Tuesday, 30 April 2013

Dogs Delight 16 Random

When we get home I lock Bailey outside and watch him wander over to the angel and cock his leg against the plinth.  Then I hunt for the Chronicle, the village freesheet, which I find at last in the bottom of a drawer between lurid rhododendron catalogues.  I take it across to the window seat: Peter Hopkirk is striding past in waders, a sack containing moving animals over one shoulder.  On the penultimate page is Reverend Newsome’s Lines from the Vicarage, but they are not as encouraging as I would like.  This month he is reflecting on bus shelters again. 

‘A chance encounter with a senior citizen,’ he writes, ‘set me thinking about the randomness of life.  But is life really random?  I feel that Mr X and I were meant to share that moment of communion, waiting for almost three quarters of an hour for the number 63.’

Possibly that is how he speaks from the pulpit.  I decide that his least elevated sermons will probably be for the Family Service, which is notorious for children running about enjoying themselves; so if I do go to church I must attend something less frantic.  I have long wanted to experience Evensong, which seems to be a service in which you can remain more detached.  I imagine the dark cool interior of Saint Agnes’ and the soaring organ music, the few reflective souls dotted about the pews enjoying moments of calm and space and eternity.  I will sit among them and perhaps I too will achieve some kind of revelation.  But then each shadowy figure becomes more defined and I see that every one is an Apostle.  A week passes by.

Monday, 29 April 2013

Dogs Delight 17 Home alone

Richard is spending quite a few evenings away from home lately, away from me I suppose, and I stay here with James and Christopher.  This is when I feel most lonely, far lonelier than in the daytime when I am by myself.

One evening I sit on the swing on the lawn, blowing bubbles for the boys to chase; but they spill the mixture and bring out their trucks and tractors, making an aggressive noise, like roaring.

I try reading Wind in the Willows to them but after a few minutes they run away from Mole and Ratty because they do not wield guns or blow each other up, and soon I can hear the pounding of the PlayStation from upstairs. 

So I kneel in the window seat with Bailey and watch the lights go on and the curtains close along Main Street and Peter Hopkirk striding purposefully to the Lone Gelding for his evening pint of mild, waders gleaming under the street lamp.  He passes the rough stone sheepfold where straying sheep were once confined and now misbehaving dogs are imprisoned by Mrs Hunt until she has rounded up and reprimanded their owners.  The villagers call it the Hound Pen. 

Three of the apostles are setting out for the sidesmen’s meeting in the vestry at seven.  I must definitely go to church soon, despite the congregation; but it is difficult to be resolute in this village. 

This morning as on several mornings this week Brunt’s cockerel Russell crowed every half hour from three o’clock, sapping my energy with broken nights and prompting abuse and dreams of retribution around the district.  Richard left for work dark-eyed and cursing, a zombie in a very smart jacket.
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Sunday, 28 April 2013

Dogs Delight 18 Lads' curry night


   A few days later I finally do attend Evensong; but I am not proud of my motivation: I am escaping Richard’s mother, Marjorie, who is occupying the sitting room and indulging her grandsons. 

   ‘Richard said you were going out tonight,’ she remarks, pulling a magazine with a multi-coloured cover from her tank of a handbag.  It is a misunderstanding: only Richard has gone out, on what he calls a ‘lads’ curry night,’ because I said I didn’t want to go anywhere with him.  Marjorie says it is a pity I haven’t gone out.  Though she provides a jolly commentary on the boys’ every action she has little to say to me, and few opinions about me either.  The only one I can remember Richard reporting back is that I ‘read too many books.’  Tonight she planned to be alone with James and Christopher, for Marjorie is a grandmother who properly worships.  Sometimes I can see her almost feeding on their attributes, devouring them as they play and eat and fight.

   I watch her now delighting in each inconsequential action: the unwrapping of the chocolate she has brought, the chubby greedy smiles, the jostling then the pushing and the shouts.  I remember my dark reticent children flitting about the shadows of the garden, indifferent to chocolate.  Marjorie’s smile implies that this snatching and greed are marks of masculine vigour, boding well for the family line.  She glances at me and smiles fatly and faintly, dismissive, as at a failing patient when the bell rings and visiting time is over.

   The evening bell is tolling, voicing the habitual village melancholy, but tonight it tolls for me.  The night is quiet, the air unmoving and I slip out of the back door like a guilty servant, trailing my long mouse-coloured scarf.  The only soul abroad is a man in a thornproof with a woollen hat pulled well down, smoking over the notices in the Post Office window.  He is a surly man, a crony of Peter Hopkirk who is supposed to shoot blackbirds for his supper. 

   It is difficult to say what I am hoping for but when I arrive at the church I find Hilary Green, a villager who goes about weeding the countryside.  She is wearing a man’s cap and muffler, gabbling to herself and pulling up nettles by the lych-gate.  Her hands are red with nettle stings and crazed with scratches and grime.  It's hard not to stare.

   A small man in a bad suit is waiting in the shadow of the monumental door.  He is the butcher’s assistant, charged with making the famous oversized village sausages and guarding the secret of their special ingredient, which Richard swears is paraffin.  He smiles self-consciously as he hands me a service sheet and hymn book and I am ashamed that I notice the suit doesn’t move when he does.  The headmistress in her best sage tweeds and Mr Dilkes, who is a churchwarden, both unnerve me by the cold force of their welcome.  Mr Dilkes, who has gout, is leaning on a stout stick with a stoat’s head handle.  At the organ old Jacob Hopkirk is playing something unfathomable in a minor key.  He stares into space, distracted and a little demented.  Probably he is thinking about climbing the tower again.

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Saturday, 27 April 2013

Dogs Delight 19 The Evensong experiment

    I open an ancient oak gate and slide into an empty pew near the back.
village church, evensong, clerestory, pew
The church is stone cold.  I lean back, breathing in strong polish and reading the lists of fallen from the First World War, inscribed in creamy stone above our heads.  The church is stripped-down medieval, clean and calm and beautiful; but the flower arrangers and apostles’ wives have filled the vases with depressing plants, late rusty brown dahlias and cotoneaster. 

I count the worshippers: ten of us are here for Evensong, including two apostles and a toddler in the front pew.  He is struggling in his mother’s arms and waving a chubby hand at the cruel beak of the lectern eagle as we mouth the first hymn:

                 Great is thy faithfulness, O God my Father,
                 There is no shadow of turning with thee;

Jacob Hopkirk plays too low for almost all of the tiny congregation; all but the apostles and the large woman who runs the teashop in Laxley who is singing in a strong bass, not much off key.

                 Thou changest not thy compassions, they fail not,
                 As thou hast been thou for ever wilt be.
                 Great is thy faithfulness
                 Great is thy faithfulness

I look past the candlelight into the dark shadows behind the altar.  There is no shadow of turning with thee.  I try to pray, but how should I pray?  My words are commonplace: ‘Please help me.  Please help me to go.’  Where can I go?  Despite my supplication, my straining after certainty and resolve, there is no revelation.  St Agnes’ remains a cold museum.  The back of my neck is hot and tingling and I pray I do not faint.

Holy people say that every action and every thought can be a prayer, so I kneel and try to project my hopelessness and lack of belonging in the press of my forehead on the cold oak of the pew.  I do not belong.  I never will belong.  I hate this place.  I hate the walls and the house and Richard and his friends and his mother and even the boys.  I screw up my eyes but cannot force out a tear.  

And from the front of the church comes a furious cry, the wail of the angry baby who is reaching out his arm to the lectern.

‘Want parrot!’ he screams.  ‘Want parrot!  Want that parrot!’ 

The vicar stands up like a wraith, mildly smiling.  He coughs twice and begins to speak to us about parking, and the importance of patience, which is one of the virtues.  

                                                                             parrot, lectern, Evensong, vicar, Evensong service
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Friday, 26 April 2013

Dogs Delight 20 Tall dark and strange

There is one stranger in the church tonight, a tall dark newcomer with whom I share a moment of recognition. 
  Surely I would remember if I had seen him before!
As we are leaving the Reverend Newsome offers us each a long thin hand and we look questions at each other, all three.  The stranger has a shadowed sensitive face I already know, the facsimile of the engraving of Byron at the front of my Romantic Poetry book.  Can this be the impressively fast answer to my prayer?  But before we can speak there is a bustling behind us.  The regulars, dour cast of the village pantomime, are assiduous in wishing us goodbye and it seems to me that by the force of this farewell they are underlining their role as hosts at Saint Agnes’.  We are the guests, the stranger and I; prodigal children.  Remember, an inward voice is prompting them, the Father loves the prodigal son.  And so we are ostentatiously provided with service sheets and hymn books by the goodly folk; watched over and nodded at and nudged when we lose our place.  This welcome ensures that we leave somehow embarrassed and will not soon return.  When I look back up the path the stranger is not there. 

A cold breeze is getting up as I saunter reluctantly home, lifting and scattering the piles of dirty leaves.  The skulking smoker has gone and the notices about gun clubs and the WI’s threatened Oklahoma gleam in the yellow light of the street lamp. 

Bailey greets me in the hall, lowers his head slowly and ejects a mouldering starling on to the carpet.

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Thursday, 25 April 2013

Dogs Delight 21 Red sauce

It is the morning after Evensong and also after the curry.  Richard is swallowing the indigestion remedies he keeps in a cupboard in the kitchen, next to his range of red hot sauces: Thai and West Indian, Chinese chilli, and the newest bottle, the contents vermilion as the geraniums before they withered, with its label, ‘Insanity Sauce’: a jolly gift from a friend.  Ranked behind are more red sauces with names like Steaming Momma and Texan Big Bastard. 
I am sitting in the garden in a fine rain, huddled in my coat and considering my options as the marble angel sneers at the ugly line of conifers against the dull sky.  I am conjuring up a favourite image of Richard as a vampire waiting for me behind the end conifer, a line of red sauce dribbling from his mouth.  Evensong at St Agnes’ has not dispelled my fears or put me in possession of myself, so as a distraction from thoughts of my husband I make some bullet points:

·      Holiday 

·      Painting 

·      Visit

   …I suppose I could just go away for a while, to think, as they say.  I could explain to Richard that I must go, that it will benefit all of us: perhaps to somewhere with a high winding cliff path and raging seas where I could walk with my cold face taut against the spray, collar up and my hair windswept.  The seas must be raging at this time of year. 

   Perhaps I won’t tell Richard; or anyone.

   Shall I go on a retreat?  Or just catch a train somewhere?

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Wednesday, 24 April 2013

Dogs Delight 22 Weeding the countryside

   I am imprisoned in the village as surely as Hilary Green, who never leaves its boundaries as she weaves about tearing up groundsel and thistles and stickyweed.  This tidying of the village and the lanes is a serious matter.  Only rarely, after two or three glasses of cider and green ginger in the Lone Gelding snug, does she become skittish, hiding behind the hedge to throw trails of stickyweed at the coats of passers-by.  This exercise must give her some relief, I suppose. 


I have heard newcomers laughing about Hilary, but I consider her sinister.  Perhaps I am afraid that if I do not escape I will one day join her, trailing behind her as she roams around the village, both of us wrapped in woollen garments with grey wisps escaping from our woollen hats, rapt in our vocation.

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Tuesday, 23 April 2013

Dogs Delight 23 Labrador not retriever

I lie on my bed, watching a grey cloud roll across the window, dreaming up ways to escape.  Sometimes I am alone but sometimes I am with the stranger from Evensong.  We rush through an airport together, happy and excited, or hand in hand we tread the gangway of a cruise liner wearing tropical clothes.  We are always laughing.
When I  hear the door slam as Mrs Dilkes heavily leaves the house I wander downstairs and realise that Bailey has been missing for hours; so I haul on Richard’s waxed jacket and set off to find him in the heavy rain.  Retrievers are meant to retrieve but I am often out in the fields retrieving Bailey and I don’t think he has ever brought back anything useful: just carrion and the large stones he digs up in fields and streams, which wear down his teeth and trip people up as they cross the fields.

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Monday, 22 April 2013

Dogs Delight 24 Foxhunting

Peter Hopkirk marches past with two buckets of hot manure, throwing me his usual discounting glance.

shooting foxes, country novel, fox, country sport 

As I am passing the Lone Gelding I hear loud retorts and the thunder of rolling metal.  Stokes, the landlord, is out at the back again with his shotgun and Jack Russell, blasting at foxes. 

He rarely empties the large catering bins, which attract them in numbers from the fields around.  Probably this neglect is deliberate as, witnessing him aiming and firing in silhouette, anyone can see he revels in his sport.  He also takes the odd potshot at Brunt’s yard in the hope of taking out Russell, who is now crowing at dusk and supper time as well as before dawn. 

I ponder the complete lack of attractive personalities in the village.  Stokes’ personality, for instance, has hardly a positive trait and nor has his appearance.  Think of how he leers at revellers from the shadows behind the bar: yellow dome circled by straggling hair, a seedy Dickensian miser in a holey cardigan. 

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Sunday, 21 April 2013

Dogs Delight 25 Stock market

He occasionally remembers his duty as landlord and throws in a comment to stir up controversy, generally on the need to ‘bring back the stocks.’
village stocks, village green, bring back the stocs

Stocks on the village green, say Stokes and his cronies, will not only bring down vandalism but bring in tourists.  (They say he is building a set in his gun shed.)  His supporters cite the example of  Near Otterby, which still has its gibbet, provoking envy in the villages all around.  Some of the regulars have begun calling him ‘Stokesy’ in a game and doomed attempt to lend him a more amiable character.  

village stocks, village green, country life

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Saturday, 20 April 2013

Dogs Delight 26 Village colour

He and the slatternly Mrs Stokes have a silent son who dyes ferrets: pink, usually, but red and green at Christmas. 
ferrets, ferrets as pets, dyeing ferrets
But he does it in a perfunctory way, as though there is nothing better to do and certainly not with an appropriate sense of joy. 

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Friday, 19 April 2013

Dogs Delight 27 In solitary

Striding through the damp fields behind the pig farm I pass a broken lorry, the cab tilted sideways into the nettles, which I imagine which must be an
old farm, farming village, farm vehiclesenticing object for Peter Hopkirk, causing him a lot of envy and agitation.  

Over the fence I see Brunt has another pig in solitary confinement. 

‘I puts any naughty pig in a field by hisself,’ he once told me sibilantly, through stubby brown teeth. 

The sinning pig is eating, unconcerned, and the rest of the herd are making their low contented grunting as they listen to a Chopin Prelude in their long broken shed, patched here and there with squares of asbestos.  The muck-encrusted radio dimly visible on a sill is permanently tuned to Radio Three.  Maybe the dial is stuck, or more likely Brunt doesn’t know how to change stations.

  naughty pig, free range pig, pig farmer
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Thursday, 18 April 2013

Dogs Delight 28 Retriever

Despite wading through several fields until my boots are mud-heavy I can find no trace of Bailey and turn for home wondering whether Mrs Hunt has locked him in the Hound Pen again or Stokes has accidentally shot him. 

black labrador, retrieve, field

But when I reach the Lone Gelding car park I turn and see a movement by a distant hedgerow and Bailey races towards me with his long easy lope.  He is waving his tail wildly and gladly and in his mouth there is a hand.

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