I am home again, after a week in central France with family – all warmth and sunlight, lake swims and picnics, and buttery pastries requested in my rusty, once fluent French. I smile a lot, apologetically – mix up acheter and vendre one morning and inadvertently try to sell stamps to La Poste. Laughingly explain that before coffee, I can’t even speak English.
It has been a summer holiday in September – shorts and t-shirts and Factor 50. When we return, it is October and autumn has arrived in all her glory. The phone lines are empty – the last of the swallows have slipped away now, set for far off South Africa. In the skies this morning, a noisy skein of geese heading westwards. Watching them, from the front garden, I feel a chill in the air. My breath appears in a small puff in front of me.
It is a beautiful day. Like Anne of Green Gables, ‘I’m so glad I live in a world where there are Octobers’. All the leaves are on the turn – yellows and oranges and browns – and the Virginia Creeper on the tumbling-down coach house is a vivid red. Vermillion, I think the shade is, make a note to look it up. In contrast, the sky – cloudless, deep blue – is more breathtaking than ever, unrivalled by any summer’s day.
We have been inside all morning, stripping polystyrene from the ceiling, caulking the edges of beams and filling holes to prepare the area for wallpapering. A look upwards at our efforts reveals a trail of pawprints across the plasterboard – we glance for a moment quizzically at the pup, unusually hyperactive since our return. I have been sanding an area of plaster above my head and am covered from head to toe in a fine grey dust. Outside, I beat my jumper against the wall to remove clouds of dust, splutter slightly. Pick up a pair of mismatched gloves. There is wood to stack.
The house – once two tiny 18th century cottages, now a loving but apparently never-ending renovation project – is heated by two wood-burning stoves and not a lot else. Efforts to insulate are ongoing, and I spent last winter shivering in my room with only slates and planks between me and the Beast from the East. It huffed and it puffed, and it blew right through. This winter, an insulated room, and I rejoice in creature comforts.
In the living room, a large Morso Dove wood burner – in the dining room, a Morso Squirrel – though it be but little, it is fierce. We keep them well fed. A wields the chainsaw, working his way through the mountain of wood that has been waiting since a visit from my brother at the end of summer. Then, we formed a work party to gather wood from a local farmer’s field – the happy reply to a bottle of whisky the previous Christmas. It is a good amount and will see us snug through the winter – but wood is work, and so A saws and Mum and I lift and load and wheel and stack.
Despite the chainsaw’s shrill hum and roar in bursts, the day still feels peaceful. The smell of petrol mingles with the rich damp smell of decaying vegetation and the sweetness of pine. On the ground, sawdust, grass and a kaleidoscope of leaves from the wayfaring tree and its neighbours – red-brown, mottled yellow, russet, rich amber.
I enjoy the rhythm of stacking wood – neatly, making the most of the space. The ends of the cut wood form circles, split triangles, an oval. In more irregular shapes, I fancy the silhouettes of countries – France there perhaps? – and here a lopsided heart. The pup trots over to see what is going on. I toss him a small stick and he sports it like a baton, tail high.
I inhale sharply. A scraped finger – reminding me of the gloves so uselessly stowed in my jeans pockets between stints of wood stacking. I’m surprised to see beads of bright blood swell on my index finger, the colour of rosehips. I suck at it, reveal a faint slice stretching between my knuckles. Put the gloves on, ignoring the sting, lift another log and fit it into place. A full wood store is a satisfying sight. The chill in the air reminds us we will soon be reliant upon it.
The low sun filters through the slim needles of the spruce, turning them golden. Insects, invisible, light up as they pass through the slim rays – their brief turn in the spotlight, short-lived. Long strands of shining spider silk glimmer between the branches.
A few butterflies still linger, an echo of summer, the last of the fleet. On the Michaelmas daisy, two Red Admirals show off their smart black uniforms, rich orange epaulets and bright white buttons. They have the pride of their rank. Along the roadside, Large Whites, fluttering like flags – in truce or surrender, I cannot tell.
My nose is cold and I head indoors, where for the first time this year the fire is burning – the sturdy Squirrel stove. Toes too chilly for barefoot wanderings, I concede a point to autumn and retrieve my sheepskin slippers from my bedroom cupboard. Much-mended and wonderfully snug, these are old friends. I pad downstairs. I will sit a while by the fire, drink my tea and watch the dancing flames.