The Great Midnight Milk Run

THERE is a rural myth - at least I believe it's a myth - that hedgehogs, in the long hours of darkness, sometimes treat themselves to a drink of milk from cows as they lie asleep in the dewy meadow grass. Originally, perhaps, it was an old wives' tale to explain why certain cows were not yielding as much milk as expected come the morning. It's as good an explanation as any, really. And if it wasn't for the notable absence of hedgehogs in our neck of the city of Glasgow (in nine years here I've only seen one, and that was belting along a sidewalk at high speed one afternoon as if it had strayed into the city by mistake and wanted to return to country living as soon as possible), I might be tempted to apply the same explanation to the mysterious and frequent disappearance of our milk supply.

The only difficulty, however, would be that our particular hedgehog-milk-stealer would have to be living secretively behind the refrigerator and be equipped with a laser-like straw that could penetrate sheet-metal, incrustations of permafrost, yogurt tubs, and plastic-covered wedges of Orkney cheese - not to mention the milk jug itself - in its direct and deadly pursuit of milk. But how else can one account for the regular absence of pints of milk which we thought we had in there?

Darkness has something to do with it. It's always midnight - and after she's already in bed - that I discover we are once again out of milk.

Breakfast without it is, of course, an unthinkable catastrophe, so, sighing with dramatic emphasis, I head off in the car to the filling station on Paisley Road West, just across the way from the betting shop and the bar by the traffic lights on the road that leads down to Ibrox Football Stadium. Open 24 hours, this useful garage-cum-emporium supplies milk as well as gasoline - and also compact discs and one-size tights and sliced bread and cans of oil and fan-belts.

Actually (though don't tell anyone, as I like to give the impression that running out of milk at midnight is a terrific burden that only the most long-suffering husband would willingly bear), these little nighttime trips give me a funny sense of enjoyment. Possibly it's the schoolboy in me - an echo of the memory of secret late-night feasts in the dormitory at school, second only in clandestine excitement of pillow fights.

Sometimes I sit in the car in the filling station forecourt, and munch my way through a packet of Smokey Bacon Potato Crisps before I chug back over the motorway bridge, past the bowling club and the artificial ski-slope in the park the Pope visited a year or so ago (the park not the ski-slope), over the railway, past the hotel, and home again with the milk.

But also part of the fun is, I think, the contrast. The trip takes me ``across the tracks'' - and the difference is palpable. Our side is quiet, and although only 10 minutes drive from the city center, it is a kind of suburb within the city. Other than the occasional swish of a Porsche or Mercedes along one of the lime-lined avenues - a teenager late home in Dad's borrowed car - this area is by that time dead to the world.

The lurid orange street lights illumine an emptiness - maybe one late dog walker, maybe one of the resident bin-raiding foxes, ambling by - but usually not a soul. The filling station, no more than a mile, if that, away - is city-proper. It's something of a local meeting place, just livening up at midnight, for kids who can't see any sense in sleep: It's brightly lit; noisy motorbikes rev; and everyone's laughing, joking, yelling, and flirting as they queue at the shop window (the door is locked by then for security) for a bottle of ``Irn Bru'' or ``ginger,'' for tomorrow morning's tabloid rag or a carton of milk and a packet of crisps.

I don't need the crisps in the least, of course, but something - probably just amusement, possibly something profoundly urban in my makeup - makes me want to stay around there for a minute or two before I go back to ... the urban-suburbia where I ... belong? Well, where I live, at any rate, and on the whole, I have to admit, very satisfactorily, really.

There may, however, be something else at the back of my pleasure in these milk trips. I've only just realized what it might be - a way of continuing something past in different form, something, in fact, rural in city-form.

For a decade in the '70s I lived quite deeply in the country, down in Yorkshire. And collecting the milk was an event. Intriguingly, this also often took place at bedtime, when I'd discovered there wouldn't be enough for breakfast. I also had to get it then rather than in the morning, unless I was prepared to go to the farm very early before the milk-tanker came to transport it to the dairy in the market town five miles away.

This farm milk hadn't got anywhere near the bottle or carton stage yet. It had left the cow very recently indeed. If you went for it too soon after milking it would still be warm. It was still in the container, and had to be fetched in a galvanized metal can.

My city visitors would be sent for the milk as a rustic adventure - most of them returned safely - but generally it was my job, and generally the flashlight wasn't working yet again.

This mattered because - something soon forgotten in the city - it is astonishingly dark in the country. In Glasgow, I'm conscious that I never experience out-and-out darkness.

I'm sure I should be grateful; street lights are one of the basic evidences of civilization, but it seems more than a shame to me that city people don't experience the exhilaration, the odd mix of secrecy and danger, that the total darkness of the countryside provides.

Of course, moon and stars often interfere with this velvet blackness, but when they do the rural view of them is still entirely different from the city view, because - apart from the sporadic spark of a farmhouse window still lit here and there - the earth becomes empty space and the activity is all up there above your head: The vast, encompassing arch of the sky is predominant. There is no competing light, and the ground is simply the pitted and wrinkled receptacle of that intangible, weak, silvery glimmer.

One night, in a light misty rain, I saw a moonbow - if that's its proper name - a rainbow by moonlight. I leaped about like an excited calf (there was nobody there to watch me). I imagined colors in it, but I think they weren't there at all, just magical gradations from pitch to brightness. It was perfectly amazing, and I never expect to see one in the city.

Fetching the midnight milk was often a grumbling matter, particularly in drenching rain, but its very difficulties and hazards belonged to the country so totally that as an activity it seems to me now almost the ultimate contrast with the city.

After crossing the paddock-cum-garden to the corner of the wall, the empty can had to be balanced on the uneven top of the wall, which then had to be climbed. This minor form of mountaineering is a technical feat involving deft balance and footwork. It is best done in daylight.

Not all footholds are reliable, and stones at the top that have been stable for a couple of centuries have a sudden capacity for dislodgment. I have landed literally face down in mud over a dry-stone wall more than once - glad that such ignominy was not witnessed.

Next you need to know where the mud is squelchiest as you tramp over the field to the farm. You soon learn that wherever a tractor has been is likely to be a deep-rutted quagmire akin to the trenches of World War I, and that cows and tractors both render the ground at gateways impassable except by amphibious tank.

The cows also haphazardly spend their days making the fields into minefields: The wariest walker will inevitably tread in generous cakes of cow-donated ground-enrichment. The nighttime milk collector-without-flashlight can, of course, avoid nothing. He just bravely walks on regardless.

At the farm there is the garden to negotiate - a tangled wilderness of tall wet grass, currant bushes, lilac and mock-orange, flower beds, a discarded scythe, a broken- down lawn mower, and child's bike and washing lines. In icy weather the sheets hanging from these can be like stiff cardboard. You duck and weave through all this.

Then - not wanting to wake the family - you tiptoe past the back door hoping the sheep dog doesn't hear you and bark like a coyote. She does and she does. ``Shhhh!!! Gwen!!! It's only me! Shut up!!!''

But it's too late, and you know they know and you know they'll twit you about it tomorrow. Then into the cooling parlor, and clang, bang, you fall over a conglomeration of metal shovels and rubber tubes and pipes, and at last you plunge your container lightly into the thick yellowy depths and lift it out heavily, coated and dripping. You've got what you came for - 90 percent quadruple-grade cream plus a little bit of milk.

The journey home is no less hazardous, except you have the blurry distant light from your own house as a target. Above you is all the openness of the universe, even in what you can see with your naked eyes so inconceivably large as to seem - daft. Why, in heaven's name, is it all up there?

Some sheep stare at you in an indignant huddle, furious in a woolly-minded, not very committed fashion, at your intrusion. They don't stop grinding their mouths from side to side.

Then your own dog - who has theoretically come with you, but in fact gone rabbit chasing in a hedgerow three fields away - returns without announcement and scrabbles over the wall a moment after you have scrupulously balanced the milk container there.

It wobbles, about to fall, but you grab it in the nick of time. Balance it again, heave yourself over, and head at last for the back door, shaken, mud-bespattered, your boots smelly with dung, but your head singing with the overwhelming stimulus of air and country living and darkness and being gloriously alone.

The moral? Well, none, really except maybe a question and an answer.

The question is: Who has it best when obtaining milk at midnight, the city-dweller or the country-dweller?

And the answer is: hedgehogs.

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