Jason Goodwin: ‘I pedalled for dear life with the devil at my back’

A nighttime excursion leaves our columnist with one clear thought: do less of this sort of thing.

In the small hours of the night, when the roads are silent and empty, a car careens down a village street. The driver’s face is dimly lit by the map light, which shines behind the windscreen. Under the single village streetlight, he pulls over, kills the engine and almost immediately gets out of the car, leaving the door open. He goes round to the boot. He looks inside, closes the boot, opens the passenger door and leans in. Eventually, he straightens up, looks around and gets back into the driver’s seat, slamming the door.

The engine starts. The driver takes one last look around, turns off the map light, puts on the headlamps and pulls away. As his rear lights trail, glaring, into the darkness and the throb of the motor slowly dies away, questions hang unanswered in the night air.

From time to time I get the heebie-jeebies, in the car, at night. I don’t know if I am alone in this, but I suspect not. Shakespeare didn’t drive, of course, but he knew all about getting spooked by things that bewilder and bewitch: ‘In the night, imagining some fear, how easy is a bush supposed a bear.’

It always seemed sensible to sweep the children’s rooms for bears at bed time. The pattern of the curtains becomes a grinning face, the dressing gown on the peg behind the door a sinister intruder and the groans and creaks of an old house settling for the night fall into a pattern of stealthy footsteps approaching up the corridor. As a child, I slept with a view from the bed of stairs leading to the attic, where the water tank made a curious heaving sound. I lay round-eyed, watching for the feet of the dreaded Cybermen to appear on the upper step, longing for the sound of adult speech or laughter from below.

I don’t often walk at night, certainly not alone. The lanes here are fraught with legends of a Black Dog, who appears with gig-lamp eyes and presages a death or offers assistance. When I lock up the hens in the dark, I sometimes get a creepy feeling at my back that hustles me back into the house, slamming the door behind me.

Like one who, on a lonesome road

Doth walk in fear and dread,

And, having once turned round walks on,

And turns no more his head;

Because he knows, a frightful fiend

Doth close behind him tread.

Coleridge spoke with authority: he and his friend Wordsworth were prodigious night walkers, braving its terrors in the pursuit of authentic experience and emotion.

But you can have enough of that. Only the other night, I found myself on a bicycle a few miles from home, pedalling along comfortably enough, until I had a nasty thought and my mind boggled. I churned the cranks like a steamboat, straining my ears, the wind driving tears from my eyes, as I pedalled for dear life with the devil at my back.

Therefore, when I stopped my car in the night, to check for boggarts and spooks and back-seat killers, it was simply common sense. In open country, my headlamps bored tunnels through the inky night. The road twisted and turned, barren trees, dark gateways and the occasional white flash of a signpost sprang into view and disappeared.

It was like riding a ghost train, except that I wasn’t screaming. I was too busy trying to look into the back seat, simultaneously steering and bracing myself for the sight of the Black Dog with the gig-lamp eyes. I probably ought to get out less.