On Walking – Saturday 11th May

Horribly, horribly busy, but sent dog walking by Stevie because apparently I’m grumpy. I’ve been welded to my lap top for three straight hours, trying to crack a piece, and all I’ve produced is a painfully convoluted paragraph on the town of Abingdon.

‘Just bugger off,’ says Stevie, unplugging me. ‘Sun’s out. Move it.’

I de-crunch my limbs, and we go, me with Dora, Ellie with the puppy. Ellie chatters away, but I don’t listen, still deep in booksellers. I grunt, at intervals, irritated with the world.

At the end of the Jackie Chan, I trip over Arfa Pants, and do a comedy fall to avoid squashing him flat. There’s a clump of Ladies’ smock, pinkish-white petals inches from my nose. Elle looks at me sideways, unsure whether she’s allowed to laugh. She looks away, hand over her mouth, and spots a squirrel.

‘Mummy!’

We watch it shin one of St Ethelreda’s horse chestnut trees, and disappear into the new leaves.

‘Don’t they look like hankies?’ I say.

‘What,’ says Elle. ‘Already covered in snot?’

We walk on, arguing whether to go over Bramshill, or up and around the Allotment field. I win. We walk to the Allotment field.

My grump lasts until half way across the field, when Arfa Pants makes me laugh by going head-over-heels down the steep slope. Ellie’s laughing so hard her legs give way, and we lean together, hooting as Arfa shoots off again.

A huge rain cloud is coming over the hill from Hornton, and Ellie spots it and shouts to run for the bridleway before it gets us. We pelt down the field, and collapse breathless on the tiny bench tucked beneath a tree I don’t know the name of. The rain falls in great splats, and we put our hoods up. Great wafts of scent reaches us, and I realise it’s oil seed rape – the first time this year I’ve smelt it. Beneath its sheet-metal butteriness is a lighter, sweeter scent: bluebells. The rain stops as abruptly as it started, and Elle and I stand up and look behind us. Bluebells cover the whole of the bridleway bank, for as far back up the hill as we can see.

‘Oh,’ I say. ‘Look at that.’Ellie and Arfa Pants in the bluebells, May 2013

‘Good for fairies,’ says Elle. I ask her why, and she gives me one of her rolling-eyes ‘duh’ looks. ‘For their hats, Mummy…?’

Love her.

We walk back towards the Horley-Hornton Road, and see the damage wreaked by recent storms. Halfway up the track is completely blocked by a gnarled elder. It’s torn in half, and took out a huge blackthorn bush on the way. Blackthorn blossom lies thick on the ground, like confetti from a woodland wedding.

Further up, a young sycamore has been wrenched in two, its bright young leaves dying across the path. Even as I’m feeling sorry for it, I’m weighing up the burning potential.

We reach the top of the bridleway and come out onto the road into blazing sunshine. The Hornton cloud can be seen rampaging towards Banbury. Elle and Arfa Pants walk on the wide verge that the gypsies camped on last winter. The grass their ponies cropped is higher now than Elle’s wellies. I smile blindly at a passing car, and can feel Elle looking at me, re-evaluating my mood.

‘Mummy,’ she says. ‘You know tonight?’

We’ve friends over for dinner.

‘Can Jess and I be waitresses?’

I ask her why, although I already know the answer.

‘Well,’ she says. ‘We could watch a bit of telly. And then you don’t need to pay us.’

‘Pay you!’ I shriek.

‘We’ll even pour wine,’ she says, skipping past the Horley sign. ‘If you let us stay up until nine o’clock. And Mummy-‘

‘What?’

‘If me and Jess lay the table, you can finish your bookshop essay.’

‘Not an essay,’ I say, frowning. Elle knows I mean ‘thank you’, and she takes my hand.

On Dog Walking – Saturday 29th April

Sometimes, if a thousand tiny things click into place, a dog walk can become a memory so precious, it epitomises something too huge to put into words. I realise that sounds a bit pretentious, but I can’t think of how else to put it.

Ellie and I went walking on Saturday evening, and we were only going to whiz the block, because Ellie was desperate to watch The Voice. But when we reached the gate to Roger’s Field, Ellie hung off it, frowning.

Dog walking, Apr 13.
Dog walking, Apr 13.

‘Oh,’ she said. ‘I thought there’d be the sunset.’

‘Too early, my love. Get off the gate, let’s go. Dor! Dora-‘

‘Can’t we just go to the Sledging Field?’

She had the same querulous tone she’d had all day, just dying for a fight. So unnerving. Ellie is like a bad-tempered show-pony. Beautiful to look at, but lashes out without warning. She climbed the stile with poker legs, and stalked off up the track. Distracted by pale primroses (lemon laced on the edges with a pastelly pinky-peach), I didn’t follow immediately.

But this is where it happened – a kind of creeping joyousness, stealing over us like magic from a cauldron.

Ellie turned to me as I climbed the stile, her face alight. ‘Mummy!’ she said. ‘Let’s just keep going.’

The light had turned to mellow gold, painting the sledging hill emerald green. We could hear the laughing of the ducks down on the old Carp Ponds, and a blackbird sang in the spinney next to us, almost unbearable in its sweetness. Ellie started running down the hill, Dora at her heels, and I wished I could just hold my hands out and stop that moment, and lock it in my heart forever.

‘Mummy! Look-‘ She’d found a patch of daisies, about as big as a dustbin lid, all tightly closed against the coming of the night. They looked more pink than white against their cushion of grass.

Wriggling through the spinney, we could see into one of Dave’s fields, planted with oil seed rape. I ducked beneath a shattered ash, and looked up just to see a shock of yellow in the green – the first flowering of rape I’ve seen this year. But I couldn’t stand for long, Ellie and Dor were out of the spinney and haring up Ross’ field on the other side.

‘Why are you laughing?’ she said, when I finally caught her up. I bent over, trying to squash stitch back into my body.

‘Because I’m happy,’ I said, between gasps. She ran at me and swung round my neck to give me a kiss. ‘When I’m a farmer,’ she announced. ‘I’m going to have fives ewes and a ram. But they won’t be sexing all the time.’

We crossed Ross’ set-aside and the view on the other side of the hedge caught me, as always. The very tip of North Oxfordshire and the very bottom of Warwickshire, all rolling hills with Hornton tucked in its folds like treasure.  It’s the view to look at when you feel hopeless, or exhausted, or you’ve just bounced your mortgage for the last two months. A view in which to escape, and understand context.

We reached Clump Lane and more loveliness awaited us. Ellie and Jess invented a secret path, years ago, when they could barely toddle, and Ellie went to climb up to it, as always.

‘Mummy!’ she called. ‘You have to come up here. Right now.’

A bluebell had flowered. She knelt on the damp ground, her hands gently holding up so I could see. ‘That’s what you’ve been waiting for, isn’t it?’

I thought I might burst. Or cry, so instead I sang, and we danced up the lane singing the Romeo and Juliet song the children are obsessed with.

When we reached the end of Clump, the golden light had gone and it was dusk. The Voice was probably half way through, but we’d reached that place of high, silly nuttishness that doesn’t care about anything but right here, right now. The daffodils nodded yellow heads to us as we quick-stepped home, and my daughter swung from my hand, yelling, ‘Juliet marry me, then we’ll never be alone-‘

We both waved to every single passing random in their cars, their surprised or grumpy faces making us laugh even harder.