Burning schools and other wishes

Did you ever wish your school would burn down?

It would become a particular wish of mine around this time each year. As the short English summer holidays drew to a close, there would be a hope that there would be no return to school. There would be a hope that I would look from my bedroom window and see clouds of smoke rising into the sky and word would come that the village school had been burned down.

Of course, it never happened, and, even if it had, it would not have prevented a return to school, we would simply have been bussed to another of the local schools.

The real wish was not that the school would burn down, but that there would be a prolongation of the summer, that there would be a delay of the arrival of autumn.

Autumn on the Somerset Levels does not arrive in a dramatic way. Were it not for the return to school at the beginning of September, it would be difficult to point to a particular day and declare that it marked the start of autumn.  Autumn seeped into our lives, it crept in gradually, one day at a time.

August would bring the first signs. We had hardly begun our school holidays when there reminders that the end of summer was not far away. Nature moved on inexorably.

Swallows gathered on telephone wires, a dozen or fifteen or more would sit in the evening. There seemed something extraordinary in the tiny birds. No-one could explain to us how they could fly to Africa for our winter months and find their way back to the same spots in our village each month. As a child, I would wonder if they would stay with us all year round if we didn’t have autumn and winter. There was a moment of pure joy when standing in Rwanda on an evening of December 2015 I looked up and saw a telephone wire filled with swallows.

Colours began to change, berries began to appear. Conkers ripened on the horse chestnut trees on the village green. Grain fields were changed to white stubble. Apples were picked from orchard trees. The potatoes lingered the longest, it would be a Saturday in October before we gathered in one of my grandfather’s fields for a day of potato picking.

Autumn seemed a time when everything died, when the games we played in the field across the road became no longer possible, when darkness and wind and rain kept us inside our houses. No matter what happened to our school, the shortening days and cold temperatures were inevitable.

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