Monday, January 02, 2006

Winter walks

It’s half-past Christmas, and the village is glowing with brightly coloured lights. And inflatable snowmen and nodding reindeer and something that looks like a giant angry boil, but is in fact Santa with only the light inside his stomach working.

It’s traditional for people to complain about the tastelessness of it all, and the waste of electricity, and to demonstrate all the innate Puritanism that let Oliver Cromwell stay in power for 20 years, but as for me, I like the Christmas lights. Winter, for dog-walkers, is a dark time, and the dog-walking torch (for dog-walking – unfortunately the torch can’t walk the dog by itself) becomes another thing to cram into my pockets as I head out into the cold night air.

Our village only has one street, so if I want to take the dog out for longer than five minutes, I have to go "off-road", or at least "off-streetlight". There are a couple of dark, pot-holed muddy farm tracks that Herbie loves, and so I lurch out into the night, dressed like a poacher-cum-fishwife, with a feeble torch-beam to point out which hollow I’ve just wrenched my ankle in. Herbie, in his black bat-cape (dinner dinner dinner dinner BAT-dog!) swoops and runs at invisible rabbits, and snuffles in the hedge-rows, while the roosting guinea-fowl cronk with irritation at having their sleep disturbed. On moonlit nights, the path is well-lit, as long as moonrise coincides with darkness.

I’ve never worked out how to calculate when the moon rises and sets, so every now and then I’m caught out, because moonrise comes early in the morning, and moonset is mid-afternoon, and I’ve never worked out why that happens – it seems very badly arranged to me. Someone Should Have a Word. But, celestial arrangements permitting, there are nights when the path shines silver-grey beneath me, and the fields are sharp as an old black and white photo. The lights of the next village, three miles away, shimmer on the horizon, and the black thickets of pine blot out patches of landscape.

Once I’ve walked for a while my fingers begin to warm up, but I can hear my own fireside calling to me, and then I’ll turn, calling Herbie to me. He understands the "Round" command, and follows instantly, turning on a ha’penny, trotting beside me to be sure I meant what I said. Once he’s sure, he will streak off into the dark again, little beige bottom twinkling from beneath his coat. As we reach the end of the track, past the lorry yard and the pub car park, I clip Herbie’s lead back on, and we emerge, blinking, into the full glory of the Christmas illuminations, lights that say to me: You’re Home. That’s what the lights are for, to let you know that however dark the night, somewhere somebody is home. And that’s a comforting thought.

Happy New Year.