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‘Children’ column on autumn, The Independent On Sunday

‘He sat in his push chair sucking at the drink dispenser that is his runny nose.’

“Urngh!” Lawrence points down at the pavement. His face shows almost incredulous delight, his 18 month old mind stunned by his find: a leaf. He bends down, grasps about and slowly picks it up, then holds his trophy out as we walk. “Urngh!” Again he stops – another leaf. Lawrence grapples it off the wet paving stone and clutches it with the first. Trips to the corner shop are taking a while this Autumn. (Although not as long as when the shopkeeper decided I was Rowan Atkinson, and kept asking for my autograph.)

Lawrence finds the oversized communal garden next to our undersized flat even more exciting. Leaves gusted along the grass have him chuckling in wonder and stamping his feet. He starts to run with them before remembering he can’t really run. The wind tearing at the plane trees makes him laugh as much as his own wind. He ploughs smiling through knee-high drifts of leaves.

Last year he was too swaddled to notice Autumn, so all this is new. When it is too wet to go out, he presses his face against the French windows, watching the show. Or a hand has to be held against his forehead as he bangs it on the floor in rage at being kept from it all.

For his older sisters Rachael and Rosemary, Autumn means bigger puddles to stamp through until their socks are grey, and more fallen branches to trail inside and leave like an art installation over the dining room floor. Autumn brings better mud too. It is easier for them to mould and clings better to the “treasure stones” they dig up with twigs from the garden path. Then there are conkers.

When Rachael was three, we found some lying in ones and twos in a quiet alley behind mansion blocks. Their horseback polish and hedgehog shells seemed incongruous, suggesting cart tracks and copses. Rachael liked their different shapes and colours and how they were snug to hold, fitting neatly into her fist. When Rosemary was old enough, she took to them too. Like everything, conkers became a battlefield for their wills. They may be too young for the vicious miss hits of the game conkers, but conkers supply other grounds for scrapping.

Coming home from school in September, we stopped to pick a fat crop scattered over a back street. While Lawrence sat in his push chair sucking at the drink dispenser that is his runny nose, Rosemary and Rachael scrambled about claiming conkers, boasting to each other. They decorated an old Corn Pops box to keep them in. Rachael painted a tree and a horse on her side. Rosemary, annoyed by her older sister’s skill, went for impact, streaking her side with as many colours as she could. They painted a face on the cream-grey disc of each conker and ranged them neatly along the mantelpiece. “I’ve painted more than Rosemary,” said Rachael.

After supper, with the garden made bigger and spooky by night, they tool up for a Torchlight Walk. Rosemary goes for the sleek silver torch. Rachael favours the hefty black rubber one. I get the pink Tweenie number.

Outside, Rosemary warbles and shivers pretending to be scared. Rachael presses the giddy button and rushes ahead, beam waving wildly. They dance the spotlights up tree trunks and swoop them around the top branches. Black silent bushes and the searching beams make hide and seek more intense. In football they run with their own floodlight. Playing Dizzy (“You spin round and round and the first one to fall over is the loser,” says Rosemary) their beams arc across the trees and lawn. Neighbours peer from windows into the night, wondering what all the fuss is about.

16 November 2003

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