Look, I don’t want anyone to run away with the misconception that I’m a brave person. I have an impressive list of fears and phobias, including spiders, lifts, doctors, mushrooms (let me qualify that, I could be perfectly calm in a room with nothing but fungi for company as long as nobody expected me to eat it), the theme tune to The Archers (so far as I know it has no particular traumatic associations) and bubble wrap. Or at any rate when people start popping it.
Anyway, you get the message. But when I tell people (and no, I don’t make a point of boasting about it, it has never struck me as anything to boast about!) that I’m not remotely bothered about walking home in the dark, not even talking the short cut through the semi-rural bit, I’m either irritated or think it’s an easy way to garner wholly unjustified Bravery Brownie Points when they give me that wide-eyed really sort of look and say they wouldn’t do it.
Even people who aren’t remotely scared of the dark as such, even eminently sensible and laudably hardy folk seem to have this fear. I blame some of it on the tabloids, of course, on principle.
So I’m absolutely fine about walking in the dark.
And it’s not a recent thing. No, if anything it gives me a nostalgia kick.
You see, when I was a little girl — not a toddler, but from when I was about 8 or 9, I regularly went for walks in the dark when most folks were sleeping or at least tucked up in bed.
Time to clear up another misconception that might be germinating in concerned minds. I wasn’t a neglected child, or a child from a homeless family, or anything along those lines. I lived with loving parents, in a fairly nice house (to this day I remember the pink pebbledash walls with great fondness. I don’t know how much because I liked the look of it and how much because I liked the word pebbledash. I had my own cozy little bedroom, and Mum, being a clutterer herself, wasn’t over-fussy about keeping it that tidy. I had my books, and still had my dolls, and had a little table lamp with a turquoise shade and a little artificial goldfish swimming under the bulb, and a music box with a ballerina that twirled round to a tinny rendition of Fly Me to the Moon. I liked my bedroom.
I suppose the first time, it was a whim. Maybe the fact that my Dad sometimes worked shifts had something to do with it – it had lodged somewhere in my mind that you didn’t have to spend the night sleeping. But I might have done it anyway. I don’t know.
I’m well aware that (though a literary genius would probably manage to pull it off) doors aren’t the most fascinating subject matter, but I have to briefly offer a few words of explanation about our front door at the time. It was a heavy, old-fashioned door, but not like a castle door or anything like that. When you shut it behind you it was self-locking (though I’ve subsequently had an embarrassing experience with a self-locking door in a hotel, so far as I can remember, none of us ever locked ourselves out). When you shut it behind you inside, though, you only needed to slide what we called a “snick” instead of turning a key. I expect a lot of people will know what I mean, but if you don’t – well, it’s like a little horizontal switch. When you want to come in again, the key makes the snick go to the “open” position. It also had the advantage that if, say, you wanted to unload something from the front-drive, or potter back and to from the garden, you could just keep it in the “open” position and it made going in and out much easier.
End of the architectural excursion! But what you will have gathered is that it couldn’t be locked from the inside. No doubt some people would (at least figuratively) hold up their hands in horror at the thought of a young child in a house that couldn’t be locked from the inside. I was about to say that this seems like “Nanny State” stuff to me, but bearing in mind what I’m telling you, perhaps they’d have a point.
I couldn’t sleep. Now normally, I’d have read my book, or even put the little transistor radio I’d been given for my previous birthday on quietly. Mum and Dad were reasonable about things like that. But I had the sudden thought that I would go out into the garden for a breath of air. That was a phrase my Gran used. And the wisdom of grandmothers is legendary!
I genuinely can’t remember if I’d ever been told not to open the door in the night, or if Mum and Dad thought it would be best not to put the idea into my head. I padded down the hall (which, as I recall, had linoleum that looked very convincingly like black and white tiling) and slid the snick to the open position, and went out into the front garden. My Dad was no great gardener, but, though I can’t recall the exact date, it must have been in spring, as the garden had that scent that only comes in spring, and comes more intensely in the stillness of the night. It wasn’t raining, but it had been (as the dampness on the soles of my slippers told me!) and that heightened it.
Though the scent of the rain-freshened flowers was very nice, I didn’t leave it at that. I went past the car, that looked a different color, and along the drive and out onto the street. It seemed a perfectly natural thing to do, at least for a couple of minutes, and then I stopped still and realized that it was something I shouldn’t be doing at all! Yet that was neither a heady feeling nor a daunting one. I suppose I did feel a kind of smugness at the thought of my own uniqueness, but it didn’t seem that big a deal.
If you’re waiting for me to tell you about encounters with strange creatures of the night, hostile or friendly, then you must prepare to be disappointed. I did hear an owl, and I did see a cat (I wonder, did Edward Lear ever go on any childhood small hours sorties?) but owls aren’t on my list of fears and phobias, and I’m very fond of cats, so that was fine.
I had a little walk down our residential street and noted that all the cars looked a different color in the dark, and I did hear a couple of cars going down another road, but not down ours. To some extent, I was in a world of my own, but hadn’t let my mind drift enough to stop me realizing that it might be a good idea to go back home. I had already pushed my luck – another favorite Gran phrase – and was worried that I might have been found out and that I might be greeted by a very angry Mum informing me she’d been worried sick and wondering if I’d been sleepwalking. Oh, that’s another thing that I have to make plain. I wasn’t sleepwalking. I’m not saying I might not have used that as an excuse if I’d been caught, though probably not, as it might have led to a visit to the doctor, but I most definitely wasn’t. I was awake and not in any altered state of consciousness.
Anyway, I had got away with it. I shut the door as quietly as I could and went back up to my bedroom. I’ll admit I was a bit worried about the damp soles of my slippers, but I put them under my bed the way I was supposed to, and nobody was any the wiser.
The whim and the one-off turned into a habit. Oh, not every night. Not if the weather was horrible (how much because it made the risk of being found out greater, and how much because even at that age I had a certain regard for my creature comforts, I don’t know!) and I put shoes on, and sometimes a coat. I started to venture further afield, sometimes as far as the little shopping arcade at the end of the street. That had a fascination all of its own, though I realized I was also taking a risk. One time, at least, I saw someone inside the little supermarket and wondered if it was a burglar, and whether I ought to obtain Local Heroine status by reporting it though it would lead to some very awkward conversations and put an end to my night-time forays, but it dawned on me in time that it was a perfectly innocent cleaning lady.
As spring turned to summer, sometimes it was already light when I took my night-time walks. Now that had an appeal of its own (and to this day the 3 am sunrise is something I enjoy!) but I suppose if push came to shove my preference was still for it to be dark or lit by street lamps.
I do remember that one day (the year was waning again, now) I thoughtlessly left the snick in the “open” position, and Mum remarked on it, but poor old Dad got the blame. Luckily, she didn’t make too much of it, and it didn’t deter me, though it did make me more careful.
Like most children, I looked forward to going on holiday. We were taking an autumn holiday that year, at the half-term break with a couple of days tagged on. That was before they became so mega-strict about term-time absences. Sometimes we went abroad, but this time we were going to a little cottage in Snowdonia. Well, I’m not going so far as to say that my holiday was ruined by the fact that the cottage did have a lock and key inside and that I couldn’t get out in the night, but it was certainly frustrating. I itched to have my small hours walk down the village street. Though, as I’ve hinted with the lifts business, I’m a bit claustrophobic, it’s far from being to the extent that I felt trapped or panicky when I couldn’t get out of a building, but it stopped me enjoying the holiday as much as I would have done otherwise. I told myself it was far smaller than “at home” and there was far more risk of being found out.
Anyway, I celebrated coming home by having a particularly long walk, staying out for nearly an hour.
It went on like this for a couple of years or so. Not every night, but several nights a week. I suppose, in the end, I grew out of it. Though I’m a creature of habit, there was a limit. I never gave it up completely as I “Put aside childish things”. We moved house in my early teens, to a house with an inside lock (and no pink pebbledash!), and I was trusted early with my own key. I did make a point of a night-time exploration of the area, but it never became as regular or frequent again.
Even now, if I can’t sleep, I have a night-time walk sometimes.
And I never did tell anyone. Many’s the time I thought of casually starting a conversation with my Mum with “You know that time you blamed Dad for the snick being left open in the old house...?” and I wonder how she would have reacted, but I’ll never know now.