When we talk of dusk, we speak of a simple thing; the filler between day and night. In reality, the gradation between these two states is more like a flip-book; a thousand pictures blurring past to cast the illusion of one. In amongst all these flickering images, there is a point when things start to happen. You can mark those things against it, and in a seamless continuum between light and dark, it’s good to have a bearing.
Find something nearby that is brown or red or creamy gold – bracken, grass or the bark of a tree. As the light fades, these warm colours slowly wash out into shades of blue. When the last red has gone, the pendulum has swung into night – look carefully enough and this moment can be pinpointed to a single second, like the flick of a switch. Immediately, the woodcock start to move, and owls which have been boiling their kettles with bleary eyes suddenly catch a first whiff of coffee.
As Friday evening came into this deep blue, a woodcock flitted down over the ice to paddle noisily in the crispy mud a few feet away from where I sat. I could hear every one of its footsteps. Another soon joined the first and then two more came together. In five minutes, seven birds were probing the slush in a little gang less than ten yards away. I watched them bustle together with the first shreds of moonlight through the trees, and their steps began a constant smacking crackle as if the ice itself was stirring. The dark silhouettes flicked and bickered, and one flared its tail up for a moment like a blackcock to reveal a fan of white-tipped underfeathers. If I had blinked, I might have missed it. The group spread out and then came together again; they were enjoying each other – an indistinct blur of loners.
Then the duck began to move. Teal bleeped under the gorgeous, blazing half moon; this was the coldest kind of empty winter night. My nose throbbed and my eyes ran. I still have a diary which I wrote as a pretentious teenager recording frequent trips out on the hill beneath the same hard January moon. One line rings true seventeen years later; “The moon was a hanging bulb and teal rushed beneath it – what else could possibly matter?”
The stars sparkled as they passed behind an old hawthorn hedge on the horizon, and I tracked their progress as they came and went behind the black-knuckle boughs. The emptiness was almost oppressive, so when a teal seared in to land at my feet on the ice, I jumped. The dog wagged her tail in the frost, but the idea of firing a shotgun was like sacrilege. The glen was a temple, and a gunshot would have been a brash, unfeeling thing.
The little duck never offered a shot and I would never have considered it anyway. I waited until he grew tired of the ice and flew into the night of his own accord. Ten minutes later, I found myself creeping away from the woodcock on all fours so that I didn’t disturb them.