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 Village Life: The Burns Supper

It’s Saturday night, and the village Burns night, and I’m in the Red Lion, where I’ve popped in for one, but appear to have stayed. I’m with lovely new friends and my neighbour, R, and we’re at the table by the fire, glugging white wine and saying we really must go up the hill.

robbie burns

‘I’ve had no lunch,’ I say, draining my second glass. The new friends laugh when I say I can’t hold my drink. ‘Really,’ I say. ‘I’m a liability. And we really are going to be dreadfully late.’

J drains his pint and we’re off, roaring up the hill in the type of car that comes with a free Labrador. We park outside St Ethelreda’s, and for a moment J looks appalled. ‘Christ,’ he says. ‘Don’t tell me we’re eating in the church?’

We laugh, pulling him onwards, and I fall over the gate to the Old School. Oh, I think vaguely. Oh dear. Light from the long windows spills across the play ground, and we can hear the swell of polite conversation.

My party come to a stop at the door. C looks worried. ‘They won’t have sat down, will they?’

‘It’s barely eight-‘ It’s nearer half-past.

I take a deep breath and bowl in first, coming to a horrified stop in the entrance to the school proper. The tables have been arranged in a big horse-shoe, facing the door. Heads swivel towards us, and a fleeting hush pins us to the spot. Oh no. They’re all halfway through mains, in fact, most plates are empty, haggis devoured.

I can feel R, C and J hesitate behind me, and for a millisecond we all nearly step back, run away.

‘Where’ve you been!’ On the nearest table are two cricketing amigos, and I grin.

‘Sorry!’ I say, ‘got caught up…’

‘You’ll have to sit separately,’ says a voice behind me. ‘We’ve started.’

‘Sorry,’ I say. ‘Awfully sorry’. I whip off my coat and leap for a spare seat. Oh horrors. Between a pretty blonde who’s not drinking, and a terribly nice man who plays the church organ. I can’t disguise the fact that my cheeks are flushed, my eyes gleaming and I’m quite clearly deliciously, gloriously, pie-eyed.

‘Pleased to meet you,’ says the blonde, shaking my hand. One of the chaps opposite gives me a wink, and I realise the top button of my frock has come undone, offering inappropriate plunging views.

I hastily refasten and look around desperately for food. Something stodgy and easy to eat, immediately. I recognise the emergence of Bad Wifey; the version of me that laughs at all of her own jokes, and could flirt with a brick.

An old pub friend pushes forward a dram of whisky in a shot glass. ‘Good girl,’ she says, as I throw it back. I turn to the terribly nice man on my right, and say, ‘Marvellous evening, great to join you. So, do tell me: how’s your organ?’

‘The one in the church is great; the one waiting in here could use a bit of work.’

I scream with laughter, and call him very naughty. He looks mystified.

One of the young village girls gives me a plate, and I go up to the counter to collect my haggis. Thankfully, it’s all gone, so I’m given a Matterhorn of potato. I insist on kissing all of the serving wenches, as they’re all my old bus-stop buddies. One of them tells me to eat my mash, quick. ‘No, Carles, really. Eat something.’

Through puds I talk to the pretty blonde, and pretend to be au fait with discussing extensive acreage. I find myself saying, ‘Yarse. Of course, it would be super for a pony.’ My damn button keeps popping, and now more chaps are winking. A distinguished-looking man in a kilt keeps leaping to his feet, and demanding toasts, rolling his ‘r’s like a pirate. I’m alternating whisky with pints of water.

‘To absent friends,’ he cries, and we all jump up and thrust our arms in the air. R, C and J are sitting just off the top table, and collecting empty wine bottles in front of them.

‘Music!’ cries  Kilty. I go behind the counter at the back of the room, filling my pint of water from the tap.

‘What’s happening?’ One of my favourite Horley husbands is next to me, and I shamelessly wriggle beneath his arm. ‘What are they all doing?’

‘Singing,’ he tells me. ‘David’s playing the organ.’

I feel myself blanche. ‘Oh God,’ I say. ‘In real life? An actual piano-organ type job?’

His reply is lost in a rousing shout of Loving A Lassie. The organ had been waiting, apparently, around the corner. A bus stop amigo rolls up to help with the washing up, and the three of us sway mightily to My Bonnie Lies Over The Ocean. I throw back another dram as the only thing to do. One of the yummiest of the Horley mummies bends down and scribbles out the ‘i’ on a box labelled ‘paints’. We all laugh immoderately, and the crowd bellows Donald, Where’s Your Troo-sers?

Quite suddenly, it seems, the singing is over and people are standing up. Dancing! I think, but no, coats are being pulled on, chairs stacked.

‘I must help,’ I say, flapping ineffectually with a tea-towel. It’s taken from my hands. ‘What can I do?’

One of the MHT Trustees pats my arm. ‘Help get people out to the pub,’ she says. ‘Would be best.’

So I go and collect the gang. J insists I help him finish the last of the white wine. I boggle at the task: I’ve really, really drunk enough.

I feel horribly guilty not joining in the clearing-up, but recognise my important room-emptying job. ‘To the pub!’ I cry.

We pull on our coats, spill from the school. I fall over the gate for a second time.

‘Mind the fox poo,’ says R.

We clatter down the hill, the night air sharp, pinching our faces. Above our heads the sky is clear; the stars caught in the nets of the mighty beech tree. Wasn’t it lovely, we agree, and how awful to be so late. And the singing! Fancy having the singing.

‘Shame there was no dancing,’ we say. ‘Proper dancing.’

‘Reeling!’

We stumble onto Little Lane, sliding on the gravel. It’s freezing; our breath billows around our heads.

‘Onwards,’ I cry, ridiculous. ‘And downwards, down to the pub-‘

 

On Walking: Thursday 8th Jan

I don’t want to walk today. It’s cold; windy and raining, and I want to stay at home, use my sour mood to skip out the gritty-bottomed saucepan cupboard. But Pants keeps laying his silly face along my back as I scrub, and every time I straighten, Dora runs to the leads, claws skittering on the floor. I clatter pans and slosh bleach to express my irritation, but they win, like they always do.

The rain drizzles away and we go down the Banbury Road to the Spring Field, because we haven’t been there yet this year, and because there’s a scrap of blue sky in that direction. There are a double set of gates into the first field, and usually I like the satisfaction of foiling their idiosyncrasies to open them. Not today: today I haul myself straight over the top of both, perch like a grumpy crow, before splotting down to the mud below. Once, twice. I land square each time, heavy-thighed, heavy bellied: too many Christmas chocolates.

I quick-march around the first field, head down, eyes fixed on the soggy remains of greyed wheat stubble. I can hear my breathing and feel the sweat in the small of my back, and I walk faster, faster. By the time I complete the second circle, the sky and I have changed mood. I stand in the middle of the gateway to Spring Field, feel the sun on my face and hear the birdsong in the blackthorn hedges at either side of me. I try to see which birds they might be, but they’re too quick, flitting up the hedge in front of me. I follow the margin up the hill, imagining the fat from those chocolates melting off.

Halfway up, I pause, and ahead, Pants wheels left to avoid the giant muck heap, sending a power of woodpigeons up into the sky. I’ve never seen so many together and I stop in astonishment. I can hear the flap from tens of wings – maybe hundreds – and they whirl up into the sky like leaves caught in a curling wind. They move in a solid vortex towards the covert that runs the full flank of the field, and I catch a glimpse of something terrible. As they fly, the birds cast huge shadows in the low, winter sun, and for the most fleeting of moments, a basic flight-fear jolts my muscles. I instantly rationalise the shadows – I know they’re only woodpigeons, and birds have never scared me – but such an ancient reflex fascinates me.

Dora and I walk on, beside the top hedge. An elder lies shattered across the margin, the lichen on its bark has been nibbled by roe deer. The blackthorn protects the tuiles of Lords and Ladies, poking up from the winter leaves like glossy green cigars.

Pants is out of sight, but I can track him by the frantic pheasants that occasionally hurl themselves from the undergrowth.  In the top corner of the field, I stop to look at Horley on its opposite hill. In the horse’s field next to the Cricket, the sun gilds the top of the ridges, making the shadows seem deeper. I can see our house, with its one super-clean cupboard. From this side of the valley, the other cupboards don’t seem to matter.

I shuffle my feet to warm them, and notice charcoal, piled on the mud in a neat heap. There’s about enough to fill a dinner plate, and I wonder how it got there, and by whom. The only human footprints up here are usually only mine. I stretch, walk on.

At the bottom of the field, by the Sor Brook,  clouds of midges jig in sunshine. I stand and watch them for a moment; at a breath of wind, the midges squeeze together, like fish with a shark.

I walk on, thinking about genetically-influenced fears and phobias, mysterious piles of charcoal and the men that once worked those ridge and furrow. I take off my hat, tip back my head, grateful to the sun, the fields. Conscious of my luck.

 

Horley from Spring Field

On Walking: Thursday 31st August

It’s too hot to walk anywhere; treacle-thick, breathless, thunder-bug heat. The sort that means storms, and that make me itch with impatience.

The dogs have been driving me crackers, but not as much as the children. I’m forced from the house with a lead in each hand, told to come back when I can be nice.

I don’t feel nice. I feel hot and cross and frustrated with the world that demands such silly hoop-jumping. We drift down towards the bottom fields, heading for Emma’s meadow. I mutter and gurn, grimacing smiles at a car that gives me a wide berth.

We reach the bridge and I let the dogs go – they shoot off as if glad to leave me behind. The leaves of the oak are motionless above my head, caught in a bottle-green glass. A couple of etiolated nettles lean towards me, as if to whisper a sting to my ear. I dodge through, run onto the path. The mud beneath my feet has dried into jigsaw cracks; wide enough for a mouse, deep enough for half a flip-flop.

I walk. The corn is still, greyish-yellow; jaundiced beneath a dirty white sky. I force myself faster, dodging fossilised fox crap, not pausing to examine the owl pellets. I know what’s in them.

Corn near Emma's meadow

I reach Emma’s meadow and clatter over the bridge, forgetting to check the position of the cattle. I’m twenty yards from the stile when I remember, but they’re up by the Horley end of the field. There’s a child crying in the caravan field; the fractious wah-wah of an exhausted toddler. The diggers are still roaring around at the sewage works, and I can hear a chainsaw from the village.   I slap at a horse fly on my upper thigh; it leaves a smear of blood, and I shudder.

I retrace my steps back to the bridge, and perch on the stile like a grumpy crow. The dogs run to my feet and I tell them to go off, go and play. Just go. The grasses in the meadow are hazed red and yellow now. Dock towers are oxidised the febrile red of iron. They look like sculptures amongst the cattle-flat glass, or the remnants of some once-great civilisation.

Beneath me, the Sor is choked with seeded meadowsweet and grasses, some one-and-a-half-times my height. Hog weed rears everywhere, beige brown. The air is heavy around my shoulders, pressing my fringe to my forehead. If there would be just a breath of wind. The lightest breath. Everything could change.

The child wails on, as does the chain saw.

Pants rolls in cowpat. ‘No!’ I cry, but it’s too late. He’s rolling and rolling, ecstatic, his mouth wide open in glee.

‘You bastard dog,’ I shout, as if into a pillow. He leaps up, capering, showing his haunches streaked green in the freshest splat imaginable. ‘No,’ I cry again. ‘You, you!’

I stagger from the stile, waving my fists as if I’d beat him, but when he lollops up so pleased with himself the fight goes from me. I scratch his silly head, between the streaks. ‘You’re an idiot,’ I tell him. ‘An idiot dog. You’re hard to love.’

We cross the bridge, heading for home. Dora is walking smugly through the corn, drawing attention to her non-rolling status. Pants canters off, oblivious.

I pause to take off my sunglasses, push back my sweaty hair. I can hear a rattle, the faintest, driest rattle. The corn. Moving in the wind.

 

 

On Walking: Sunday 6th July

It is late Sunday afternoon, and I’m sitting on the stile above Bramshill ponds. I’ve come here to think; my thoughts have been boiled and mashed and  I am reeling from too many people, parties, Darling-could-we’s, Mum-can-I’s, Carlie-have-you’s. Yes we could, you can, I have. But now enough.

The meadow below reminds me of fields I knew as a child. The grass is hazed reddish-purple with fronds and sprays of seed; there are random islands of stingers and docks, the jaunty bobbles of ribwort plantain.   The spinney begins on my right, and cuts down into the valley, across the medieval ponds, before running onwards, meeting the corner of the Scout Woods. It’s an ancient boundary, a right-of-way for foxes, rabbits, deer; there long before the lanes were put beneath tarmac, or the railway put down and peeled up.

From the stile, with Horley behind me, I can’t see a single house. I can hear the irregular piping of some unseen bird, the testy-hornet buzz of off-road bikes from over near Hornton. The breeze is warm, and smells of deep green hawthorn, summer grass, horses. Every knot in my shoulders is starting to loosen, every rattling thought beginning to still.

On the opposite hill, the wheat is green-gold, ruffled to caplets by the wind. The sun is hot on my bare thighs and the wind lifts my ponytail, cooling my neck. I tip back my head, view such richness through half-closed eyes. To my right is a regal spear thistle, with two tufty, purple flowers. As a child, I once spent an entire afternoon chopping up thistle-heads with an old nail, convinced there must be a nut in the bulge beneath the flower. Despite knowing now that there’s not, I still look at them and wonder if perhaps I had the right sort of thistle, or if the thistles I tried were too young.

Two Red Admirals are in a lovers’ dog-fight, and flash in front of my nose. Pants and Dora shoot from the blackberry briar and up the hill towards me. They practically roll their eyes when they see I’m still perched on the stile.

‘Go away,’ I tell them.

The hawthorn berries are starting to turn red on their blunted tips; the fox gloves are sending out their secondary arms from their bases, their main one exhausted.

I push myself off the stile, walk down the hill amongst the red and white clover, the grass feather-stroking my calves and making me itch. I shout the dogs, climb into the spinney.

My shoulders are free; the fearful rattle-rattle-crash in my brain is more distant, as if the noisy, raucous thoughts had all been bundled up, carted off, leaving just echoes to be ignored.

I use a wand of ash leaves to hold aside lofty chin-high nettles, wriggle my way through the cool green gloom. Even the echoes are fading now. I walk, just walk, through the trees.

Dora sunbathing on Bramshill
Dora sunbathing on Bramshill

Thank you to all those lovely people who’ve emailed, Tweeted and accosted me over the garden wall, wanting to know why I hadn’t published a blog lately, and was I all right? Yes, is the answer, completely fine. I had to finish a book in a very short deadline, and have been working tremendously hard. The book’s in now though, and the summer hols are nearly here, so there’ll be lots of walking, and lots of blogs.

Thank you especially to Paul Rodgers, who writes beautifully (and hilariously) himself. 

 

 

On Birthdays In The Pub – Good Times

We’re all going to the pub, our pub, to celebrate a fiftieth birthday. It’s the first fiftieth I’ve ever been to where the birthday boy is an adored chum, rather than some wild-haired uncle in mustard corduroys. It’s also the first night of the Red Lion Beer Festival, which is always raucous, and always involves a lethal light cider called Black Rat.

We can hear the noise from the top of our road, and Horley’s high street is nose-to-tail with cars.  Stevie and I are with the Sausages, and McNellie and I pause outside to admire Tash’s tulips, whilst the boys forge us a path in. The pub is heaving, with no free tables; the bar is two-deep in jolly flushed-looking rugby types buying enormous rounds.

I see Doctor Nicely-Tightly, who kisses me and renders me tongue-tied before I’ve had my first drink. He’s disappeared before I can think of anything sensible to say.

I’ve forgotten my lenses, and have no idea who anyone is unless they’re very close. McNells and I are given drinks and we’re caught in the general stream of people heading towards the back door. We strike an eddy by the defunct cigarette machine, and somehow end up in the low-lit corridor outside the ladies’ loos.

‘I must just kiss the Birthday Boy,’ I say. ‘Send me his way.’

At the last minute, I trip over my own feet, and fall head-long into the Birthday Boy’s arms, my lips brushing just below his ear. ‘I’m so sorry-‘

‘I enjoyed it-‘

‘Happy Birthday, lovely man.’ He is by far the most attractive fifty-year-old I’ve known. His wife, my mate Curdie, is laughing at something Stevie’s just said to her.

Yet more people are still squeezing in, and a bevvy of gorgeous blondes with perfect skin descend on Birthday Boy. I wriggle away, back to the lavatory corridor and my gin. McNellie and Mother Hen are deep in pregnancy stories.

‘Oh God,’ I say.

The Cheese Lady from Carpenter’s is suddenly next to us, with a yellow Lab. ‘Don’t worry,’ she says. ‘Only a puppy.’ Then she looks up, recognising us each in turn. ‘Oh! It’s all of you!’

‘Hi,’ we chorus, and grin.

She  gives us the puppy to hold whilst she goes to the loo. ‘Is it always this mad in here?’

Another local doctor (there are so many) squeezes between us. ‘Not always,’ he says. He has the naughtiest, darkest, come-to-bed eyes. ‘Sometimes it’s much worse.’   We laugh easily, and the Cheese Lady rolls her eyes.

‘We should nick the back table,’ I say, pointing. From where we’re standing, it looks empty, but as we push our way through we realise there’s two men sharing it. I recognise one of them as the man married to the beautiful French girl from Bramshill. The other is a stranger; a tall man with the lazy feral look of a big cat that’s just had its tea. I half expect to see an impala hoof  beside his beer.

When we see them, we say sorry and go to back away, but they wave to us to sit down. The man married to the French girl is very charming, and reminds us of the Crystal Maze.

The night rolls on; the music louder, the gossip more outrageous. More and more locals flood in; Black Rat renders the mouths of young men rubbery and their words oddly chewed.

‘Ow’rya Pants?’ I’m asked, and it takes me a moment to realise he means the dog. Lord Yarp is down the front of the pub, being very well behaved, with Doctor Nicely-Tightly, who is not. The middle of the pub is thick with the people in their early-twenties with early-fifties hair styles.

Do they use much hair oil, we wonder. And do their mothers use antimacassars?

More gins arrive, with some revolting crisps. The French girl’s husband has gone, and the darling Sausages. A loud crowd have taken their seats, packing us all thigh-to-thigh along the benches. I fall into a fascinating conversation about Heller’s Catch 22, which I know I’ve read but can’t remember. I’m quickly convinced to read it again, nose-to-nose with the Massey Man. ‘Everything Heller says comes true.’

Massey Man farms, as well as selling tractors, and we’re soon arguing about the Spring Field (which is his), and why he turned it all brown. ‘Clover,’ I say. ‘Plant clover.’ He tries to distract me with talk of cowslips.

‘I must go home,’ says Mrs Damage, visiting our table. ‘Need a cup of tea.’

‘Have another drink!’ we cry, so she does. We all talk about The Three Peaks Challenge, and how brilliant it would be. Birthday Boy is squished in next to me. ‘Yes,’ he says. ‘I could do that.’ We howl and throw insults about his knees.

Soon, there’s talk of Jagar Bombs and Sambuccas, which I loathe. ‘Yes, yes,’ cries Massey Man. ‘And you set in on fire and drink it and then you stick it to your naked chest!’

I mutter about Big Steve babysitting alone, and that I really must go. It takes forever to say goodbye, and a tremendously strong will.

I look for Stevie, to extract babysitting money from his wallet. He’s up near the bar with Curdie and the Legs of Horley, his Man Friends gathered around him. He’s in typical Stevie pub-pose, beer glass hugged to his chest, rocking on his heels. He’s very flushed, and doesn’t want to notice me in case I tell him to go home.

‘Come home with me!’ roars a neighbour, squeezing me in a hug. ‘Steve – give me ten minutes head start-‘

I wriggle free amongst the laughter and there’s a wicked whisper in my ear, ‘Take that vision to bed with you, Carles. Savour it, go on-‘

I catch his eyes, shuffling visions, aping horror.

‘Bye darling,’ I say to Stevie. ‘Enough of the Rat.’

I so, so want to stay. My husband grins as I back out, waving, calling good night, dashing back to kiss another cheek I’d missed.

I’m finally out, the heels of my boots loud on the road as I cross. I reach the pavement and then turn back, looking through the yellow-lit windows. Landlord Dave has Jager Bombs lining up on the bar; Mrs Damage still hasn’t gone home for her cup of tea.

I turn to walk home, savouring the cold air, babysitting money in my fist.

Black Rat Cider

 

 

 

On Walking: Tuesday 11th February

Horley, taken from Spring Field
Horley, taken from Spring Field

This morning there was rain and sleet, and this afternoon, there is bright sunshine and blue skies. I’m slogging my way up Spring Field, and I’m wearing far too many layers. Spring Field is on the opposite valley to Horley, and has been left as stubble over the winter, which means it’s now covered in early flowers. Everywhere I look, there’s something unfurling into tentative colour: scraps of blue speedwell (Veronica), tiny finger-gloves of pink Hemp nettle. There are also clumps of what I think might be heartsease, like a wild viola, although its gorgeous brave yellow and purple faces are yet to appear.

Pants shares my love for this field, and loons around in huge circles, silly ears flapping. Dora is not so keen. Tiny streams are pouring through the heavy orange soil, and she stops every few seconds to shake out her feet. By the time I reach the muck-heap in the top corner, Dora is nowhere to be seen. I stop trying to photograph a plant with tiny white flowers (what are you, dammit?) and stand and shout. Pants leaps around, as if to say, ‘I’m here! Pick me!’ but there’s no sign of Dora.

‘Rat!’ I shout, against the wind. ‘Bloody dog!’ I whistle too, but still nothing. And then I lose my breath, and fear closes my throat. I can see her, in her yellow fluorescent coat, trotting steadily through the mud of the neighbouring field, back the way we came, heading straight for the Banbury Road.

I’m far too far away to run to get her – I can’t run anyway, the mud sucks at my boots like some living thing, desperate to consume me. I shout again, uselessly, starting to slip and slide down the hill. I fumble my mobile from my pocket, ring Stevie.

‘Get in the car,’ I say. ‘Dora’s on the road-‘

Pants is barking, thinking this is all some brilliant new game. She must’ve reached the double gates by now, just before the Sor Brook bridge.  There’s a green truck with a horsebox rattling down the hill from Horley. I freeze, terrified I won’t see it come out the other side of the bridge. But I do,  it accelerates up towards the Warwick road. I start to run, clumsily, my boots sliding out from under me.

‘Dora! Dor!’ I think about the time she ran out in front of Dr Nicely-Tightly, or when she ran up the Wroxton Road, a queue of five cars behind her. Thank God for the fluorescent jacket – worth all the piss-taking as long as it keep the silly animal alive.

I skid down to the gate, and see her, just as she slips under the first of the double gates. She’s at least two hundred yards away.

‘Stop!’ I bellow, raw-voiced. ‘Just bloody stop!’ She does, just as a skip lorry thunders past.

I call again, forcing my tone to jolly-fun ‘come-on-then-darling-isn’t-this-a-lark!’ and thank God she responds. She starts coming towards me, just as my phone rings.

‘I can see you both,’ says Stevie.

‘Sorry,’ I tell him. ‘Sorry darling. I thought it was curtains-‘

And I can’t shout at her now, because she came to me, and she’s wagging her stump of a tail as if expecting a pat. I clip on her lead and ruffle her head, before turning her round and marching back into the Spring Field. I’ve bulbs to inspect, and views to record.

We march through the mud, lickety-split. Passive-aggressive dog-walking with a rictus grin. But then a clump of dark-edged green leaves catch my attention, with one single tiny purple and yellow flower. Heartsease, flowering after all.

Hemp nettle in the Spring Field
Hemp nettle in the Spring Field

Speedwell, with the smallest scraps of blue flowers

On Walking: On Hunting

We’re heading up over to the Orchard Field, and Pants and Dora are swinging and straining on their leads.  They’ve caught the scent of the hounds who lolloped through the village yesterday, leaving their big paw prints over the wide grass verges. Dora’s father was a Hunt Terrier, and I wonder if the scents provoke any ancient instincts. I hold her lead tightly, in case she shoots off down a drain.

The rain is falling in an unfriendly curtain, and I can barely see out from my hood. I fit my boots in semi-circular divots left by the horses, and wonder what glory was to be had, riding to hounds on a grim, grey Wednesday in North Oxfordshire.

The topic of hunting makes my heart race. It makes people so incredibly angry – far more than illegal deer hunting, or mole-trapping (which makes me FURIOUS), or dog-fighting.

I’m ambivalent about foxes. I’m not very good at killing things. But I’ve been around chickens most of my life, and as a child, I remember my mum picking up the poor, headless bodies of the pullets in the side paddock, putting them in a black plastic sack. She had tears coursing down her face, and was shaking with rage. I had that same rage, twenty years later, when I caught a fox half-in, half out of my chicken pen, one summer’s dawn. My birds woke me with a tremendous noise and I shot outside in my knickers, then chased the fox (a whopping dog) out of our garden and across the cricket pitch. I was so angry I didn’t feel any pain in my bare feet, nor care that any early walkers would have seen me; breasts bouncing, buttocks wobbling – streaking and shrieking, ludicrously waving a gardening trowel. If I’d have caught that fox, I’d have squashed it flat, shoved it in the van and driven into Banbury for it to live outside Iceland and be urban.

But to be honest, I’m not at all sure that general anti-fox hunting feeling has anything to do with foxes. I was at the school-bus stop yesterday, when the Warwickshire came up the Wroxton Road. Every single one of the women I stood with made hissing noises and took a step back into Bob and Brenda’s driveway. The Huntsman waved and called hello, and the hounds were merry and controlled, but still the others didn’t call hello, just shrunk back further. I stood alone, with my phone camera, grinning, loving the ancient treat of seeing horses and hounds trot briskly past in the rain.

When they’d gone (the last rider was a lady, who looked as if she were wearing an old Scout tent) I asked the others why they didn’t like them. There were mutterings about hounds meeting the school bus on the bends, and horses shouldn’t be on roads at school-bus times, and that they think they can ride where they like, and they don’t shut gates. No one mentioned foxes.

‘Bunch of knobs,’ came the last comment, and we hastily turned the conversation back to types of dining chair. But how interesting.

And then there’s my own thoughts on hunting. I went out as a child in the late eighties with Pony Club chums, and frightened myself silly, but I still love the whole glamour and bravery of the thing. I have all sorts of unsuitable crushes on men in tweed jackets with shiny-topped boots, and my heart races ridiculously when I hear the horn, or the shoes of trotting horses clipping past. I’d love nothing more than to be at the back, giving the fences and ditches a go, spitting mud out of my mouth, swigging a hip flask behind a blackthorn copse. I don’t want to kill a fox, though. Or see a fox being killed. In fact, I’d like to take foxes out of the equation altogether.

We reach the Orchard Field and I let the dogs go as I stand beneath the little oak. Mid-wee, Pants suddenly does his funny half-collapse before going on point, and I start running to catch him before he mullers the cat from Meadowsweet Farmshop, next door. But I’m far too slow. He’s off like a rocket, bendy rubber-toy body flying over the yellowed goose-grass. Dora goes after him, a second bullet, complete with yapping. They’re heading towards the spinney, away from the farmshop – it’s too far – the cat won’t stand a chance. I dash the rain from my eyes, reach the top of the hill.

I see their quarry; it’s getting away and I stop shouting and laugh, my breath coming in heaves. Not a poor little cat. A bloody great fox.  Go Pants, go. Point it towards Banbury.

On Walking: Tuesday 28th January


We’re walking down the Hornton Road back from the Orchard Field and the rain is drumming so hard on my hood that I can’t hear my boots on the tarmac. We’ve been looking at snowdrops, and now we’re all three soaked through. Two thick streams of strong brown-tea are pouring either side of us, and Dora is insisting on walking up the middle of the lane. I raise my hand in apology to a silver people-carrier with its wipers on full-whack. Poor Pants puts his tail between his legs – he doesn’t understand such rage-full rain, and keeps whipping round as if to catch it hitting his back.

As we come down the hill back into Horley, we can hear the drains making a frantic, gulping sound, like a child racing to drink too-thick milkshake. The Shoot are out over Bramshill; the shots muffled by the curtains of rain. A big red tractor trundles into view, towing the empty brake, and we watch it turn up to Clump Lane, rattling its way through through orange puddles. I bet some of the guns would rather be in the nice cosy tractor, listening to Radio Two. A bit of Steve Wright’s jolly silliness, in the dry.

As we near St Ethelreda’s we pause to watch the men lopping giant branches off the Horse Chestnuts along the First of the two of St Ethelreda's Horse Chestnuts to get a much-needed loppingHornton Road. They’re such beautiful trees in leaf, but this time of year they stand as gawkily awkward as an ash, their elbows crooked and arthritic. There are three men on the job – one in the tree and the other two managing the traffic and collecting the twigs and logs. Beneath the roar of the chainsaw, we can hear the rattle of the sticks, like old bones. They feed the twiggy stuff into their shredder, and Pants growls, his head to one side.

There’s quite a high stack of logs in the graveyard, and I call out to ask where the wood might be going.

‘Lord Yarp’s shed’ comes the answer, and the man in the fluorescent jacket adds, ‘Sorry about that.’

I shrug. Old Yarpie has more right to it than me.

‘That holly’s coming down,’ says the man. ‘Over there, in the corner. And that ash beside it.’Holly and Ash to be cut down, in the far corner

‘Oh,’ I say. The bees will miss the ivy.

The man’s watching me. ‘Perhaps you can ask…? I mean, he might…’ I think he feels I must be in need of logs.

I smile and shake my sodden head, and call thanks, thanks anyway, waving goodbye as I walk up Church Lane.

I don’t dare take the dogs near the Shoot, so I cut through past the Old School. We emerge onto Little Lane, walking beneath the massive Copper Beech. Even naked it’s beautiful; its budding branches etched like gentle promises against the dirty-vest sky.

I walk slowly beneath the tree, thinking of Spring. That Lord Yarp, with his shed-full of chestnut and ash and holly. I hope it keeps him warm, and puts a smile on his face. And then I hope he sips a fine malt by his fire, reaches for his telephone, and rings Quarry Nurseries on the Hornton Road. I hope he orders a new Copper Beech, for the corner of the churchyard.

If he would, then I will plant snowdrops beneath it, and watch it grow.