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17 October 2017

If I’m no longer scared of the dark, surely that means I don’t fear death

When I switched off the bedside light, everything went black.

By Nicholas Lezard

The leaves are turning, the wind is moaning outside my window. “Will ye no come back again?” is what I fancy it is saying. I will, I will.

The room may be on the third floor, in the eaves practically, but there is a big fire burning in the grate, lumps of coal as big as giants’ fists, and all is cosy. In fact, the only fly in the ointment is that when I turn the light out, the room will not be pitch black, which may seem like an odd fly to have in your ointment, but for me, sleeping in a completely dark room is something of a novelty.

The Hovel only had a rather classy strip of fabric that couldn’t really be said to do its duties as a curtain, but it had sentimental associations and looked good, when it was hanging, but there was a street light outside my bedroom so it never got dark. My Brighton bedroom curtain was made of gauze, basically, and I was in the middle of town; so it has been some years since I have experienced the deep blackness of a country night. Probably not since the last time I was here, two years ago, with my children.

It had got to the point where I began to be worried that I would revert to my childhood terror of the dark, or re-experience it. I got over my fears by the time I was about nine, but then shortly after doing so I read The Hobbit, and when Bilbo Baggins couldn’t see his own hand in front of his face when in the goblin tunnels of the Misty Mountains, I freaked out and it all came back.

It is, of course, the fear of death, the return to the nothingness from which we emerged. Why do you think there are so many dark caves and caverns in children’s stories? (The second half of The Silver Chair takes place almost entirely underground, as I recall.) Wombs, of course, but also graves.

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I never thought that there was anything in the darkness that could hurt me: it was the darkness itself. And even at an early age I thought: this is what it’s going to be like, and for ever. The big uncertainty was whether I would be conscious for it or not, and neither possibility struck me as being particularly desirable. (I was quite the little ray of sunshine.)

But the other night was fireless, and the moon had hidden behind cloud, so when I switched off the bedside light, everything did go black, until my eyes adjusted so well that they began to be irritated by the little green light on my sleeping laptop, which I then covered with my phone.

So I’m not scared of the dark after all, I thought. That means I’m not frightened of death either, doesn’t it? And then I decided that it doesn’t, actually, and then realised that I was now one day nearer my death than I had been that morning, which is really annoying, so I turned the light back on and picked up my copy of The Hound of the Baskervilles, and even though I am at the opposite end of the landmass where its events take place, I defy you to find a more fittingly atmospheric place to read it than in a huge Scottish pile in the middle of nowhere, in the middle of the night.

Then I fell asleep with the light on. So much for the darkness.

This is my last day here. I have been offered the chance to learn to drive a quad bike. Half of me thinks I’m going to kill myself if I do, the other half says: “How hard can it be? I rode a motorbike for 20 years, damn it!”

There’s a big pile of tree-stumps in a field that I tried to chop up with an enormous axe but it was raining, and I hadn’t been doing my exercises, and I was worried that the handle would be slippery, and that I’d end up chopping my foot off, which would scupper, once and for all, my chances of being called up for this winter’s Ashes squad. So I thought I’d use the trailer to haul them to shelter, and then wait a year for them to dry out before splitting them properly. I really have gone a bit native here. I even said “jings” at one point before I realised the word was out of my mouth.

I really do not want to leave. This is the real fly in the ointment: the temporal nature of my stay. I am always amazed at how un-bored I am in the countryside, and have yet to stay long enough there to say: “That’s it! I’m fed up now.” But the thought of London does not appeal, which is why I shall be breaking off my journey in Edinburgh to meet a lassie. 

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This article appears in the 11 Oct 2017 issue of the New Statesman, How May crumbled