There’s a certain twisted pride to be had, in wet-weather walking. A grim-faced relish in stumping across lethal, greasy fields, and through sodden, thigh-high grasses.
Today we are walking through Dave’s bottom fields, and it is raining in a drizzled, irritable way, as if the clouds just can’t be arsed. The sky is the dirty white of an old sheep’s fleece, and the wind is blowing the rain sideways. Upwards, too, it feels like. Up beneath my Oxford Shooting cap, or down (horribly) my neck, making short work of my flowered green scarf.
The dogs and I forge on, sticking to the margins of the fields to avoid the worst of the mud. Pants is his normal loopy self, but Dora is close by my heels. Too close – I occasionally catch her chin with my heel.
The rain pushes me deeper into my thoughts, which is good, because instead of mooning at trees, I’m thinking about European politics, and whether the Common Purpose people are goodies or baddies, and will they sue me if I use them in fiction? I think about it for the whole length of the Dryer field, then again in the next, the one before Emma’s Bottom Meadow.
At the far corner, I stop for a moment, surprised. The chlorophyll in the grasses has dropped to such a level, that in the rain-dim light, the grasses appear a peachy-pink coral. I’ve never noticed it before, and it’s particularly strange when set against the dead Angelica – its seed-heads black with rot. I frown at it for a moment, distracted from my plot. Why’ve I never noticed this before? Is it because grass is so rarely left uncut?
I thrash onwards, my jeans soaked to the hem of my jacket. Even Pants has become more subdued now, and he’s covered in reddish mud. There’s a fat Springer in Emma’s Bottom Meadow, and the dogs are so dispirited, they don’t even bother to go and say hello.
Cheer up, I tell them. I scrape uselessly at my knackered Hunters, pushing cold mud through the holes and onto my feet. I add such discomfort to my shield of rain-martyrdom.
Jolly up, dogs, I say, hauling them along. At home there’s a fire, and dry towels, and a biscuit. Come on, lickety-split. Let’s march. I thrill to the spiteful squall that hurls wet leaves in my face. Weather. I am a country housewife. Thou shalt not defeat me.
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.
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.
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.
It’s raining, and I’m walking over Dave’s bottom fields, peering out from under my cap. I’m already hoarse from shouting; there’s cow muck flung all over the stubble and Pants feels he must roll in it. I do not share this feeling. I chase him as if in a dream – my legs are moving, but he out-paces me so easily, I may as well not bother.
I’m distracted from my impotency by a new foot bridge. It’s three planks wide and has a handrail, so no more falling off into the sinister swathes of Bella Donna. Apparently, the council arranged for it to go in, which lifts my mood slightly. I’d far rather pay for footbridges than pointless mowing.
We reach Emma’s Bottom Meadow, and I turn left, heading away from the village. Dora disappears into the stream and Arfa Pants follows with a great splash, thank goodness. I encourage him back in to get rid of eau d’cow.
As I walk on, I spot some pinkish-purple clover, which my nature books insists is red. It also informs me that red clover is useful for menopause. That word annoys me. I’ve recently learnt it’s French, from Greek, and I can’t help wondering what we called it before. Having said that, perhaps we never lived long enough to find out.
I keep going, thinking of things ending, of beards starting. Might I grow a beard? I imagine myself as an old lady, menopause a distant point behind, still stumping round the meadows of Horley. I think I’ll be one of those tough, stringy old birds with compost making dark crescents in my fingernails, and dog hairs all up my sensible navy trews. I don’t suppose I’ll care much on the beard front, although I shall care muchly if I lose my reading glasses or if I can’t hear the news on my radio.
My thoughts start to turn a bit dark, and I’m distracted by the leaves of the willow around my feet. They’re beautiful; some a pale lemon, others a rich yellow splashed with brown, like an over-ripe banana. Looking up at the willow branches, some as bare as wands, I see next year’s buds are already nubbed into the stems.
Such preparation for rebirth and Spring cheers me, and I pull down my cap against the rain, whistle my dogs.
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.
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.
Dora and I meet up with the Curdie-Wurdie, one of my favourite people, but rubbish at nature-spotting with, unless it’s birds.
Curdie likes birds, and volunteers for the RSPB Garden Watch every year. ‘Have you seen the swallows, yet?’ she asks. ‘And the swifts?’
I tell her I knew they were here, but I hadn’t really noticed. I don’t say that I’m unsure of exactly what a swift looks like. A smaller, faster swallow?
We tramp up to the Old Allotments, and I tell Curdie all about my dreams of a communal orchards, and some allotments, and fencing for fat village ponies.
‘Why do you want an orchard?’ asks Curdie.
‘To collect fruit,’ I say.
We march about the field, pacing imaginary borders and assessing angles of incline. Emma’s pigs are in the field below, and they watch us from beneath their ears. Dora tears around, driven mad by the scent of fox.
It’s a glorious day, and the sun makes last year’s grass a brushed metallic khaki. If you bend over and look closely, you can just see the acid green of this year’s growth beginning to come through.
Curdie and I walk up the old bridle path – useless as such as it’s bombed with huge badger and fox holes. Someone’s evidently been down there, tidying up. The ash trees that fell over winter have been sawn up and moved, and the path is littered with broken twigs. There are clumps of bluebells everywhere (no spears yet), but no wild garlic. WHY? Has it never grown round Horley? Did local farmers take exception to it? Or have I lost my sense of smell to the point I can’t find it? Like my non-flowering aubretia, I’m beginning to become obsessed.
We walk down the Hornton Road towards Horley, and bump into E with lovely Jumble, Dora’s brother. The dogs instantly wind themselves into a lead tangle, and E and I awkwardly unthread them. Jumble briskly humps Dora’s head. Dora rolls her eyes.
‘Wrong end,’ says E.
We all agree the weather is beautiful, and how much cheerier life is with the sun. Then we all agree how fast our children are growing up, and how old we feel.
Eventually, Curdie and I wander on. I try to be discreet as I peer into a skip outside a cottage.
We see some lung-wort, purply-blue, still flowering its speckled socks off. Walking past Bramshill Manor, Curdie spots the fruit trees on their lawn.
‘An orchard!’ she says. ‘See?’
‘So?’ I say, gazing through the iron fence. ‘We can’t get to them.’
Curdie’s eyes gleam, she savours the word as she says it: ‘Scrumping.’
We laugh at the thought, and Curdie points out a tree. ‘Look,’ she says. ‘Look!’
Thinking she’s spotted a particularly lovely bird, I say ‘Where, where?’
‘There!’ She’s triumphant. ‘A mulberry tree.’
‘Oh?’ I say, peering at it. It’s not very tall and has gnarled bark that makes me think of walnut shells.
She nods sagely as we walk on down the hill. ‘Mulberry. Yup. Good for going round.’