a huddle. There’s rousing words and certificates, and lots of applause and modestly-pleased faces. The PE teacher in the racy red socks announces the overall winners, and the fact that Hornton came bottom to last. I join the other Hornton mums, and we all lean together, exchanging gossip and pointing out each other’s children.

‘And,’ we whisper, knowing it’s bad form, but unable to resist. ‘We weren’t last. We beat Shennington-‘

Then we all cheer for the jolly PE teachers who worked with the Warriner pupils in organising the whole thing, and we cheer the children themselves.

‘Very good!’ we say, clapping.

M, the glamorous daughter of Damage, speaks sotto voce at my shoulder. ‘Them ones that won have different outfits for each sport. Like cricket and that. I was talking to them before.’

I boggle at the thought of increased uniform costs. ‘Golly,’ I say.

Now the children are starting to leave, and I step back, out of the mum’s circle, looking for Elle and Jess. Jess is a bullet, straight into my arms. She gives me a bone-crunching hug, then grabs my hands, so I listen.

‘Mummy!’ she says, squeezing. ‘Great news! I beat a Year Six!’

Elle slopes up, gloomy after having her events cancelled. ‘Whoop dee doo.’ she says, deadpan. ‘It’s the doing your best that counts.’

‘No it isn’t,’ says Jess, suddenly very fierce. ‘It’s the winning. Isn’t it, Mum? It’s the winning.’

‘Um,’ I say. Oh, what the hell. I return her squeeze. ‘Yes, darling. It is really. All about the winning.’