On Walking, Wednesday 24th April – Bats

The sun is out as Dora and I walk, and I can hear wood pigeons in the trees. I tip my head back for a minute to look up into an ash, and nearly get squashed by a fat blonde in a Range Rover. She revs angrily as she swings round me, and I can see her hunched over the wheel in her dark glasses. She doesn’t look particularly anchored in her seat, and I wonder if she’s hovering, and pretending her car is a chariot.

Chariots of ire. Probably serves me right, gawking into trees.

I’ve recently learnt something about ivy, and now I’ve become fascinated. Apparently, ivy is not at all as I thought, and a killer of healthy trees. Those little stubby suckery roots aren’t for feeding through (as a mistletoe would), but just to hold the ivy in place. The bushiness and height of the ivy depends on the tree and the level of light the tree canopy lets through. The older and weaker the tree, the more ivy it has.

Ivy is also, apparently, excellent for roosting bats. I like bats. I like their snubbed noses and blinking eyes, and secretive shyness.

I walk along, imagining having radar. I would love radar. My glasses are invariably on top of my head, tangled in my hair, so I spend a lot of time ignoring people I like and walking into low branches.

We’re in Dave’s field now, and bending down to see if the wheat’s growing, I notice the rich red-brown earth covered in little balls, like half-melted hail. *

We reach the tiny spinney with the deer-path between the two fields, and stop to look for fresh prints. Someone else walks my illegal trespassing way, and they have very large feet. Horley’s own BFG, blowing dreams at a gang of naughty Muntjacs.

By the bridge to Emma’s Bottom Meadow, I see my first Red Admiral of the year. Dora doesn’t chase it now she’s the Senior Dog, and has a reputation to uphold.

We cross the meadow and bump in the Gnash with her rotty-cross, Roxy. Roxy’s unnerved by Dora’s Jack-rat bolshiness, and tries to hide behind Gnash’s flowered wellies. We both agree how nice it is that we’re off-the-lead dog walkers, and how worrying it is when your dog gallumps up to a nervy on-the-lead walker. ‘Awful,’ we say. ‘Awful’.

Heading home up through Horley, we pass a group of waxy white narcissi, with backwards facing petals, like daffodils given a terrible fright.

At the crossroads outside the pub, I see the new Horley Wife whose house Dora rampaged through the other day. I really want to go and say hello, but nerves get the better of me. I flit away, battish,  thinking: next time.

* I later find out it’s fertiliser (which I’d guessed). It was nitrogen and sulphur. Apparently, sulphur helps plants absorb nitrogen, rather like white wine helps me eat scallops. I can do it without, but it’s rather more of a poor show.

Tue 23rd April – On Walking

Dora and I meet up with the Curdie-Wurdie, one of my favourite people, but rubbish at nature-spotting with, unless it’s birds.

Curdie likes birds, and volunteers for the RSPB Garden Watch every year. ‘Have you seen the swallows, yet?’ she asks. ‘And the swifts?’

I tell her I knew they were here, but I hadn’t really noticed. I don’t say that I’m unsure of exactly what a swift looks like. A smaller, faster swallow?

We tramp up to the Old Allotments, and I tell Curdie all about my dreams of a communal orchards, and some allotments, and fencing for fat village ponies.

‘Why do you want an orchard?’ asks Curdie.

‘To collect fruit,’ I say.

We march about the field, pacing imaginary borders and assessing angles of incline. Emma’s pigs are in the field below, and they watch us from beneath their ears. Dora tears around, driven mad by the scent of fox.

It’s a glorious day, and the sun makes last year’s grass a brushed metallic khaki. If you bend over and look closely, you can just see the acid green of this year’s growth beginning to come through.

Curdie and I walk up the old bridle path – useless as such as it’s bombed with huge badger and fox holes. Someone’s evidently been down there, tidying up. The ash trees that fell over winter have been sawn up and moved, and the path is littered with broken twigs. There are clumps of bluebells everywhere (no spears yet), but no wild garlic. WHY? Has it never grown round Horley? Did local farmers take exception to it? Or have I lost my sense of smell to the point I can’t find it? Like my non-flowering aubretia, I’m beginning to become obsessed.

We walk down the Hornton Road towards Horley, and bump into E with lovely Jumble, Dora’s brother. The dogs instantly wind themselves into a lead tangle, and E and I awkwardly unthread them. Jumble briskly humps Dora’s head. Dora rolls her eyes.

‘Wrong end,’ says E.

We all agree the weather is beautiful, and how much cheerier life is with the sun. Then we all agree how fast our children are growing up, and how old we feel.

Eventually, Curdie and I wander on. I try to be discreet as I peer into a skip outside a cottage.

We see some lung-wort, purply-blue, still flowering its speckled socks off. Walking past Bramshill Manor, Curdie spots the fruit trees on their lawn.

‘An orchard!’ she says. ‘See?’

‘So?’ I say, gazing through the iron fence. ‘We can’t get to them.’

Curdie’s eyes gleam, she savours the word as she says it: ‘Scrumping.’

We laugh at the thought, and Curdie points out a tree. ‘Look,’ she says. ‘Look!’

Thinking she’s spotted a particularly lovely bird, I say ‘Where, where?’

‘There!’ She’s triumphant. ‘A mulberry tree.’

‘Mulberry tree?’

‘Mulberry tree.’

‘Oh?’ I say, peering at it. It’s not very tall and has gnarled bark that makes me think of walnut shells.

She nods sagely as we walk on down the hill. ‘Mulberry. Yup. Good for going round.’

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.