It's been a long time.
It's been many summers. Too many summer nights snufflefree and still.
But they're back! First an oval of shadow on the lawn. Then a shuffle, a ripple of spikiness along the flower borders.
I know they are a pair. One night at the start of the current heatwave, I met the first one on the lawn where it had crept close to observe me as I leaned, steadying my camera against a tree trunk, trying to capture Jupiter's string of moons in the southwestern sky. The other was waiting for me on the patio, smaller, with mischievous eyes. The second one was less interested in a peculiar human stargazing, more in gazing at the goodies the departing birds had left unpecked for the creatures of the night.
Hedgehog numbers are declining on these islands. They are now a rare sight in British gardens. Fewer than a million remain, down from nearer thirty million when I was born at the dawn of the Sixties. A third of that catastrophic loss has been just in this past decade. These little souls are survivors of this long slow bereavement of the English countryside. I feel unutterably blessed.
Once the birds have flown off and the heat of the day has decanted itself down the thermometer into the soft melt of dusk, I wait to lionise them with dried mealworms, crushed sunflower hearts and peanuts. I top up the bird and bee baths as the sun dissolves into pastel glad-rags of coral and titian on the western horizon. Someone else has need of the nocturnal libation.
I wait. I wait, holding my breath to catch the rustle of their coming. Footfalls across the lawns, threading through hedges, triggering security lights, trembling the dreaming heads of daisies.
Then they're here! Noses badged with leaf litter, eyes more accustomed than my own to the gloaming. Above us, bats skip and soar under the trees and out into the crepuscular backcloth of cloudless sky, tiny Pipistrelles skittering through twilight. Their nationwide numbers too are in steep decline. The hedgepiggies and I, below, must celebrate and survive today and hope for tomorrow.
Before my head hits the fridge-cooled pillowcase, they have melted back into the sweltering South Yorkshire nightfall, making unspoken promises to lighten my life again tomorrow night, and the next, promises I hope against hope they will be cherished enough by humankind to be able to keep.