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Facing into my first Australian autumn feels like winding down at the wrong time

I must remember that people do not emigrate to maintain their ‘before’ lives

As the Australian summer burns off the last of its furious heat before autumn sidles in, spring begins to unfold at home.

Annually, around this time, it breaches our disbelief as we feel certain that this year – this winter – will surely be the one that sticks. Somehow, the endless palette of grey and brown around us makes it seem impossible that anything green might gasp forth from the depths of damp and dark. It feels as though springs past must have been a sort of miraculous coincidence. This time, we think, the world isn’t dormant, but dead. As you undress as quickly as possible in a freezing, artificially lit bathroom at half six in the morning, the chill clawing viciously at your back, aching for the shower to heat up and end your agony, you simply cannot fathom the sun ever returning.

Yet, somehow every year , tiny green things creak and winkle their way softly from the unforgiving earth and then, suddenly, there is a daffodil. The first of the year looking frozen and imprudently underdressed like a girl shivering in the queue outside a nightclub on a chilly night. “I hope she doesn’t catch cold,” you think of both the girl and the daffodil. “She’s taking her life in her hands in this weather.”

Still, there it is – the daffodil, not the girl – a lone sentry risking its bonneted, truncated head against the possibility of a late frost to foretell the arrival of its fellows, and then you know that spring exists outside your imagination, and it’s here. You’re in it now. Something grows looser within. It feels like undoing the top button of a tight collar.


Until this year, that has been the annual schedule of my life and so now, my eye roves over the vast, scrubbier and (by Limerick standards) more exotic Australian landscape of its own accord, scanning for daffodils. But the earth has its own clock. I know, logically, that this late summer sun would curdle a litre of milk in minutes. The flamboyant, silken trombone of a daffodil would instantly contort and desiccate like paper put to a match beneath it.

We’re not at home, where the muck knows when to send forth platoons of daffodils to cluster tactically on verges and hillsides. Where the eye hungers for the sense of beginning that arrives with them. Ready and waiting for the signal.

Here in Canberra, Australia’s internationally lesser-known city, the seasons are backwards, upside down and baffling to a recent Irish emigrant. Christmas brought with it a torrent of unprecedented hot and balmy rain to shock the skin and addle the senses. Now, March blazes like a bellicose partygoer at last orders who is in no mood to go home just yet. As the natural world remakes itself in Ireland and the days begin to stretch like the nation’s cats snoozing in the year’s first sun puddle, I wait here for the winding down at what feels like the wrong time.

Canberra has an autumn more reminiscent of those at home, I’m told. Unlike Sydney, the city turns russet and gold as foliage takes its leave for winter. Warmer layers emerge from post-summer storage. Mothers begin to shout “Take a jacket!” as children rush through front doors with no thought for later. The inland location and higher elevation of the city give it distinct seasons that are more recognisable to a foreigner like me than the eternal summer most Irish people associate with Australia.

Life gets slower and a little more conservative as people anticipate cold nights.

And yet, it’s not the same – of course it isn’t.

People do not emigrate to maintain their life exactly as it was before.

That trite, hoary frost so overused by both nature and novelists is burnt away each morning by the Canberra sun

At this time of year, facing into my first Australian autumn, I find that expectation still lingers somehow. It is nearly physical – a lingering sense of “almost”, as though something is about to happen. My body expects, the way my cat somehow automatically knows it’s time for her dinner at 7pm despite her distinct lack of a watch and total innumeracy. My neck waits for the collar to be unbuttoned just as Mabel the cat does a small anticipatory dance. “It’s time,” she seems to suggest as she shuffles about from side to side, yelling at the top of her crunchy, alien little voice. And then the can emerges, and Mabel buries her hairy little face indecorously in her dinner, purring as we all do when we are safe in our routine and the world makes sense to us.

My issue is that there is no collar to unbutton. There is no precipice of winter to freefall from. No coming resurrection of the natural world to plant my feet in. The sun sticks around through an Australian autumn and, so I’m informed, into winter. It gets cold but it doesn’t get dark. Not in the way it does at home, when you might walk into school or work in the dark and leave at the end of the day in similar blackness.

That trite, hoary frost so overused by both nature and novelists is burnt away each morning by the Canberra sun and the world remakes itself anew daily as it does at home every spring. It isn’t at all a bad thing but it is completely different.

If I could just tell my body that it’s in Australia ... or, failing that, happen upon a daffodil in the wild, the collar might relax.