Busytown by Jolisa Gracewood

Dog day afternoon

Spring really is the word for it. After a long hard winter, with snow and sleet playing practical jokes on us well into April, suddenly – sproing! – everything bursts into life. The lawns are green, the blossom blushing cheekily into existence on trees that just last week were bare ruined choirs where late etc, and in every corner a brilliant forsythia bush, yellow as a stray blob from Van Gogh’s mad brush. The air is warm and the birds are back. Time to go exploring.

Connecticut is a curious state, home to domestic diva Martha Stewart (who is about to swap her sprawling estate for some striped sunlight), the fictional Stepford Wives (soon to be revisited on film with Nicole Kidman in the lead role), and what seems to be the largest collection of decaying and abandoned factories you’ll find anywhere. It also boasts small towns that are the epitome of New England picturesque, town greens, church steeples, and all. Now that it’s warm enough to expose ourselves without risking frostbite, we’ve been venturing abroad, trying to get the measure of our new home.

On Saturday we drove out to a little town not far from here. Classic small town Americana: a stately village green criss-crossed by paths linking church to ice-cream shop, library to antique dealer. People walking dogs and babies of impeccable breeding. Outside the café, the regulation posse of disaffected teenagers of all genders, pierced, tattooed, good looking and truculently polite in the sweet way of good kids trying to look bad. Behind a restaurant, we found a sculpture garden with a pond and a gazebo (Busytot, in full Open House mode, said "Ooh, I think we buy this house!" despite its lack of mod cons, walls, and even a proper roof), and in a neighbouring back yard, two fat and happy sheep grazed next to a swimming pool.

It seemed so spookily beautiful, and as we followed our small ice-cream-powered steam train ("Woo-woo! Choo-choo!") as he chugged his way around the streets, we saw several houses we wouldn’t mind living in. Only later did we investigate prices and discover they can’t be had for less than half a million, which pricked our real estate bubble but good. Plus, everyone we saw was white; it made me nervous. Even Norman Rockwell painted the occasional person of colour, dammit.

A short drive from town is a respectable beach, where we stopped to sample the sea air and watch small boys flying - or rather, repeatedly and joyously crash-landing - a large dragon kite. As we sat in the parking lot waiting for Busytot to wake up from a back-seat nap, a cop car cruised into view. Uh-oh, we thought. The dark side of paradise. He’s going to ask us for our parking permit and kick us out of the private beach. But no – the officer hailed a man and his kid who were skipping stones and horsing about. "Sir, excuse me, sir?"

Here we go, I thought; young dad, slightly scruffy, not exactly black but certainly tanned, about to be run out of town by the fuzz. But no, my rampant cynicism was misplaced. "Sir, did you lose a puppy?" Turned out he hadn’t, but a passing local recognized the dog by description and offered to drop it home -- a job the not particularly busy policeman was happy to undertake as soon as he ascertained exactly which house the lost dog belonged to. "Oh, the yellow one with the white shutters? Sure, I know it."

Ah, Pleasantville.

And then yesterday, Busytot and I ventured out to the farm of a new friend, in another small town not far from gritty downtown New Haven. It was a slice of heaven: not just sheep but lambs leaping about on the lawn, and daffodils everywhere, and a swing-set and paddling pool for the kids. A motley crew of country children awaited Busytot, including a similarly aged boy who was running around in the nuddy. Busytot thought this an excellent idea, and announced his membership of the tribe by immediately stripping off all his clothes too. The two of them romped naked the whole day long like cherubs in a naughty Renaissance painting.

Not only were there sheep, but three sheepdogs and a pond for them to splash in and fetch sticks and balls from. We're talking real sheepdogs, black and white Footrot Flats ones (except for the matronly Stella who was a pleasing brown and white).

Quivering, hyper-alert bundles of herding instinct, they spent the whole afternoon trying -- and failing -- to ignore the small flock of sheep nibbling the lawn. Low to the ground, ears cocked, haunches poised, awaiting the word and never getting it, they exhibited the mighty self-restraint of recovering alcoholics at an open-bar function, only occasionally forgetting themselves and surreptitiously taking a wee sip, sneaking in just one teeny tiny little round-up under the willow tree before being called off by the boss.

They let off steam by playing with a tennis ball, which Stella quietly and unobtrusively placed between my knees with the admirable stealth of a master pickpocket while I was pushing kiddies on the swings. Once I finally noticed the ball, I hurled it for the dogs till my arm was tired, then returned to swing duty for a while. But the dogs hadn't clocked off yet: they carefully triangulated their now immobile and very muddy quarry, sank to the ground, and fixed their target with a look so intense I was surprised the damn ball didn’t levitate.

The canine intensity was balanced nicely by the blissful freedom of the kids and the relaxation of the mums. I’ve never been so happy to have sheep poo between my toes. I’d forgotten how much more deeply you breathe in such a wide-open space, and now Busytot knows the special thrill of eating an ice-cream in the nude, then rinsing off in the pool.

To his immense delight, the crowning touch to our day on the farm was the train at the bottom of the garden. It was the Boston to New York express, which zipped across the far end of the property every half an hour; a herald of the machine age, hailed by naked boys, ignored by grazing sheep and working dogs. I wonder what the city-bound passengers saw as they raced past -- a fleeting glimpse of spring on a stick. An ice-cream stick, or maybe a pogo stick, what with all those stotting lambs and leaping children. Sproing!