The other day Sigoth and I went Christmas shopping. It’s a little early for us, but I had an unexpected day off work, and time is galloping by in the run up to seasonal festivities. Mostly I have placed orders on-line, hoping that the pictures of the products do not lie. However, where stocking fillers are concerned nothing beats a trip to town.
That’s not what I want to tell you about though, you will be pleased to read. It was the journey back that I wanted to share, although to no great purpose.
I live in a small village in North Yorkshire, and I love the peace and quiet we enjoy for most of the year. I particularly like the serious quietness of winter, when the earth settles down for a snooze and the cold freezes all the frantic activity of nature to let things take a rest. At this time of year, in our northern hemisphere, the light is relatively brief. So as Sigoth and I were driving home at about 3.30 it was already getting dark.
Sigoth remarked that it was only 3 weeks until mid-winter after which the days would start to get longer again. He is a creature of the sun and light and warmth, and he is looking forward to spring.
I sat and stared out of the window at the hills around us. There were no lights along the road, or across the fields. Everything was grey and there was a slight mist forming. It was ancient. This was the experience of our forebears, as they too prepared for a feast to shut out the worst of winter. I was glad I did not have to worry about wolves.
The hills rolled onwards forever, smudged in grey. Briefly I did see a light in a distant farmhouse but soon it was hidden by the trees. The road was unusually quiet so there were not too many headlights coming towards us.
Sigoth said he didn’t remember it getting dark quite so early. I disagreed.
I thought back to 3.30 on winter afternoons when I was at school, cycling home in darkness and sleet, my knees blue and my hands frozen into position on the handle bars, my books dragging me back. When I got into the house I made tea and toast, or hot chocolate and a bacon sandwich, trying to thaw my unresponsive fingers as I waited for the kettle to boil.
At the top of Golden Hill we saw the local market town spread out ahead of us. The lights glowed in the fuzzy air, each with its own perfect halo. We carried on past town and headed for our village. There’s a point along the main road where you can see the houses on the ridge like a line of lanterns showing us how much further we need to go.
Our house was dark, except for the annexe where my mother sat with her electric coal fire and chatty television, dozing in her chair. We unloaded the car and gave thanks for the ancient Aga warming the kitchen. Of course we made tea.
The garden was invisible now as the mist and dark grew heavier. The house enfolded us against the cold and wolves, and I drew the curtains.
Sigoth planned when he was going to go and get the Christmas Tree. I put the shopping away and together we made chowder.
On Thursday night the pub is having a curry night, so we’ll walk through the village, stumbling in the dark and slipping on the old fallen leaves and the mud, while we look for constellations in the sky (unless it’s cloudy).
The dark and misty hills reminded me of Hardy’s poem “The Darkling Thrush” partly because of the opening lines, but also because it ends on an uncharacteristically cheerful note for Hardy.
The Darkling Thrush
I leant upon a coppice gate
When Frost was spectre-grey,
And Winter’s dregs made desolate
The weakening eye of day.
The tangled bine-stems scored the sky
Like strings of broken lyres,
And all mankind that haunted nigh
Had sought their household fires.
The land’s sharp features seemed to be
The Century’s corpse outleant,
His crypt the cloudy canopy,
The wind his death-lament.
The ancient pulse of germ and birth
Was shrunken hard and dry,
And every spirit upon earth
Seemed fervourless as I.
At once a voice arose among
The bleak twigs overhead
In a full-hearted evensong
Of joy illimited;
An aged thrush, frail, gaunt and small,
In blast-beruffled plume,
Had chosen thus to fling his soul
Upon the growing gloom.
So little cause for carolings
Of such ecstatic sound
Was written on terrestrial things
Afar or nigh around,
That I could think there trembled through
His happy good-night air
Some blessed Hope, whereof he knew
And I was unaware.
And so, in darkness and in light, may we all sing joyfully.