A golden summer day fades to evening, the inconsistency of the British weather making such sun-filled days particularly sweet. In the garden I squeeze between rows of fruit canes, staining my shirt and shorts with drops of scarlet juice. A bee lands companionably on my arm, its tiny legs tickling my skin. It rests for a moment, buzzing gently, then hovers away to the next raspberry bush.
The swifts are performing their daredevil acrobatics in the evening sky, whizzing and darting across the blue, shrieking in high-pitched excitement. I dread a high-speed collision, but these fearless birds are too agile for that. Another squadron shoots in from across the meadow, careering headlong towards the rest, screaming madly, wings beating furiously as they dive into a swarm of midges. At the last possible minute, they break formation, swerving and shrieking as they devour an in-flight feast. The swifts will be gone all too soon, on their migration to South Africa, and I’ll miss their antics until next year.
The sun dips behind the trees, transforming their leafy shapes to silhouettes against the horizon. The sky is streaked with playful stripes of pink and orange, summer colours of seaside rock or canvas deck chairs. It fades slowly, leaving a clean slate of pale grey. Lumbering clouds move steadily across the sky, like pods of whales on the ocean, rooftops huddled black below them. Beyond the hedge looms the ruin of the church, gutted by fire two years ago. I shiver. The air is suddenly chilly without the warmth of the sun.
There is a sett in the bank below the hawthorn hedge, but we have yet to see any badgers. This might be a good night for a sighting if we are still and quiet. We grab a couple of chairs and carry them silently into the meadow, installing ourselves under the plum tree with a good view of the bank. The air is so still barely a leaf is turning.
I fold my arms over my chest to keep warm and hunker down in my chair. Earlier in the day, the air was full of summer noises; children squealing in delight as they splashed in paddling pools, the whirr of lawn mowers taming daisy-studded lawns, and the victorious shout of cricketers as runs were scored. Now the gardens are empty and the cricket pitch deserted. My eyes adjust to the gathering darkness and I see the outline of a pigeon squatting on her nest in a tree just metres away. She is unruffled, either by our presence or by the sharp blast of the whistle from a train as it ploughs along the Watercress Line. A dog barks once in the distance, then silence again.
And then a slight sound, a rustling in the undergrowth. The scuffling gets closer; it’s not a badger – unless it’s a very small one. Little feet are tramping on last year’s dry leaves, and a small snout is snuffling closer. Then we see it, pushing through the gap in the fence between meadow and churchyard – a hedgehog. It ignores us, and carries on foraging. We watch as it waddles off into a neighbour’s garden.
I’m cold now and wish I’d brought a sweater – and a torch. In a moment it will be pitch black. We gather up the chairs and stumble across the dewy grass towards the house. I turn and look back one last time. More nocturnal visitors have arrived; hungry bats, diving and spiralling along the line of the hedge. These tiny stunt fliers make a hell-for-leather circuit of the meadow, then rapidly gain altitude, clearing the woods and pressing on toward the village pond and a banquet of mosquitoes.