Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Moments of grace

The day feels like a reprieve. After a month's rainfall in less than a week, we finally experience some sun. The days have a lingering darkness that seems almost November, the sky heavy with leaden clouds, but today the sky has rolled back into a huge vault of improbable blue, and everything seems touched by light.


I walk up the lane to the brow of the hill; the old hollow way is pooled in sunlight, like honey seeping between the branches of the overhanging trees. As I clear the stile and step into the open field at the top of the hill, sunlight spills across the long, lank grass, wayward and fragile, the last of the day's warmth on my face. Two magpies shudder into flight, drifting downwind towards the hawthorn hedge. One for sorrow, two for mirth. I count magpies subconsciously, storing their portents in the back of my mind like a talisman against the uncertainty of the day. Three for a marriage, four for a birth.
This walk has become my barometer for the shifting weather and the moods of the changing days. Walking across the open field of limp, sodden grass, the wind in the trees sounds like the roaring of the sea heard beyond a line of dunes; an insistent hush, a feeling of sound rather than the sound itself; a echo of the passing wind. Swallows flog heavily into the gusts, like a rower pulling against a flooding tide.

I have come to recognise each lichened rock, each gnarled tree stump as I pass. The cattle trough at the corner of the field is steeped in thick peaty water. The field ashes catch the last of the afternoon's sun; as the shadows rise higher and higher in their boughs, only the tip of the tree is illuminated, like a halo of gold. At the far edge of the field, crouched amongst hawthorns, an old pollarded ash flickers in the wind, its leaves rippling like shoals of fish
Somewhere above me, in the tropopause, over layers of air thick with moisture and the tiny ice crystals of cirrus clouds, the polar jetstream is weaving its erratic, unpredictable course across the top of our weather patterns. Low pressure systems are tossed from side to side, like pebbles in the bed of a meandering river. I learned today that these air currents are around ten kilometres above us – that's as far away from me as the nearby coast, visible from the brow of the hill where I have walked today; a distance I can ride on my bike in half an hour. We like to believe that they obey the rules of physics, these shifting atmospheric patterns, but after this year of wet and wind, they seem more alive, more unbidden, more fluid. Like the patterns of flow in a river, they are too complex for us to understand; there are too many variables, too many unknowns. Today, the jetstream has shifted to the south, a whip-like flick of the thundering air, and we are bathed in autumn sun. I turn my face to the warmth, bask in its transience.

Friday, September 7, 2012

Leaving before dawn

When I was twelve or thirteen years old, I started a paper round. I covered the dull modern estates at the edge of the village; trimmed lawns and tarmac driveways, thrusting copies of the Daily Express and the Daily Mail into letter boxes stiff with nylon-brushed draught excluders. I remember that I had one copy of The Guardian to deliver; it belonged to my history teacher. It was probably the only copy in the whole district.
My father, inured to years of shift work, would wake me with a cup of tea before seven. In winter, I could finish the whole round before it was light, my fingers stained grey with the metallic taint of newsprint. At weekends, my mother would cook me eggs and mushrooms when I returned, ravenously hungry, cold, and carrying that strange sense that I had already been out in the world; I became a sort of envoy from a place of dawn light and chill air, a place where things happened outside of our human span, in a world unbeholden to our wakefulness.
What that paper round taught me, apart from the reading habits of the rural middle classes, was the pleasure of leaving before dawn, of being abroad in the world as the day begins; that sense of privilege and promise which comes in the space between first light and the full glare of the sun. It is a time when the world seems to hold its breath; when the wind eases and the rushing mill of human life is briefly suspended. When birds, pinned against the hurling sky, appear with the import of emissaries from another world.
It is a feeling, a passion, I have carried through my adult life; the thrill of leaving campsites and hotels in the early morning, of bus rides and train journeys through towns empty of cars and people, of the inevitable beauty of the wakening world. Just for a while, it feels that life can begin afresh, without its petty concerns and worries, without the taint of our mistakes and failings.
This morning, I breakfasted before six with a view across pine forests and the scrubby wasteland that attends airports the world over. The sky was easing into light; a muted charcoal blue that comes with the slow dawns in northern latitudes in September. I took a shuttle bus to the airport as the sun splintered through low clouds, shimmering off the wet roads and small lakes amongst the trees. Back at home, the family would still be sleeping, the house still and dark behind curtains grey with the first light of morning. My younger son would be whiffling in his sleep in those restless hours before waking. I thought of the family routines and rituals: the fruit chopped on a wooden board, the bread rising in a cracked earthenware bowl, the front door opened to smell the woodsmoke-and-leaf-mould scent of the autumn air. One thousand miles away, I am leaving before dawn, my heart's compass turned to home, the morning sun over my shoulder.