Monday 14th March

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

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

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

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

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

Daffodil watching the cricket
Waiting fot the cricket…

Wednesday 24th February

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Monday 8th February

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Sunday 31st January

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Monday 25th January

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Thursday 14th January

It’s cold today, just above freezing, and I’ve stolen Ellie’s navy-blue bobble hat to wear on my head. The dogs and I have been out for an hour, and my fingers are all white and corpse-like. Pants is still looping the field in his endless stride, but Dora is next to me, on George and Rose’s bench. The slats of the bench are cold beneath my thighs, frozen despite the sun. I’m eating chocolate coins that taste of scented candle, and Dora is watching me.

It was bad news for the book. Agent J felt it wasn’t quite right for the market, and rather than rewrite, to try something else. She told me on the phone, on Monday, as kindly and quickly as she could, and I didn’t cry until she hung up.

Today is four days later, and I’m in the cricket. In my mind, the grass of the field is uniformly green, like a bag of Bird’s Eye peas, but it’s not like that at all in real life. It’s of different lengths and textures; it rolls over tiny hills, clumps thickly in shallow dips. It’s long enough to move in the freezing wind, and it changes character completely with the sun behind a cloud.
Recognizing the difference between what I think and then the actual reality is hard.  It’s hard to trust my own judgement, my own intelligence. I thought I’d pitched the book right for the market; I thought that this time, this time, it would all work.
It’s hard to describe failure. It happens to all of us at some point, but I never really remember what it’s like until I’m in it, like child birth. Then I remember, God, yes. This hurts. But oddly, it seems to hurt less than it did when I was younger. It still matters just as much, but no one’s broken my wrist to stop me writing; no one’s taken my children into care, or repossessed my house. I can still write, I can still try again, and again, and again, and I will.

Both of the daughters squashed me in a hug when I told them, and my eldest said, ‘Never mind, Mummy. At least you’re not a quitter.’

Stevie was prosaic. He told me to just get on with the next one, and by the way, what’s for dinner and did I get the cheques to the bank in the end? I’m so grateful for my family. I’m so lucky that they view my writing as just something I’ve got to do, like cleaning my teeth or cooking dinner.

I look out at the field, seeing my ghost-self on her never-ending march. I’ve marched a lot this week, stamped my feet down over the shadows of self-pity and indulgence. I’ve been angry at myself for not doing what I set out to do, and I mind not being able to show I can achieve something for which I’m trying so hard.

I imagine myself jumping on mole-hills for some light-relief, up and down, double-footed, my arms waving to keep my balance.  The image makes me smile. Frustration and false pride and bitterness, all squashed flat, beaten beneath my boots.

Dora is shivering now, beside me. She’s tucked into the side of my coat, watching Pants watch sparrows. She senses my attention and looks at me, her foxy face asking a question.

‘Yes,’ I say. I stand up. ‘Come on then. Onwards.’

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On waiting, waiting.

It’s 8:40, and Dora and I have just seen one of the daughters onto the bus, and now we’re in the cricket field. There was a frost last night, the first, proper hard one of winter. The sky is an ethereal, faded blue, stitched with the tracks of far-above aeroplanes.  I swallow, trying to still the nerves swinging through my stomach, making me feel sick. I try to concentrate on the sound of my feet through the frozen grass. Swish-one, swish-two.

Today is the day I hear back from my agent, Judith, to see if the book I sent before Christmas will make it. No one’s read this one, and I don’t know if it’s worked, if the story has translated properly from my head.  But it doesn’t just have to work, it has to work better than anything I’ve ever written, and Judith has to fall in love with the people in it – enough to persuade commissioning editors to read it. The what-if’s and may-be’s are stacked like a Jenga tower in my head, and I gulp deep breaths of frigid air, trying to slow my heart-beat.

I watch the ground as I walk. I’m wearing S’s enormous green wellies and it’s like watching someone else’s feet. Each blade of grass is etched white along its edges, leaving a slender needle of green in the middle; S’s boots hardly dent them. The veins of the fallen oak leaves are sharply delineated; their complication stops me in my march, draws me closer. But not for long. The moment I’m still, my mind returns to the Jenga tower, my stomach lurches as the whole thing appears to sway.

I’m nearly out of time. My youngest daughter is in her last year of primary school, and I always promised that if I hadn’t sold a book by then, that I would  bow out gracefully, shuffle my priorities, be a better wife and mother and get back out there, hustle for some work. The thought of not writing, of not writing with the focus and intensity I do now, makes me feel hollow with desperation.

Dora jumps up on my thigh, making me realise I’ve stopped, and that I’m staring out sightlessly over Prickett’s field. ‘Sorry,’ I say. Dora watches me, and I bend to fuss her. I try to tell myself that my proportions are wrong, that I could be a Syrian refugee, or I could be ill, or my children ill. I live in a beautiful place, my family are happy and healthy; selling the book shouldn’t mean so much.  I walk on, lecturing myself on luck, and first-world whingeing, and all the hundreds of other writers that found other ways to work. It’s hardly life-and-death, it’s hardly vital.

I walk past the Pavilion, chalk-white in the morning sun.  I reach the gap in the fence that leads onto Lane Close, and home, and I pause. It’s too early for Judith to ring, too early to do anything but jobs of which  I’ll do half, before forgetting to finish, then starting something else. I turn away, and look back over the field. The sun is still low on the horizon; the oaks stand in its way, casting long shadows that are still silvered with frost. Beyond the field the valley sweeps away, then back up, to Spring Field with its hidden roe deer.  I can see the Warwick Road, with the cars of commuters driving to work. I could be one of them again. I could do it. I’ve done it before; writing with a job, two babies. It would be easier this time round, I wouldn’t have to type and rock a bouncer with my foot.

I give the field one last look, and I stand tall in the too-big wellies. Then I turn and walk home, to wait for Judith’s call.

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