The Night-Watchmen by Helen Cresswell

The Night-Watchmen by Helen Cresswell, illustration by Gareth Floyd

cover illustration by Gareth Floyd

Like Catherine Storr’s Marianne Dreams, The Night-Watchmen starts with its young protagonist, Henry, confined to bed after a month-long illness. But within pages he’s given the OK to get up for a few hours a day — a limit that’s promptly forgotten as he spends the rest of this short book tramping around town, at all hours, at one point even engaging in some heavy labour, helping dig a hole in the street. Unlike in Marianne Dreams, then, the illness isn’t an essential part of the plot, just an excuse to get young Henry on his own and out of school for a bit of adventure.

Pretty soon, he falls in with a pair of brothers, Josh and Caleb, who call themselves ‘Do-as-you-pleasers’ (i.e., tramps). Josh is writing a long, perhaps never-ending book on all the places they visit, while Caleb concentrates on rustling up gourmet-level meals three times a day. (For tramps, the two have a lot of possessions, including a gas stove, a portable hut, picks and shovels, a small library, and a good deal of cooking equipment, all carried about in a pair of wooden hand-carts.) There’s something else about the pair that’s different, though: they’re from ‘There’. ‘There’ is only defined as different from ‘Here’ (our world) by the fact that it can only be reached by the Night-Train: a steam locomotive that can appear on any rail-track as soon as it’s whistled for, though only, of course, at night. (It feels a bit like the Knight Bus from the Harry Potter books — a magical go-anywhere-in-next-to-no-time transport system.)

illustration by Gareth Floyd

Josh and Henry, illustration by Gareth Floyd

Henry spends as much time as possible with the pair, helping them dig a hole in an out-of-the-way street just so they can erect their workman’s hut:

‘You see, if we was to go putting up huts all over the place, there’d be questions asked. There’d be police and Authority on us before we’d so much as got the stove lit. But a hut with a hole, ah, that’s a different matter!’

The only trouble in Josh and Caleb’s lives is ‘Them’, the Greeneyes: human-like creatures who are trying to get to the tramps’ home-place of ‘There’, and need the Night-Train to do so. And to get the Night-Train, they need Josh and Caleb, so the two have to keep an eye out for these creatures. The one thing they’ve got on their side is the fact that the Greeneyes can’t see in daylight — night is their day, and light blinds them.

illustration by Gareth Floyd

illustration by Gareth Floyd

It’s a light book, almost all taken up with Henry getting to know the tramps and having a glimpse at their (mostly) carefree way of life. The fantasy and world-building are entirely done by suggestion: we don’t know anything more about ‘There’ than that it’s not ‘Here’, and the only thing we know about the Greeneyes is they’ve got green eyes and are the enemy. But it works. Henry has his little holiday from real life, his glimpse of something other than a untroubled child’s view of an otherwise comfortable and ordered life, one of those self-defining moments you feel, by the end, has set him up to be something other than a dull do-as-you’re-told-to, or a do-as-others-do.

Published in 1969, The Night-Watchmen was in the running for the Carnegie Medal, as was Cresswell’s 1967 book, The Piemakers, and her later Up the Pier (1971) and Bongleweed (1973). Cresswell has written scripts for TV, adapting her own novel, The Moondial, and Gillian Cross’s The Demon Headmaster. (The Night-Watchmen, I think, is more radio-play material.) It’s hard to imagine such a quietly-paced, gentle sort of adventure being published today, but I hope they are.