“I mean, I’m the one who’s supposed to be a feminist Linda,” my friend Jayne said, when she’d had enough of my moaning. Mind you I had moaned rather a lot, and she’s one of those people who has enough somewhat rapidly. “And I’d be the last person to advocate loyal little wifey obediently trailing in her husband’s footsteps but ….”
The trouble is, I could, and can, see exactly what she means. It’s not as if we’re selling or giving up our house in town. We’re just going to live out in the country for a few months, in a bungalow (I’m so relieved, at least, that it’s not a cottage) that the Archaeological Society has paid the rent for, while Barker, who’s an expert on such matters, supervises the dig at that fascinating new site they’ve discovered that some people are already calling the Stonehenge of the East Coast. That’s not even logical, as there aren’t any standing stones there. But there is, apparently, a very good chance of there being a remarkably well preserved Iron Age village. And I’m now working from home by choice, and have to admit that my writing has been more productive.
I’ll willingly admit I’m more of a town girl. Not necessarily a city girl, but I like houses and shops and theatres and cinemas (now we’re finally allowed back in them!) and cafes and all that jazz. I don’t actively dislike the country. It can be fine for a holiday, preferably if there’s something dramatic like mountains and gorges and waterfalls. This is fundamentally just the same kind of country that I drive through at least two or three times a week to get from one town to another. Countryside that is perfectly pleasant, though traffic jams and the whiff of fertiliser (natural or artificial) are a taste I will never acquire, but decidedly sameish. I can’t help thinking, when you’ve seen one field, you’ve seen them all.
Unfortunately, Scramblethorpe (for such is the less than poetic name of the village closest to the dig) is just that bit too far away for a daily commute to be practical. Barker is delighted. Delighted to be honoured by supervising the dig, of course, but delighted that he’ll be back in the country. He has fond memories of childhood holidays on the farm. I wonder if he sometimes secretly fantasises he was called after a sheepdog. By the way, he makes a point of introducing himself to people saying his name is Barker Richard, and no that isn’t the wrong way round. I like his parents, in reasonably small helpings, but still wonder what they were thinking of. His brother and sister are called Terence and Samantha, perfectly normal names.
“If you really hate the idea that much,” Jayne went on, “You could always stay on here in town. Barker is hardly going to abduct you and rope you into the car!” She looked disconcertingly as if she might be engaging in a secret fantasy at that point, but I could be misjudging her. Of course she was right. And I know Barker would be good about it. But he would have that hurt look. And someone who could kick a kitten from here to kingdom come with not one slithering of conscience couldn’t resist Barker’s hurt look.
I would like to say that I don’t want to be away from my friends in town, even for a while. But that’s not really true. I value my friendships, but am quite capable of conducting them at long distance for a few months. And deeply fond as I am of Jayne for all her ways, I am not going to shrivel up and go into a decline if we don’t meet up in person for a while. Like everyone else, we’ve had reluctant practice at that!
Well, so here we are. Our temporary abode. God, what a pretentious word, abode. I would never use it in any of my stories, and if it did slip through the net, it would never get into published print. But I refuse to call it home. That makes me sound like a petulant child. The bungalow may not be luxurious, but it is perfectly acceptable. Except it is not called The Bungalow, or even something dignified and descriptive like Field View. It is called, and I cringe even thinking about it, Hopscotch Bungalow. And no, it is not a corruption of some Anglo-Saxon term. It is exactly what it says on the can. There is a sign with twee children playing hopscotch. And bloody awful pictures of just the same kind of children on the wall in the lounge. There may be something more nauseating to stare at than sanitised urchins with designer patches on their clothes, but right now I’m hard pushed to think of it. Violet, who owns this, and another bungalow she lets out on the coast (I don’t know what it’s called and don’t want to know. Skittles? Rounders?) “settled us in” as she put it, and seems pleasant enough, but I’m quite relieved that she lives, as she put it herself, a fair step away. We have her phone number, but if we want any immediate help, then “Sally at Curlew Cottage up the road will help you out.”
That rung a bell. Oh yes. We had been stuck for a while by Curlew Cottage when we were in a traffic jam (two tractors in tandem is enough to bring the entire rural road network to a standstill) and I noticed an array of stone and (I think) resin fauna in the front garden, though, curiously, no curlews. Plenty of hedgehogs and meerkats, but no curlews. I am already anticipating similar traffic jams outside the bungalow. And people probably don’t mean to stare, but they do. Well, of course, so do I! I can see that the blinds in the lounge may be kept down at certain times. At least, and I don’t mean this ironically, there is nothing worth staring at in the front garden. Violet has decided, wisely, that there’s not much point to dolling up a garden in a place where nobody lives permanently.
I have Googled Scramblethorpe, and at first the Wikipedia entry seemed promisingly long, but it didn’t take long to realise that the vast majority of it was about the Iron Age village discovery itself. Otherwise, it seems to have been first referred to in the 1890s (so it’s not even really that old) and to be on the road to other places.
Talking of the Iron Age village (which is something I won’t be able to avoid) people tend to automatically assume that I entirely share Barker’s fascination with such matters. I don’t, and he is perfectly fine about it, just as I am perfectly fine about the fact that he doesn’t share my fascination with cryptic crosswords. I’m not entirely without interest in archaeology, but prefer it neatly excavated and laid out in a museum or presented on some screen or another. The truth is, that though I’m not a clean freak, by any means, I don’t like getting my hands dirty. Oh, I don’t have a hissy fit if I get ink on them putting in a toner cartridge, or anything like that. But I hate the feel of soil and gravel and mud. I hate it on my hands. I even hate the feel of it underfoot. It sends an actual physical scratchy feeling down my spine, like the one some people get when they hear nails scratching on glass. I am already feeling it in advance at the thought of what I might have to scrape off the car windscreen.
Barker is already out at the dig. He is so thrilled about this that I would be an utter louse not to be pleased for him. He hasn’t done any actual fieldwork for several years, and I swear it even makes him look younger.
The day ahead seems very long. Now I know myself how ridiculous that statement is. If I were at home, then my routine would be writing at least 1,000 words (though I have been known to break that rule!), perhaps doing some research, getting some shopping in, keeping the house moderately tidy. Well, the bungalow doesn’t need any tidying yet, but apart from that, there’s no reason why I can’t do any of the others. But no, it’s not just pathetic pettiness. To do any shopping I would need a half hour journey (no bad thing in itself) and that would be in an out of town supermarket, and though I’m not one of those folk who are opposed to such things on principle, it quite simply isn’t the same as the busy-ness and asymmetry of a busy town. Yet I have to admit I’m relieved that the village shop closed eighteen months ago and hasn’t reopened (information courtesy of Violet). That sounds mean, and of course I feel sorry for the older folk, or those without public transport, or internet access, who can’t even get a paper or a bottle of milk or whatever without a laborious trip on infrequent public transport or depending on the good will of others. But my own transient experience with village shops has not led to any great enthusiasm for them. I know you’re not “supposed” to say things like that, but I do prefer to have some element of choice and variety, and to not have to pay over the odds for such items as are there – and I suspect that if it got around that “The Woman in Hopscotch Bungalow” (scratch, scrape, cringe!) were not using the local shop it would get me one of those reputations. Not that I really care. Do I?
Two somewhat connected things are troubling me more than they should. A couple of times a day, cattle are driven along the road, which is, by the way, most definitely a road and not a lane, even if it is narrow and potholed. Whilst not especially fond of cows, nor do I have any particular fear of them. But they leave a steady trail of excrement in their wake. The smell is, of course, vile, but the worst of it fades in an hour or so. The muck, however, MUST still be there, even when flattened down and driven in – and driven into what? Car tyres. My own included. That means either the cleaning of them, or the leaving it there, and it’s hard to say which is the more repellent. Number 2 (did I really say that? And at what point does a wry chuckle become a hysterical laugh?) – now of course I knew this all along, I suppose, but I am dwelling on the fact that the bungalow has septic tank drainage. Now I know Barker would point out there is no reason for this to bother me. The plumbing in the bungalow is modern and hygienic, even if I’m not really sure about the blue bathroom suite. The water pressure is probably more efficient than it is at home. And Violet has assured us that she always has it seen to between tenants “Whether it really needs it or not”. Yet I still know, and wish I didn’t, that under a watertight cover on the outer edge of the back of the property, there is – much the same thing as what the cattle leave behind to imprint itself on my tyres. This makes me feel slightly sick. Barker and I have a tacit understanding that while (within reason) I am more than happy to hear about pottery and ornaments he and his team find, I would prefer to be spared the details of what people had been eating, or, more to the point, how they found out about it.
And right now, he will be in his element. Not just figuratively, but literally. Out in the open air, sifting through stones and earth, happier than he’s been for years. I keep telling myself that.
I should at least make some effort to get down to writing. In common with everyone else who’s ever put pen to paper or finger to keyboard, I’m telling a lie when I insert that business about nobody bearing any resemblance to anyone living or dead. Though to be honest I can never work out whether there’s an element of wish fulfilment in my serial character Dolly Dunnock, or whether she gets right up my nose at times. Probably a bit of both. But at the moment the former is uppermost. Not because Dolly has her curves in all the right places (I eschewed a skinny heroine whilst lacking the courage to actually make her a larger lady) and a high flying job with a law firm (I’d rather be a writer than a lawyer anyway, though wouldn’t mind the earnings, specially not of the high-flying sort). But I envy her popping out to that new coffee shop opposite the practice, and deciding she’ll go to the cinema and wearing high heels if she wants to (not that I’ve ever wanted to that often) without the danger of them getting coated in cow flop. Dolly, to some extent, marks the seasons, not meticulously, but she has done Christmas and Halloween, and Valentines Day, and even, for my American readers, Thanksgiving, by visiting her relatives in Oregon. She has also been on various holidays, encountered various new workmates and various old friends. But I am always at pains, though both activities feature in my stories, both short and long, to avoid the sex and shopping cliché.
In one of her more helpful emails, Jayne suggested that it might be quite a new excursion for Dolly to experience the delights of country life, or at least, come to terms with them. Write what you know and all that.
But I can’t say that inspires me in the least. Do I hear the sound of distant mooing? I didn’t think they were due at this time of day. How about Dolly does Cow Muck? No, that idea is going nowhere and going there quickly. God, I’m bored! And that’s coming from me, who’s never had much patience with folk who are bored, and always said I’m happy as I have one of two things, or preferably both, something to read, and something to write. I at least have the former, but it’s not appealing at all. I might do some crosswords online. At least keep my brain active.
That’s 2 days without writing. A routine broken. Well, some say routines are shackles, but I still wish I’d not broken that one. I’m awake early, which is nothing unusual, though not as early as Barker. I have to say that one of his hidden talents, and I don’t underrate it, is to get up in almost total silence so as not to disturb me – and I’m a pretty light sleeper. But he had to be out early today. It’s midsummer day, and he wants to see if the rays of the rising sun fall where they should across the village. He has a theory that the Stonehenge of the East Coast may not be totally fallacious after all, and that there were once standing stones. I hope for his sake that the sun plays ball.
I know that if I go back to sleep now, I’ll only wake up with a headache. Oh! I’ve discovered that Barker has left what he calls his thick notebook behind. He is one of those people who genuinely mourns the demise of the filofax. And I know that the thick notebook, with its bright red cover, is packed full of notes and observations on everything from astronomy to carbon dating. He won’t be able to work out if his theory is correct without it! And I also know him well enough to know that I doubt he’ll have his phone on during such an important period in his research. I tried, but was proven right. It went straight to voicemail. Oh well. Needs must.
The last hundred metres or so to the dig isn’t accessible by car. No doubt given time it will be. I tell myself that so far as I know, no cattle graze there, or at least haven’t for decades so I should avoid any cowflop, and at least it isn’t muddy, as there has been no rain for a week or more.
In fact, the smell isn’t altogether unpleasant. It’s, well, different. Sounds seem heightened on the early morning air, or is it just because there isn’t much around to stifle or mask them. But I can hear a beautiful, mellifluous, plangent sound. It’s not one that’s totally alien to me, sometimes it could be heard in town during lockdown, but it wasn’t as loud and elemental and belonging as it is here, not as full-throated and fluid and joyful. Dawn is breaking on Midsummer day, and on a place where it has been marked and celebrated for thousands of years.
But all the same, I can’t really call my next story Dolly does the Dawn Chorus - can I?