Alex James: A good day in January is as lovely a thing as you can get

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The Independent Online

It happened while we were at a friend's house in one of the nearby villages, having dinner.

It happened while we were at a friend's house in one of the nearby villages, having dinner. Somebody needed to leave but our car was blocking them in. It was a really tricky little spot to reverse out of: a steep uphill S-bend on to the main road. Plus, our Merc has some kind of ambassadorial double-glazing, which makes it steam up, especially the back window. So you can't see jack. In addition, the day before had not been a good day, motoring-wise. I'd lost control of the Jag on a patch of ice, and parked it in a tree. It was a close shave, and I'd decided to be really super-extra-careful from now on. Nevertheless, I was going up the hill backwards pretty nicely, using the wing mirrors. There was a little bit of wheel-spinning in the gravel, but, after all, it's quite a steep hill. Then a man with a red face came out of the chocolate-box house next door and marched up to the back of the Merc. "You've hit one of these boulders!" he said, before stomping off to where he came from. Then I was fighting with the last corner when a lady came out with a torch. I thought she was coming to help, but she just wanted to check the boulder situation. It was getting pretty exciting. The residents were hopping mad and I was getting really sweaty. Two accidents in two days would mean I'd surely have to retire from driving.

By the time I got back from the pub, where I left the car, there was a big pile of boulders, and the red guy, who was purple now, was smacking his hands together. He said something like, "and you can tell your friend not to leave her boulders in our hedge, thank you very much". But this went well beyond hedges and boulders. I knew I hadn't touched the boulder, but I had evidently touched a nerve.

I wouldn't have thought about it any more, but, a couple of weeks later, I had some other business in the same village. Houses have names around here rather than numbers, nice names, but it doesn't make them easy to find. People will say, "We're right opposite the pub" or "two down from the post office". When the guy told me, "We're right opposite that really ugly house," I had to start laughing. I smelled another boulder scenario. This little village is one of the prettiest in the country, a very affluent, aspirational, absolutely no-worries kind of place, but the middle-class generals there are all waging war on each other's private little dreams, and the whole thing is a seething mess of trouble and bad vibes.

Not all the villages round here are like that, though. On Thursday, the wind had been humming all night, rattling windows and bending trees, but now it was still and bright. A good day in January is as beautiful a thing as you can get. January is such a hopeful month. There were a million bits of paper that needed my attention, but I hopped on my bike and rode round to the post office to get some bread. A perfect plume of smoke was rising in the afternoon glow from round one of the barns. It was school chucking out time, so there were buses, bicycles, pushchairs and cars whirring around. The village was alive. A tall lady of a certain age was doing nothing in particular. A boy of 12 or 13 was staring at me. I stared back. He cracked a smile. Getting on your bike and going to the shop is a good thing. I just felt absurdly happy.

Back at the farm, I went to investigate the smoke, in case something was burning down. It wasn't. It was Fred the sheep farmer's bonfire. He had his pitchfork and he was giving it a stoke, and it was all in Technicolor so I stopped for a chat, seeing as everything was all so bloody marvellous. I can handle Fred. He never asks me questions. He just tells me about his sheep. Usually about how they've escaped. They really amuse him. "These bloody things," he calls them. And laughs.

I came back from a run the other day and as I passed the sheep barn, got the full sheepy twang at the back of the throat, like a Marlboro. For the first time, I enjoyed that smell, it smelt like home.

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