Look carefully; the countryside is full of goblins.
Out with my dog one foggy morning a few days back I fell in with my neighbour Colin walking his elderly spaniel. Colin’s a shrewd countryman with plenty of tales to tell, who was born in a damp, thatched Dartmoor cottage over seventy years ago, one of a large family of practical hard-headed country people. We strolled along the lane together chatting about how though thatched cottages look so pretty, they’re usually very dark inside. We were just passing one, and Colin gazed at the thatch. ‘Riddled with rat-runs ours used to be, full of rats and mice; they didn’t cover ‘em with netting then, the way they do now. And leaky! – we had to set buckets and basins out to catch the drips. And fleas? It’s a wonder we didn’t all die, the way my mother used to sprinkle the beds with DDT.’ He shook his head. ‘Like sugar out of a sugar shaker.’
We turned past the cottages into the field, full of low-hanging grey mist. A few years ago one misty morning I’d been coming along the hedge here and looked up to see an impossibly tall giant approaching out of the foggy brightness. Seconds later I saw it was a tree, superimposed on another tree – a crooked elbow, a shoulder, a shaggy head – yet the shock lingered. I told Colin.
‘When I was a boy,’ he said, ‘I went to work for a hunting stable, and in the winter I had to come home late along this deep dark lane, and every night there’d be someone standing on the bank watching me. He wouldn’t move and he wouldn’t speak, and he was never there in the day. Well the way I’d handle it, I’d walk on the other side, and when I got close to him I’d start to run, and I’d yell out, “Good night sir!” and run past as fast as I could. “Good night, sir!” I’d shout, and I’d run. Well, my mother could see something was scaring me, and in the end she got it out of me, and she said, “We’ll see about that,” she says, and she come down the lane with me in the dark. And when we get there, “You silly old fool,” she says, “it’s only an old tree stump after all.”’