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 Walking: Sunday 9th June

Sometimes, Horley is so beautiful, so enchanted, that I can’t bear to leave it. I’m walking early, and with a thumping post-karaoke head, because today we’re off to Cambridgeshire.

I like Cambridgeshire, but today I don’t want to go anywhere. I want to be at home.

The dogs seem to know they’re being abandoned for the day, and they misbehave – Arfa Pants snatching Dora’s lead in his teeth, Dora deliberately tripping him up on his silly gangly legs.

I’m supposed to be going quick, because Stevie wants to get off before the traffic, but my progress is slow, because I keep noticing new things – a clump of yolk-yellow cowslips beneath a cherry tree, a Warwick Rose clematis storming darkly up a telegraph pole.

Down by the stream, there’s a honeysuckle in flower. The delicate, delicate scent is just discernible above the stronger smells of lilac and nettle – it makes me think of being a child, and catching a glimpse of a very beautiful woman in a fabulous ball dress.

Arfa doesn’t think much to my mooniness, and starts talking (which sounds sweet, but is really NOT). Once he starts, I can’t make him stop, so I turn back up Wroxton Lane towards home, floating on a honeysuckle high. Thankfully, Arfa pipes down, and instead tries to chase Dora, who’s not on a lead.

I reach the bottom of Little Lane, and I really know I should go straight home. Stevie will have loaded the car, fed the cat, bawled the children out for roller-blading instead of cleaning their teeth.

I turn left, beneath a small horse chestnut with salmon-coloured blossom. I let Arfa pull me up the steep hill, and we stop half way to inspect some creamy-white rock roses, jaunty above drying aubretia. There are more rock roses further on, red this time, and with two fat, furry bees circling thoughtfully.

Outside the Manor is one of my favourite treats – an old copper beech in its absolute prime. From the outside, its leaves are a glossy aubergine, but inside the leaves are the most glorious gold-green, and as you gaze up, you feel that pulse of awe you get from cathedrals.

My phone beeps a text in my back pocket, and I know without looking it will be Stephen. I quicken my step, and jog the rest of the hill to Ross’ paddock, where I let Arfa off. Dora vanishes. The grass in there is higher than my knees, and in the distance, the rape fields are a soft green, just smudged now with yellow here and there. The Scout Woods are on the opposite hillside, and with its band of evergreens looks like an ironic eyebrow, lifted at the antics of Horley villagers.

Arfa gallops off after a Cabbage White, and I can hear a song thrush: hey Arfa, hey Arfa, hey Arfa. I think of Ted Hughes, and his line about birds having a single-mind sized skull. I wonder if it would be liberating or constricting to only ever have one thought at a time. It might be nice, though, to finish one line of thought, without another barging along, and another, another, until you wish you could lay your head inside a foxglove and go to sleep.

Eventually, I gather the dogs and head for home. Arfa strains half-heartedly to chase one of the Cousins’ Buff Orpingtons, the puffed Cheesy-Wotsit of chicken world. But I start to hurry now, suddenly guilty at bunking off for so long. We jog down Hornton Lane, past prim clumps of pink-and-white dianthus. The gutter’s full of creamy blossom blown from St Ethelreda’s horse chestnuts – as if the fairy folk had held an illicit wedding. I nod to the hats of the gnomes beneath the first chestnut. One day I’ll know what the plant is that makes them.

We thunder down our road, my best flat shoes slap, slapping. I can see Jess ahead on roller-blades, Stevie’s stood by our wall, watching the Sunday cricket and chatting to Raymundo, our neighbour. For a tiny, hopeful moment, I imagine he’s going to say we’re staying, and I can potter in the garden and read the Telly. But then he hears me and turns round.

‘Bloody hell,’ he says. ‘Bloody hell have you been? Late! So late!’

And then there was a mad scramble of last-minute loos, locking doors, checking dog water, checking chickarockas, forgetting open windows and car revving.

We finally roll out of Horley, a two-hour drive ahead.

‘Cheer up,’ says Stevie, giving me a mint. ‘Be home soon.’

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.

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.

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.