A Short Night Walk Amongst the Living and the Dead.
The run I definitely hadn’t broken into slowed to a trot, and then normal walking speed. The moment was broken, and the fear dissipated. As you may have inferred, I’m not a natural runner. I don’t have the build for it. If forced into a jog I have it on good authority I resemble a terrified silverback fleeing a forest fire.
This next stretch was the most hemmed in; the earth banks now sufficiently high to cut off the light from the moon. The darkness was increased further by the trees crowding in either side, and reducing the night’s sky to a line of stars echoing the path below. I was down in the mud, leaf mould and ground ivy, where in warmer months slow-worms nosed amongst the lesser celandine and wood anemone, and wrens bustled about their business.
Now the reptiles will be coiled under tree roots, dreaming saurian thoughts, while the wrens, craving warmth in a harsh winter, will be crowded into a communal nest, with up to sixty of their closest friends.
With a clear path ahead I tilted my head back and looked up at the strip of sky between the naked branches, brimming with distant suns. My perspective faltered for a moment, confused by the network of twigs imposed over the view of the galaxy, the two scales clashing – the trees a few feet away, then hundreds of light-years between them and the next solid object
The icy white light of the stellar bodies appeared in sympathy with the frost on the ground, but of course they’re utterly unrelated – each of these tiny pinpoints of light is, in reality, a raging sun, flooding space with staggering amounts of radiation.
On the ground, ice had covered the puddles that remained from the rain that fell a day or two ago, so I watched my step, and regulated my stride, wishing to avoid any further gymnastics. The ice cracked and crunched underfoot, and I became conscious of being a beacon of sound in the otherwise still night. Some people stamp, hum or whistle to break a silent walk, but I prefer anonymity – another reason why I don’t use the torch unless needs must. There’s no method behind this behaviour – it’s probably just another instinct – if you’re moving through darkness and silence, why attract attention?
Ahead of me and to my right, a pale round face floated out of the gloom of the bottom of the cut. It was the disc of a freshly felled ash stump. I counted the rings once on a daytime wander. Starting from the outside and working my way in, they show that the sapling took root within a year or two of the closure of the track in April 1969. It reminded me that although this place is deathly silent now, not so long ago tens of thousands of people passed through this lonely spot, in the battering, clanking, fiery racket of a steam train and attendant carriages. They would have shot through the cut, the light from the carriage windows casting flickering squares across the face of the clean banks, sparks from the engine flying, smuts settling in the wood canopy on either side.
It also reminded me of the pale face in the television adaptation of ‘The Signalman’, a Christmas ghost story written by Dickens, and broadcast by the BBC on the 22nd of December 1976, almost 42 years ago to the day. I was nine when I saw it, and it’s stayed with me. In it, Ian Holme, the titular signalman, had a lonely watch in a cut much deeper than mine, and suffered repeated visitations from an apparition who passed on warnings of impending disasters, but in such a cryptic unspoken fashion that the unfortunate signalman was powerless to prevent them. The presence that menaces him throughout is represented by a dark robed figure, his face, covered by a cloth until the final moments, a palid death-mask, ghastly mouth yawning wide.
Placing my recent howling terror of the unknown aside for the moment, ghosts don’t bother me much. I don’t believe in an afterlife, or the supernatural for that matter. Take our current situation for instance. If there really was some mechanism by which the dead could return to earth, I wouldn’t be able to see for ghosts right now. Due to the rich geology of the area, we would be in a spectacular position from which to observe the afterlife or, afterwildlife I should say. At various points in deep time this patch of Somerset has dressed up in all sorts of environments, and supported a wealth of flora and fauna since gone.
Three hundred and fifty million summers ago, during the Carboniferous, it was part of a great delta, a threadwork of fresh water rivers and lakes. Then, during the Triassic, three hundred million summers ago, it belonged to the interior of a vast red desert. A couple of hundred million summers ago, as mentioned earlier, it was the bed of a shallow, tropical sea, dotted with white-beached tropical islands. A mere five hundred thousand summers ago and it was more like the African Savannah, with a full cast of accompanying megafauna.
So logically, if there was such a contrivance as a soul, an incorporeal presence which could somehow make itself known to us, then I should be buzzed and pestered by phantasmal dragonflies of vast proportions, giant wings glittering in the moonlight. My path would be crossed by skittering, pheasant-like Procompsognathus, and the skies above my head would display drifts of tightly coiled ethereal ammonites, pursued by pods of muscular, dolphinesque, ichthyosaur. There would be spectral straight tusked elephant, eldritch hippopotami, and assorted glow-in-the-dark packs of lion and hyena plaguing my steps.
There were Neanderthals in these parts too, at different times, and heidelbergensis. If modern man can return from the other side of the veil, then why not our more ancient kin? I’m beginning to wish I was wrong. I’d love to see a fraction of those things. Though in truth, the air would be an impenetrable miasma of plankton shoals and insect swarms, through which the larger visitations would have to barge and shoulder.
And also, while we’re on the subject, why are human ghosts depicted as wearing clothes? Are we to infer that shirts, skirts and trousers have unfinished business with the living? Or perhaps they solely have unfinished business, and are just dragging a hapless human ghost around while they get things sorted, after which they can finally fold them themselves up for eternal rest in the great airing cupboard in the sky. And where does it stop? Is there underwear? Are there layers? I’m pretty sure I’ve never offended a pair of pants to the point they would pursue me from the grave. Or am I?
Most of the apparitions in the work of M. R. James, widely acknowledged as the master of the Christmas ghost story, wore nothing but their funeral shrouds. And indeed, the apparition in his particularly memorable short story ‘Oh Whistle and I’ll Come to You, My Lad’, appeared to consist wholly of something closely resembling the funerary fabric.
This was reproduced with a touch of brilliance by the late Jonathan Miller in his adaptation of the work. It was this production, transmitted in 1968, which was the inspiration for the later BBC thread, ‘A Ghost Story for Christmas’ which included Dickens’ ‘Signalman’. At one point, in a dream, the actor Michael Hordern is pursued across a monochrome beach by what is generally agreed to be the most terrifying bedsheet ever depicted on screen. This image generated flashbacks of my recent interlude, so I picked up the pace. To paraphrase the 19th century intellectual, Germaine de Staël: just because I don’t believe in ghosts, doesn’t mean I’m not occasionally frightened by the idea of them.