October brings nostalgia, always. As the leaves fall and the lights start to come on earlier and earlier, I’m swept back to the gloomy afternoon streets of the town where I went to university. I can still feel that bitter wind that bored into us, direct from Russia, or so we believed, and I can see those down-at-heel stilettos on my poor, neglected bare feet. There I am sitting in my room, listening to Rickie Lee Jones, smoking a menthol cigarette and pretending to enjoy it, staring out of the window across the car park, waiting and wishing for something to happen.
But it is a funny kind of nostalgia. I feel not 19 again, but anticipatory again. My body clock has synced itself with the academic terms so that it is autumn, not January, that feels to me like the new year. All around me the natural world expresses its sense of an ending – wilting, declining and shedding – but in my head there’s a stirring of something new. I thought I was alone in feeling this, but a few years ago the group Stornoway released “Zorbing”. When I heard the song’s opening lines, I thought I must have written them without remembering: “Conkers shining on the ground,/The air is cooler/And I feel like I just started uni . . .” They’re young, so the memory must be fresh to them, but if they’re anything like me they’ll find that this is just the start of a long, enduring cycle in which these feelings return, reliable as rain, over and over again.
And of course it’s not just me. Look, here it is again in The Great Gatsby. Replying to Daisy’s pessimism about the future, Jordan says: “Don’t be morbid . . . Life starts all over again when it gets crisp in the fall.” It carried on getting crisp in the fall for me even after I left university. You might think that pop music marches to the beat of its own drum, but album releases and touring schedules would often be planned in order to coincide with the start of the autumn term, the thinking being that your audience – students! – would be looking for gigs to go to, and songs to moon over in their lonely halls of residence, and might still have some of their grant left to spend on records and tickets.
And so, added to my memories of leaving home in October, are other, later memories of boarding a tour bus and setting out to play a new album to a bunch of disorientated youngsters who had only just left home. The college stages of Aberystwyth and Manchester, Exeter and Hull – the town where only a year or so earlier I had been saving up to buy The Madwoman in the Attic, and drinking vodka and grenadine in the union bar – were now the setting for my adult career. Another new beginning, a sharp change to coincide with the snap of cold in the air.
Maybe it’s the actual drop in temperature that is invigorating. If summer warmth is for lazing in, then brisker mornings demand a higher activity rate; and as the days grow shorter you are rewarded with a longer evening, that part of the day in which young people come most fully alive. I find it hard to picture myself in daylight when I look back; it seems we were always on our way somewhere through the dusk, the streetlights were always glowing, the evening stretched ahead, as did our whole lives.
It’s also when I met Ben, that’s why I sound so wistful. Oh, and why not? Thirty-three years ago now, and all my first memories of us are autumnal – ankle-deep in leaves, sharing his scarf, kissing in overcoats in front of a gas fire. For some reason the first flowers he bought me were red tulips, stranded out of their natural season.
I put them in an empty milk bottle on my windowsill and left them there till long after the petals had dropped and dried, and the stems had wound themselves this way and that, like vines, in search of a little paltry northern light. I didn’t want to get rid of them; no one had ever given me flowers before. Typical of Ben to buy spring flowers in October, always a bit contrary.
I have bowls of conkers under the bed now, to ward off the spiders.