We had such a beautiful reason to be late for school today. I don’t care about the late entry in the register, or the bemused looks I received as, stuffing the children through the school front door, I tried to explain our tardiness. In the future Melody and Amos will not remember just another occasion on which we had hurtled through the school gate seconds before the whistle blew – but there is a good chance they will remember today.
Once we leave our street on our walk to school each morning, we are plunged into building-created shadow for quite a distance. This morning was the coldest we have had yet, so Amos and Melody were hatted and mittened. We always look forward to the railway bridge; once we have passed under it, we are out in the open again. We can see the brightness shining through its tall arch as we approach, and today we walked under the bridge to emerge into brilliant sunlight. The scene was one of the perfect winter morning; I kicked myself that I had not brought along any means of taking a photograph. The sun was just reaching the heavily frosted grass of the field; where the rays touched, white ice turned to glistening diamond. The sky was a deep, flawless blue. Set against this exquisite backdrop, a horse chestnut tree, leaves finished in crystals, shone gold, glowing in the sunlight. The air was completely still. Our school procession slowed, each of us seeing something to halt our footsteps.
We reminisced about the tree as we moved towards it. In autumn, we have to add extra time to our journey so we can stop beneath it every day to search for conkers; these have to be doled out absolutely fairly – they have to be picked up in order of ownership no matter who spots them. Once the conkers are exhausted, we are on the lookout for ‘leaf fall day’. This horse chestnut tree holds its leaves long after the ash and other trees around have lost theirs, and although it loses a few leaves through autumn, there is always one day when it seems to just drop everything at once. If we are lucky enough for ‘leaf fall day’ to be on a school day, and if it isn’t raining (then the children will be on the bus), and if there hasn’t been too much traffic to mash the leaves that have fallen, we will arrive at the tree to find its trunk encircled by an aureole of pristine autumn leaves. It is always special to see it; a once in a year event.
I had always assumed this leaf fall was a night time affair, that with the first particularly hard frost, the tree shed its leaves under the cover of darkness. But as we drew close to the tree this morning, its leaves began to fall, right in front of us. There was no wind, each frozen leaf falling directly downwards. In the silence, we could hear the clatter as high leaves dropped onto the leaves beneath them, knocking them down into still lower leaves, until great frozen bunches of yellow leaves were hitting the ground all around us. We stood, quietly watching golden leaves cascading out of the tree, faster and faster. Lone stalks plummeting, leaves helicoptering, floating, tumbling, bouncing to rest with the tiniest of thuds. Then the peace exploded; Amos and Melody joined the whirling leaves, trying to catch them before they hit the floor, shrieking with excitement and yelling, ‘Come on Mummy.”
Staying meant being late for school – we’d already been pushing it when we’d left the house; but I understood – I didn’t want to walk away either. I’d never seen this before, I was intrigued. Almost half the leaves had fallen already – I might never see this tree do this again, the children may never see this again. I gave up trying to make the deadline; lunch bags, a ukulele, book bags, Melody’s spelling list, a sewing box – all lay abandoned at the side of the road as I joined in. It’s seems impossible to catch falling leaves, to anticipate where the next one will land, but soon there were more shrieks as Amos managed to catch one between his wrists. Branches were emerging almost bare above us as Melody finally caught her leaf. She leapt off the ground cheering, jumping off the floor again and again, her huge winter boots no impediment. The children shouted about how it was good luck to catch a leaf, then Melody decided it was double good luck to give the leaves back to the tree so they tossed their leaves back up into the air again and danced as they watched them settle down on the floor with the others. The torrent slowed to a trickle, and above us only the odd leaf remained; of those, most were hooked up on twigs rather than clinging to where they had grown. The tree had lost its summer robes in front of our eyes; now only a halo of amber surrounding the trunk was left to evidence the glorious golden tree that had stood in front of us just minutes before. We walked to school passing mothers and fathers on their way back to their cars.
On my way home, our tree was just another grey winter trunk, at a distance barely distinguishable from the ash trees around it. The draughts of passing cars had blown away the leaves in the road; the leaves in the field were blown into mounds against the cold stone wall. But I was filled with a feeling of gladness. I hadn’t caught a leaf, but my attempts had been half hearted. I’d felt I had been lucky already today, a maybe-once-in-a-lifetime-chance to see this special moment in our trees life, be part of this amazing event of autumn; it didn’t feel quite honourable to ask for more.