Yes, it will be a Howards End-inspired post, but you don’t
mind that, do you? Night walks – and a night walk I took recently.

It was an evening last summer, and I said to my daughter –
who had spent most of her day on her smartphone – I said, ‘You need to see the
stars, away from all these streetlamps.’ So we packed supplies of drinks and
nibbles and a blanket to sit on and set out to have a picnic in the dark. We
took the bus to near the Downs. We walked for about an hour to get onto the
high chalk paths. After a while, we settled down on the brow of a hill facing
the distant sea, waiting for the stars to come out. It was warm and the
downland grass was short and springy. The sun went down in drifts of amethyst and
pink. Shades of violet and grey crept over the hills. We waited absolutely ages
for the first stars to prick through. I’d brought a star map and had every
intention of naming all the glorious constellations we would see: for I
remembered camping, lying and looking up for hours. In the deep night, the
stars spread out above were discernible as globes of light set at increasing
distances: not flat like a map but vast, unguessable, like an amphitheatre of intelligent
eyes looking down, populous and real. At those moments, it seems just as likely
that humans should float upwards as stay weighted to the planet.

Meanwhile, back on our hillside, Daughter, who was checking
to see if she could get wifi on her phone and choosing some music to play
quietly to accompany the unfolding magnificence of the universe, suddenly said,
‘Sshh! There’s a man over there.’

We peered into the night. A fence ran alongside us and
swooped away down into the valley. It was difficult to make out whether the
standing shadow over there was a large wooden post or a person. We went very
quiet and stared intently at it. The modern age, despite the twinkling lights
of the town below, suddenly withdrew and we were plunged into history. The
figure was a sentinel from a neolithic tribe; he was a Roman soldier, the last
of a massacred legion; he was a thief, lurking to find unsuspecting females who
might come here a-picnicking in the dark of the summer night. He was watching
us. Or he was sign post.

‘I think we should be getting back now,’ I said. ‘Let’s go
and catch the earlier bus after all.’

‘Yes,’ said Daughter, without demur.

Hastily, we packed up. The shadow may or may not have moved.
We began the rapid march back, stumbling along the chalky, rutted path in the
darkness. Daughter gripped my arm like a vice. ‘I’m really scared. What was
that? Is that a man? Did that move? How far is it?’

I spoke in a calm, cheery way, feeling every muscle toning
up, hair standing on end like a scared cat, hypervigilant in the darkness. Why
was I so stupid? Hadn’t there been a murder up here once? Yes, yes, said my
rational voice: the murder you’re thinking of happened a hundred years ago –
and it was a shepherd – and so, answered the superstitious peasant in me, was
that his forlorn ghost, standing by the fencepost? The entire night seemed
thronged with supernatural visitors, passing up and down this ancient pathway,
this thread of chalk across the hills, used for ten thousand years.

‘Is that a person up ahead or a post?’ asked Daughter.

‘I can’t make it out, darling. Don’t worry. I’ll take care
of everything.’ I was getting ready for a fight now. Memories of struggles and
terrors came back. I knew I could become a killing machine, all five foot three
of me. All this extra fat would just add weight to my deathgrip on the attacker’s
throat. And I’d fight dirty – I’d gouge out his eyes and Daughter would run and
get help.

‘Is that something running low across the ground?’

‘Oh yes. Perhaps it’s a badger or a fox.’

‘It’s coming towards us! Help! Mum!’

The clot of absolute darkness crept across the dim chalk
path. In the gloom, a signpost stood tall and motionless. The clot of absolute
darkness resolved itself into a small, rotund and friendly dog. Ah, the tall
signpost, yes, it was a man. He seemed to shrink: he was elderly, dressed in
modern clothes, walking his dog in the warm summer night. ‘Good evening,’ I
said. He answered politely. I felt a fool. But we were very glad to get back to
the bus stop.

And this little tale reminds me: there’s a bit in Howards
End when Leonard Bast explains how he walked all night to experience what it’s
like to walk all night – to ‘get back to the earth’. He’s an insurance clerk,
desperately reading literature to escape his stultifying life. In a visit to
the Schlegel sisters (those hypercultured, hyperprivileged ladies), he explains
why Jacky (see previous post) came looking for him at their address. His
attempt to break free (via Wimbledon Station and the hills of Surrey) reminds
me of our abortive stargazing picnic. For us, it was one of those brushes with
primordial terror, the danger – yes, yes, it was all imaginary – the danger
that our ancestors lived with, the Fear of the Dark. Afterwards, I loved it –
we never feel so alive as when we think we’re about to die. For Leonard Bast,
his night walk helps him cut through the caul of literary allusion to a direct
experience of the world: ‘Within his cramped little mind dwelt something that
was greater than Jefferies’s books – the spirit that led Jefferies to write
them; and his dawn, though revealing nothing but monotones, was part of the eternal
sunrise that shows George Borrow Stonehenge.’