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.’

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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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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.

On Walking: Monday 26th May

I am walking through the margins in the fields below the dryer, where the grass reaches my mid-thigh, and soaks my jeans above my wellies. I’m walking very slowly, suddenly noticing that there’s a world around me, and that it’s changed completely from the last time I looked.Dora the Jack Russell Terrier

I have been finishing a book, and for the last two months or so, have thought of little else. The book has been sent away now, to Judith, my agent, and I feel as if I’m returning from someplace I can’t explain.

Stevie is relieved it’s over, and both children seem to have grown an inch or so.

But it’s the land that has really changed; the earth has warmed up, and you can smell summer on the air. Down in Bra Corner there’s a clump of pink campions, flowering as high as my hip, and nettles, growing even higher. The Sor Brook is low and slow; its depths bronzed in the sunlight. The sheep on the other bank blare at the dogs, and their half-grown lambs stamp impudent feet.

I drift onwards, catching my fingers through the lacy heads of cow parsley. Hogweed grows along this part of the margin, and a single stem has shot past its mates as if to compete with the rape. The flowers are a deeper cream than the froth of cow parsley, and its stems far more sturdy.early hogweed and oil seed rape

Knowing I shouldn’t, but unable to resist, I float up the field to Ellie’s fallen oak. I have to flatten nettles and a few very green thistles  in order to jump up. I’m awkward and land heavily; two months of intense writing have given me a fat bottom. I vow to jog.

Its hot up here; I take off my jumper to sit in my vest. Dora sits by my side; Pants is nowhere to be seen. Twelve inches from my right is a dead fieldmouse, recently decapitated. It’s tucked into a kink in the rough bark of the oak, ignored even by flies.

Last year’s stickybuds still scrawl a net over this year’s hawthorn, and I examine the leaves beside my face. The new stems of the hawthorn are dark pink, the tips of the new leaves are a darker scarlet, like the innards of the poor mouse. A tiny caterpillar clings to one leaf; it is black and white with a scarlet spine (I later find it will be a hawkmoth). We’ve seen so many caterpillars this week; the children and I use dock leaves to scoop them off the tarmac of the lane. I don’t let the children keep them in jars, after childhood horrors of cooking a dozen ladybirds to death in the sun.

I finished writing the book on Friday, almost three days ago. I know I won’t hear any feedback until the third week of June, and that I must absolutely not start messing about with it before then.  But I can’t help that terrible feeling of vertigo that I seem to get after finishing every book; that I must start the next, or I might forget how to do it.

I gaze across the valley to the Scout Woods. I can see the tips of the larches against the sky; dark green and pointed; a mountain range that surely must be much further away. The chimneys of the village are to my right. I can hear children playing, and the engine of a tiny red tractor in the opposite valley. This is the start of the half-term week, and I’ve promised the daughters park-trips and swimming; friends to play, picnics and French cricket.

Pants emerges to lay his head on my lap. His brown, speckled coat is greenish yellow, he has pollen furring his eyelashes and a blade of meadow foxtail caught in his collar. Dora tries to push her head beneath my arm, jealous of the fuss.

I’ve sat here for so long that my bum must be ridged red and white by the bark. I jump down, landing squarely on both feet. ‘Home,’ I tell the dogs. ‘Home.’

It’s early afternoon, the children are still away at a friend’s house. I’ve tried not to – I’ve really tried not to – but in my head I’m already typing: Chapter 1.

On Walking: Monday 6th April

It’s the Easter Bank Holiday, and I’m walking before the family arrive, before the house is filled with mad, chocolate-stuffed children, claw-clattering dogs; veg peeling, gravy-making, beef-carving (Are We Sure It’s Done?) and the best of the family gossip. It’s barely eight o’clock, and I slide away from the breakfast dishes muttering about willow branches, their immediate collection deadly necessary for the Easter flower arrangement. It’s still misty down here by the Sor Brook; I’m hidden, hiding.

I hear the rusting-hinge shriek of a pheasant, see Pants shoot off to my right, like a speckled rocket. I follow the deer tracks along the margin, Dora stepping carefully in my wake. Some of the cloven hooves are less than an inch long, and I think of dancing fauns and Rites of Spring.

In Emma’s Meadow, the mist thickens, and I turn left, into the wall of it. The end of the meadow is where the old mill once stood, although all that can be seen of it now are bergs of broken concrete, a few worn red bricks beneath the glide of the Sor.

I go because it’s supposed to be haunted, and I want to dare myself.

I cross the troll bridge, my rubbery feet almost silent. On the other side, skeins of dirty grey wool hang on the gnarled hawthorn, dulling the fluorescence of the lichen. The children’s paddling pool is drained and nothing moves but the dogs, who have drawn close to me. Beyond the bridge, I turn to look back at the village, but it’s gone, lost in the mist.

A bird scarer explodes in the next field, echoing oddly, bouncing weirdly through the valley. My heart jumps and I run, laughing at my own silliness, but running all the same.

I stop when I reach the lane, and then walk sedately on, suddenly too hot in my navy fleece, my pink woollen gloves. The sun is breaking through. I reach the lay-by the children and I are alternatively fascinated and repelled by. It marks where the old railway once ran, and reeks of wee and nefarious night-doings.

We once found an entire sheaf of empty Durex wrappers. ‘Don’t touch!’ I shrieked. ‘They’re, um…grown up sweet wrappers.’ I regretted the fib the moment it left my mouth. But there were at least five torn wrappers, how would that sit in an impromptu birds and bees talk? And five? Was the unwrapperer particularly inept, or spectacularly stud-like? Or went for all five at once?

Every time I walk here, I wonder.

I reach the splendid goat willow, and pinch three sprays of fat, yellow-speckled catkins for my daffodil jug. Elder wands are sprouting new leaves like miniature palms. I notice the hazel; new leaves the size of my thumb nail, dropping down just so, like a fop’s handkerchief. The stingers and sticky buds are ankle height, no match for my wellies.

I climb the bank to the stile and pause, looking out over the valley towards Horley. The mist has almost burnt away now, the village has reappeared in the early sun. I shimmy through the uprights of the stile, holding the goat willow, swinging the dog leads high so they won’t catch.

Beyond the brow of the hill is our house, smelling of roast beef and rosemary. There’s still a pudding to make, the loo to clean, the napkins to iron, the washing to peg out, the kitchen to mop. I look at my willow, and smile. Willow catkins, hazel wands and daffodils to arrange.

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On Walking: Sunday 22nd March

I’m sitting on the fallen oak, the sun on my face. I’m protected here from the wind, a bare-twigged hedge of elder and hawthorn rears high behind me.

From here I can see the line of the Sor Brook, with its alders. One of my favourite oaks is in the middle of the line. I can’t see them from here, but I know that below the oak are the long blue spears of nascent daffodil bulbs, in amongst the Herb Robert. There are no flowers yet, but they will come.

My legs are hot and I’m sleepy from getting up early to write. It has been an endlessly grey week, filled with self-doubt and cold bones, deleted paragraphs and stunted scenes. But now the blackness has dissipated, dissolved, despite my Prosecco head.

My finger nails are dirty from digging. Earlier, I moved my fruit bushes, tackled my middle veg bed. I worked steadily, methodically, turning the earth, twitching free the weeds.

Now, on my oak, I blink slowly. There are midges in a cloud to my left, each a tiny conductor for a silent bug symphony. I can hear the faint cry of sheep, the frantic snuffle-pause-pounce of Pants voling. Dora is by the side of me, leaning against my thigh. Her ears twitch, ready to dive in and snatch Pants’ prize.

There are a pair of bonking woodpigeons, flapping frantically in the next oak down. A kite browses the land further down the valley, but the pigeons are oblivious to everything but the demands of hot blood, Spring sun. I look down the hill, along the line of the margin on which I’m sat. Above the bleached debris of last summer is the faintest shimmer of heat haze.

Recently, I had a conversation with a friend about mindful happiness, and how difficult she believed it was to achieve. She tells me that I must fight to define the moment; cup it, keep it, as if it’s something wild, unpredictable and must, above all else, be controlled.

I think she’s wrong. I lean back on the oak in Dave’s field-below-the dryer, tip up my chin, close my eyes. My t-shirt has risen up, and I feel the cool air on my skin. I imagine my pale sickle of winter-weight belly, secretly snaffling sun-light. I breathe in, breathe out.

Here is happiness. Right here. Right now.

March 22