It’s a restless night that sees me stir not once or twice but many times from slumber, and so I relent, don shoes and leave, succumbing to world that wishes me wakeful.
It’s a blue world seeping through drawn curtains; windows only frame it like a landscape sloshed in seas on sky, and sea foam scuds those murky waves: clouds in morning, ships on high.
These vessels spear slantwise, hulls cutting breakers, though elsewhere only a gentle tide rolls from horizon to horizon. For the most part the clouds have been swept so low they’ve fallen upon the sleeping houses; where they touch the ground they drape it in gauze, making fields across the way fuzzy, phantoms. My path has become land ahoy in an endless swirling sea. I am but a castaway leaving footprints on its shores beneath dim day dawning.
Gulls cry distant; other birds fly above – only a few, adding punctuation to the sky’s poetical majesty. Further away, almost a bird herself Mother Moon hovers, keeping eye on her prey. In spite of the low-lying cloud she’s clear and distinct, but small, as if turning her back to hunt elsewhere on stranger shores.
Usually at this hour I’d expect to see cats traipsing home (as they say) from a night on the tiles: there are none. I’m reminded of my sister’s, suffering health troubles right now, recovering from surgery in an animal hospice. It’s a twitchy, scrawny thing barely seen; I don’t like it but I wish it well, for her sake if for no other reason.
As if in sympathy the streets are empty of cats – but full of snails arriving too early for autumn’s ball . . . though you couldn’t tell this from a thermometer.
It’s cold this morning, damnable cold. I had the foresight to wear a hoodie and hat as I would do wherever I went, if I could. Stepping into chill mists beneath faraway moons I’m glad of its warmth, though, unbidden by wind but gusting all the same the cold gnaws at me like a fairytale wolf beggin to be let in.
I shiver, draw in my elbows and soldier on.
The street lamps – though not all of them – are still lit orange against the blue: movie poster colours for a morning unlike any Hollywood’s ever seen. Sheep drowse in clusters on the hillside and sky ocean waves curl overhead, threatening to crash upon them. Greater Plymouth is hidden from me by the pooling mist: there’s no sign of bridges, boats, or city lights twinkling beyond the water’s reach. If it wasn’t for a car returning from night shift or a bathroom window lit and ajar there’d be no sign of inhabitation at all in this secluded vestige of civilisation. The house the window belongs to has an ambulance parked in its drive – or a bus with ambulance checks striping the sides. A sunshield in the windscreen keeps only out moonlight at this dim hour. The window’s still lit when I return this way five minutes later; at the time I wondered if the ambulance’s owner was getting ready for work but I wonder now if the window wasn’t lit the whole night through.
I step on silvery trails – and over, if the snail’s still treading them – taking lungfuls of air that burns and wakes me. Not that I need it: I’ve woken four times this last night if I’ve woken once. Nightmares, sometimes, and tossing and turning. It’s not the kind of waking that can be set to one side but the kind that persists, the kind where I feel like even before I open my eyes I’ve been awake for a good long time. There’s a hollowness that accompanies it, as if I’d been upended so sleep could trickle out and I knew at scarcely five in the morning I’d not sleep again, not this night.
Walking when all around me still sleep has its own odd thrill, like Christmas in August where the whole world’s a gift. I unwrap it as I walk, peeling layers of paper and hoping to remember what I find beneath it. I sketch mental notes as I always have and long for a Dictaphone, as I always will. Only a few phrases remain by the time I reach home again: they’re all in this post somewhere, though I’ll not say which they are.
The grass verges I walk past are greener than they have any right to be and I think of my wife (“Everything’s so green”) on her first trip here. Is it the light that defines their hue, the same way American clothes are brighter, gaudy even? Is that why even in the wettest months grass there seems yellow compared to ours, as if its chlorophyll has been improperly mixed? This is the grass of primal times, of fairy rings, of hidden glades and verdance so deep it’s sonorous. Though the last dregs of night hold only myself and night birds it feels so alive, as if the world wakes as we sleep, sentient, watchful. The estate’s a Bradbury story, living regardless of whether we run in it, but it doesn’t peter out, catch fire and fade: it holds us and smiles kindly and stays sentient ‘til we wake.
At the close’s end the trail I used to tread there – but haven’t in so long – has become overgrown in my absence. I could barge my way through the thicket stirring all manner of insects and shadows but why bother? I stand at the tail of where the trail used to be wondering how it could have healed so fast, as if it was only yesterday I walked here while on the telephone, describing to a lost love all the wonders I could see. I’d come after midnight and stand on the ridge overlooking the village, whose flaring night lights looked from this distance like a rain of bronze sparks: a firework mid-flow. With most of those lights dimmed and the mists slowly parting it’s become a constellation; I mentally connect the stars to reveal a crustacean, a pastry, a ship – anything I choose it to be. It’s a model lit by candle flames on my own private mantelpiece. It’s an out-of-season Christmas decoration and I regret not seeing it in snow, as I never will again.
I consider jogging, but my steps would ring too loudly. Though the mists are lifting and the fields are no longer gauzed, the fresh pink tips of the new day remind me that full daylight’s still an hour distant. I return home past the window, hearing strange melodic tones that seem to come from nowhere specific and everywhere at once. I don’t know what they are! We hear the dockyard’s sirens even this far away from it, but this was no siren, it was a tune: a handful of electronic tones that wasn’t a pop song, or a ringtone or anything else I can think of. Just another of night’s many mysteries, I suppose: a lullaby for the nocturnal.
An owl – apparently hearing it – hoots its last call before heading home.
Past trees hewn back to reveal pavement they’d otherwise choke, and spotlights that click and turn on as I walk. Not a soul on the streets, not a one but me and soon even I’ll be gone. I check for my keys – I did take them, right? – find them hooked to my belt and slip back inside to warmth and coffee and a pastry not spun from lights. Nobody knows I left this place. Nobody saw me but the man in the car returning from his night shift – and perhaps not even he did.
Nobody will ever know except me and except you.
You can keep a secret, can’t you? There’s a pastry in it if you do.
Day spins on, its magic gone. It’s seven now – morning, a morning to wake into, a morning to relate to.
Mother Moon flutters; the owl flutters too. A dozen snails and a hundred nameless creatures return to beds at the pavement’s edge, in unkempt overgrowth. Like me, night sleeps restless, but it won’t wake for hours. Until then it dreams a warmer, busier life than its own: of people and traffic and a world bathed in light.
When it wakes hours past dusk to find busy roads deserted and people gone, it realises, yawning it was only a dream after all.