The first leaves fall like a warning. Then there’s the scurrying winds. The lingering, sweaty warmth. The fresh damp, building a shanty town of black mould-spots upon my bathroom ceiling.
But way before this I’ve felt a foreboding. Midsummer, when the protracted June days should be a luxury of light-filled pleasure, and I’m preoccupied already with just long it will be until another spring. Next spring, when I’ll finally shake off winter and feel, as if I am a plant, as if I am a bird, my incredible buddings and greenings, my sweet ambitions to sing the brightest, most brilliant songs of the entire year. My desire to jump for joy and high-five the air is almost uncontainable.
May’s back disappears around the corner into June like a loved child starting school for the first time and already I miss it. By late summer it has developed into something more acute (though there is no comparison here with genuine Seasonal Affective Disorder, which is a seriously problematic condition for its sufferers) but there’s no doubt I do feel blue. Autumn’s messy braiding with the end of summer accentuates the feeling of distance from spring, and my craving for it to return becomes so intense that I look forward, even, to inclement January, just for its sense of newness, of the year turning, its small signs of fresh life. Catkins, snowdrops, the chance hearing of a blackbird singing, maybe.
But then there appears to be some reprieve, the illusion of an early gift sent from next year. Often, in September, a sense of renaissance, a brief return of some spring-like value. A feeling of change in the air, and not just in the occasional requirement for a cardigan. Whether it is in birdsong flourishing again after the late summer’s hiatus – when many birds fall conspicuously silent as they go into feather moult, or flushes of belated wildflowers in the verges, or some other ‘green’ hint of that long cast-off season.
And there’s a place I go to, not a secret exactly, but a well-known escape. It’s not quite season-neutral, but it is somewhere it is possible to hide in for a while, should you choose the right spot, from the mercurial conditions of life outside. Though commerce flows between its doors, it is somewhere where what happens elsewhere feels less significant. Where I might find, and whenever I want it too, other perspectives to my own, not just on the seasons but on almost anything you could think of.
I visit the bookshop almost every time I’m in my local town, for no good reason other than a wish to just be here. It may be tiny, but the bookshop feels like my personal cathedral. Today, with my daughter spending time after school with a friend, I’ve no need to collect her. I’m given a gift of free time. I need little excuse but the day I’ve just worked through – its own climate disorderly, a hotchpotch, fractious season – seems like a good one. I drive to town purely for the luxury of a visit to the shop. To forget everything. Forget nature, except in words, and worship books for a while.
I sit in the brown leather bucket chair by the back door, where there’s a modern glass-roofed extension to the main body of the shop. I look up through the glass to rain which coats it slick as glycerine. Above, there is the strangely domestic reassurance of a tall brown-bricked chimney pot which points towards a sky of almost-total cloud cover, with just a couple of gaps permitting a memory of blue to show through. The door, which leads to a small courtyard garden, is open, and a cool wind floats in like a voice, an old, quiet, measured voice in contrast to the animated clusters of conversation in progress amongst the shop’s volume-crowded spaces. Though rarely empty of customers, the bookshop is busy with a pre-Christmas boost in book-interest, and this feels bright and positive, this general air of enthusiasm, this pottering, chattering, browsing, choosing.
I barely fit in the chair, with a pile of my own choice of books wedged in beside me. Books of nature writing and memoir, including a story about a four-acre wood, a garden in the sky, a thousand mile walk through Scotland to Cornwall, and a mother who finds relief from post-natal depression through growing things. There is nothing which sings more beautifully to me, blackbirds aside, than the potential pleasure of a glut of brand-new books just picked off the shelves, the possible future pleasure of the reading of one, the present pleasure of a transient, noncommittal dipping in and out of pages of lucid prose.
In the garden, autumn gently suggests itself in the tones of an acer’s red leaves and the stippling of rust on the white metal seat, though the tree may be the variety whose leaves are red throughout summer too. Still, sitting here, blessedly not hot for a change, on yet another wet day in a week of rain, it feels very much like summer’s out. But this might be a good thing. The rain has brought essential moisture to drought-parched soils, and the yen to forage books for delicious words temporarily offsets my obsession with the progress of nature’s calendar.
I do not buy a book. But there are possibilities for next month. I sit and read paragraphs, considering. I observe the gentle internal pressure of pleasing bustle instead of what’s going on outside. I notice people and their own atmospheres (mostly upbeat). This short time of contemplation (apparently unobserved by others – people glide past my position in the chair without a glance in my direction, as though I too am merely furniture) is as centering, as relaxing, as swimming, or laying in grass and watching summer clouds drift overhead. Not to ‘stand and stare’ (W H Davies) but to sit and skim-read a flow of words, whilst feeling insulated, somehow, from the flow of time. When I leave the shop I feel only the slightest twinge of guilt at not having actually bought anything. I’ve ‘engaged’ instead, and I know I’ll be back.
It’s Friday afternoon. Tomorrow, the weekend. As I walk towards the car, which waits for me at Waitrose car park, outside the Mountain Warehouse I see a woman wearing yellow shoes. Flat-soled, round-toed lace-ups in buttersoft leather, the rich colour of buttercups. The shoes grab my attention too. They represent something beyond mere footwear. Hope, perhaps. Yellow shoes seem like a bet against gloom.
The sun’s come out too, lighting up the early autumn sky like a candle, bidding the blueness back. At the supermarket entrance two women greet each other in the effusive way that women are so good at, then fall easily and laughingly into conversation. A work colleague drives past in her big black car and smiles and waves at me.
The drought has brought early leaf loss to a number of trees. The long rainless weeks from about midsummer – at last relieved – have witnessed the stress of trees in the product of the crispest, dryest, brownest leaves I’ve ever seen, released to lay on the ground here and there in scattered drifts like a mess of cereal flakes. But in the carpark, the leaves on the small but hardy London planes, planted like island trees between the parking spaces, appear, for the most part, still green and pliant. Their small canopies of oversized leaves shaped like five-fingered, flickering flames are glossed by the afternoon’s late sunshine. I dawdle to the car, glancing up into the lovely green light of these zesty parasols.
This morning, there was birdsong. The kitchen window open, as I ate a bowl of cereal at the table – and though it’s not unusual to hear it year-round – a wren sang its water-clear notes. A robin too. There was more – I’m sure I heard a dunnock’s sweet, abbreviated phrase – just the once though. Above the slightly subdued chirps of sparrow, there were the usual protesting calls of collared doves, the squabbling of starlings, and ……? There was another bird, but I was busy and did not take time to listen closely enough. Though I think, really, the listening mattered far less than just the birds. That they were present and best of all, saying so, seemed the important fact. That the silence was beginning to.end. The birds are all for each other, of course. They’ve no idea of their importance to me; us. Only I need that comforting confirmation that ‘all’s right with the globe’ (Ted Hughes). But I do know that their annual, still unnerving quiet serves as crystal example of just how lost, I think, we’d be without these familiar sounds of garden and street. How lonely the world seems in the absence of birds. Not of course just the whole (questionable) ‘chorus’ but crucially the individuals, the bird and their species.
Now though, rather than for courtship and mating, most of the birds, I think, are singing for food and territory. For autumn and winter survival. But what’s pure practicality to birds is pure therapy to me. To hear them again. It’s enough.
I begin the short journey home, stopping my slow passage along the tree’d boulevards of the carpark to let other shoppers in and out. Poet Mark Doty calls this continual restlessness of movement a situation where ‘no space, no desire…..should remain unfilled’. My own pace, contrastingly distilled to a deliberate leisure, has had the same yet opposite effect. I have enjoyed my desire not being fulfilled. It has left me with a hunger for what’s to come. Later.
Spring’s still a long way off, still distant as France, but I’m reminded that there are things which can feel springlike, can borrow some of that nubile essence. That sense of beginning, or of not-quite-ending, that feeling of possibility, of everything made new again.
Driving out of town, there’s reaffirmation on the roadsides, too. They’re greening up, nourished by the generous rains, the grass returns like a healthy skin regrowing over all earthly wounds. There are wildflowers too, in colonies of Cat’s ear dandelions and creamy sprays of yarrow. Such fecundity, at the end of this dry summer. It’s almost numinous.
I find a kind of spring in words also, both spoken and written. In the sunlight of laughter and greetings and talk. And of course, in the bookshop, where there’s always something fresh to start on, to begin again with. Where whatever the time outside, there’s delight to be found.