Autumn brings with it a tendency towards reflectiveness and melancholy, encouraging us to draw back again into our houses and selves, our inner worlds. And there’s plenty going on in the outside world to make us want to turn inward, to batten down the hatches and hope for it all to go away.
On a train journey to Bristol in mid September I notice the way that the shadows are lengthening, the way that by 4pm the day is drawing in, taking with it the optimism and outlandishness of summer. I watch cows and their calves grazing the low-branched wood by the track, notice the solitary farmhouses, the abandoned farmyards rusting with machinery, a lone ram in a field, the sense of closing in after summer’s openness.
In another lifetime, when I lived in Abinger, I used to walk on a path which cut across a beet field with Cassie, my dog. The beet grew among the sand and ironstone; purple, bulbous fruits used for cattle feed. The path led from the beech-and-brackened woods up to the coolheadedness of the ancient churchyard. I was approaching 40 and the past year had been one of ferocious change, change fuelled by a mixture of courage, bloody-mindedness and blind faith. As I walked across the path one evening, the beets nearing harvest, I thought how, in almost the same time that it would take me to cross the path to reach the other side of the field, I would reach 50 – an age I saw then as a best-before-date when possibility shrank, and life drew in, like autumn. I remember thinking that there was still so much that I wanted to do, should have done, by now. Like writing. In the middle of the coming winter, in what feels like a blink of an eye, I will have crossed that field and reached the other end of the path.
I once heard John Cooper Clarke say that to write poetry you needed to be idle. All writing requires idleness, space to notice, daydream and think. My stepfather has gifted me a space for idleness and writing – a week in his house in Larnac, France. Day by day, I am coming to. The world is coming back into focus. I walk through the village, trying out paths feathered with blue grass and tufted with thyme releasing its thick, mediterranean scent. A skinny kitten, striped with the greys of the stone path and surrounding houses, follows me, bobbing behind walls to watch me as sparrows flit in to pick late cherries from a tree. At the old ‘lavoir’ or wash house down by the stream, I stop to listen to the water pour from the pipe into the vast basin. I run my fingers through the scalloped fans of the maidenhair fern, watching the way the light plays through them and onto the water. I am reminded of the women we saw on childhood holidays in western France, straitened by nylon tabards, kneeling at riversides, their skin ruddy with cold water and labour, arms like mash hammers, scrubbing and wringing. Women’s work.
Autumn makes me feel older, winter older still. I can feel that my body is changing, that I am changing. For so long I have been used to being the youngest – in my family, my group of friends – and yet out in the world, and sometimes in the quiet moments, I find that I am now old. It is a strange feeling; half delicious, half terrifying. I begin to find that the observations I have heard my mothers and mothers-in-law make over the years are now my own – I too have had enough of cooking and Christmases. I used to see this as the fading of joy, but now I see it as a liberation.
Following the path of a dried stream into the lower stretches of the Cévennes, I climb over rocks and through birch and bramble, feeling a mixture of thrill and peril at not knowing my way – a sense of lostness and discovery. I find a clearing where water trickles from a bank through beards of fine lichen and moss the colour of seaweed, dense and thick and soft. I sit down and peer into a pool of clear water which looks good enough to drink. A cloud of mosquitoes eddy in a frantic spiral, a black water beetle rises to the surface like a submarine, flipping onto his back and scudding gently before suddenly stilling, like a dog playing dead. I get up to see if he is a beetle at all or just a berry fallen from the overhanging trees. He senses my movement and dives back below the water’s surface. A hornet, yellow and orange striped, comes to sip delicately at the water’s edge, while on the bank a big furry caterpillar wriggles his way up through the moss, a large fritillary fluttering above him. I can see baby newts darting, like prehistoric fish, in the shallows. I take off my shoes and feel the shock of the cold, waiting for the tickle of them between my toes. As I put on my socks again and feel the warm glow in my feet I think of the cold swimmers, the cold showerers, feeling the rush of endorphins they report, and think that if the pool were deep enough, today I would have joined in.
This has been a year of losses and discoveries for those that I love the most. The ripples continue to come and we ride them, as far as possible, together. At times it feels as though the fabric of our lives is fraying at the edges as the people who have made up its warp and weft, begin to fall away. But at other times renewed relationships, new strands are revealing themselves, saying – look at me, you haven’t noticed me and I was here all along. The fabric is changing shape.
Back at home in Sandford, our lovely house, old and awkward, the busyness it demands, is overwhelming and I am beginning to regret our romanticism in taking it on. I do not idle enough. None of us do. Glen and I go from work, to house, to garden, like sorcerer’s apprentices battling the never ending tide – a tide of our own making. Being away, the relief at not doing is making me think that perhaps life doesn’t have to be this challenging – that there are external challenges enough.
The ‘studio’, my glamorous shed, begun in March, is inching, in September, towards completion. I think of it as half act of love (Glen is building it for me) and half test of patience. It is half papered, the floor is down and the electrics are in. But I have begun to camp out in it, to be idle in it sometimes, to sit and watch, to read and to write. It reminds me of the camps I made as a child; in the bracken down near the wreck; in the chalet in the garden; in Grandma’s shed where we smoked her stolen cigarellas – that warm feeling of being enclosed and cut off, safe. Situated at the top of the garden it offers a way to be in the light during the winter months, when the dark clings to the inside, as much as the outside, of our house. I gravitate towards it after work, revelling in the absence of digital distractions; here it’s just me, the birds and the outside. I sit and watch the light change, listen to the chickens talk each other to bed, the softening buzz of the bees on the cosmos. The day and its tensions drift away. The moon rises. Bats begin to skit across the sky.
My train journey to Gatwick to fly here took me through the familiar landscape of Surrey and I found that I knew the names of the fields, hills, villages that flashed by – there were the Roughs, Steers Field, Ranmore, Boxhill – there was the coach road where Calum and I had cycled, flying down it with his gang of friends, there the wood with the rope swing, there the tree in the cow field at Albury where Glen and I had climbed, trying to climb out of the way of our grief when we knew that we would lose our baby. It makes me conscious of how little I know of the place I live now – how I am not yet a part of its fabric. I begin to wonder why I don’t live in that familiar landscape anymore, feeling the ache of it. And then I remember hearing homesickness defined as a longing for permanence and realise that it’s about a desire to return to a place where you think you know where you are, as if your axis is fixed, certain. All certainty is an illusion, I remind myself. Every season turns, and we turn with it.
Talking to a writing friend recently we agreed that when revisiting published work, often its flaws and seeming inaccuracies, the ways that we would say it differently now, jump out, leaving a sense of what – embarrassment? Of not getting it quite right? But it was right at the time, we reassure ourselves – there is no fixed point of perfection. So, shall I be 20 again, or shall I be 50? Can I accept the changes that come, learn to live with uncertainty, celebrate being older? Can I make the space to be idle? These will be the challenges – and privileges – of ageing for me.
Before I came away I walked the clover fields one evening, raising a wave to the farmer in his tractor, trailing a sickle cutter. Behind him were striped curves of soft clover ribbons spiralling up the curve of the fields. From the canopied oak in the hedgeline a buzzard mewed to its young, diving in to fetch quarry from between the stripes. Walking the same fields at the weekend I found the first tickle of frost at their fringes, the delicate clover leaves and rough grass blades silvercast with frozen bubbles. The seasons were turning – winter was on its way.
So much, for all of us, is changing at the moment – we can feel the pendulum’s swing. It feels scary, but I like to think that there is cause for optimism, that things can, and will, change for the better. After all, without hope we are lost. In the meantime we can look out for each other – as we always do – knowing that it cannot be winter forever.