On Digging: Jack-Rat In A Badger Hole

I’m lying in the thick orange mud, the root of an elder root goring my hip bone, a vicious cilice-like bramble around my thigh.  I’m  scraping up clodded earth with my bare hands, gouging with my nails, dragging free lumps of Hornton stone, ash twigs, dried leaves. I’m up to my shoulder in the hole I’ve created, and I can see Dora’s darling foxy face beyond a lattice of roots, inches beyond my reach. She’s choking now, her breath rasping, ending each time on a thinly wheezed whine.

Pants is trying to dig next to me, crying with effort, scraping my arm with his long claws, flicking dirt into my face, down my navy anorak. But the earth’s too wet, I’ve compacted it – I need a spade. Dora’s cries are quieter now, the choking more pronounced. I imagine her harness, the buckle of it twisted and wedged in the clayed darkness, or her thin, nylon collar, hooked on some recalcitrant root.

‘Stay,’ I tell her, uselessly. I wriggle backwards, out of the hedge, fling the ketchup-red lead into a bush to mark the spot. Then I’m  running up the short stretch of Clump Lane towards McNellie’s house. I can see her car, I tear across the lawn and leap down the stone wall, landing in a skitter of gravel. McNells opens the door as I’m almost to it, sane and beautiful, her hand on her baby bump.

‘I saw you running,’ she says. ‘What is it? What’s the matter?’

Ridiculously, I suddenly feel on the edge of tears. ‘Dora’s stuck in a badger hole,’ I say. ‘She can’t get out and oh-‘

I don’t add the last bit – I’m scared a badger might have bitten her – torn into her drumstick with those shark-sharp, yellow teeth.

McNellie, as practical as she is glamorous, tells me she’ll fetch a spade. I hang onto Pants’ collar, biting my lip, torn between embarrassment at making a fuss, and fear for the that silly little dog  that doesn’t belong to me.

Oh God, oh God. Bloody dog in a hole and the school Music Assembly is in less than an hour, and I promised I’d be there for Jess’ clarinet song. I jiggle on the spot, agitation burning my feet. Guilt prickles my neck.

McNellie appears with a wooden-handled spade, and I grab it with thanks, turning to run back up the hill of the drive. I can hear Dora even from here, and I’m sprinting up the Clump, Pants barking beside me.

Dora’s not moved and I start digging, trying not to cry as the heavy earth falls inwards, blocking her from view. I’ve got to loosen it, I’ve got to. I cut and lift, cut and lift, then I lie down again, hauling out the spoil with my hand. Dora is beyong three thick roots, each the width of my wrist. I can touch Dora’s face now, and I can just get my finger tips around her neck. I free her collar  just as McNells comes up the bank.

‘Have you got her?’

‘Nearly,’ I say. But I just can’t reach, and I can’t see how to dig out more earth – the ground is thick with roots, compacted from my body weight.

‘I’ve got to get to school,’ I say, pathetically. I feel tears threaten again. For goodness’ sake. She’s a Terrier. They belong in holes. Dora ups the crying, and I withdraw, pull out my phone, ring Stevie.

‘I’m still in Middleton Cheney,’ he says. ‘Knocking out a fireplace. Can’t you just drag her out?’

‘No,’ I say. ‘I can’t bloody reach.’

As I’m talking, McNells bends down into the hole, and starts pulling free rocks.

‘No!’ I shriek. ‘You’re not supposed to lift stuff!’

She rolls free a stone the size of a cabbage. ‘Stop it!’ I say.

She backs carefully out. ‘Who else can help? We need someone with long arms.’

‘The GFD,’ I say, without thinking. The screen of my smart phone is smeared in orange mud, and I swipe it on my filthy jeans.

The GFD is in bed, after lambing all night, and I wake him up.

‘Um,’ he says. ‘I’ll ask Chris-‘

As I gabble my thanks; McNells is sliding down the bank. Her toddler’s nap time is up. ‘Come and see me,’ she says. ‘When you get her out.’

I carry on digging, scooping. I can see a way of digging beneath the third root – it might just give Dora wriggle-room beneath. I scrape and drag, my shoulder muscles protesting, the cold dampness of the soil against my thighs, my belly. I have mud in my mouth, I can feel the grit as I push my tongue against my teeth. Dig, scrape. Pants is slobbering in my ear, trying to see down the hole. Images of angry cartoon badgers pop in my head, along with images of Elle and Jess scouring the Chapel audience, realising I’m not there, their smiles crumpling. I dig, dig.

My arms are like jelly now, sweat makes my glasses slide down my nose. Beneath my anorak, my newly-ironed going-to-school white shirt is stuck to my back. I hear the roar of an engine, and suddenly Chris is there in his blue 4×4. I sit back as he comes up the bank in his lambing overalls; tall, smiling. A spade in his hand.

‘Oh thank you,’ I say. ‘Thank you so much.’

Pants starts barking as Chris throws the blade of the spade into the ground. He digs twice as deep as I do with a single movement, then reverses the spade to drag the spoil.  Pants barks, Dora cries, and I flutter uselessly with a girly running-commentary. Chris is kind, and doesn’t tell me I should’ve left the daft dog, she’d have got out by herself.

‘Her harness was caught,’ I gabble. ‘I should’ve taken it off, but she never goes in holes, never further from my feet than a few yards.’ As I speak, I realise this is untrue. She does bugger off, always with near-miss consequences.

Chris lays down the spade; the hole is vast now – a badger’s courtyard. He lies down, reaching to Dora, trying to push her head beneath that bottom root.

‘Damn thing,’ he says, meaning the root.

‘She doesn’t bite,’ I say. ‘Well, not usually.’

Chris is patient, coaxing her down, down, then hooking her collar. He drags her out, covered in clodded mud, orange-brown from head to tail.

I cheer, grabbing her, roughing her up as she tries to lick me. I stand up and she goes to dart down another nearby hole. My deepest, crossest shout stops her in her tracks.

‘Thanks Chris,’ I say. ‘Thank you, thank you-‘

Chris calmly fills in the huge hole, waves good bye as he climbs back in his 4×4 with his spade.

I clip both dogs onto their leads. It’s ten past two. Twenty minutes to get to school.

I fly back down to McNells’, delivering back the spade, flinging more thanks before I turn and make a run for it. No time for a shower, just change, wash hands. Bung the dogs in the extension until I can get at them with the hose.

I run home through the village, stitch needling my ribs, shoulder numb from digging. I’m unbeleivably filthy, and it takes me five minutes to scrub clean my hands with a nail brush. I’m out of clean jeans, and am forced to wear a denim skirt of unflattering length.

Then I’m in the car, driving as fast as I dare to Hornton. I can hear the children tuning up as I run down Hornton hill, wishing I’d thought to grab a glass of water. My chest is heaving, and I know I’m red in the face.

I slide in, moments to spare, next to Tightie.

‘Hello,’ she whispers. ‘Don’t they look grown up?’ Then she looks at me. ‘Did you know you’ve got half a bush in your hair?’

I reach up to pull the twigs free, catch the eyes of my daughters; one, two. They barely smile, full of nerves. I raise a hand to wave. My fingers are still faintly orange.

Dora, out of the Badger Hole

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.

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.