My Dad used to say, ‘There is nothing there in the darkness that was not there in the daylight.’ This is OK for a 6 foot 2 mountain, but when I was a bite-sized mouthful, for the monsters that lived under my bed, in the darkness, it was not OK. Anyway by now I have learnt, as you probably have too, it’s not even true.
It was worse at my Grandparents. I would spend much of my summer days dreading bedtime. By then I was old enough to go upstairs alone. I would turn the landing light on from the bottom of the stairs. This illuminated the landing and the toilet, but cast shadows down the corridor to the middle bedroom where I was to sleep.
I would slowly climb the stairs, careful not to stand on the stairs that creaked. From the landing I would run the three yards down the corridor, turn on the bedroom light jump onto the bed and dive under the quilt. Then, when I felt it was safe, I would turn on the bedside lamp. Reaching blindly for the switch I would keep my head under the quilt. This was followed by a jump off the bed to turn off the room light. Jump back into bed and listen to the house breathe. If I awoke in the night the lamp had been turned off. I could not see my hand in front of my face. Those nights I never went back to sleep.
The days though were always summer and being of a certain age my Nan had time in the afternoons to play. I grew up moved away and saw her as often as the distance allowed. She lived with her aging dog Jasper. He was grey at the front end and windy at the other.
I moved back for her funeral. I was the only one who had the time to move into her house to look after Jasper and stop him going to the vets. No-one had room for an old dog. He was destined to be discarded with much of the contents when the house was cleared.
It was the first funeral I had been to. I was unsure what to do, what to say and just felt uncomfortable. I felt guilty in not having visited in the last few weeks and slipped away from the graveside.
I made my way back to the house that was no longer her home. The wooden gate rose on its hinges and as it shut made its usual sound as the latch clicked behind me. The sound and the smell of roses near the gate took me back to childhood. I put the key in the door and then the smells of the house grabbed me. The musty rack of coats, unworn in years, the leather sofa that had seen better days and the smell of dog.
‘Jasper. I’m home’. He had become old and slow and there was no need to get out of bed just because I was back -but he did. I could hear his claws on the wooden floor as he padded towards me. I waited for the grey muzzle to appear under his amber-coloured familiar eyes, as he rounded the corner. Then as he appeared he started to growl, bare his teeth and after a few seconds, bark. I had never seen him like this.
‘Hey boy, it’s me’. But this did not calm him down. In fact it made things worse. He was becoming ferocious and I was frightened. I began to back towards the front door that was still open. This just made things worse and he ran forward. I slipped and fell down banging my head on the skirting board. However, instead of attacking he ran past, barking wildly from the doormat for a few minutes and then stopped. The garden gate shut on its latch.
After such enthusiasm there was a certain amount of wind so I took Jasper to sit outside in the July afternoon. He returned to the placid old dog and slept by the garden bench. I lay watching Swifts hawking over the garden. I did not want to be in when the family called after the wake. I needed to be alone.
Jasper had been doing the ‘rabbit catching’ sleep, with all his legs twitching in anticipation of the chase. He awoke without any embarrassment and we decided to explore the garden. It was long, but thin. There was a place to sit; a place to be self-reliant from produce, now over-grown with weeds; and a chicken coop, long since silent of Penny and her clan. At the far end there was an orchard –five apples, two pears and four plums, possibly Victoria, but there was no one to ask now.
The conclusion to the garden was a fence in which there was a gate. It was unlocked by wriggling a bolt at the top and bottom. Both proved stiff and rusty, I wriggled the top one loose, but the bottom was too stiff and the gate came away from its hinges. Jasper and I continued our slow walk down the lane to where a track joined the lane to the lake. It was wide enough to carry our dinghy through the reeds to the wide, open water. This had always been a great place to play, but the entrance to the track was now barely shoulder width.
There is always enough breeze on the marshes to move the reeds. A fluid motion with leaves rubbing together drowned most sounds , leaving the sound of reeds. At the entrance in the reeds Jasper stopped, his hackles raised. A growl came from deep within. He began to bark. He stood his ground as if he was to fight a fierce and well-rehearsed battle. There was a pause. Then he ran forwards with the same ferocity he had shown in the house. I chased after but soon the path that had been shoulder width became clogged with reeds bent over at chest height.
Ahead I could hear Jasper barking, but distant. He remained in full flight as I wrestled to get through. For each handful I separated, more reeds contrived to block the path. My pace slowed to a stop. Still Jasper rushed on. His barks became more distant. Then there was a yelp. There was no more noise of dog. It was replaced by rhythm of reeds as the wind grew. It pulsed across the seed heads moving like shallow breathing.
I waited but still no dog. I got down onto my hands and knees and crawled along the path Jasper had taken. Above me was distant blue sky through a canopy of reeds. On either side were dense, impenetrable reeds.
I reached the lake. There had been no side passage through the reeds and I was sure I had followed Jasper’s trail, but here the reeds abruptly became open water.
I called. The wind and the reeds deadened the sound. I called again. I could hear the warblers singing, but no dog. After a third call I felt like I was making too much noise and drawing attention to myself. I waited. Nothing.
With my back to the water, the reeds became a dense moving screen. I crouched down and tried to search for the tunnel that had brought me here. There was no hole, no start point for my journey back. I could feel my heart beat faster and the blood pounded in my ears. I pushed and tugged, but could not find the channel to the outside. It was lost. I was lost. I forgot there was no sound of dog.
I pushed and shoved. I panicked. There was no clear way back. It took its toll on my arms and legs. There were times when I felt I was held above the ground by reeds, floating, but at no point could I see over.
I eventually fell into the lane long after the blue sky had paled; evening was well underway. The reeds continued to sway. Hiding the way I had just come, they went back to being the impenetrable wall. Half way up the hill I turned. The wind blowing through the reeds gave the impression of people wading towards me.
I did not run, but I did not slow for a second look. Through the orchard, past the chicken coop and abandoned veg patch I stumbled into the house. I hoped Jasper may have come home by himself.
He hadn’t but someone had been inside. Things were different, altered, not the same. Some things were missing. In their place there were some wrapped sandwiches and cakes on the table. They must have been left after the funeral.
The rooms were nearly dark. I went upstairs to the toilet. I turned on the light. With the door open it illuminated the landing and almost to the bottom stair. The house cooled, sighing with regret over the day it was leaving. Or was it fretting over the night to come. I finished, washed my hands and contemplated things I could no longer see.
I grabbed the quilt from the middle bedroom and retreated back downstairs into the gloom. I locked the front door and left the key in place. Jasper was not coming home. I checked the back door was also locked, then used two dining chairs to secure the living room door against my imagination. I lay on the sofa not wanting to close my eyes for an instant. But it was of no use. The grief and the trauma had taken its toll.
It was after midnight; the room was lit only by moonlight. It flickered as the Silver Birch was wafted by the summer breeze. My arms were firmly across my chest and refused to move. I could smell roses like those by the front gate. I heard footsteps. Were they in the house? No. Maybe? I shut my eyes to listen more intently, but there was no sound except for the wind outside.
I kept them closed rolled onto my side and settled back waiting for sleep to return. I could sense shadows. The moon was bright and as the branches waved the shadows played on my closed eyelids. They tapped into memories and took root. I opened my eyes to shake them off.
There was someone outside the window looking in. I sat up. The hairs on my neck stood up. I sat bolt upright, but the shout in my throat froze. The person ducked down. We both knew we had been seen. I listened. The wind was louder. It was inside the house like a window was open. Or maybe it was a door. I waited.
It was well into morning the next I knew. Light filtered in. There was no more night. I felt safe to check the house. No doors or windows were open or unlocked. I peeled back the Clingfilm a cucumber sandwich in my left hand and a piece of chocolate cake in my right was to be breakfast.
It was not a good combination of food. Feeling a bit sick I reached for the quilt to take it back upstairs. There was a slight thud and jingle. There on the rug by the fire was Jasper’s collar.