For a moment the dog walker pauses, was that the sound of footsteps
behind her? The nylon lead in her hand pulls tight, her pet beginning
to strain to reach an interesting smell on the nearby verge as she
turns to check. There is no one there, only the dry leaves skittering
and rattling across the pavement in an Autumn breeze. She turns back
to the task in hand, calling her dog to heel, slightly unnerved by
the feeling she is being followed. But each time she turns to check,
there is no one there. The road is empty. There is only the iron grey
sky billowing leaves into huddles across the ground.
The dog stops, feeling the lead slacken and turns to find his mistress is nowhere to be seen. For a minute or two he scuffs around in the piles of leaves on the pavement but there is no scent or sign of her, so he trots off, confident in knowing the way home. All along the roadside, the trees whisper as the dog passes by, their leaves falling into long, twisting tentacles of brown, yellow and red. Dry scales reaching, grasping, coldly searching in the breeze.
The missing person report makes the local news and would have made the national news if it wasn't for the motorway incident. Six lanes of traffic bought to standstill by a blizzard of leaves from the surrounding woodland. Freak tornado or strange natural phenomenon no one knows but for a few hours the motorway, snaking its way through ancient woodland, is lost in a maelstrom of swirling, slicing leaves, falling so fast it's impossible to drive through them. By the time the storm settles, the lanes ahead are piled feet deep in whispering leaves, huddling up over the wheel arches and across the windscreen of the abandoned cars and lorries. For a three mile stretch not a soul is found in any vehicle. Not a sight, nor a sound of them on the motorway or the woodland nearby. Only the dry cackling of tree branches in the wind as though laughing at playing such a cruel trick.
The following day, the reports start piling up, leaves in Autumn. By the end of the day a national emergency is declared as the police and rescue services are deluged with missing persons calls. Soon, school playgrounds are closed, public parks padlocked shut, woods and tree-lined streets avoided, back yards abandoned and while scientists and rationalists try to explain away the unexplainable, whispers start to circulate about The Fall. The TV pundits speculate how through history, there have been predictions on the fall of mankind. The end of humanity, the fall of all civilization. Is the proverbial end nigh? Could it be a literal interpretation, nature's terrible, awful joke on us all, to be wiped out by the falling leaves? Could this Autumn be our last?
From my window I look out at the tree-lined road below. Behind me the TV news reports the growing numbers of the missing and the drowning tide of leaves sweeping across the country. I can see, in the twilight orange of the street lights, leaves falling, a steady rain of brown and gold. Every now and then, a person hurries past, head down, dodging the piles of leaves on the pavement. Every now and then, I lose sight of someone, hidden in a sudden whirl of wind, suckered with leaves and they slip from view. Lost in the gloaming. I shiver and pull the curtains tight shut.
Panic spreads like wildfire. Shops looted, supermarkets emptied. Streets full of abandoned cars. The army replaces the emergency service, tanks roll down deserted roads and gunshot punctuates the night curfews. Outside my bedroom window, the branches of a nearly bare beech tree scratch. Spiny fingers playing a dead man's tune on the violin glass of the window pane. I barely sleep anymore. I have food left for a week or so more. And still the leaves fall.
In the fifth week, the wind drops and the clouds stay in the sky long enough to rain. At first, a light drizzle and then a deluge, turning the leaves into drifts of sodden mush, clogging up drains and silting up sewers. The pavements and roads run red with the decay and rot of them. The wind can no longer pick them up and the trees are left bare and bedraggled. Mildew and mould take over and the grass verges and green spaces fester with the rot and ruin of the fall. People stop disappearing. The curfew ends. Life returns to an uneasy routine. The shops open, winter arrives. Snow falls. The hysteria subsides. The TV news stops searching for an answer. Experts shrug and move on. These things happen sometimes. We'll have put it all behind us by Spring.
The following summer is full of flower and fruit as though nature is giving back what it took away. A bumper crop and bumper harvest and I carefully stack my cupboards with tins and packets, enough for a winter, just in case. And, as I watch a woman walk her dog from the warmth of my sitting room window, the first leaves skip across the pavement, dancing near her feet, chasing her down the road. Behind me, the sound of a log shifting in the grate pulls my attention away as a shower of sparks shoot up the chimney. The heat of the roaring log fire reaches me and somehow makes me feel safe. Outside, near the back door is the axe I used to chop down the beech tree in the garden. Arms aching, palms blistering as I neatly stacked the logs against the wall last week. This Autumn, all across the country, it isn't the leaves falling, it's the trees.