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: 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 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 School: Athletics Festival

Today is the great Athletics Tournament, with which the daughters have been preoccupied for days.

The Warriner School in Bloxham is holding its afternoon of athletic endeavour in their cavernous sport’s hall. This year, there are to be 7 primary schools taking part, including Hornton’s arch-rivals, Shennington. Jess is particularly excited, and keeps telling us she can’t believe she was picked for the team. Hornton Primary is sending thirteen pupils, and Jess (aged 8) is one of the youngest and definitely the smallest.

‘We’ll race against Year Sixes,’ she tells us at breakfast. ‘So we’ll lose. But as long as we try our best, it doesn’t matter if we don’t win.’

I slap hands across my mouth as Stevie agrees with her – that’s right, my darling. He sends me a Significant Look.

So now I’ve arrived in Bloxham, thanking the Parking Angel for guarding me a space on the muddy lane. As I get out of the car, I can hear that particular shrieky noise of massed primary school children – like hunt kennels the morning of a meet.

The huge sports hall is across the car park, and as I walk towards it, two Warriner pupils in duck-egg blue go to dash out of the door. They jam the brakes on when they see me, and let me go first.

Inside the hall, the noise becomes more distinct, in waves, corresponding to some sort of action. The whole space is full of dashing figures in bright colours; cherry red, satsuma-orange, the egg-yolk yellow of Shennington. Warriner pupils are supervising, and two Warriner  PE teachers are waving their arms and calling encouragement. The one nearest to me has short, sandy hair and good legs.

Parents are gathered in the viewing corridor that runs along the hall, watching their children through green netting, chattering, laughing. I wriggle amongst them, smiling apologies for jostled elbows.

I spot the royal-blue of Hornton in the far right corner. Some Hornton School mum-chums are on the bench against the wall – Tightie and Damage. They’re talking to Mr. Green, Hornton’s Head, who is looking very serious. He is holding a clipboard. The children are racing up and down in front of them, practising running and turning on the push-off boards against the walls of the hall, and I see a tiny figure streaking backwards and forwards, long pony tail flying. It’s Jess, and I give an inward groan. She’s the only child in the whole place wearing pink and navy-striped leggings.

Around me, the strange mums are talking about the same things Hornton mums always talk about: swimming lessons clashing with ballet, babysitters cancelling last minute, and did you watch the One Show yesterday? A good-looking father arrives in a navy overcoat. ‘Made it,’ he says to a woman in a Joules gilet. ‘Not been here before. Rather smart for a comp.’

You can hear the hiss from the mums, feel the cringe of the wife.

Husbands should be seen and not heard.

A whistle is blown by a very tall man in racy red socks. The children are to line up on their benches against the far wall.

It’s now time for the relay race, and mats are put out in a line down the centre of the hall. Each school are to field four children, running from one end of the hall to the other, before passing a baton. The Warriner pupils do a demonstration, genuinely racing, putting their all in; their trainers thumping like police-kicks on the push-off boards.

The PE teacher with the good legs comes to announce the parents’ race through the netting. For a moment, I ridiculously imagine kicking off my boots and socks for better floor-purchase and increased speed. I forget I’m thirty-four and not wearing adequate rigging. The other parents all laugh, knowing he was joking, and he goes away, smiling.

The primary schools are to go now, and I squeak with excitement when I see Jess standing up, then giving it the Tiggers, boinging on the spot. She seems to be leading a team, and is marching towards a mat with a fellow Year 4 and two Year 6’s. She sees me, but only gives a blink of recognition; too cool to wave to mummy.

Hornton School runner at the Warriner Athletics Festival
My super-speedy little  Jess

Jess is the first to run, and I can feel my own heart-beat start to thump as she gets in position, baton poised. The other children racing are at least two-heads taller; gigantic children in orange and yellow. A Warriner pupil starts the race and they’re off, running flat-out to the push-boards – the noise of the supporting crowds is ear-shearing. Quick turn then they’re up our end, Jess’ pink and navy leggings blurred with speed, ponytail a caramel banner. I think I might pop with pride.

I think Jess’ team have come third, but before I can find out, the next lot of teams are lining up, Hornton racing in the lane closest to us.  Hornton’ve put up their speediest Year 6’s, and we’re level-pegging with the orange children when disaster happens. Hornton’s last runner turns on the push-off boards and somehow drops her baton or trips, either way, the baton hits the floor with a bell-like clink, and the runner is down, landing heavily on her hands and knees. The cheers turn off like a switch, and there’s a collective gasp. But then the Hornton runner staggers to her feet in the silence, obviously hurting, and runs for the finish line. The cheers almost take the roof off.

‘Brave little girl,’ says the mother next to me.

We watch as she finishes, disappears into the comforting arms of her team. She’s crying now, ow,ow,ow, but post-race tears in no way detract from the fact she got back up, finished the race.

There’s another few more heats to go, and then the whistle’s blown and the children all waved to a huddle. There’s rousing words and certificates, and lots of applause and modestly-pleased faces. The PE teacher in the racy red socks announces the overall winners, and the fact that Hornton came bottom to last. I join the other Hornton mums, and we all lean together, exchanging gossip and pointing out each other’s children.

‘And,’ we whisper, knowing it’s bad form, but unable to resist. ‘We weren’t last. We beat Shennington-‘

Then we all cheer for the jolly PE teachers who worked with the Warriner pupils in organising the whole thing, and we cheer the children themselves.

‘Very good!’ we say, clapping.

M, the glamorous daughter of Damage, speaks sotto voce at my shoulder. ‘Them ones that won have different outfits for each sport. Like cricket and that. I was talking to them before.’

I boggle at the thought of increased uniform costs. ‘Golly,’ I say.

Now the children are starting to leave, and I step back, out of the mum’s circle, looking for Elle and Jess. Jess is a bullet, straight into my arms. She gives me a bone-crunching hug, then grabs my hands, so I listen.

‘Mummy!’ she says, squeezing. ‘Great news! I beat a Year Six!’

Elle slopes up, gloomy after having her events cancelled. ‘Whoop dee doo.’ she says, deadpan. ‘It’s the doing your best that counts.’

‘No it isn’t,’ says Jess, suddenly very fierce. ‘It’s the winning. Isn’t it, Mum? It’s the winning.’

‘Um,’ I say. Oh, what the hell. I return her squeeze. ‘Yes, darling. It is really. All about the winning.’

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.

Bonfire Night! Tuesday, 5th November

Every year, we whiz down the Warwick Road to Warmington, for Warmington’s Bonfire Night. It’s always on the actual 5th, and the bonfire is always a whopper.

Warmington Bonfire, Warwks, 05.11.13
Jess’ earmuffs!

This year, we’re off with our chums, the Always-Sprightlies, and it’s half past five, and we’re eating a vast tea of jacket potatoes and Bolognaise with buckets of grated cheddar to keep us going. The children are already screechy with excitement, and are winding up the dogs, which worries me.

‘But will he be okay?’ I say, for the hundredth time. It’s the Pants’ first experience of fireworks, and he’s already tried to wee on the stairs. Dora is in her cage, grumbling away like an old kettle.

Just as we’re agreeing that wouldn’t it be lovely to have a glass of that red, someone notices it’s almost six, and then we’re all swirled into activity – grown ups clearing the table, children all crammed in the hall wellying up, me turning on the television and RadioTwo full blast.

‘What’re you doing?’ asks Stephen in horror.’I suppose you’re going to leave all the bloody lights on, as well?’

‘Yes,’ I hiss. ‘And where the hell is Merlin?’

We open the front door to all pour out, and the missing cat streaks in, straight upstairs to hide beneath a bed. I can hear Pants whining, and I hesitate on the doorstep. Dora joins in with her clockwork bark, and feeling horribly guilty, I pull the front door closed and run to the van in the darkness.

The Sprightlies beat us there, and save us the last  space in the lay-by above the village. We’re all pleased, because it’s the best get-away spot and crammed with cars from Horley and Hornton. We all get out and discover we’ve two working torches between eight.

‘Gosh,’ says S, when Stephen puts the Maglite in her hands. ‘What a whopper,’

We skirt St Michael’s (which is beautiful, incidentally – but more grey-in-the-stone than our lovely St E’s), stumbling only slightly in the starlight. ‘Come on,’ say the children, and drag us down the hill into Warmington proper.

Oh, but it’s pretty, even in the dark. Warmington can trace its roots back to the Mesolithic age, and it spills gently down a hill like a tipped treasure chest. The houses are grouped round two generous greens – the top one has a big pond, and I always think that if I could draw my perfect village, I would definitely steal bits from this one. We pass the pub – The Plough – all yellow-lit and heaving with handsome farm-types in checked shirts.

Village children are rushing around coat-less, brandishing light-sticks, and we can smell sparklers and hot dogs and onions, and behind all that, the hot, crackling smoke of the mighty fire.

‘Can we go, can we go, can we go?’ say our children. The men slide off to ‘bring you hot drinks, darling,’ and S and I are left to peer through the darkness, trying to identify the flame-licked silhouettes of local buddies.

‘I’m sure that’s Tasha’s hat,’ I say. ‘Or not. Oh, I’ll wave anyway…’

The men come back empty handed – no tea! – and the children are racing about playing It in the crowd. S and I natter on, as is our way.

Just as I’m starting to shiver (no tea!), the fireworks crack and vhisp into extraordinary, pointless life, lighting all the faces around, eliciting oohs and aahs, as parents try to jolly surprised young children

‘Too loud, Mummy!’ wails a boy in the crowd. Our four are transfixed, and Stephen pulls me against him, sheltering me from the wind. He keeps pretending to jump at the bangs, and I slide my hand to horse-pinch his thigh: hard. This is the first year I’ve not had to hold Jess – she was always petrified of the rockets and anything that does that crackle thing. I look at her profile now – eyes wide-open, mouth laughing and chattering. She’s wearing enormous grey furry earmuffs, and I smile, privately, and wonder if they’re boosting this new-found bravery.

Warmington Village Bonfire Nov 2013
Sorry for rubbish camera, but you can just see the reflection in the pond…

The fireworks last the perfect amount of time for me with no tea.

‘Can’t we stay?’ say the children, as we call them to us. ‘Please, please?’

‘No,’ we say. ‘School tomorrow.’

We start walking back up the hill to the layby, sharing bags of Haloween Haribo to keep us going.

We’re full of plans for next year, what we’ll do.

‘And whatever else,’ I say, navigating the cars. ‘We’ll bring some tea in a flask.’

‘And hot chocolate,’ says Ellie.

‘Yes,’ I say. ‘And hot chocolate. More torches. More flasks. It’ll be excellent.’

On Walking – Monday 4th November

We’re walking up the Hornton Road – marching really. There’s a sly wind that keeps nipping rudely beneath my blue woollen skirt, and despite my stripy beanie, I’m cold. The dogs grumble as I drag them past favoured wee spots. From the Jackie Chan I can see sunshine spilling like treasure from behind the huge, dark holly tree on the edge of the churchyard.

We’re going so fast, I hardly pause at St Ethelreda’s horsechestnuts. Barely a week ago they were gorgeous; their leaves dipped in tumeric, in smoked paprika. But now their branches are bare and vulnerable, awkwardly crooked. A few mustardy leaves cling on, but the rest are on the pavement, rasping their exhaustion against my welly boots. I’m gone – I want to be over Bramshill, the panacea to the heavy black-poker pressure of stoves-in-before-Christmas.

It works every time. I perch on the stile, looking and listening; drinking deep of the peace. The frantic trapped-bird of my brain, that flutters and bashes against insolvable problems, finally begins to still.

Pants and Dora near the Spinney

Ahead of me, I can see the smart stripes of the new wheat, shooting pale-green through the  rough stubble. That sly wind is ruffling its way through the beech woods now; the young beeches beneath me are are darkly copper in the sun, now sage, now dun. To my left curves the dark arm of the Scout Woods, and as I watch, the sun races across the grazing beneath the wood. For a moment, the distant grass is luminous; a  glorious, wild, velvet emerald. Even as I reach for my phone, it’s gone, the magic raced onwards, beyond.

I slide down the stile, galumph down the slope, vault the fence to prove I still can. As I go through the spinney, I hear the clown-in-a-box laugh of the ducks from the ponds.

I whistle the dogs, climb out of the trees and slog up the long flank of the wheat field to the crown of the hill.  I keep my head down, tucked away from the wind, keeping the moment when I reach the break in the hedge, and the valley spills before me; all for me to savour.

God, do I savour. I see brown-and-white cattle in the crease, the neat patches of maize, the biggest rhododendrons in the world surrounding the pheasant pens. And above it all, arching blue sky, strewn with sharp-edged clouds.Bramshill's Valley

Pants, bored of my mooning, canons into my legs, then runs away laughing. I glare, but walk on. The stile onto Clump Lane is broken, its top bar loose from one side of its moorings. It’s lethal, crotch-wise, for anyone who puts their weight in the wrong place. I step over, careful of my sensible, thick tights.

We start walking up the Clump, towards Horley, the dogs weaving, play-fighting around my legs. I shout at them to go off, to go away, but then I shout to come on, faster, let’s go, come on. I’m chasing them up the hill, hooting to wind them up. My coat’s undone, my hat off. Warmed through. Happy.