The swifts that had rushed the village skies at dusk, screaming like an ambush, swooping the length of the High Street, and round the church tower and back again, had mostly gone now. And the wheat was cut and the straw baled under trees stained with the first colours of autumn, and the marauding smoke of stubble fires drifted across the fields.
And we woke to September, and spiders' webs glittering on hedgerows and rough pasture. The air above the valley tarnished with the first, thin high mists of the season, lingering on into mornings of muffled sunlight, field mushrooms and dew.
Harvest fattened the barns of the valley, and in his study in the eighteenth-century vicarage, where the bronchitic mouse wheezed and sang behind the wainscot, the vicar sat over his sermon of thanksgiving as the churchyard limes began to turn. The church above the reaped fields shining with the praise of a roster of village woman, the starched altar linen burning in stained-glass twilights, ready to receive the gifts of the year.
The village was brisk with committees, busy with a flurry of meetings for that season's pantomime and the last gymkhana, the jam-making and home-made wine competitions, the photography exhibition that each year marked another summer gone, and the annual fruit and vegetable show. And on still nights, the flight call of redwings could be heard again, wintering flocks of them moving across the valley, and swallows and martins and the last of the swifts barbed the telegraph wires above the High Street, waiting to depart.
And in his coal yard at the bottom of the hill, George Perry took delivery of the first tipper loads of winter stock, watched by the usual audience of small boys. George, shovel in hand, prowling the growing heaps of coal and coke, on the lookout in the noise and dust for buried boys and short measure.
The church was decorated with corn, its barn-like silence lifted with the voices of children singing. The tins of food they'd brought to school, to be distributed afterwards to the old of the village, piled gifts stacked around the altar, with offerings from village gardens, and allotments and kitchens, and the gift of bread
The trees turned, the bronze of the hedge oaks which had sheltered the fields for centuries, nailed and armoured against all the weathers of the valley, to rust, the wood below the village to russet and brown, copper, red and gold. And summer was an old lion now, going down, the wounds of autumn in his side.
The horse chestnuts in the grounds of what was once the squire's house grew ragged with decay, the great domes a splendour in their ruin, their summer shades holed now and letting in the weather. The spiked fallen fruit, plundered by squirrels and generations of village boys for that one conker which, threaded with string and armoured in vinegar, would raise them to glory, split and gleaming among the gathering leaves.
The valley burned and crackled with autumn, rich with the bounty from its trees and brambled lanes of berries, and the rotting windfalls in orchards, the elder bushes hung with feeding blackbirds and starlings, and sparrows fluttering for insects on hedges of flowering ivy, and jays on the acorns. And other worlds among the hedgerows and growing litter of leaves, hedgehog nests and wintering beetles and caterpillars, and toads snug in mouse holes, scurrying bank voles and the chattering of harvest mice, and the pin-fight squeals of shrews.
And in the wood below the village, where a lone robin sang, sweet, sad needles of song falling, food was gathered and buried, and a badger sniffed the air and bottom first, dragged more bedding into its sett, making it up for winter. While above us on the hills of the valley, the first calves of the season butted at the milk of their mothers, and tractors, flying their lines of starlings and gulls, crawled soundlessly, harrowing the burnt stubble for the winter ploughing, the autumn flocks of lapwings gathering over the turned earth.
There were days of rain and winds from the sea, the blown fluffy fruit of rosebay willowherb and wings of sycamore scattered on them. And still, clear days smelling of autumn, the air sharp with a memory of winter and sweetened with decay. Days when no leaves seemed to fall nor animal stir, a kestrel, hunting the slopes of the valley, hanging endlessly in the sky, the mornings harsh with rooks in the horse chestnuts, their damp-throated cries drifting up through the village.
And the post mistress, after the first frost warning, put out more water and extra fat and nuts for the birds. And lagging them with bits of old carpet and bracken from the lanes, tucked her fig trees up for winter.
Fog and rain, and the rot of more frosts, and autumn ran now like a damp fire through the valley, leaves withering and falling before it. Drifts of them shining in morning mists along the roadsides, kicked and scuffed through by children on their reluctant way to school.
And days when the sun shone, a whisky-gold light falling on the wasted woodland, smoking like wreckage in the still, ruined silences. Days that sent the village men out armed with spades into gardens and allotments to break the soil for manure and the spring sowing, and fires burned in dusks when robins sang and the smoke of leaves scented the air.
The windows of the post office and shop bristled now with fireworks, boxes of sparklers and Catherine wheels, skyrockets, shower-bombs, and bangers and big berthas, fat with the explosive promise of bonfire night, and gangs of children plundered for firewood and totted at village doors for clothes for the guy.
And the lights went on again the village hall, for the first rehearsals of the pantomime, and slide shows of interesting holidays, and meetings of the produce committee and WI, and the fitness class and slimming club, and lectures on hobbies and fruit preserving, and new things to do with apples.
The nights frost bright and shining with autumn under slender translucent moons. The skies above the valley piping with the movement of more flocks from the north, and the clamour of wild geese carrying winter on their wings.
© Copyright 2016 Peter Maughan. All rights reserved.
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