A friend took this photograph of the last leaf clinging to a tree near his place of work.
He wrote of Autumn, still hanging desperately on at this late hour, before finally conceding to the inevitable winter.
The symbolism is obvious, but to me it reminded me of another liminal point. My Mum, suffering from Alzheimer’s, is nearing the end. She is still hanging on despite a possible chest infection. A stab in the dark Hail Mary, she is receiving antibiotics to counter any such infection, with the hope of an improvement over the next 48 hours (I’m writing this on the Saturday).
If that doesn’t materialise then end of life care will begin.
To be honest, I kind of hope it isn’t a chest infection. What is the point of coming back from the brink for further struggle? A struggle she won’t even be aware that she’s in. A struggle she cannot win.
The irony is that for a while now my wife and I have been administering medication and calorie-providing drinks to prolong what she didn’t want prolonging. To keep her where she didn’t want to be. (Such is the nature of her illness that, even though she is still here, I speak of her wishes in the past tense.)
But it’s not for us to decide the hour. A ‘time for all seasons’ and all that. At least not until we react to her failing heart and begin the end of life care.
Maybe the leaf in the photograph can also stand for one final moment of clarity, glimpsed among the fog of confusion, where those clouded eyes show recognition, and the lips twitch in that old grounded humour.
But I fear that is wishful thinking. The leaf is hanging on but, despite those blue skies, there’s a cold breeze blowing now. The natural order cannot be defeated. One season is giving way to the next.
The strong wind came in as forecast. In my town centre, it was as if it had swept away most people along with the litter and leaves. Darkness fell at the same time as the storm.
Gloom and mood in tandem, the Autumn ‘fall’.
My house is on an estate at the top of a hill. The house on the hill. Sounds familiar. The hill hangs over this town centre. Half way up is a line of trees that have often served as refuge when caught in a sudden deluge. (And also a veritable bounty for kids filling their pockets with conkers.)
The rain followed faithfully the wind, but this time I didn’t need refuge. Modern man has a weather app, you know, and everything else at his nimble fingers. Sometimes I feel we’ve been robbed of the element of surprise, often exchanging wonder for knowledge. But if I really felt so strongly about it, I’d discard all oracles and take every day as it comes, wouldn’t I ?
Still, there is some wonder, even if, beneath this hooded, waterproof coat, there are no surprises:
I have a few projects at the moment that have been put on hold due to a local oral history project that I volunteered for. This has taken precedence because, sadly, some of the people that I was due to speak with died before I got the opportunity, and I have also been to the funerals of two people whose stories I have managed to preserve.
So the clock is ticking. Talk about a deadline. Literally.
In pursuit of finishing this endeavour, I was due to catch a train to interview a Bishop who lived on my estate in the 1970’s.
“Who are you going to see this time?” my daughter, Millie, asked.
“I’m going to see a Bishop. And guess what my first question is?”
“Is it true that you can only move diagonally?”
Long pause. “I don’t get it.”
Things didn’t fare any better with my older daughter, Courtney. She asked me “Where is it you are getting a train to?”
One of those pauses again. Must be a family thing. “What does that even mean?!’
“It’s a place,” I explained, deciding to slip back into English. Historically it was the upperland area between Saxon land and Viking land, and I love that kind of stuff.
But I didn’t go there (metaphorically speaking). I had a train to catch.
At Manchester Piccadilly, I made the fatal mistake of looking at books in WH Smith, something that is always liable to distract me. It was only when I saw some bottles of Buxton Spring Water on a shelf that I suddenly remembered why I was there.
That was the destination my train was heading for, with my stop coming two stations before. It was, dare I say it, divine intervention of my dawdling. And off I dashed.
In short: I made my train, on disembarking was met on the platform by the Bishop (“Jack?” “Andy?”) and was charmed over lunch by both him and his wife. Not realising on my arrival just how close to the station that they lived, I declined the offer of a lift back to the station, insisting that I’d like to walk. I am an ex-postie after all.
However, quaint though the local train station was, what I didn’t realise was that trains to Manchester ran only once every hour, and I had forty minutes to wait.
Just as the rain came in with a dampening down of mood.
There was a shelter on the opposite side of the tracks, (the Manchester side), so I could sit down and take in the setting. There was nobody else around. Windswept and empty, it was obvious that the locals were all au fait with the timetable.
At first glance, looking to the opposite platform, I thought that this said ‘Home of Frodo’.
A friend later told me that when she was there she’d thought that the sign said ‘Home of Freddo’.
In the autumn chill I was pretty sure that at least some of the locals were snug and warm.
I couldn’t help but contrast my surroundings with this welcoming depiction of the town. I think a bit of artistic licence had been used, especially with the climate. I could just feel that heat. Almost.
The time soon passed, (with still not a living soul arriving to keep me company), and my train rolled in to puncture this almost picture-portrait of times past. But not before the clouds broke and I was given one more contrast before my departure.
When the statement was made that the Queen was under medical supervision, with doctors concerned for her health, the gravity of the situation was immediately acknowledged as the Palace don’t normally comment on, or share, private things like that.
And it spoke volumes when we learnt that her family members, independently of each other, were all heading up to Balmoral to be with her.
We knew that she had been working just two days before, appointing Liz Truss as our new Prime Minister. We had seen the photograph commemorating that moment, even though it illustrated as it did an increasingly looking fragility about her. Speculation had also been prompted by the fact that tradition had been broken: Truss travelled up to Balmoral, in Scotland, to be appointed instead of the Queen travelling down to Buckingham Palace where the previous fourteen appointments had been made.
This all pointed to something ominous happening. My wife was out shopping with her Mum, and I text her the news about the ‘medical supervision’. She didn’t have to fall back on her experience working in the funeral business to know what ‘all of her family are travelling to be with her in Scotland’ signified.
As the news rolled on it seemed that every news presenter had unobtrusively slipped into dark clothing.
I missed the announcement.
By this time my wife was back and we were getting ready to leave to take my son and a couple of his friends to their football training. While I was in the kitchen locking the back door I heard the National Anthem begin to be played in the lounge. I walked in to see the confirmation on the screen.
Queen Elizabeth II had passed away that afternoon. I went to the door and shouted to my wife who was stood by the car. “Jen, they’re playing the National Anthem now.”
Even though the woman was ninety-six and we always knew it was going to happen sometime, the question was still asked with an element of shock. She had been a constant figure throughout our lives, and quite irrationally we expected her to go on forever.
We drove to the football pitch, the kids asking questions from the back seat. Who will be in charge now? And then who? How will that happen? What will change?
My son mentioned the currency, which hadn’t crossed my mind. How strange it will be to see the image of Charles on our coins, notes and stamps instead of the ubiquitous Elizabeth.
King Charles, no less. The next time we hear the National Anthem, I thought,. every time it will be sang before our international matches , our cup finals. “God save our gracious King . . . Send him victorious . . .”
It will take some getting used to.
Smooth Radio was playing a solemn, classical track that I knew although I couldn’t remember its title. I had it on an old Melancholy CD somewhere.
“Dad, can you put Capital on?” my unappreciative son asked. Capital is the one I normally put on for him and his sister, conceding to their requests with the caveat “Any rapping comes on and it’s straight back over!”
I switched stations and the same music track was playing on that too. Smooth, Capital, BBC.
“It’s going to be this music on every station.”
We arrived at the training pitch and parked up. Looking at my phone I saw I had a Facebook notification: a woman who, as a young girl, was my grandparents’ next door neighbour. She had tagged me in a photograph of herself stood with my brother and I, holding Union Jack flags while celebrating the Queen’s Silver Jubilee at our street party.
That was back in 1977 when I was six. Queen Elizabeth had reigned for another forty five years after that. That brought it home, the length of time she reigned. The length of time she served. Seventy years in total.
Of course, while the lads trained, the Queen’s death was the topic of all conversation among the adults. Afterwards we called at a local service station for a coffee on the way home. Immediately outside the doors, and inside too, there were reminders of this historic moment everywhere.
In the immediate aftermath there has been talk about sports events being cancelled, of previous funerals and coronations.
The second Elizabethan era is over. We are now in a new period of British history, a period of new beginnings but also, conversely, a period of continuity. For in the following proclamations and fanfares, we have been witnessing events that have never been witnessed before. Modern technology is enabling us to see what in the past has taken place in private.
And I am surprised at how I’ve been feeling.
When pressed I’ve always said that I’m neither a monarchist nor a republican. I didn’t feel a particular strong connection to either camp, not enough to sway me in any direction. Not exactly apathetic, just a casual acceptance of what has always been.
But I love history, I love these islands.
And what I’m now discovering, with the help of modernity, is a deepening love for our age-old traditions, traditions reinforced by a reminder of this woman’s seven decades-worth of selfless service, service to this land that is in my blood and my children’s blood. Service that began long before any of us were born.