The day before the clocks go back is always sad for me. Sad in two ways, it marks the onset of shorter evenings, and it marks the slow march towards the arrival of my winter blues.
I have mild Seasonal Affective Disorder – SAD. It’s not so bad now that I live in France and work for myself. It’s not like when I was office-bound, schlepping to work before the dawn, and staggering home from the dark commute. In those dreary times I only saw the winter daylight at week-ends.
At least now I have a chance to get out in the light. It’s one of the few joys of being self-employed, and goes part-way to overcoming the terror of not knowing when the next job, and pay-check, will arrive.
SAD doesn’t affect me so much now, but it’s always a worry on this day of all days. It’s like the end of the final home Test Match. Cricket’s over for another year, and I’ve six months to wait for the next.
Last Saturday was one of those glorious early autumn days that look fantastic from behind double-glazed windows. The low sun cast long shadows and a fresh fall of walnuts lay on top of the few crusty brown leaves that had escaped the blower/sucker I’d used that morning. I stood watching in the porch for a glimpse of my little friend, Ruby, the red squirrel. But it’s been a while since she’s paid us a visit. I’ve piled some of the spare walnuts round the back of my workshop to help her out, but they’ve remained undisturbed. I was worried for her, but there was nothing more I could do.
If it’s at all possible, I always mark the turning back of the clocks with a cycle ride, and this year was no exception. I already had my cycling gear on: leggings to ward off the cold, worn for the first time in months; long-sleeved jersey and a wind-proof jacket.
Winter’s a-coming, dammit!
The sun behind the glass had been deceptive. A cold wind dropped the temperature and sent me back inside for a snood, a neck warmer.
It had been a great, but uneventful ride until about ten miles from home, when a couple of things happened that I think, are worthy of note.
Out of the saddle, I ground slowly up a steep little hill, sweating, despite the coolness of the early evening. I was heading due west and the setting the sun sliced into my eyes, my dark glasses offered little protection. Towards the crest of the hill I saw movement. A dog.
Can’t remember if I’ve mentioned my running battle with French dogs in previous stories, but they are my one real source of discomfort over here. I’ve lost count of the number of times a raving, slavering hound has hunted me with the vigour and aggression of Beowulf. Sure enough, the dog at the top of the hill, a bloody big brute of a thing, spotted me. It lay down and waited.
At this point, I had two choices: turn-tail and go back the way I came, or tough it out and hope for the best.
I decided to tough it out. Turning back would have added another hour to my journey and I was cold enough by then. The sun was setting quickly and I’d be dicing with the dark by the end of the ride; I had no lights.
I dropped gear, returned to the saddle, and grabbed my water bottle from its cage. I’ve been told that local cyclists learn this trick at an early age - they squirt water into the eyes of charging dogs. It does the little beggars no harm, but gives them pause for thought, and gives cyclists time to make their escape. I closed in on the dog.
I was ready with my bottle of diluted raspberry cordial, my favourite cycling tipple, and guaranteed dog repellent. But as I passed the hound it looked at me with a bored expression on its haggard face. Yes, dogs do have expressions. It gave a disinterested yawn and trotted into a nearby field of dry-brown maize. I breathed again and continued home.
The second incident lifted my spirits and had me singing the rest of the way home, one with the Universe again.
With three miles left to home, my route took me through an avenue of Oaks and Chestnuts. The mottled sunlight played havoc with my vision, so I didn’t see the bird until it darted the between the trees on my right and flew a little in front of me. For some reason, the bird matched my speed and we journeyed on together for a while in pleasant companionship. It settled for flying a little in front of me, and above my left shoulder.
It was a hawk of some description, bigger than a Kestrel but smaller than an Eagle. It had grey-brown feathers, and that’s as good a stab as I can make. I’m no ornithologist.
With a tailwind we travelled together in near-silence for the best part of a mile. It was spell-binding. With the wind at our backs there was little noise to break the enchantment. The bird in flight was silent. My bike’s new chain-set was near-silent too, wonderful.
Then, without warning, my new friend gathered speed, rose a few feet and made an instant ninety-degree turn. It pulled its wings in enough to pass through a tiny gap in the trees, and then disappeared. Wow, a fantastic sight.
I suddenly remembered why we’d move the Brittany in the first place. I never had such magical companions in Northampton.