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.

WP_20160208_08_44_14_Pro

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.

WP_20160131_11_43_43_Pro

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.

WP_20160126_07_41_37_Pro.jpg

 

 

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.’

WP_20160112_08_36_34_Pro

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.

WP_20160108_08_48_00_Pro

 

The Year of The Cricket

Every day, every single day, I walk around the cricket field. It’s where I go when I’m happy or miserable, when I’m in a tearing hurry, or whether I’ve got hours. Every dog walk ends or begins with the Field, and I’ll go alone, or with the daughters, or S, or with friends. I walk it clockwise, anticlockwise, traverse as if tacking a dinghy, diagonally or all over randomly, like a big ant.

This year, I’m going to write about my circles of the Field and how it enriches my life. Walking in general has always been a sort of catharsis for me – a way of balancing soaring highs and gut-wrenching lows – but it’s the Field that has become my centre. My children have grown up playing in it, my dogs have chased a million balls in it, and I’ve watched a hundred cricketers smack sixes from it. I’ve had some brilliant nights in it and made life-long friends in it.

It acts as my barometer; my Nature calendar and a place in which to be gloriously mindless, or earnestly mindful. I’ve walked it wearing ski-gear in minus 6, and I’ve streaked across it at dawn, wearing nothing but wellies and granny-pants, after a fox.

I’m not going to write about any cricket gossip, nor village gossip for that matter, because I can’t bear it when people ask me (repeatedly) when they’re going to be in the blog, or add ‘don’t write about this, will you?’ on the end of every sentence. Yes, because you’re so fascinating. I don’t promise not to satirise any of the more silly comments, but if I do, it won’t be here.

Whenever I walk, regardless of weather, mood, footwear (often unsuitable), company or time, I never stop being grateful for the fact I can. Thank you to Horley Cricket Club for the privilege, and for keeping the field in exactly the perfect way they do.

On Barn Dancing

It’s a Friday evening, and it’s raining. We’re all knackered, and we don’t want to go out.

‘It will be fun,’ I say. ‘And we’ve bought our tickets.’

We get in the car. There’s no cash in the house, so we have to schlep to town. Radio Two has gone weird and the children have demanded KISS, which means I have my hands over my ears. I stare from the car window at the rain, and think longingly of the blue velvet sofa, and my book*.

We eventually find the barn – it’s at Hornton Grounds Farmshop, to which we’ve never been, up a long winding lane flanked by glossy black bullocks.

We pull into the yard; someone has spray-painted ‘car park’ in huge yellow letters onto black silage bales. I can see Portaloos and bunting; people in checked shirts. It all reminds me of Young Farmer’s parties when I was younger, and I start to cheer up. Stevie parks and immediately gets told off for parking with too much space between our car and our neighbour. The children and I cringe with embarrassment, and Stevie mutters darkly, wheel-spinning slightly in the oozing orange mud.

The rain is redoubling its efforts, and we run to the cover of the barn. The barn itself looks perfect: a great, arching Dutch affair, made of corrugated iron sheets and supported on sturdy iron girders. It’s divided into at least four huge bays; the bay on the end is where we shall dance; the other two are given up to a smart red and grey tractor  and a bit of cow poo. The fourth holds the Portaloos.Hornton Barn Dance 4

We’re amongst the first to arrive, and Stevie and I make a bee-line for the bar, which is opposite the hog-roast. The bit where we’ll dance is lined with over-sized straw bales; the concrete floor has been hosed clean. There are zinc buckets of wildflowers tied to each girder, and the roof is criss-crossed with bright, patterned bunting and ropes of lights.

The children have spotted their amigos, and dump us without a backwards glance. I always hate this bit of a party, when there’s too much space and I’ve forgotten every opening line to any sort of opening chit-chat. I sidle up to a local builder, and agree that the rain’s terrible.  Hornton Barn Dance 3

I perk up, half-way down my wine, and start to enjoy myself. More Horley friends arrive, and lots of parents from school. The band aren’t playing yet, but the crowd is really starting to thicken. I eavesdrop on a conversation behind me. ‘Two hundred tickets sold,’ says a woman with Heidi plaits. I boggle as I do the maths. Blimey: that’s without bar and food takings. As village fundraisers go, this is a whopper.

‘Will you be dancing later?’ asks a very tall man in a cowboy hat.

The area between the bar and hog roast is very full now; the roar of conversation drowning out the taped music. One of the yummiest of Horley’s mummies, has turned up with her hair in pigtails. ‘My daughter had to get them straight,’ she says. ‘Another drink?’

Children are starting to catch the buzz from too many Fruit Shoots, and dare each other to run in the rain. I see my own daughters, huddled in a gang of six or so girls, taking selfies with a mobile phone and squealing with laughter.

The band are fiddling with their instruments, tuning up, calling partners for the first dance. The caller is Ian Harris, whom the children adore, and who organises the May Day Dancing every year.

‘This is an easy one,’ he says. ‘Take your partner by the hand.’

I squeeze from the crush at the bar to go and dump my gilet on a bale. I balance my wineglass on the frame of the barn, remembering the days when it would have been a Malibu and Coke, and I would’ve been wearing hot-pants and Doc Martens. ‘Welly Waiting Area’ reads a sign to my left. My eldest daughter crashes into me, and demands that I dance with her.

‘The next one,’ I say.Hornton Barn Dance 2

The dancers all look exhilirated; they end their dance with a spin in ball-room hold, laughing into their partners’ faces. The back of a lady in a long black cardigan is covered in straw, as if she’d sloped off for an earlier romp.

We line up for our dance, which involves weaving and swapping partners. People keep bumping into others they know, and buckling the circle whilst they kiss them hello. I’m seized by an energetic octogenarian, who thrusts me around as if I were the gear-lever to a recalcitrant tractor. I get terribly confused, and shoot into reverse, treading on the cowboy-boot of a tiny lady in a large hat.

‘Wrong way-‘ she hisses. I end up holding her hand; it feels as if she’s wearing a knuckle-duster.

After that dance, there’s another, and then another. I pelt off to the Portaloos; the rain’s heavier than ever. At least it washes the sweat away, and cools my face. My hands sting from clapping, and in the mirror of the loo, my eyes are over-bright, my cheeks pink. I’m escorted back from the loos by an attractive man with a very large broll.

‘I’ve been grasping strangers,’ I say, nonsensically. We agree it’s all great fun.Hornton barn dance 1

I watch the next dance; laughing as two teenage boys mince through a promenade. Stevie is dancing with  some of our friends; they all keep reeling the wrong way. There are several tiny tots dancing on the outskirts of the grownups. A gorgeous short-haired black terrier keeps scoring scraps from the children’s dropped burgers.

‘Raffle!’ someone cries. ‘We must call the raffle.’

I buy my eldest a burger, not realising they are vegetarian. ‘I said pork, Mummy.’

‘You didn’t.’

‘I did! I said pork burger.’

She eats it anyway, because it’s slathered in apple sauce. We queue at the bar for more drinks; I see Jean, a blonde I only ever see when I’m half-cut. I introduce her to Stevie: ‘So you are married,’ she teases.

Our youngest daughters speeds past, and I catch her, tell her to put her hood down.

‘Oh, Mum-‘ she growls.

It’s nearing eleven, the last dance has just been announced. We have to strong-arm the children into the car; they’re chewing bubble-gum, which is strictly verboten in our house, and speaking at the tops of their voices. We get home and wrangle them upstairs. I come in from shutting up the hens to find Stevie and the daughters cross-legged on the bedroom carpet, eating chocolate Digestives and re-enacting every dance.

When we tuck them in, I ask if they’d had a lovely time.

My youngest bunches the duvet beneath her chin.  ‘Yes, Mummy,’ she says.

‘Would you go again?’

My eldest hangs off the top bunk. ‘Yeah. I would, definitely. It was fun. But next time, Mum, I’ll have the pork.’

NB: The book, should any of you bibliophiles be wondering, is ‘The Sea Between Us’, by Emylia Hall.