We arrived in the dark, our headlights sweeping around the corners of the single-track lane as we drove and illuminating fringes of fields and hedgerows that suggested vast open spaces further beyond.
Snow and ice crackled beneath the tyres. In front, suddenly: a white-faced owl, which rotated its neck magisterially at our approach then slowly flapped up and over us. A little further along a muntjac deer high-stepped cautiously across the road, its retina reflecting night-vision green in the beams of our car.
We had left London three hours ago. In the back seat baby Betty was entertaining herself by playing hide and seek. “One, two, three, comingreadyornot!” she shouted, snugly strapped in to her child seat. “Boo MummyDaddy!” She bubbled with laughter then gently subsided, turning her face up to her window to gaze at the thousands of stars above. No sodium street-lights here. My baby daughter, more used to pointing at the trains that pass along the bottom of our garden, was entranced by the massive constellations over her head.
Tired, broke and frazzled by the constant juggling of work and family, my husband and I had called time on our responsibilities. With our eldest children weekending elsewhere we had thrown two small bags of food and clothes into the car, hoisted Betty aloft and run from our terraced house to a tiny countryside bolthole.
Which we had just found, tucked away in the dark where we might never have seen it but for a friendly neighbour who heard our engine and descended breathing jovial alcohol-warmed tones at us: “I say, you’re late! You’d better come with me. It’s over here. You’ll need a bit of help getting on I think: the tide is very low. Hang on, I think I’ve got a ladder …”
The barge was long and low, painted yellow and cream and trimmed in gleaming dark wood, though we could see only the edges of its prettiness in the frozen night. My husband clambered aboard and disappeared for a moment. Then the lights went on and from where I stood on the side of the marina, clutching Betty against the biting cold, I looked down through neat dolls-house sized curtains into a tiny gleaming kitchen. My husband reappeared, beaming, and held out his arms for our baby girl. Our neighbour held the ladder fast and winked at me to go aboard next. I scrambled down, anxiously surveying the thick ice around the boat and trying not to slip on the snow powdering its decks.
Inside the kitchen a red Aga oven welcomed us. It was switched off: the ice crusting the inside of the portholes gave testament to the lack of warmth in recent days. With frozen fingers we flipped switches, opened the oven doors, felt the boiler whoosh into life. Betty skipped delightedly to her own miniature berth and clambered up to sleep. My husband and I feasted on supermarket fizzy wine and the last tin of foie gras hoarded from the previous summer in France. In bed, once we stopped giggling, the silence around us was immense.
Emerging the next morning we discovered patterns of ice everywhere, from snowflake prints across the windows to crackled starbursts in the water around us to frozen runnels along the tracks of our arrival. A shimmer of heat escaped from the chimney of our barge. Above the sky was a flat, hard blue. Frosted trees in attitudes of stunned surrender dotted the skyline. Grouse skittered and ran along the pitted seams of a ploughed field.
We spent the day exploring and dreaming, looking at houses we passed and imagining ourselves in them: doing sums until we could make the mortgage fit and picturing our relaxed, happy children running across paddocks and through orchards.
It snowed again overnight and we woke to heavy, opaque skies that pressed on us like our worries as we contemplated the drive home to real life. The previous day’s beautiful brittleness had gone, to be replaced by a wetter, sadder feel.
Defiantly we turned the car further north and stole more hours, traveling a wide circle along the coast with London at our backs until we felt our spirits lift. Around lunchtime we turned into a chocolate-box beautiful village, all tumbled stone, latticed windows and gable ends. Following wooden signs we parked the car and walked through pine forests to a beach, so vast and golden that the sudden exposure took our breath away. It was like standing on the edge of the world.
When we got back to London my husband washed the car, cleaning away the salt and mud and grit. The car is rinsed clean now, but the residue in our minds will sustain us a little longer.
Sophie’s book, Grace Under Pressure: going the distance as an Asperger’s Mum, will be published by Piatkus in October 2012.