"Everythin's turnin' same colour," old Arthur Frost would say as he put his tools into his wooden wheel-barrow. It was his way of recognizing that the end of a working day had arrived. That old country man lived next door to my family in the village where I grew up, and as a young boy I would hang about watching him work with shears and spade. He had spent his life working with heavy horses, and he spoke very little. I enjoyed his undemanding company.
Everythin' was turnin' same colour as my friend Chris led the way along the winding animal tracks through the low scrubby gorse and bracken of Chailey Common. It was the possibility of hearing Nightjars which brought us out on to Common in early July of this year. The day had been bright and warm; the evening was cooler, with a mild breeze from the south west. The sun had slid below the horizon, although there was still just enough light for us to discern the reddish-brown of some cattle ahead, their heads crowned with exceptionally long, graceful horns. They seemed to watch us with the same interest that we observed them, as if all of us were witnessing something unexpected in the fading light.
I live in Devon, but was back in Sussex visiting friends. My childhood home stands just three miles to the south of the Common. As teenagers Chris and I had attended Grammar School together six miles to the west in Haywards Heath. Now we are in our mid sixties.
He knows the Common well and after we had walked a little he called my attention to a favourite tree of his. It must have been blown over some years ago and had managed to survive the fall. Its trunks and branches, which had originally set off in one direction, were now forced to seek the light in another, and the result was a silver birch the like of which I had never seen; strangely twisted and with multiple trunks at bizarre angles. It invited us to clamber into its lap, where we sat for a few minutes, chatting.
"Do you remember that time we were up here on the Common after school, and discovered 'Looking at the world upside down'?" I asked.
"Yes, of course. It was amazing! We were lying on a bank with our heads lolling back and we both realized how simply seeing the familiar world upside-down changed it utterly. I remember feeling we were in a different country or something. We just laughed and laughed."
"Yes. It seemed kind of absurd. Why had no-one ever mentioned this wonderful thing to us before? I still do it sometimes. Only I usually do it by turning my back on the view and then bending forward to look at it through my legs. You get the same mysterious effect."
Yes, discovering the world anew together, and laughing together. For these we have loved each other all these years.
In the darkening silence I became very aware of how precarious life is. And friendship. Chris's health is very dodgy. He already has several major illnesses that vie to carry him off. Whenever we meet these days, two or three times a year, at some point I become aware that we may not meet again. An encounter such as this could easily be our last time together. He probably has similar thoughts.
"Come on then, Chris. Where are these birdies then? You promise Nightjars, and all I get is cows and nostalgia. Not good enough, matey!"
"Ok, Ok! Let's try over there, but I promise nothing. Sometimes they're here; sometimes they're gone. You understand what I'm saying?"
"Oh, like sometimes here, and sometimes not, is that it?"
"You're a good boy, Steve! You catch on fast. I can see you'll go places."
"Hombre! I've been and come back, already."
"Ah-ha. No place like home, eh?"
By now the cows have conceded their brownness to the general gloaming, and we are entering the short space of time between day and night when Nightjars might emerge from hiding to hunt moths, and to announce their existence with the soft churring sound for which they are famous.
"We'll be lucky to see them. They tend to wait until there is almost no light before they reveal themselves. But who knows? We may be lucky." So saying Chris led the way to an area of open heath with short trees silhouetted to the west; elsewhere, a low mass of dark bushes and bracken encircled us. A glimmer of light to the east indicated the imminent arrival of the moon. We stood listening in expectant silence. Nothing but the sound of distant cars. We walked on and stood again, listening and watching. I turned my hearing-aids up to maximum. Then, as friends do, we started to chat again, and wandered on. The Nightjars had become an irrelevance, in a way; we were just enjoying the summer evening, and the familiarity of each other's company.
All colours had indeed become one when I picked out the faintest unfamiliar purring sound in the distance.
"Yes. Nightjar. That's it."
We strolled towards the sound, and soon it stopped. A few minutes later we stopped too.
"Sure. It was wonderful just to catch that tiny sound. Thanks for that, Chris."
As we made our way back to the car a vast moon heaved itself over the low cloud in the east, glowing a rich orange.
©Steve Smith July 2015