Smoke vs dung

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A dinner table in that wood-beamed, Labrador-infested idyll we call the country. The conversation runs the gamut of the usual subjects: who's shot what, which village divorcee has taken to hanging around in the pub, the spiralling cost of petrol and school fees. Tim, my right- hand neighbour, turns to me.

"How's life in the smoke?" he asks. "You must be glad to get out for the weekend and get a good rest."

"Oh, absolutely," I reply. "Coming down to the country is every Londoner's idea of a nice rest. After all, I probably would have spent the weekend so far going to the restaurant at the end of the road with my three best friends, schmoozing the staff, eating steak frites, arguing the meaning of life and sinking a few bottles of Barolo. I would have walked home in two minutes, and maybe if I'd got lucky I'd have had a quick bout of tag-wrestling and hair-mussing. Today I would have spent lounging around in bed with a book, a pot of tea and a plateful of Marmite toast, then I'd have strolled up to meet Claire at the cinema and caught a double bill.

"Instead, I chose to have a nice rest, so I spent two hours standing up on a rush-hour train because British Rail has never been known to provide enough seats for all the passengers on any given journey. The crowds were too thick to get to the buffet, so by the time I'd finished the hour-and- a-half wait in a blizzard at the top of the branch line, I was hypoglycaemic as well as hypothermic. I lay awake all night because everyone in the country lives in houses that are bigger than they can afford to heat, and got up at 7.30 to stand in a field and watch some beagles run in circles. In 15 or so hours, I will repeat the travelling process in reverse. This is, indeed, my idea of a good rest."

Of course, being well brought up, I didn't actually say anything of the sort. I said, "Oh yes, it's always lovely down here, isn't it?" or, "Mmm, well, it's nice to see Susie and the children", or something equally bland.

"Don't you long to get out of London?" said Tim. "I don't know how you can bear to live there."

"Not really, no. I have to admit I like it there."

I grew up in the country. What I remember most clearly are the endless waits outside the garage for the one bus a day to take me to school, and the battle to cadge a lift from whatever wind-battered youth had managed to borrow his parents' car. My idea of heaven was to live on a road full of taxis and wear high heels. The fulfilment of that dream hasn't disappointed.

"Come on, darling," Tim's wife, Annabel, calls from the other side of the table, "you really enjoyed yourself when you lived in London. We both did."

"Oh yes, of course," Tim nods. "It's a great place to be young. Culture and all that. But it's hardly a place to live when you're grown up, is it?" He turns back to me. "I mean, you don't actually enjoy all that stress, do you? And the dirt?" This is the man who trailed a big glob of horse manure in on his shoe when he arrived.

"We have baths and washing machines in town, too."

"Yes, but," Mark, a personable farmer who has spent the first half of the evening giving me a blow-by-blow of the plot of Dick Francis's Bolt, chips in. "Aren't you scared all the time? Crime, I mean? I'd spend my life worrying about finding some black man with a knife leaning over my bed."

"Which reminds me," Tim leans back, "did you get the burglar alarm sorted out?"

"Oh, God. We've spent hundreds on it and it still goes off in a high wind. The police say they'll take us off the panic button if there's another false alarm."

The table disintegrates into little knots of people telling each other how you're not safe anywhere and agreeing that it's a disgrace that they're not allowed to shoot burglars in their own homes these days. I nod sympathetically and gaze at the port bottle, which has come to rest at the far end of the table.

"I don't miss London at all," Mark's wife - whose name I didn't catch in the flurry of introductions earlier on, but I think is called Carolyn - says to Annabel. They used to share a flat. "Do you remember how much time we spent thinking about clothes? What a nightmare. Now I just sling on the first thing that comes to hand." She is wearing a roll-neck T-shirt under a navy-blue suit. Annabel nods in agreement and the frills on her decolletage nod with her.

Susie smiles happily at me. "Best thing I ever did," she says, "moving back out here. I mean, London can be great fun in small doses, but one doesn't have friends in the same way."

"I always say," says Mark, "that people in the city chat. People in the country really talk."

Everyone laughs. I ask why they think that is, but no one spots the irony. "Oh, well," says Carolyn, "we have more time for each other. City people spend their lives rushing from one place to another. They never just stop and think about things."

"Oh, I know," agrees Annabel, glancing at her watch. She emits a little cry. "Oh my God, is that the time? Ten-thirty?" She pushes her chair back from the table. "We'd better get moving, darling. We told the babysitter we'd be back by midnight and we've got a two-hour flog over to your mother for lunch tomorrow."

Everyone stands up, and hovers round the room exchanging goodbyes. Annabel kisses my cheek and I kiss hers. "We never see you these days," she says. "You must come down and see Susie more often. You're looking so well, and you've only been here 24 hours."

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