On Walking: Tuesday 24th February

The wind is cold, strong. It flips up my dress, pulls my hair from its pins, boxes my face. The dogs and I jump the ditch, cross into Dave’s field. The sun gleams in a line along the beaten mud of the footpath. I eschew its slippery promises of speed, take to the margins.

‘So will I live, so grow, so die,’ I say. I push my way through the secret passage, stumbling, as I’m trying to read my phone, and I’m not looking where I’m going.

No one can hear me out here but sheep across the Sor; which is good, as I’m saying the same words over and over, with different inflections. I accost an alder, and tenderly swear, by Cupid’s strongest bow, that we shall elope tomorrow. Pants play-barks into the wind, as if shouting bonkers, bonkers.

My hair is blinding me in the wind, so I sneak up to the fallen oak, heave myself up and anchor my hair behind my ears. I stare fiercely at my phone.

‘Help me, Lysander, help me!’

I’m impeaching the uncaring sky, the February trees. The latter are heedless, shivering despite their green-ivy leg-warmers. ‘You are not nigh,’ I say, sadly. ‘Not nigh.’ Dora leaps up beside me, as if to comfort.

Last night, I went to the first rehearsal of the play I’m in: the village production of Midsummer’s Night Dream. I haven’t stood on a stage since school, and I had completely forgotten the agony of learning lines. I am to play Hermia, who is a young lover and about fifteen. I shall lose a stone and tape up my 35 year old face. ‘Perhaps,’ suggested a friend. ‘Botox might be an option?’

And although it was the Old School, and not a stage at all, I still had that awful sick feeling that comes from acting in public: the thundering pulse, the sweat in the small of my back.

‘You mustn’t gabble,’ instructs our sprite of a Director.

My words came out wrong, my knees popped when I crashed down on them before Theseus. But in amongst the cringeing and the the botchedness, there was a glory to be had here. An echo of a self once remembered.

I was once as brave and strong as any young lover, with a narrow waist and hair that brushed the floor if I bent my back. I fought tooth and nail for the best parts in any play about which I heard. I scrapped for Nancy; Lady Macbeth, boring old Cordelia, and Sweet Miss Charity, who got kidnapped by handsome Indians (and shoulder-carried by savage Nev, crying ‘you beast, you beast!’).

That cast-iron confidence, the utter certainty that I’d be good and loved, has long since rusted away. Sometimes, it’s as much as I can do to meet the eyes of a neighbour, or mutter hello at the school gates.

Sitting on my log, I hunch down from the wind; imagine the expression  I would need in a clinch with Lysander. ‘Oh hell! to choose love by another’s eyes!’ I raise a hand, purpled with cold, gesture with despair at a field of wind-torn rape.

Then I realise I can still do it. In the middle of an Oxfordshire field, in freezing February and sat on a long-dead log, I can still believe I’m Athenian royalty, adored by a man called Lysander. And if I can believe it, and the rest of the cast can believe it, then perhaps that magic might happen, the magic known by any actor and that I remember: the audience might, too.

 

Dream script

On Walking: Thursday 15th May

I’m stumping lop-sided down the Banbury Road, in one of those irritable, finickity moods where everything is annoying, and nothing is right. The dogs are pulling too hard, and I glare at a passing BMW that doesn’t move over enough.

It’s my first proper walk since I went up Cat Bells in the Lakes, and gave myself a stupid, stupid shin-splint. It’s far worse than the ones I normally get from skiing in cheap boots, and it’s put me in a filthy temper for nearly three weeks.

I can at least walk now though, and I’m heading to Dave’s fields beneath the dryer, because it’s the least amount of hillage. Everything has changed since I last came this way, and I feel hassled, as if I’d had a part to play, but missed my cue and now the production is sweeping on without me. All down the road, creamy hawthorn blossom froths onto  lacy white heads of cow parsley; garlic mustard, pink campions and gangling dead-nettle compete against lofty forests of nettles.

There’s a huge, soft clump of gentle comfrey to my right, and I glare at it as I grump past. Knit-bone. Get out of the hedge and make yourself into a poultice. I stump on, feeling fat and hot and at odds.

I reach the bridge and let the dogs off their leads. They leap the ditch – no water now, just dark, blackened mud – and fly off to the Sor Brook. I pause a moment, to look up into the oak. Its canopy is newly, perfectly green. Each leaf is cut clear and precise; Jianzhi art against the blue sky. There’s no wind down here, and I’m suddenly aware of a wood pigeon, calling its sleepy coo-chicoos. I blink and look at the wheat, then across the brook to the sheep with their half-grown lambs. Then I take off my jumper, slinging it on the hawthorn to collect on the way home.

The dogs crash through the grass of the margins, Dora making me smile at her meerkat impressions. We reach the secret passage – overgrown now, with cow parsley, nettles. Hidden by a vast bank of hawthorn.  We slide through the entrance and  in the bend by the brook-bank, I see a clump of sweet violets. They are flowering beautifully, deeply purple, as if they waited just for me.

By the time we reach the corner of the far field, my sourness has washed away. My knees are soaked from the long grass, and I’m fascinated by the lightening-quick spiders that dart ahead of my boots. I look up, and see a bra hanging from the willow at the edge of Horley’s stream, where it meets the brook. The bra’s been knocking around this corner of the field since early Spring, but someone – a well-meaning granny, or delighted school-boy – has hung it up as lost property or a trophy.

When El and I first saw it, weeks ago, Ellie had been scornful. ‘Why would you take your bra off in a field?’ Hoping to distract her, I said it could’ve been stolen. ‘But why?’

‘Head wear?’

Ellie gave me a dark look. ‘Weirdos.’

I’m smiling now, remembering, and the dogs and I walk up the field, next to the loud busyness of the stream. There’s cattle in Emma’s meadow, so we carry on walking the margin round, parallel with the village. Ellie’s poor fallen oak is ahead of me, and I think for a moment how lush it would be to sit on it in the sun, and look out over the valley. But I’ve emails, editing, estimates to type, floors to be mopped, baskets to plant. I’m still listing my To-Do’s as I sneak along the hedge, kick flat a few nettles, make a mighty leap for the top of the trunk. For a moment I scrabble, so horribly unfit – but then I’m up, straight-backed and grinning; the meadows spread beneath me like Gaia’s prize.

In our family vernacular, it’s an Innisfree moment. It means a perfect moment in place and time that makes sense of the world, and allows you greater freedom and understanding than you’d have ordinarily. It’s from Yeats, and one of the lines is ‘Peace comes dropping slow’. I feel that now – my fists unclenching, my joints loosening, limbs lengthening. I shake out my digging-in hair slide, lift my face to the warmth of the  sun.

I can smell the rankness of elder, hear the plaintive wail of a lamb. The dogs are sat, patiently waiting at my feet, and the three of us watch the perusals of a butterfly – white, with orange tips.

I drink my fill of that peace; let my shoulders grow hot, my mind grow still. The oak beneath me is slightly spongy with rot. I place my fingers flat against it, imagining it how many rings run beneath me, how many summers it stood through, before it fell.

After a while, I slide down, and the dogs get up, looking at me expectantly. ‘Home,’ I tell them. At the smaller of the Billy Goat bridges, I bury my nose in hawthorn flowers. I’ve recently read that they smell like dead bodies, but I can’t tell. To me they smell of the freedoms of my childhood; the lawlessness of North Warwickshire. They remind me of midnight walks, endless quests with no grownups, no paths, no rules.

I wind my way back through the fields to the Banbury Road, collect my jumper. The road is busier now, the school-run mummies belting past.

I raise an arm, wondering what they must think of me: potty dog-walker woman, limping with blossom in my hair, my phone stuffed down my cleavage like a call-to-arms.

They drive past too close, but I just smile and wave, blissed out.

 

From Ellie's Oak 2