On Walking

We’re the first of the walkers up into wood, I can tell by the single gossamer-light cobweb lines that catch my face. The hawthorns are heavy with deeply red berries, and they’ve bent to make a tunnel that meets just above my bare head. The early-morning sun lights the ash and goat willows in white-gold patches, and I have to steady myself, or else I’d run skipping like a loon, to dance in the richness.

Yeats wrote that ‘too long a sacrifice, makes a stone of the heart’. Jilly Cooper had one of her characters say the line when he’d waited for a woman he’d loved, and I’ve been thinking it these past few weeks, waiting, waiting to hear back from agents about The Badly Born.  Part of me whispers let it go, let it be still-born, like the others. The other part of me is defiant, and thinks good: be a stone. Stones endure. Stones hold down balloons of hope.

The agents have had my book for seven weeks, now, and with every passing day, I tried to make myself more stone-like, more weighted against lift-off and the possibility of a fall.

Last night, though, I had an email from one of them, telling me I was yet to be read, but would be soon, and I lay in bed, clutching my phone, recognising how utterly I’d failed in the stone stakes. I’ve no defences at all, no weight for that slippery, silvery bubble of hope. I can feel it rising despite all of the times I’ve trusted it and we’ve been so high, and I’ve fallen. Falling hurts so damned much.

What makes us do this? In love, or work, or art, or whatever it is that terrifies and fascinates us. To reach for something we’ve such little chances of touching. How much more content must people be, that can control their hope.

I’ve walked almost the length of the woods unseeing. I’m breathless with an exhilaration I know must not be trusted. I call in the bigger dogs, then let them go again. Dora stays beside me, shooting me suspicious, disapproving looks. She’s checking I’m still beside her, not spriting around in the tree tops.

Oh, that hope. It’s glimmering in the sky above my head, the dappled earth is falling away beneath my feet. Dora’s barking at something but I can’t look round, can’t look down.

Steady, I think. Steady. Just hang on, and don’t let go.

On Walking 21st August

There’s a deer running parallel to me, about twenty feet away, beyond the thick green of the covert. I can’t see it, but it leaps with a swished rhythm through the rattle of sprayed-off beans.

The dogs give chase, momentarily foxed by the sheep-netting. As one, they remember the stile, and squash each other to get over, get through. The deer’s long gone.

I walk on, thinking about the new story I want to write, trying not to think about the one that’s finished, that’s sat on its hands in an agent’s office, waiting to be read. I should’ve written here before, explained where I’d gone, but somehow I couldn’t. Sorry. I don’t mean to treat my readers badly, it’s just sometimes, I just can’t write aloud, only in private.

Anyway, we’re in Spring Field, where redshank sprawls intestine-like on the baked August ground. Small dark butterflies spring from my footsteps through the barley stubble, and everywhere are little alder cones, the sort to crumble in between finger and thumb. There are honeysuckle berries by gate, clustered together as bright as glass.

The dogs come back without me calling, and circle, pretending to catch scents, but really, watching me. They can feel the restlessness in my bones, the sense that I might burst into movement, run, take off and fly, swoop low over the valley, then up into the white-blue until I’m just a spec. The dinner-giver, a tiny, far-off comet.

We pass beneath an ash, its arms dropping beneath the weight of its keys. Down by the Sor Brook, the hawthorns are smeared with a gore of berries, as are the elders. Darker gore. Plates of purple-black fruit that are gritty between your teeth and tongue.

I felt like this at the fag-end of my first pregnancy, when you feel like a sausage, about to split. Or a pea-pod, or a microwaved egg, or a grain of corn in a hot, buttery pan. Pop. There’s change coming that is final and absolute, the end of one state of being, and the beginning of another.

The dogs don’t trust this unquiet me. They’re suspicious of my terrible energy, my sudden decisions to trespass new, untrodden paths, to take them where they’ve not been before, and had never planned on going. They’re confused at my abrupt stops to check my email, pressing refresh, refresh, refresh, or dredging Twitter, as if the answers I need are in there, if I could only find them. It’s as pointless as reading my stars, yet I still do, every week in Style, from the Sunday Times, seeing what luck will befall a Cancerian, whether this time, this time, it’s all going to work out okay.

I stop at the gate by the road, call the dogs closer. The story in my head is getting more insistent that I listen, and I fumble the leads. Pop, I tell them. Stand still. Pop.

Spring Field with barley in July.JPG
Spring Field with its barley, July.

 

 

 

On Walking: 20th February 2018

We’re in the ash meadow, and I’m dawdling, because I don’t want to go home, face all those things that must be done. The pastry for the quiche, the emails, the copy, the filthy dog towels, the answerphone, the fridge drawer with the mouldering sweet potatoes. I want none of it, not yet. I want this, this delicious scrap-of-blue-sky afternoon. I want to bite it.

I can feel Spring in my feet, in my knees. It makes my thighs ache and my belly tighten, and I feel I could run up that hill, leap that stream, swing upside down in a naked ash. The dogs feel it too, Pants looping and dipping in his circles, Dora leaping tussocks of reeds and last summers’ grass.

There’s a real reason I don’t want to go home. One of my books is out on submission (to an agent, not a publisher), and I can no longer bear the itch of waiting. I pick up my phone a thousand times a day, press refresh, refresh, each time hoping, and now I’ve become so restless and distracted that I can’t stand being indoors. I can’t stand having 4G either, which is why I’m here, in the ash meadow, out of service, watching buzzards wheel in the thermals above the Scout woods.

After a while, I walk on, admiring how the catkins are changing colour, lengthening. For weeks, they’ve been stumpy, tan-boot red, crooked like fat little fingers. Now they’re turning ochre through to sulpher yellow, stretching, vertebrae-like, wriggling with delight in the breeze. The dogs are unimpressed by my slowness, and start chasing each other in circles, perilously close to my knees. I shout at them and hurl a rotten baton of oak into the field of stuff that looks like vetch but isn’t.

Having a book on submission is worse than waiting for a lover to text, and you do stupid things, like go wild at parties, miss work deadlines, or not write to a dear friend (I’m sorry, I’m sorry) because you’ve decided that to do so would be a jinx. This weekend, at a bar, someone asked me what I did for a living, and I said I was a secretary, because I couldn’t bear to say I was a writer, then I realised I have no idea what a modern secretary actually does, so I said it was all a bit secret. I actually said, ‘hush-hush’.

Now, I close my eyes, hope that when I open them again, I’ll have stopped shuddering at my own idiocy. We’ve reached the gate to Wroxton Lane, and I catch the dogs, marshal them into order. I’ve got to go home – of course I have. But I go through the kissing gate, and turn to rest my arms on the metal bars. I look back at the awakening roll of the fields, the clean blue sky with its raggedy chasing clouds.

Please write, or ring, agent-with-my-book. I feel like a kite with a fraying string.

On Walking: Monday 2nd January

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dora and The Pants

 

On Walking: Thursday 8th September

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On 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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On Walking: Sunday 5th October

It’s barely eight o’clock when the dogs and I leave the house, and the sky ethereal blue.  There’s been a frost, and it’s cold; properly Autumn after the Indian summer.

The iced air sears my lungs and makes me cough. We set off through the village towards Bramshill; there’re no cars this early, no walkers or church-goers. Wood pigeons are noisily copulating in the chestnuts along the graveyard, and the air is still; expectant of good things.

As I walk up Church Lane, I can see the thick belt of the Scout Woods across the valley; a finer band of mist bisects it, as if the larches were caught in a smoke ring.  I imagine how beautiful the rest of the valley will look, and quicken my pace, hurrying as if to meet a lover.

I don’t let myself peek until the I reach the stile above the sledging hill, then I climb to my perch and sit, and look, and look.

The early sun is behind me, lighting the beeches golden, rust red, warm bronze. The fields behind roll green, clay-red, dun; the new shards of Winter wheat are a bright, plastic green, the grass of margins and hay meadows are a bleached white-yellow. I settle to watch the frost melt from the grasses in front of me, to listen to a nameless bird sing on a descending whistle. The ducks are joking the day to wakefulness and a fox slinks along the bottom fence. Pants and Dora are deep in the brambles to my right: ecstatic and hunting mice.

My fingers become painful, I’m gloveless, and the cold minces them red and white. But the sun is hot on my hair, my ear, and I tip my head back, as if I were a cat looking for fuss.

It is the morning after my wedding anniversary. Eleven years since becoming a wife –  six months scandalous later, a mother. I changed utterly and completely the day I married; grew up in a way that still leaves me breathless with fright. We thought I had miscarried our child the night before the wedding, and a doctor had patted me on the shoulder and told me, never mind, try again. You’re young.  I said my vows through lips numb with misery and shock, my eyes fixed on Stevie’s as if he could save the life in my belly. I remember nothing of the reception, except blood, more blood. Blood and the enormous hoop of my wedding dress.

The next morning, we went straight to the JR for a scan, Stevie reeling with hangover, me convinced I was still pregnant – I could feel it – and more blood. I still had confetti stuck in my tangled hair. We were supposed to be on our way to Gatwick for our honeymoon, but instead we waited, waited.

She was still in there, our daughter, laying on her back with one hand raised, as if to wave hello.

‘She was testing you,’ said a doctor. ‘Checking you really wanted her.’

Now, sitting on this stile, eleven years to the day since that scan, I feel more blessed and thankful than I can ever imagine. That baby – presumed gone – is now a thumping great ten year old. She has a sister, who’s nine, and we have built a family that exasperates and thrills us, drives us bonkers and makes us happy in a way we could never have known, eleven years and one day ago.

After we left the hospital, Stevie and I went to Boar’s Hill, in Oxford, to sit on ‘our’ bench. The view was once almost as precious as this one is to me now, and I remember thinking how today, everything that I was, is now only a part of everything I now am.

Looking out now, over Bramshill, I can feel that change starting to shift again. The 5th October. Always, for me, the start of something.

 

From gate on Church Lane, across to the Scout Woods.
From gate on Church Lane, across to the Scout Woods.