Creatures of the Night

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I feared three things as a child:

  1. The monster that lived in the lavatory. I never saw this formless beast, but knew that every time I flushed I was summoning it from its watery (and presumably quite niffy) lair. The rules were that I had to get to the bathroom door before it got me. Quite why it would be unable to breach the invisible barrier between bathroom and landing remains a mystery to me. Perhaps it liked orange, the colour of our bathroom walls (it was the 1970s – we knew no better), and feared the beige of the threadbare landing carpet, much as I feared the grip of its slathering jaws. Rationally, I knew it didn’t exist, but when I tugged on that lever and turned my back on the whooshing vortex of water and its monster-producing powers, rationality was light years away.
  2. Accidentally eating a toadstool and dying a slow and excruciating – yet somehow indefinably romantic – death. As result of this phobia I didn’t eat mushrooms until the age of 19.
  3. The dark. Because… well, because it was the dark.

While deep down I knew the first fear was utterly ridiculous, and the second based on nothing more than superstition, it was the third that struck me paralysed. The dark was the unknown. If I woke in the dark, there was at least a moment of panic that I’d gone blind while I slept. And that was before I thought about all the me-killers that might be lurking in the shadows, behind the curtains and – where else? – under the bed. To this day I prefer there to be at least a crack of some kind of light when I go to sleep, whether it’s from the street light outside our window, the landing light downstairs or an illuminated sign projected onto the ceiling with the words ‘YOU HAVEN’T GONE BLIND LEV AND THERE ARE NO MONSTERS IN THE SOCK DRAWER’ written in Comic Sans.

You don’t have to be a psychologist to make the connection between fear of the dark and fear of death (the same goes for silence in music, by the way, which explains why an orchestra is likely, collectively, to come in very slightly early after a bar’s rest, but that’s a whole other thing for a whole other time). But along with this mild scotophobia (yes, I had to look it up) comes an equally mild and harmless fascination for the nocturnal. Bats; owls; badgers. All worth seeking out for their ‘otherness’; all eliciting a little extra thrill on sighting.

This is why I found myself, at dusk on Wednesday, prowling round a woodland clearing in Dorset, praying my phone battery would hold out so I could at least find my way back to the car.

I’d been ‘doing an event’, as we authors have it. ‘Doing an event’ usually involves going to a bookshop and talking about your book, all the while praying that your blather doesn’t deter those attending from buying said book at the end of the evening.

On this occasion my opening gambit was to ask my audience to write the name of a bird on a slip of paper, denoting whether the bird was their favourite (❤️) or least favourite (☠️). After I’d dealt with the predictable ‘seagull ☠️’ (this was Bournemouth, after all) and agreed with the several people who had put a loving heart next to ‘long-tailed tit’, I read out the next word, written in small, neat lettering on the scrap of paper in my hand.

Nightjar.

There are few things as magical as a nightjar. Its cryptic plumage, moth-like aspect, crepuscular habits and the other-worldliness of the churring sound it makes combine to make them well worth the seeking. They fly nimbly, swooping to catch insects, the occasional light wingclap giving a clue to their presence. Wondrous birds. Mystical, entrancing.

Suffice it to say that I would travel – have travelled – some distance for an encounter with one. On this occasion, it turned out, all I had to do was take a five-minute detour on my way home. The kind lady who had chosen this as her favourite of all the birds was able to give me directions to a local venue where they hang out. She’d seen up to twenty of them just the night before.

She had me at ’nightjar’. ‘Twenty’ had me almost sprinting out of the door.

By lucky hap, the event finished about half an hour before dusk. It would have been rude not to. Drive, park, trudge.

The only problem was the usual one. The site in question was fairly large, nightjars are fairly small, and time was a factor. Fifteen minutes before dusk draws in you’ll find neither feather nor squeak of a nightjar; an hour later it’ll be too dark to see them. I trudged round looking for the most likely spot (they like clearings, and there were several options) shrugging off the surprising agony of gorse needles jabbing into my thinly-trousered legs, and upping my pace as the dark drew in, all the while keeping my ears aflap for the distinctive, almost mechanical sound of a roosting nightjar’s churring.

Not a sausage. Nada, nichts and neechevo. A couple of bats, but what use are bats when you’re after something as entrancing as a nightjar? (Sorry, bat-lovers.)

The darkness began to thicken. Ah well. Another time. Now which way was the car again?

Churr. Churr. Churrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr.

It stayed the same pitch, then went up a bit, as if cranked by an unseen hand. Then back to the original pitch. A magical sound, coming from that big tree over there.

There was no chance of seeing it, of course. But just to stand under the tree and drink in the sound was enough.

Clap. Swoop. Glide. Flutter.

Now you’re talking.

The air spawned nightjars. I counted two, three, four, hugging the horizon, teasing me with their flightiness. Up they went, then down. I found one, followed it as well as I could. A little leap, then a flutter, as if the insect it was after had just done a U-turn in midair and bamboozled it, and then it dipped below the horizon and I lost it, but there, there was another one and my head began to spin as I tried to keep track of them.

I counted five of them. One perched in a tree, silhouetted against the rising moon, impossibly haunting. Another flopped down onto the path ahead of me. This being 2018, and my phone battery being just about ok, I took some video. It doesn’t begin to convey the glory of the moment, but here it is anyway.

Night had fallen by the time they calmed down, but there was just about enough moonlight for me to pick my way back towards the car. For all I know, there were monsters behind every tree, but I didn’t care. The thrill of the nightjar drove me homewards.

Perhaps I’m not so afraid of the dark after all.


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