On Walking, Monday 22nd April – Frogs

Have been working horribly hard all day, and only just have time for a quick yomp through the village before the school bus.

Am beginning to resent that bus. Even when I see it around Banbury, even when I actually have children in car with me, my heart quickens and my legs twitch to run and be waiting in The Place, my good-mummy-face plastered like pastry over my pie of my day.

I walk very fast through the village, straight down the centre of Wroxton Lane. If I go near the verges, Dora thinks that gives her license to crap. She particularly likes gravel drives, or the houses containing any Handsome Husbands or Beautiful Wives. Somehow, it’s less embarrassing to bag up poo outside the Beige people’s houses.

Buttery yellow forsythia has exploded everywhere, clashing with the delicate washed lemon of the primroses below. Once I notice the colour it’s everywhere – egg-yolk daffs, dandelions like defiant sun-bursts. Even the lichen on the style has gone a yellowish grey, like old lace.

The Cross’ have a stunning pink-and-white blossoming fruit tree outside their house, and I stare at it with an open mouth as I pass. Dora takes advantage of my inattention to sidle towards the verge. Luckily I realise and hurriedly drag her on. Bloody dog.

There’s a grim sight at the bottom of the village. Scores of dried, leathery frog-bodies, dead and starting to crisp. Quite a few are sadly entwined; coitus-flaticus. Dor tries to lever up bodies with her teeth, but the hold of the tarmac is too strong.

We bowl onwards, through the carnage. We reach the brook and I peer over, as always. There’s a dark mass just beneath the shadow of the bridge, and I tip closer. I’m pretty sure I’ve seen correctly. Handfuls and handfuls of frog spawn. The thought is uplifting and I smile stupidly at the water. Some of the poor little buggers made it.

Up The Clump – Friday 19th April

In the foulest, foulest mood when left house today – total hormone soup.

Poor Dora walked beautifully to heel in the hope I wouldn’t bawl her out. But by the time I’d walked up the Jackie Chan, I’d started to hear the swifts, and I could smell the battalions of daffodils, nodding their heads in sorrow above the last few drying snowdrops.

A fallen twig caught my attention as I drew level with St Ethelreda’s, and I stopped the angry-pants march to have a look. It was Horse Chestnut, the length of my forearm, the width of my finger, and had an exploded bud on the end. Glossy brown, with the palest green leaves beginning to splay forth. I felt a ridiculous tenderness for such waste, and had to be towed onwards by Dora.

We walked down Hornton Lane – still no blossom on Horley Manor’s fruit trees – and turned up the Clump. Green! Elder, reeking and making me think of goats. The leaves are still tiny, surrounding a little floret of buds, like sprouting broccoli.  When I was little, my Mum’s goats used to go mad for elder, and would climb the hedges on their hind legs, grunting their approval from deep in their chests. Every year I swear I’m going to make elderflower cordial, but never do. This year!

I carry on up the Clump, checking on the bluebell clumps (looking healthy, but no flower shoots yet), and I wonder why there’s no wild garlic around Horley. Why? All filched by mad vampire-fearing house wives?

I stop to look at some blackthorn, with its creamy buds like fat pearl-headed pins. Some of the flowers are out, perfect and white, with orange-yellow floating dots of stamen.

Ross has put a crow scarer in his field, and emerge from the hedgerow just as it goes off. I jump about two foot in the air and yelp, then feel very silly, and walk extra fast to hide it. There’s no one around, but you never know in those fields. Handsome ravaged-looking men in flat caps pop up in the most unexpected places.

Dora and I whiz over the brow of the hill and drop down into the spinney. Poor trees have had a horrible winter, and the snow and wind has torn branches from almost every one. A hawthorn is bravely pushing frilled green leaves out, and I think of how my Nanny Dot used to tell me how poor people ate them, and called them ‘bread and cheese’.

Clambering up the Toboggan Hill, a man planting fence poles waves at me, and I wave pathetically back, all my energy drained by the hill. I’m so low to the ground as I toil up that I can admire discs of daisies, close up and personal. I’m not so keen on the fox crap.

With all my note-taking and nature-gazing, I’m late for the bloody bus, and have to fling myself over styles and speed-walk down Little Lane. I don’t bother putting Dor back on her lead, and when I see a removal van at the bottom of the road, I just think, Oh, how nice. New people. With a really nice standard lamp.

I forgot about Dora and her huge crush on men in vans. A builder friend of ours (in a big white van) once gave her half a bacon sandwich, and she’s never forgotten it. She made a total bee-line for the van, ignoring my calls, little legs carrying her at bustling speed.

‘Oo,’ I cried, uselessly.

Two removal men in overalls were carrying something sheeted, and they didn’t smile. Dora decided they weren’t going to be forthcoming with sandwiches, and shot into Jeremy’s garden, and then straight through into the new people’s back door. At the school bus stop, we’d heard they were called Birch, were doctors, and seemed friendly. But no one is really going to be friendly when  stray dog bursts into their new kitchen, demanding bacon.

‘Oo,’ I said again, hovering at the gate. I flapped my arms, and the removal men ignored me and kept removalling.

‘Dora-you-bastard-bag,’ I hissed. No sign. Christ.

I dithered. The school bus due any moment.

The removal men had gone in after Dora, and I hesitantly crossed Jeremy’s gravel – so loud! – growling ‘Dor-Dor-Dor’.

Just as I reached the Birches’ new back door, scarlet in the face, Dora sped out, her mouth open, showing her pink tongue, grinning and ultra pleased with herself.

Unable to face anyone angry, I turned and fled, Dora under my arm like a laughing handbag.

Dog Walking – Meadows – 18th April

Oh! I’ve missed so much!

I’ve been at the London Book Fair this week, and then either racing the dogs round in the dark, or walking with lovely friends who stop me nature-gazing because we’re chattering too much. Ace for gossip, rubbish for my diary.

Utterly stuffed for time today, so Dora and I walked across Dave’s fields to the  Bottom Meadow. The wheat is just starting to come up through the heavy brown earth, and I can’t believe something so delicate can survive the ferocious squally wind. We pass a tiny velvet shrew on the path, and I want to stop to pick it up and take it to a hedge, but I don’t dare. It stands more chance of life with hawks around than it does if Dora were to notice it. I run on, just in case, and slip in the mud. Luckily no one around.

We reach the bridge between Dave’s fields, and someone’s broken the handrail. I wobble it, trying to figure out how it happened, and imagine a vastly wide rambler must’ve taken it out with their bum.

Over the next bridge, into Hamer’s Bottom Meadow, and a giant English Pointer bounds joyfully up to Dora and squashes her flat. Dora bristles but thankfully doesn’t snap. I’m blinded by my hood and the driving rain, but I just see Alison Carr being towed into sight by her golden Labrador puppy.

‘Bertie!’ she calls to the Pointer. Bertie rolls his eyes and rollocks off with Dora, both of them impervious to the rain and flirting like mad.

I realise Alison’s going the same way as me, but my brain’s stuffed with work, and I can’t think of a sensible line of conversation. Thankfully, she can, and we talk about dogs all the way back to the village.

We say goodbye, and I think how funny; despite sharing a dinner table, that’s the most we’ve ever spoken. I’m usually drunk and disorderly when I see her, once a year, at the village Progressive Dinner. I remember behaving dreadfully and eating lemon torte at her house once, and then Stevie and I wading through acres of gravel drive to get back to the pub. I had to wade back up it again the next morning to leave a thank you card, feeling like death. I kept thinking of Matthew Henry – He whose head is in Heaven, need to not fear to put his feet in the gravel.

I’m walking home as the sun breaks through, and suddenly the whole village is bathed in brilliant light and the sky is abruptly blue, as if the violent rain had never been. I put my hand to my hair to see if it’s wet, or if I just imagined it. Definitely wet, rats-tails style.

I’m just wondering how far down my cheeks my mascara may have run, when a handsome Daddy from the next village sweeps past in his Audi, blaring sports commentary. I’m too embarrassed and dishabille to wave, so I quickly study a budding willow, and pretend not to see him.

Oh vanity! This is why I have a reputation for being rude.

Walking, Wednesday 10th April

Neither Ellie nor I had left the house all day, and by four o’clock we fizzed with irritable energy, like wasps in coke cans.

We collected Dora and set out for Archie’s Covert, walking down the Banbury Road with its too-fast cars.

Ellie swung her dog coat by the arms and I snapped to stop it, or I’ll kill her.

‘I’d rather you didn’t,’ Ellie replied, continuing to swing.

‘Why!’ I shout. ‘Why are you still doing it?’

‘It’s boring. It’s a boring coat. I’m making it interesting.’

I laughed, leaving my bad temper on the cricket gate, next to a clump of brand-new daffs.

When we reached Jamie’s Mum’s Stables, we climbed the Hamers’ double gates to drop into their wheat field. The earth between the gates has turned to bright orange silt that sticks to our wellies.

‘What colour is the wheat?’ I said.

‘Green.’

‘Yes, but what sort of green?’

‘Green, green. With blue and shrivelly yellow bits.’

We inspected the wheat, the blades three inches long, if that. Usually by now (April), they’d be clumpy tussocky things, not sad and splayed like this in the sodden ground.

Ellie finds some cloven hoof tracks, and thinks they’re baby deer. I suspect muntjac. When we reach Archie’s covert, Dora vanishes down to the stream. I turn to look at our house across the valley, glinting with its new windows. Last summer’s mares’ tail lies in skeletal abandon around our feet. There are half-nibbled cones everywhere, snacked on by deer.

Ellie finds a giant poo, and we speculate that its from a monster stag. A massive red kite breaks free above our heads, and I’m frightened for a moment, imagining it might swoop down and carry off Dora.

‘Get a grip,’ said Ellie. ‘There’s millions of lambs over there. Wouldn’t you eat one of those before a stringy dog with claws?’

I looked at my daughter in surprise, and she burst out laughing.

‘Mummy,’ she says, as we turn for home. ‘Just look at your flowers. I’ll worry about everything else.’

Walking, Tuesday 9th April

Walking with friends is excellent, but very bad for observing nature.

Walked today with McNells, a gorgeous Horley Mummy with that sort of swishy  honey-blonde hair that makes a brunette feel grumpy. We have matching green Joules jackets (I copied), and kept imagining we looked like a couple of les-beans. McNells tried to hold my hand, and I shot into a hedge in horror.

We had B in a buggy, and we yattered all the way to the Scout Woods and back. I didn’t notice very much around me, except for an impression of exhausted brown-ness and the steepness of the hill once a buggy was involved.

Back in Horley, we were accosted by a lady in an Audi, driving behind a ginormous bump. She turned out to be McNellie’s new neighbour, 38 weeks pregnant and looking as healthy and happy as a Musto advert.

‘Pop round,’ she said. ‘Any time!’

I imagined she meant McNells more than me, and I backed away, looking for Dora. I grabbed her just before she legged it into the Nicholls’ immaculate garden for a sneaky crap.

We waved as the new neighbour drove up Clump, and I was distracted by the fat black buds of a nearby ash.

‘Oh, Spring,’ said McNells, as B woke up. ‘Everyone’s having babies.’

Except me, I thought, wandering home.

Thankfully.

Walking, Monday 9th April

 

Dora and I did not escape the house last night until 7:45, by which time, we were both going crackers.

It took me a good five minutes of head-down marching before I even noticed I was still in my slippers. I didn’t dare go home to change in case Stevie said, ‘Thank God you’re back. I’m off to Nick-The-Brick’s.’

It took another five minutes for my shoulders to drop from round my ears, and to let the beauty and peace of the evening seep down my spine.

The sky behind St Ethelreda’s was the first thing I noticed – that beautiful unearthly grey-blue just before dusk proper. There were faint streaks of rose and gold, and birds appeared against it, briefly, blackly.

We walked up Hornton Lane, admiring the tête a-tête narcissus that everyone seems to have planted this year. Their prim neatness seems to make daffodils look gawky and unsophisticated, like leggy school-girls in their first night club.

Snowdrops are mostly over, flinging off their shrivelled petals and waving tiny bare stamens. Nothing very demure about them now.

We turned up Clump Lane, me picking my slippered-way over puddles. Dora shot off, intent on finding squirrels to murder. The light was playing tricks on ordinary colours – the clay of Clump looking its most vibrant orange.

Coming to the top of the hill, I bumped into a Handsome Horley Husband, and immediately tried to hide my feet and bat my eyelashes at the same time. He looked a little surprised, but we had a lovely conversation about the satisfaction of digging veg beds.

I was distracted by the beautiful view over towards the Scout Woods, and left my mouth on auto-pilot, which is always a worry. I tried frantically to remember what we’d been talking about – Spring? Mother-in-laws?

I hoped I’d not said anything inappropriate about beds, veg or otherwise.

A brace of duck called down in the valley, and I realised it was almost dark. Stevie would be dancing with frustration, eager to escape a Small Girl Sleepover party and reach the manly sanctuary of Nick-The-Brick’s.

‘I must go,’ I said regretfully.

Dora refused to leave the badgery-smelling garden of Bramshill Farm. I was too embarrassed to go in and get her. I waved the Handsome Husband good-bye, and slid off on my slippers, praying that Dora would notice and have some sort of female loyalty.

She caught me up at the end of Clump Lane, panting with the joy of her run, mouth wide in Jack Russell grin.

I grinned back, fussing her silly head. We turned for home, my red slippers livid in the half-light.

Riding The Hairy Ginger

I love riding, even though I’m very unstylish, and my feet stick out from the stirrups like a duck’s.

Every now and then, one of my horsey-set friends will get pissed in the pub and say I must come out with them on a hack, or mess around with some jumps or something. Usually, I’m there, next morning, hat crammed on hung-over head, desperately trying to figure out a new horse before it recognises a hobby rider, and chucks me off.

This Saturday though, I was not hungover, and I was invited to ride out with Lucy, the yard manager for Prickett’s, in Horley. The owner, Caroline, is an Eventer, and they have hordes of impossibly shiny Eventers in the stables, as well as a few very glamorous livery horses (complete with glamorous owners).

I was HUGELY excited, and very nervous in case I goofed in such professional company.

I turned up at 9 o’clock sharp, and instantly realised I didn’t quite look right. My ancient navy jodders have more darns in them than a shark net, and my daughter’s hat (I couldn’t find mine) had long ago lost its silk.

‘Riding for the disabled, darling?’ said Lucy.

She popped a silk on my head as if hiding an ugly teapot.

Her telephone then rang (it rings constantly), and I was left to eye up my mount. Bucky, an ex-champion race horse.

He was very tall and thin, covered with orange fluff like an Orangutan.  I went into his loose box and made friends.

‘You can tack up?’ said Lucy, bowling past and leaving saddle and bridle.

‘No worries!’ I called. But I didn’t really get a chance to find out, as an indomitable lady with a busy air and sweet smile appeared. I stood there looking useless whilst she hauled on bits of Bucky’s kit.

‘What hole’s his flash band?’ she said. I dithered and she sent me a pitying look.

The next moment, Bucky was securely trussed, and the lady whisked out, off to meet her daughter from the London train.

‘Thanks,’ I called. Bucky tried to eat my anorak.

Just as we were leading the horses out, a voice called to see if she could ride with us.

‘We’ll be going slow,’ yelled back Lucy. ‘Carles is on Buckaroo.’

The voice laughed, and I quailed further when she came into view. Beautiful blonde, with an impossibly handsome bay. She very politely didn’t mention the two inches of hiking-sock sticking out between my boots and jodhpurs.

We mounted and started off, me frantically trying to remember hands-down, heels-down, arse-in-the-saddle mantra. The combination of extremely capable Lucy and extremely glamorous Belinda made me very shy. I barely spoke as we walked out of the village.

Bucky kept dropping his right shoulder because his poor old bones were stiff, and I kept lurching to the side and grabbing his lack of mane. Belinda’s Perry insisted on skedaddling sideways and Bucky eyed him with disparagement.

Gradually, I got used to Bucky’s uneven gait, and relaxed enough to enjoy myself. My favourite thing about riding through villages is to peer into all the gardens and see what everyone’s planting. I was gawping over one wall at emerging daffodils when a grumpy brunette revved past in a silver people-carrier. ‘Bloody horses, ‘ I lip-read.

We headed towards Wroxton, smartly trotting now, and Bucky had warmed up enough to keep pace with the other two. Belinda turned out to be not at all scary, and to be a Humanist Minister. Her and Lucy’s conversation was so interesting I totally forgot to steer, and Bucky kept diverting to open gateways, like an elderly motorist pulling over for a break.

We reached the Drift Road and turned around. Bucky immediately changed gear, and pulled like a train to the front, shaking his head if I tried to check him.

‘Race instinct,’ called Lucy, as we shot off up the verge. ‘He just wants to be in front.’

I manned up, and sat like a stone, pull-leave, pull-leave on his bit. He heaved a sigh and slowed.

Belinda was talking about her counselling practice now, and I kept hearing tantalising snatches of advice for one of Lucy’s friends.

All too soon we were back in Horley, turning up the drive for Sor Brooke Farm.

‘There’s Caroline,’ said Lucy, as we passed a blonde doing some very s-l-o-w fancy cantering in the school. But Bucky wasn’t keen on stopping. At least no one was down in the yard when I slid inelegantly off his back. I landed heavily and staggered when Bucky turned to rub his lovely face up and down my body. Grateful for his shambling kindness, I put my arms round his neck, kissing him thank you and covering myself in ginger fluff.

Happiness is found on the shoulders of champions.