Night Garden

A blue plant pot overflowing with small, dry, pink and green leaves. A brown moth with darker streaks along its folded wings rests against the rim of the pot.
Apamea monoglypha: Dark Arches moth found hiding in a neglected houseplant.

In the midsummer half-light of 10:30 p.m. the garden is alive with quiet activity. Not the bumbling snuffles of hedgehogs – there haven’t been any here for the last three years – but the cautious, gentle shuffles of mice and frogs.

There is no moon that I can see, yet it is light enough to make out every white face of the daisies in the border and every yellow streak of the sunset in the sky. The path rises up while the beds shrink back, and blurred boundaries conceal slugs and snails in the grasses and yarrow. A toad lingers in the twigs by the small pond, and in the larger pond, things plop, intermittently.

Further down, in the darkest part of the garden, something else moves. Several somethings, with the confidence and resolve of beings who do not know predators.

Swift and nefarious they are shielded by the canopy above and the undergrowth below. They own the network of tunnels through the woodpiles. They frequent the compost heap and raid the shed. Sometimes the local cats make a show of hunting them, but they are never caught; sleek and dependable, they outwit us all. They are the rats who live in the roots of the holly tree, and they have lived there for generations.

The holly is old, vast and gnarled, and it is the spirit of the garden. Cutting down a holly is thought to bring bad luck, and it was traditional to plant one near a house as protection against lightning. Symbolic of peace and goodwill, the rats chose it wisely. Or perhaps they simply like the dank shade of its understory, populated with nettles and brambles and elder, pungent enough to conceal their own sharp scent. A stream ran along the bottom of the gardens once, and some neighbours say it lingers on in the rats’ race-memory. The stream was filled up in the 1930s, so their memory must be long.

As the last light fades, a sequence of small sounds issue from the conifers. No bats tonight, it’s restless sparrows talking in their sleep, warning each other of imminent, imagined danger. They settle quickly, and the garden returns to the usual rustlings and clumsy climbings through leaf-litter.  Sharp, irregular movements at the edge of my vision are softened by the rose and honeysuckle, both thickening in scent in the warm air.

When I get back up to the house, I see the lepidoptera have arrived; papery silhouettes lying flat against the kitchen wall. Lamp off, I watch the moths rise and drift towards the dark sky. With grace and purpose, they meet the silent stars.

Later, rats will climb the steps and scratch the brickwork. In the small hours beyond midnight, strong nails and teeth will mark the mortar, etching the stories of their lives into our own.