On clear summer nights, I often grumble that the street lighting near our house is polluting the night sky. There’s a lamp opposite our parking area, just across the lane, and it emits a fairly bright white light. Which is not to say that you can’t stand there, having stepped out of the car after dark, and let your eyes adjust till they reveal the breathtaking Milky Way. And on August nights you can step around the corner of the house, away from that pesky street light, and lie on your garden chair and watch for the Perseids.
Our house is halfway up a small mountain in a small village with a split personality: half of it up the mountain, half of it down. There’s a church in both halves, and a primary school for each, but the older kids all catch a bus to a nearby city. Our house is in the grey area: no more than a kilometre from the top of the top village, and no more than a kilometre from the bottom of the bottom. As I said, it’s small. No shops to speak of. There used to be a bread vending machine but the bread – wherever it came from – wasn’t good and it disappeared.
It’s quiet, and it can be beautiful. In the summer it gets hot, and in the winter you might find yourself shovelling snow for days. Winter tyres and chains are compulsory when it snows. And our altitude means you can look across the countryside in our garden and see the Jura—and on a very clear day, the Alps. It’s not often clear enough to see that far, and when it is, the locals say that rain is bound to be on the way.
So it was no real surprise that instead of snow this Christmas, we got rain, and lots of it. Our house is old—at least 200 years, so it has a lot of history. It sits on top of a cellar which contains a well, and there’s another well in the garden, and a little further down a spring just dumps water down the slope, so the ground is permanently boggy. The house itself can feel damp after a period of unoccupancy, and it’s good to take the heating out of frost mode, light a fire in the stove and blast the cold out of the walls.
I’m not a fan of living in a 200-year-old house, though my other half loves it. It has been in her family for the whole of that time, and though the land that surrounds it is of a very low quality for growing things, there is plenty of it. Where the soil isn’t boggy, it’s stony. There are some very old twisted fruit trees, and a couple of well tended raised beds, but you couldn’t exactly farm it. We planted some lavender bushes a couple of years ago, hoping they’d join together to make an uninterrupted row, but they remain as stunted as when they were planted.
It feels private. But when you’re there alone at night, it can be a bit too quiet. I’m sitting here alone now, with the cat curled up next to me, the fire slowly smouldering its way through some fruit tree logs from an old tree we felled a few years ago, and it is pitch black outside the window, and too quiet. A bit of Frank Sinatra to fill the space, the occasional metallic click from the direction of the woodburner. It’s at times like this that I think of all the people who have died in this house, many of them relatives of my OH. The old man who hanged himself in the barn. The old woman who died in what we now use as the living room. And the German soldiers who were billeted here in the second war. Lots of history in this place, and in the surrounding area, which has seen some of the heaviest fighting in two world wars. There’s a commemorative trail and memorials to Resistance fighters further up the mountain, near the old observatory, and the garden was once full of brass shell casings.
A summer ago, people working on the local church (lower village) discovered an unexploded shell up in the bell tower. I often feel you could pass a metal detector over the garden and discover yet more. My brother-in-law has a box full of brass in his garage, and when we took over this place, we found a Great War era American carbine under one of the beds.
My brother-in-law lives down the road, a few hundred metres, in a brand new house with all mod cons, including underfloor heating powered by a Canadian well and thick layers of insulation. Meanwhile, our kitchen floor is steadily rotting away (it’s in hand) and our poky little gas bottle powered oven is too small to hold a roasting tin.
So when it came to Christmas this year, my brother-in-law’s house was the base, while I was tasked, as usual, with prepping the meal for ten people. Never a big enthusiast for Christmas, I was a little sadder than usual this year because neither of my grown children were able to join us. So it was just me and the other half – and my two-bird roast – who walked down the road for the big meal, the Réveillon, on Christmas Eve.
Big advantage to my brother-in-law being so close, you’d think, would be that we could drink as much as we liked, and then walk home, no harm, no foul. But there were a few barriers in the way of that. I needed some brainpower for the meal itself, a tightly controlled operation that started in the morning with the assembly of the roast, and then continued throughout the day with peeling and par-cooking, until my OH drove all the food in its containers down to the new house. I stayed home to shower and get changed, and then walked down around four o’clock. There were some visits to make, and then I was to take the car back to ours at around the time the roast went into the oven.
It was still just about light when I walked down the hill. It had been raining heavily for days, but for now it was holding off. The road surface was actually a little bit dry, and although there were clouds the colour of a tyre fire hanging above the hills, it was mild. My shoes weren’t wet as I stepped inside the house.
We did our obligatory visits. There are complex relations at work around the villages. My OH’s aunt lives not far from us (across the road and down a short lane), and for a few years we used to do a massive Revéillon at their house. But that stopped for some reason, and a couple of years ago the uncle died, leaving the aunt a widow. There was some family dispute over the funeral arrangements, and she fell out with her daughter, my wife’s cousin, so now she spends Christmas with her son.
Then there’s my brother-in-law’s OH, who about ten years ago got into a massive Revéillon row with my father-in-law. And they haven’t spoken to each other since. And because we always do Christmas at their house these days, he never attends. Which is a relief all around, to be honest. But it means we have to go down there first and pretend everything is normal, and then escape to sanity.
So it was around seven o’clock when we drove back up the hill. I dropped everyone off, with instructions to get the oven warming up, and I drove the car the short distance back up to our old house. I went in and said hello to the cat, picked up the baster which I’d forgotten to send down earlier, put a log on the woodburner, locked up and set off down the hill.
The weather had closed in. It wasn’t exactly raining, but the black clouds had come down and formed a mist that was also a drizzle: a mizzle.
The road is quite steep, brutal on a bike, but you can’t see all the way down because there’s a bend not far along, just where the nearest neighbour on our side of the lane is. As soon as you pass the neighbours’ house, you lose sight of ours. Six or seven more houses down is a kind of crossroads (one of the arms of the cross is a dead end, but around three or four houses are down there), and then just past that is my brother-in-law’s new house. None of these houses are squeezed up against each other. To give you an idea, the house on this side of the crossroads on the right hand side of the road as you walk down, is basically a farm. They keep cows inside their barn in the winter, and their front yard is your typical farmer eyesore, with abandoned machinery and – sometimes – a big steaming pile of manure.
As I set out from our house, my way was illuminated by that bright street light, which shone off the now-wet road surface and showed the way perfectly. But as soon as I went around that bend by the neighbours’, it was as if someone threw a switch. Full dark. No lighting at all, not even a glimmer off a puddle. For some reason, the streetlight next to the crossroads wasn’t working, and the more distant streetlamps which were working only seemed to intensify the darkness. I stood there outside our neighbours’ gate and waited to see if my eyes would adjust, but not much changed. If I’d looked behind, I would have seen the reflected light of the streetlamp opposite our house, but it was no help looking further down the hill.
It was so dark that I strayed from the tarmac and into the grass at one point. There were lights further down, but they were no help in this patch of deep darkness by the crossroads. You can’t help feeling, as you walk, that there might be someone behind you. Reaching the crossroads, which I knew because there’s a cobbled hump in the middle of it, I made my way (slightly diagonally) by memory rather than using my senses across to the point where the next streetlamp was beginning to touch the surface of the road. Looking left, I saw a distant car on the main road, passing from right to left towards the centre of the lower village. It was the only thing moving, and the last car I saw that night. Laughter in the dark.
It was here I paused to take a photo. It has a certain surreal quality. The bright streetlamp is illuminating the side of the next house down, which is next to an ancient concrete electricity tower, which has ivy growing up its side. The hedgerow behind which my brother-in-law’s house sits is pitch black, and you can see a kind of long finger of darkness stretching towards the light.
At this point, the road surface wasn’t slick with rain because the weather couldn’t make up its mind whether it was a mist or a drizzle but when I came out again, it was different.
It was a couple of hours later. I’ve been ill, won’t bore you with the details, but I’ve been needing to top of pain killers on the regular. This is one of the other reasons I couldn’t drink much: I just didn’t feel like it. I didn’t like to ask for painkillers in the house, when I should have bought my own, and I felt like a walk anyway.
Apart from my brother and sister-in-law and their kids, there were a couple of other guests: her brother and her cousin, both recently divorced. The cousin goes through women with some rapidity; I don’t know about the brother. Anyway, Mr Introvert here felt like a breather and a walk, so I decided to go back up the hill for some paracetamol.
By now it was proper drizzle, and the road was wet, and if anything it seemed darker because now the mist wasn’t diffusing the light as much as it was before. I stood in the same position and took a photo of the same house, just to record the difference, then turned and walked up the hill.
I was immediately plunged into the deepest dark, and within a dozen steps had left the road and stumbled on the rocky verge. At the crossroads, I stopped again to photograph the light cutting in from my left, from the dead end arm of the crossroads. There’s a sharp line of dark across the frame, and a real sense that something monstrous is coming around the corner.
Leaving the crossroads behind, I headed on up the hill. While the road before the crossroads is fairly flat, it gets very steep immediately afterwards. As I said, it’s a real struggle on a bicycle. I walked at a steady pace, feeling all the time as if I could be seen, even if I couldn’t see anything myself. I couldn’t hear much beyond my own heavy breathing. Every few metres, I would pause and listen. Was that a cough in the dark at my back? Eventually I reached the steep side road that emerges onto our lane just at our neighbours’ house, and turning the corner I was in the light again.
I reached the house, opened up, said hello again to the cat, and went to take my painkillers. Took more for later: Revéillon is always a long night. In my struggle to keep the cat in the house when I left, I was unable to turn off the hallway light because I was closing the door in his face.
For the third time, I walked down the hill. I started off at a brisk pace, but then slowed down when I reached the neighbours’ house, and stood at the end of that side road. Far down it, two streetlights blazed with trees silhouetted against the diffused light, which cast skeletal shadows against the side of the next house down. I pulled out my camera. The habit of taking pictures when I see interesting light. My phone is pretty good at night pictures. You need a steady hand, and you need to be prepared to stand still for up to three seconds as it exposes the picture. I didn’t really need another night picture, but I felt as if I was asserting normality upon the night.
About two seconds into the exposure there was a sound, an short angry shout, coming from the shadows ahead. An involuntary jerk, so that the resulting photo had a slight blurring at the ends of the tree branches. Someone was out there.
I turned to walk down the dark hill towards the pitch black crossroads. The sense that someone was just behind me was stronger than ever. I aimed my head forwards and tried to resist the temptation to use my peripheral vision. Full dark, suppressing my own breathing, straining my ears to hear beyond my own small bubble of biology. My pulse beat in my ears. Three times down the hill, twice in full darkness. They say you should vary your route. A slight scuff as I reached the crossroads. Or was that me? Diagonally across in the dark. No stopping for atmospheric photos. Past the dark hedge, finally in the light from the next streetlamp. Still not risking a look behind.
It was all good. In through the front door, wet shoes off, coat off, underfloor heating warming my feet. All good. Just one more walk up that hill to come, in the early hours. All good.