In the inky black of pre-dawn I glimpsed, through gaps in the silhouettes of hedges, what I took for car headlamps, one slightly dimmer than the other, marking the meandering downhill course of the lane; perhaps belonging a driver who had taken a wrong turn on the main road. As the lights came closer I noticed their separate side-to-side motion. It was this, along with the absence of engine noise, that made me realise they belonged a pair of early-morning cyclists, riding two abreast.
Both men greeted me as their bikes flashed passed – their brusque “Good mornings” delivered in the military tones of people who feel they are engaged in a serious business; one that places them on a superior plane of existence to slower-paced bystanders and pedestrians.
I watched them traverse the small tarmac car park of The Watermill Gift Shop, leaving behind a trail of fogged breath; falling into an uneasy single-file, whose order was decided at the last moment, as they joined the flinty towpath in the direction of Lower Dent.
After they were gone I unlocked the door of the gift shop and disarmed the burglar alarm. For the next hour I worked in silence at the counter, beside the sleeping cash register.
The waxing December moon cast its pale luminescence impassively over the contents of the shop, moving with the imperceptible speed of a searchlight across a shallow wicker basket stocked with jars of homemade lemon curd; picking out the dimpled glaze on some rustic pottery; reflecting, as a brilliant white glare, off the glossy sheen of the postcards in their wire carousel.
The darkness was slowly diluted by the encroaching daylight, the leaden grey of the overcast morning weakening the glow of the reading lamp, that stood poised over the open accounts ledger. I rose from my chair and unlocked the antiquated machinery of the neutered mill, freeing the wooden wheel on the exterior, allowing it to turn uselessly with the current.
Through I could not see them, I was aware of the excited chatter of the sparrows who had roosted between he paddles overnight, and who were now scattering like a handful of carelessly flung stones over the millrace, skimming the rapids (those strange worn boulders that break the surface and which a long time ago – long before I came here - were painted with white numerals, from one to eighteen, for some unknown purpose); the rag tag flock alighting where they always do, in the honeycombed depths of the immaculate privet hedges that border the gardens of a row of cottages on the opposite bank.
The churning of the water, caused by the protruding spokes of the wooden wheel digging beneath the surface, disturbed the trout who had waited out the darkness shoaled together in its shadow. They dispersed, like a fleet of submarines, into the wider course of the river, each one seeking its own territory.
The creaks of the metal axle, that faithfully repeat with each revolution, broke the trance of the heron who, since the first light of dawn, had been fixated on a daguerreotype of his own likeness, reflected in the still brown waters of the mill pond. With great effort he took to the air, his laboured wing beats, fixing him on a lumbering flight path towards more secluded fishing grounds. As he crossed the tree line, a pair of crows rose from an unkempt nest in the upper branches, on a course to intercept.
Here in this English backwater, beyond the sight of God – his tiny providence and his universal old testament rage - I have been entrusted with the worn mechanism that sets the day in motion.