Frightened of the wind – 24th May

Fear of weather is such an ancient, instinctive thing. I’m never scared of snow, rain or cold, but howling wind sometimes terrifies me beyond all logic.

All day I’ve watched the weather, feeling a nameless anxiety pinch at my heart. It’s freezing, and the wind is hurling itself around Horley like a vicious drunk – stripping magnolia brides, smashing the cups of tulips.

The dogs and I set out around half-two, both of them full of nervous energy, winding their leads around my legs, yapping at young leaves blown end-over-end along the lane. I shout at them and pull their leads to get them to heel, but two seconds later they’re launching themselves in opposite directions, and I haul them back. Through my general wind-induced bad temper, I’m aware of a flicker of something positive: hard to get bat-wings when you walk two dogs.

I stomp up the Jackie Chan, heading for The Clump, which I reason will at least be sheltered. Walking any of the meadows would be awful – the wind snatches at my cap, and shoves rude cold fingers up my jacket. It’s not May. It’s some dreadful mis-shuffle with the worst of March. A branch of lilac is torn free, and lands at my feet. The dogs leap on it, mangling the flowers, barking now. My eyes are stinging, my nose and mouth numb.

Outside St Ethelreda’s, there’s carnage. The wind is ripping free the blazing candles of the horse chestnuts, and I can hear the groan of the stiff old branches. There’s a lighter, skittering noise, like someone rifling a tray of bones; it’s the huge holly, shuddering on the corner of the graveyard.

I put my head down and march on, holding onto the dogs as if they were all that is sensible and rational.

I reach The Clump, and catch my breath, sheltered for a moment by the final fold in the hill to Hornton. I hesitate for a moment before letting the dogs go, but then tell myself off.

Of course there’s no malevolent spirit. Of course the dogs aren’t my protection.

I think of the stories of the Gytrash, and remember my own hell hound, with whom I was never frightened. For the millionth time: I miss him.

Our own benevolent hell-hound, Dark Archer (Archie). He died in September 2012.
Our own benevolent hell-hound, Dark Archer (Archie). He died in September 2012.

Arfa-Pants and Dora disappear in seconds, launching themselves into the banks of swaying cow parsley.

On my left is a field of rape, the flat light rendering the field a sickly yellow, liverish. Unwholesome.

I walk up The Clump, pulling faces and daring the wind to stick me. At the top of the first hill, I start to lose my nerve. Here, the wind has a run-up from one of the Taylors’ fields, and smacks full force into the side of The Clump. Great wands of sycamore spin down like shot game, and the noise is starting to hollow-out my head. It’s a low roar that I feel as well as hear – the resonance makes my guts shiver, my bones loosen, as if I’m about to fly apart in pieces. I clutch my jacket with both hands, and promise that the minute I reach the stone table, I’ll turn back.

I want my dogs to be here, in front of me, but the wind snatches my voice, renders my whistles and shouts puny and ridiculous. I keep my eyes up, scanning the branches of ash, of sycamore. Watching the treacherous elder, and knowing how suddenly they can fall.

I reach the stone table, tag it with my hand and turn for home, determined not give in, crumple up and hide in a badger hole.

Halfway back, I notice a gap in the hedge I’ve never seen before, about four yards wide. The wind has come through it as a solid thing, crushing flat the cow parsley and bluebells, ripping free their petals and sending them in a blue-cream swathe against the dried red-mud of the lane. I’m too afraid to cross. Both dogs are back with me now, fretting around my legs.

‘Go off!’ I shout. ‘Go on. Go off!’ But Dora just whines, and neither dog will go forward. A tiny, sensible part of my mind is telling me there’s nothing to be frightened of, but I am frightened, horribly. Every sense and nerve is at full-alert, telling me there is something evil, something there that will do me harm. The roar changes pitch around me, and I hear the rubbery squeak of two branches forced to move against each other. The light darkens still further, and I feel an awful desperation that spins me round to face whatever it is coming after me. The lane behind me is empty.

I swing back, just as the dogs dart forward. There’s a black cat, sat in the lane ahead. I’ve never seen it before, and it doesn’t move as the dogs pelt towards it. There’s a crack behind me, as distinct as a pistol-shot, and I run, flat-out, down the hill, as fast as I ever have.

Dora and Arfa-Pants are nowhere to be seen, but by my side is a black shadow, running with me as he always did. Keeping me safe.

On Walking – Saturday 11th May

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

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

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

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

‘Mummy!’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Love her.

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

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

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

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

We’ve friends over for dinner.

‘Can Jess and I be waitresses?’

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

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

‘Pay you!’ I shriek.

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

‘What?’

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

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

On School Run – Thurs 25th April

Released from the tyranny of the school bus, by driving to Hornton to collect children at 4.30.

Hornton considers itself rather more posh than Horley, as it has less bungalows, a bistro pub, and a green full of limes and weeping willows. And famous people.

It also has a tennis court, dominated by strident navy-knickered ladies and suave, very tanned men in cream poloshirts. They call ‘love’ to each other with ever deepening inflection.

The tennis court is next to Hornton Pavilion, which is where the children are, practising May Day dances. Last year Jessica came out of the first practice saying she was very disappointed. ‘I’m not even a hand-made, Mummy.’

All of the children are desperate to be the May King or Queen, and be driven up the high street in a taxi.

Hornton is tucked like a tawny jewel in a dowager’s bosom, and I’m always struck by how beautiful it is. Today I’m particularly envious of the aubretia, falling from the golden stone walls in perfect lilac and green ovals. The gardens here are very different from Horley – the topiary glossed-leaf-perfect, the lawns clipped to fuzzy felt.

I park at the end of Bell Lane, too early, as usual, and wander down the very steep lane to the Pavilion. The Sports field has begun its recovery from the football season and looks the cool, dark green of a Rosseau painting. I want to run onto it and turn a few Spring cartwheels, but I don’t, because the school-gate crowd make me nervous and awfully shy. It doesn’t help that I can never match children to parents, and I never know which year groups they all belong to.

I sit on the Pavilion steps in the sunshine, listening to Pop Goes The Weasel and thinking about an article I’m writing about booksellers. I idly run my hands over my bare shins and freeze in horror. Like pig-skin prior to singeing. I should be wearing a smock and reading Germaine Greer. I jump up and eye the knee-long grass to the side. Consider planting myself in it.

An athletic grandfather (presumably) comes striding down the hill. ‘Are they here?’ he demands.

‘Yes,’ I say, to his departing back.

Other parents are filtering down now, the sun-frocked mummies gathering in knots of chatter, ignoring their manic pre-schoolers.  The daddies stand to one side, leant nostalgic glamour by their open-necked shirts, ties poking from trouser pockets.

My Pan legs are making me self-conscious, and I’m grateful when another mother speaks to me. She is the only one of the whole crowd that I can match with children, year group and name.

I really need to make more of an effort.

‘Oh look,’ says A. ‘Here they come.’

The doors to the Pavilion open, and I step sideways, trying to see through the sudden scrum.

‘Mummy!’ Jessica is in front of me, grinning fit to burst. She hurls herself into my arms. ‘Mummy!’

‘Oh,’ I say. Hand made at last?

Ellie emerges and dumps her rucksack at my feet.

‘Ugh,’ she says. ‘So unfair. Jess is only the bloody May Queen.’

‘Are you?’ I say in delight, lifting her up.

‘Yes,’ she says, in tones of huge satisfaction. ‘I’m going to be going in the taxi.’

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.

On Dog Walking 6th April 2013

Decent Saturday dog walks are hard fought. Ordinarily, Saturdays to us are work days, with Stevie doing endless Go-Sees, and the daughters dancing, then off to little buddies’ houses, or little buddies coming here, and I have to feed them all, and generally present myself as A Good Mummy.

I did slide off though, today, at about five, with Dora. It feels like the first proper day of Spring, after the longest winter imaginable. Swathes of snow still lie incongruously beneath hedges, like sheets that flew off some giant’s washing line.

We walked the Bottom Meadows, Dora sending up pheasants from the stream. Their frantic Ee-full ee-full ee-full and ungainly, neck-stretched flight always make me think of fat ladies running for the loo. They also makes me think of shooting, and how I wimped out of my first game shoot.

Dora also sent up a brace of ducks, the mallard flashing green in the low sun. They both flew silently, and low, with none of the panic of the pheasants.

Along the first of Dave’s big fields, I stopped to examine the skeletons of giant cow-parsley type stuff, which I need to look the name up of. They are hollow and the children like snapping them down and using them as ineffectual weapons. They make a good swish sound when whizzed through the air.

Normally, I love walking with the children, but today I’m relishing just being with Dora. She doesn’t moan when I get fixated by an interesting piece of lichen. Nor does Dora stir up the brook so I can’t see the bottom and try to look for stickle-backs. I really want to see some stickle-backs in our stream, but I never have done.

I cross the stream into Emma’s meadow, and admire the new mole hills by the stream. Dora insists on weeing on every single one.

I’m supposed to be taking the children to Hornton for a sleep-over, so I up my pace to cross the meadow and swing round to the bottom of the village.

But then I bump into a Horley beauty, walking her gorgeous Labradoodle, Ted. We pause to speculate whether a funny little white-flowered plant by the brook is chick-weed, or something more exciting.

And then we’re catching up on gossip and eyeing up the sweet, strangely dressed Frenchman who walks briskly by.

Eventually, Dora and I wander on, totally forgetting about taking the children to Hornton, and I find a whole wall by Pete Miers’ cottage, frothing with green aubretia leaves, tiny scraps of violent and purple hinting at the show to come.

Dora decides to crap on a verge and I don’t have any bags left in my coat. Luckily, there’s a drain, so I flick it down with my welly boot.

We climb over into the cricket field, and the instant I see Jess flying down on her scooter I remember we’re horribly late. All the lovely peace of the walk is lost in the desperate scramble to pack pyjamas, and Rabbit and Lamby, and to stop everyone walking in the new puppy wee.