I don’t know how it happens but there comes a day towards the end of every summer when I start getting that “autumn” feeling. Something to do with the weather, no doubt, but also something more subtle in the air, something I’m attuned to.
It’s that feeling that you need to be preparing, gathering in. This week I ordered more “store-cupboard” stores than usual – the sort of thing you horde in a cardboard box in case of power-cuts or getting snowed in – baked beans, peanut butter, rice, soup. Stuff that will last.
I remember the hurricane. I was living in a different village then. Over one long night window-glass flew through the air, roof-slates smashed onto pavements, all the old trees got uprooted and we had three days without electricity. I watched a succession of blue flashes on the horizon as first one electrical item blew up and then another.
I remember how everything instantly fell to pieces in an amusingly British way. Politeness abandoned, in the following days ladies fell to elbowing one another out of the way in the local mini-market for the tins on the bottom shelves – tins they could scarcely read the labels of because there was no lighting (it’s surprising how dark the interior of a shop can be, even in daytime). If it was a tin, they made a determined grab for it. At the till, or what would have been the till if there had been any electricity, a worried teenager attempted to total long columns of figures in pencil on a paper bag, and the ever-lengthening and increasingly-irritated queue trying to help her out with mental arithmetic of their own.
It’s particularly important to have at least some sort of contingency plan, living here. There is one small shop, woefully stocked at any time of year, but even more so when the caravanners have gone; and only one road in or out, which has been known to flood. Apparently, before my time, supplies had to be airlifted in and dumped on the seafront for distribution. I can imagine the free-for-all that would have been.
Important to stock up on cat-food too, because how to explain to twelve cats that feeding time – the highlight of their day – will be postponed for a day or two. I’d probably end up as lunch and even if not, the pester-power of cats greatly exceeds that of infants.
Of course, I may never need to use the contents of the cardboard box, in which case come spring I will be obliged to live on rice, baked beans, peanut butter and soup for weeks on end. I won’t make the mistake of stockpiling those crispbreads as substitutes for bread, though: nothing is more depressing, or more likely to be jettisoned when the snow starts to thaw and the birds start to sing, than a heap of faded crispbread packets.
But how do I know when the gathering-in is due? What makes me think of knitting woolly mittens and getting through all those outdoor jobs while the weather is still fine? Because it is still fine, still intermittently too hot in fact, and there are only a handful of fallen leaves.
I like to think I am hearing echoes of Stone Age instincts, the same thing that cats and birds have – a weather sense, or winter sense. I have often wondered how the first humans managed to survive any winter, let alone an Ice Age. Of course, they would have sheltered in caves, lit fires and huddled around them. They would have added an extra layer of furs and skins, and presumably they would have continued to hunt. Maybe prey would have easier to spot in the snow – but then you’d have to chase things through the snow. And what about the “gathering” bit? Could you have stockpiled? Nuts might keep, but would roots and berries? Perhaps there wouldn’t be any roots and berries. Mammoth, mammoth and yet more mammoth – it would be a terribly restricted diet. Almost as bad as crispbread.
They must have been tougher than us. Here I am slightly apprehensive- not terribly, having grown up without central heating – because my central heating has packed up and I am going to have to “overwinter” with just plug-in radiators; yet earlier today I watched an interview with a young man who loves to sleeps out in all weathers, and without a tent. He wants to be one with nature, he says, and live as the animals do. It’s called wild sleeping. I must admit I was tempted, though I believe wild sleeping is technically illegal in England – not Scotland, for some reason. What must it be like to lie on the ground and watch stars wheeling overhead? How much we have lost.
Since it’s illegal – and I would hate to be wakened from my slumbers by a uniformed bobby at 3 in the morning in the middle of a dark wood – maybe next year I could just sleep out in my own back garden. Surely it wouldn’t be illegal to do that, if I was discreet? Might nervous neighbours mistake me for a vagrant and report me? Might the hedgehog come snuffling blindly along and mountaineer over my prostrate form? Would I hear worms, slithering underground beneath my head? Might that stray ginger tom anoint me as he anoints virtually everything else in my garden, in passing? Would I attract the attention of ants?
Questions well worth pondering in the long, un-centrally-heated months to come.