If done regularly enough, cycling through any city early in the morning will quickly bond you to it. Each journey is like a longer version of the moment two lovers, separated by a room full of people, are finally left alone to weave the outside into their own world.
London in its early hours is perfect ground for littering the streets with every useless thought from the day before that clogs your vision. They stick to lampposts and any other landmarks that can be relied upon to stay stuck to the same ground. On future journeys, they’ll remind you of solved worries and forgotten details.
Cycling early in the morning while the city sleeps makes me feel like a secret keeper, like a London guard in more flexible clothing. Only at this time of day can one detect the subtle routine such a complex beast keeps as it rouses every day. The 9 a.m. commuter wouldn’t know it, but there’s a coating of peacefulness that covers the ground and lifts before the mist, slowly revealing the dog walkers, joggers, and shyer squirrels who retreat before the crowds begin to descend. This is how I know autumn has arrived before the students and the freelancers, while the shift workers and the bartenders were still sleeping.
First, a whiff—and I rubbish the thought and tell myself it’s too early in the year. But then, with the end of another weekend on my side, I’m sure of it. I leave my flat and swing round the curves of Camden, taking in the year’s first crisp breeze, passing trees that look like they gave up overnight after a terrible nightmare.
Breathing on my bike in the summer felt like being overcome with an all-consuming thirst and having only sticky, heavy, hot milk to drink. Now, my lungs open to the road in front of me. The cool air glides through my body, and I feel a liberating sense of powerlessness against the direction of time.
My brain projects days, weeks, and years in front of my eyes like a slow-moving, vertical conveyor belt, with autumn and winter at the bottom. As I cycle the ascent of Camden Road, I mentally move myself from the summery middle down to the bottom, where there are blankets and hot drinks, and the metaphorical direction ascribed to everything is downwards. I have a sudden urge to turn around and roll back down the hill towards home.
But the start of autumn offers a fleeting escape from the rest of the year’s monotone warmth and drizzle; a gasp of cold air after endlessly wading through shallow, dirtied lukewarm water, and its distinctiveness gives a vivid edge to memories as we create them. They are reinforced every time the season repeats. Each autumn is a collection of every autumn past. The fall of the first browned leaf sparks my mental return to all the years I’ve lived on this earth, reminding me I have memories and a history and a home.
Autopilot guides me through the traffic lights as the autumn smell filling the air leaves me with just my survival instinct. I relive walks to school, carrying a new bag full of new books and wearing a new coat with shiny toggles fastened over a bulky uniform and stickied with the jam I hold in my hand, hurriedly wiped on a stack of burnt toast triangles by a mother who just wants to get her children out of the front door dressed, fed, and alive. Lunchtimes spent kicking leaves in the playground and clawing the air to find the mittens at the end of the string. And when I grew into a teenager and hormones gave me spots and a temper and the inability to wake up before noon, mornings spent cocooning my sleep’s warmth and getting out of bed at the last moment, bracing myself as I ran out of the covers and into my school uniform.
I turn my head to check for traffic and yearn for the days my mother laid my clothes out on the radiator while I slept. I don’t remember any day in particular, just a collection of a thousand mundane memories that wash over me all at the same time, hitting me with a nauseating nostalgia. And from that day on, each cycle has given me a shortcutted mental trip otherwise procured, I imagine, only by the strongest hallucinogens.
Even when the sky’s dull and the air’s heavy, the autumnal lull still pulls me into this state of amorphous nostalgia. It floods my senses with a rose-tinted childhood, making rainy days and cold school day mornings feel like family. Memories of standing in the rain, shivering nowhere in particular; glorifying gloom simply for being witness to unremarkable days making up my past.
The feeling has been much stronger this year, and I suspect it’s because I’ll be leaving the country just as the leaves go soggy and the bare trees lose their novelty. For three months, I’ll be seeing out the gloomy British winter in perfect, unfamiliar sunshine on the other side of the world, turning away just as the country endures its darkest hour.
Autumn is nature hanging on to its last moments on earth. Perhaps this is why it makes sure to look so beautiful as it latches onto all that’s living. And as I look forward to leaving, I, too, feel like covering the city in my best self and begging, “Please, don’t forget me.”
Jessica Brown is a writer living in London, where she writes about places, people, and the stories sparked by their coexistence.