At home I always take the dog out very late at night. We are night owls, so a midnight walk of, maybe, a mile and a half settles both me and the dog. Dogs like routines. They like to be able to predict what's going to happen next. They expect routines. They don't really like change.
And it's no different when we're on holiday. And here we are, on the edges of Shropshire and Herefordshire where the skies are dark and at a time of year when the night-time countryside is silent.
We go out on our midnight walkies with a large hand-held lamp. But the road in the lane shows up as a grey corridor on the blackest night, so I don't use the lamp at all. And the trees and hedges are outlined by the stars. There is no moon, just the great sweep of the universe above us. There is no breeze. There are no sounds. There are no clouds and the first night is a warm, almost summery one.
We pass out of the driveway into the lane by the gate where the keeper checks traps every morning at eight o'clock and, there. Just by the first young ash tree, we walk into a cold patch of air. The dog hesitates for a moment, then, attracted by some scent or other, I assume, pulls me up the lane into warmer air, just by the second gate. Maybe there’s a hint of cigarette smoke. Maybe not.
We climb the hill till we can see the street lights of Ludlow a couple of miles away.
Then, we descend the steep hill back towards our cottage, heading straight for the Pole star and The Plough; back through the cold patch between the two gates, where the dog is keen to get back to his bed by the radiator.
Several nights of the same routine follow. The cold patch of air is always in the same spot and the dog is always keen to pass through to the other side. Sometimes, perhaps I think that he's a bit reluctant to enter the cold air, but he always does. Maybe he's picking up my vague sense of unease. Sometimes the hairs on my neck prickle a bit between the two gates. There is a definite slight scent of tobacco…
As the week progresses, there's more cloud. At first it's white and fluffy but the sky stays bright with stars. Sometimes the lights of aircraft pass silently high above. Then, one night, there's a complete cover of grey cloud. It's too dark to see without using the lamp. But the night is warmer than before. Even warmer. Except for that ten yards of deep cold between the two gates. The dog pulls out of it enthusiastically and holds back on the return down the hill. One night, in the middle of the second week, I catch a glimpse of something out of the corner of my eye. I think I do anyway. Maybe I don't. Something moved. I feel quite spooked about this and return to the light and warmth of the cottage more quickly than usual. This night, as I climbed our hill there was a moon somewhere just near a gap in the cloud-cover giving a hint of light.
On the next night the clouds are broken and the road is clear to see. I don't need the lamp. We march through the cold bit between the two gates and, further up the lane, begin our usual pottering gait. The dog is sniffing the verges and the holes in the grass marking the animal runs in the hedge and marking and re-marking his new territory. Probably rabbits. Maybe rats.
As we turn from the top we have a clear view of the whole of the hill before us, the land on the left hidden behind a high hedge, the fields of the left open clear to see behind a wire fence. As we head down the lane the moon emerges suddenly from behind a cloud, lighting up a patch of the field in a blue-white beam and revealing a man, walking steadily, purposefully towards the bottom gate. He's in a rush, sometimes glancing quickly over his shoulder. He looks, for all the world, like a 1950's detective, with the mac and the hat... and, just a few yards behind him, a mist enters the lit-up patch of field. It's a tall, thin wraith of grey, ragged, shapeless vapour, circling and dancing in the moonbeam. There's a feeling that it's chasing the man down. He glances over his shoulder again and begins to run. The clouds rush to cover the moonbeam and he's gone. I shine the lamp. There's nothing there at all. I imagined all this, obviously. There’s nothing there. Nothing at all. Whatever didn’t just happen took only three or four seconds.
We pass quickly through the cold bit and the cigarette smoke between the two gates, half expecting to meet the man, and trying to retain some kind of dignity in our pace. But we know he's not going to be there. It's colder tonight. I feel watched. The dog pulls me hard to get away. We're both quite keen, me and the dog, to get back to our cottage where we don’t mention what's just happened. Because nothing really happened.
The next night. I change our route. There's another lane on the other side of the main road. It's just as dark and lit by the moon, it's just as easy to follow and there's access to a pasture, empty of stock. And there's no cold patch. The dog doesn't seem to mind at all.