Friday, September 7, 2012

Leaving before dawn

When I was twelve or thirteen years old, I started a paper round. I covered the dull modern estates at the edge of the village; trimmed lawns and tarmac driveways, thrusting copies of the Daily Express and the Daily Mail into letter boxes stiff with nylon-brushed draught excluders. I remember that I had one copy of The Guardian to deliver; it belonged to my history teacher. It was probably the only copy in the whole district.
My father, inured to years of shift work, would wake me with a cup of tea before seven. In winter, I could finish the whole round before it was light, my fingers stained grey with the metallic taint of newsprint. At weekends, my mother would cook me eggs and mushrooms when I returned, ravenously hungry, cold, and carrying that strange sense that I had already been out in the world; I became a sort of envoy from a place of dawn light and chill air, a place where things happened outside of our human span, in a world unbeholden to our wakefulness.
What that paper round taught me, apart from the reading habits of the rural middle classes, was the pleasure of leaving before dawn, of being abroad in the world as the day begins; that sense of privilege and promise which comes in the space between first light and the full glare of the sun. It is a time when the world seems to hold its breath; when the wind eases and the rushing mill of human life is briefly suspended. When birds, pinned against the hurling sky, appear with the import of emissaries from another world.
It is a feeling, a passion, I have carried through my adult life; the thrill of leaving campsites and hotels in the early morning, of bus rides and train journeys through towns empty of cars and people, of the inevitable beauty of the wakening world. Just for a while, it feels that life can begin afresh, without its petty concerns and worries, without the taint of our mistakes and failings.
This morning, I breakfasted before six with a view across pine forests and the scrubby wasteland that attends airports the world over. The sky was easing into light; a muted charcoal blue that comes with the slow dawns in northern latitudes in September. I took a shuttle bus to the airport as the sun splintered through low clouds, shimmering off the wet roads and small lakes amongst the trees. Back at home, the family would still be sleeping, the house still and dark behind curtains grey with the first light of morning. My younger son would be whiffling in his sleep in those restless hours before waking. I thought of the family routines and rituals: the fruit chopped on a wooden board, the bread rising in a cracked earthenware bowl, the front door opened to smell the woodsmoke-and-leaf-mould scent of the autumn air. One thousand miles away, I am leaving before dawn, my heart's compass turned to home, the morning sun over my shoulder.