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Drive he said, and find shelter in the night

A weekday evening, the afternoon’s storm just ended, the last light on the puddle ruts of the track touched with an eerie silver for a few hundred yards and then that most ambiguous of seasons – spring nightfall, full dark rushing in – is upon me. It’s a brief hour, more often than not, though in certain moods it can offer all the regret and futility that had T S Eliot designating April “the cruellest month”; and, as it happens, for reasons that are entirely personal, this night strikes me as particularly bitter.

I remember a nightfall from childhood, far from home and off the known track: I’d been walking with some older boys but they ran off and left me, and as darkness hurried in I suddenly realised how far from home I was. Ordinarily, I did not fear the dark but I did fear coming home late, especially on this night, which I had briefly forgotten was the eve of my confirmation – and so, moving quickly from anxiety to sheer funk, I struck off across a field
in the straight line that, had the world been uncluttered and unpossessed, would have been my fastest route back to our prefabs.

That straight line, I thought, was my only chance; so when I came to a high fence, I climbed it in the dark and, in the new rain that had just begun falling, slipped, got tangled in some recently installed barbed wire and, blind with panic now, was obliged to fight my way out.

That was just the first of several mishaps, with the result that I did not get home until long after a search party had been despatched – search parties were frequent in our neck of the woods – and as bloody and upset as I was, I still paid a hard price for making my parents, in the time-honoured formula, worried sick about me.

There are no straight lines home, of course; but if there were, they would be pointless luxuries. When the darkness comes in with a vengeance, what matters is stubborn navigation and – for grown-ups at least – the longer it takes, the better the outcome. I think of a poem by Robert Creeley, in which one man says to another:

              – John, I

sd, which was not his
name, the darkness sur-
rounds us, what

can we do against it . . .

going on to suggest that they “buy a goddamn big car” – though what he intends to do with it is never clear – only to have the other man reply:

drive, he sd, for
christ’s sake, look
out where yr going.

Safe house

The title of this poem is “I Know a Man” (though, unless this conversation is read as inner dialogue, it is hard to say who knows anyone here), but really it’s about that coming in of the darkness and the attendant anxiety that cannot be assuaged by money, or cars, or the promise of safety, and everything to do with recognising how lost a person can be anywhere, whether out on the open road or half a mile from home – because in a real sense there is no home and there is no final safety or escape from the vast night that surrounds us.

Yet isn’t that the point of being here, walking or driving in the dark, a kilometre or so from the porch light, or a thousand miles from nowhere? Isn’t the gift we are offered when darkness comes too quick and steady just a timely reminder that we are the animals who make home as and where we can, too aware to pretend that we are safer than we are, but ready, always, to be blessed with such shelter as we may find.

This article first appeared in the 07 May 2012 issue of the New Statesman, The Science Issue