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.

On Walking: Thursday 18th September

Today, walking down the Banbury Road, I notice the leaves on the limes are curling and starting to drop. The heavy green boskiness of late summer is beginning to lighten; the trees are beginning to draw into themselves. The banked lushness of comfrey has withered, the plants collapsing inwards, and the nettles have never been more beautiful. The smaller, higher leaves are a splotched bright green; the larger leaves are a peachy-pink, their veins and edges black, as if  inked in by a child.

Nettles

I can see through the verge now, to the secrets held in the wide, sandy-earthed ditch behind. The orange pixie-posts of Lords and Ladies stand beside the re-emerging crowns of primulas. Puff ball fungi swells in the dampest hollows beneath the trees.

It’s hot; the Indian summer warmth has amplified the smells of Autumn; leaf-litter, sheep-shit, elderberries, tarmac. I practically skip down the Banbury Road, it makes me so happy.

By the road bridge, I turn right, into the fields below the dryer. The margins have been cut, and the fields look at once bigger and smaller. They are roughly brown, stubble poking through at odd angles, and I wonder what’s been planted, what will soon start to grow. Pants circles off in search of deer, and Dora inspects and pees upon every single black mound of fox poo.

I reach the bridge to Emma’s meadow and eye the cows. They eye me back, barely ten yards from where I’m standing. I whistle the dogs, and turn left, down to Bra Corner. The closely-cut margins make for blissfully easy walking.

I haven’t walked here since the start of summer, but it’s like rediscovering something precious; the heap of stricken alder, covered in thick moss (must remember, for Christmas and the mistletoe ball), the rioting cricket willow. Pants still growls at the upturned roots of a tree, its bark rotted and its wood bleached dirty white, like giant bones.

The Sor Brook is quiet, unhurried. It’s loud for most of the Winter and Spring, foam trembles in its rushing tea-brown eddies. Now though, it’s palest amber in the sun-dampled shallows, darkly green in its depths. It slides slowly past, almost silent; serene.

Oak gall
An oak gall

Dead dry thistles and hogweed straws rustle beneath my boots. I walk on beneath old friends; the sweet chestnut with its glossy, scissor-cut leaves, the alder with its golden grace. Then to one of my favourites, an oak beneath which narcissus grow in the Spring.  It has hardly any acorns this year, the gall wasp has turned them all to odd round, dry, marble-type things.

I go on, and the secret passage is in front of me, strapped with brambles, prickling with blackthorn. I look at the defences consideringly, and eat a blackberry.
The dogs go through but I turn and walk up beside the hedge. Autumn needs to do its work here, then the deer will return. I pinch another blackberry, walking with my face to the sun. Some secrets, I decide, can be saved for another day.

On Walking: Tuesday 11th February

Horley, taken from Spring Field
Horley, taken from Spring Field

This morning there was rain and sleet, and this afternoon, there is bright sunshine and blue skies. I’m slogging my way up Spring Field, and I’m wearing far too many layers. Spring Field is on the opposite valley to Horley, and has been left as stubble over the winter, which means it’s now covered in early flowers. Everywhere I look, there’s something unfurling into tentative colour: scraps of blue speedwell (Veronica), tiny finger-gloves of pink Hemp nettle. There are also clumps of what I think might be heartsease, like a wild viola, although its gorgeous brave yellow and purple faces are yet to appear.

Pants shares my love for this field, and loons around in huge circles, silly ears flapping. Dora is not so keen. Tiny streams are pouring through the heavy orange soil, and she stops every few seconds to shake out her feet. By the time I reach the muck-heap in the top corner, Dora is nowhere to be seen. I stop trying to photograph a plant with tiny white flowers (what are you, dammit?) and stand and shout. Pants leaps around, as if to say, ‘I’m here! Pick me!’ but there’s no sign of Dora.

‘Rat!’ I shout, against the wind. ‘Bloody dog!’ I whistle too, but still nothing. And then I lose my breath, and fear closes my throat. I can see her, in her yellow fluorescent coat, trotting steadily through the mud of the neighbouring field, back the way we came, heading straight for the Banbury Road.

I’m far too far away to run to get her – I can’t run anyway, the mud sucks at my boots like some living thing, desperate to consume me. I shout again, uselessly, starting to slip and slide down the hill. I fumble my mobile from my pocket, ring Stevie.

‘Get in the car,’ I say. ‘Dora’s on the road-‘

Pants is barking, thinking this is all some brilliant new game. She must’ve reached the double gates by now, just before the Sor Brook bridge.  There’s a green truck with a horsebox rattling down the hill from Horley. I freeze, terrified I won’t see it come out the other side of the bridge. But I do,  it accelerates up towards the Warwick road. I start to run, clumsily, my boots sliding out from under me.

‘Dora! Dor!’ I think about the time she ran out in front of Dr Nicely-Tightly, or when she ran up the Wroxton Road, a queue of five cars behind her. Thank God for the fluorescent jacket – worth all the piss-taking as long as it keep the silly animal alive.

I skid down to the gate, and see her, just as she slips under the first of the double gates. She’s at least two hundred yards away.

‘Stop!’ I bellow, raw-voiced. ‘Just bloody stop!’ She does, just as a skip lorry thunders past.

I call again, forcing my tone to jolly-fun ‘come-on-then-darling-isn’t-this-a-lark!’ and thank God she responds. She starts coming towards me, just as my phone rings.

‘I can see you both,’ says Stevie.

‘Sorry,’ I tell him. ‘Sorry darling. I thought it was curtains-‘

And I can’t shout at her now, because she came to me, and she’s wagging her stump of a tail as if expecting a pat. I clip on her lead and ruffle her head, before turning her round and marching back into the Spring Field. I’ve bulbs to inspect, and views to record.

We march through the mud, lickety-split. Passive-aggressive dog-walking with a rictus grin. But then a clump of dark-edged green leaves catch my attention, with one single tiny purple and yellow flower. Heartsease, flowering after all.

Hemp nettle in the Spring Field
Hemp nettle in the Spring Field

Speedwell, with the smallest scraps of blue flowers

On Writing: On not.

I walk through Horley, on the Hornton Road. I walk beneath the dark belly of a ley lundai, smelling foreign woods in the Oxfordshire air: hot dust, pine resin. A woodpigeon coo-coo,cichoos above my head. It’s almost dark, goose-bumps rise like velcro teeth on my arms. A car pulls out from Sor Brook Farm, the driver flicking on its lights, not seeing me beneath the trees.

I walk on, watching my feet, my brown toes with dark-red nail polish, slow-moving in the heavy dusk. My once-sparkled silver flipflops are desultory in their sound: slip-slap. Slip…slap.

Then I feel his footsteps, sliding through mine.

‘Where’ve you been?’ he asks, and I hear his tone. Aggrieved. As if I’ve no right. ‘Why don’t you write any more?’

‘I do,’ I tell him. My voice is mild.

‘You don’t,’ he says. ‘Not what anyone can read, anyway. So what’s the point?’

I watch my feet. Slip-slap.

‘So’s that it?’ he says. ‘You’ve finished?’

I stop, pushing my hands down, past my denim shorts, them clumsily back, searching for the too-tight pockets. My hands. Usually so busy: dog leads, children’s plaits; zips, stuck dolly-clothes, un-stuck lego. Shopping bags, wooden spoons, fistfuls of flowers. The keyboard of my laptop.

I pull them free, and look at them. Feel the need in my fingers, the buzz of a strength that was gone, and is now returning.

‘I’ll write,’ I say.

He steps towards me. ‘You did it again,’ he says. He lifts a hand as if to touch my arm, but we both know he never will. ‘You got lost, didn’t you?’

‘No,’ I say. ‘Not so bad. I got tired, this time. Just tired.’

‘So you’ll write?’

I nod. ‘I’m back,’ I want to say, but my words stick fast to my teeth, like too many toffees. By the time my tongue works them free, he’s gone.

I turn for home, and I feel it again, through my bones. The beat of something joyous. The re-starting of an energy that I don’t control but depend upon utterly. The energy without which my world is miserable and beige, everything I love beyond a curtain I cannot draw.

I smile, suddenly, and fling out my arms as I walk. My feet hit the ground with a different rhythm, the old one, with purpose and direction. Slippety-slap, slippety-slap, echoing, repeating: vital and alive.