I’m not an early bird, I said, as I bid a fond farewell to three women, strangers to me before last Friday.
They were planning an early walk, today, before leaving the place we’re all staying.
It wasn’t just the hour. True, 8.30 am sounded rather more chore than fun, but I also suspect they’re hardy trompers. And I’m more of a casual ambler, two miles for me a decent walk.
So we hugged and parted. A sparkler clasped in my hand as I waved goodbye, a souvenir of their companionship and a parting gift to celebrate Emily Bronte’s 200th birthday.
Emily was the prime reason we had all assembled at the old mills in the lush valley. And I, fortunate one that I am, stay on.
But my words came back to haunt me this morning. I woke at 4 am – and half an hour later was still a very long way from the Land of Nod.
I opened the curtains, stared at the grey-green world outside and thought, why not?
Why not throw on some clothes and walk?
Ten minutes later I left my lair and shut the door quietly behind me.
No-one else would be up so early, would they? And I didn’t want to disturb any of the other guests.
But as I stepped into the dawning, I noticed a man, standing on a doorstep at the far end of the mill. I began a smile, raised my hand and quickly dropped it back again.
There was no answering greeting, no twitch of the face or hand. At least, I didn’t see any such acknowledgement. Perhaps, like me, he wasn’t quite ready for his part in reality.
And so I went on my way. Through the tunnel and past the pond, along the path beside the water.
Was it coming on to rain?
I stood a moment. All was still in the water, the dim light reflecting the trees above as clearly as at high noon. But in different hues.
As soon as I moved the ‘rain’ began again and followed me as I padded down the path in my (it will soon become clear why I mention this) blue and white, made-of-textile shoes.
The raindrops were water boatmen, water skaters, detecting me, busying themselves with evasive manoeuvres. Tiny creatures, but alive and alert.
I was no longer alone – if ever I had been.
I plodded on, trying to notice the shapes of things, the muted colours, the light, the shade. Smelling the air. Listening (in vain) for the owl I heard yesterday.
Accompanied by the chortling brook, cheered, I imagine, by two days of rain.
I peered up through the trees, hoping to catch a glimpse of deer between skinny trunks that interspersed others too sturdy for hugging.
To no avail.
Magic comes best unbidden, unsought. Surprise an essential part of the spell.
I came to the end of the broad path approaching the other mill. Saw a little bridge. Turned my steps and bore left.
Treading carefully over chunky gravel, so as not to disturb any nearby sleepers, I left the route-well-trodden.
The sheep were having none of this anonymous nonsense and several raised their voices.
‘Bear,’ they bleated. ‘Bear, we’re here.’
I think Bear’s their pet name for everyone.
Over the bridge the path became a narrow strip of coarse grass cut through a lush meadow. I tromped on, then upwards.
Anyone who has ever sung English folk songs will know that we should beware of the morning dew. And what a heavy dew lay upon the grass this morning. That and the remnants of yesterday’s rain.
By the time I’d stopped several times, to marvel at umbellifers, grasses and teasels, my feet were thoroughly sodden.
Ah well, nothing I could do. And once so wet, they wouldn’t get wetter.
A branch of a tree hung across the path and I debated turning back, but something drew me on.
I blame the earliness of the hour – I wasn’t quite as alert as I might have been.
And anyway, I’d really stopped hoping.
I caught a glimpse of beigey brown, saw branches and leaves roughly ruffled, disturbed.
Heard the thudding of deer’s feet leaving.
Stood a while, willing them not to be frightened.
Frightened? Of me?
But I knew they would not be back, or not soon.
Their magic nestling in my heart like a random gift from a stranger, I turned and squelched away.
And as I sit here writing, I catch a glimpse, now and then, of a speck of gold on my hand.
A tiny heart. A temporary tattoo from last night’s revels.
Random gifts from strangers.
Or not so random.
And not now – the three humans anyway – strangers.