Season of mists and mellow thoughtfulness

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LONDON, 3am, a slow-moving cold front shambling along off the south coast. Endless drizzle. Wet tyres on wet streets, yellow lights, desolation. Everything closed; draggled au-pairs stumping out of the clubs and along Oxford Street, laughing about men. Wet-lipped Cro-Magnon youths, blurred on contaminated drugs, weaving home, alone, again. Taxis shushing past, lights off; they won't stop for anyone they don't like the look of, and they don't like the look of anyone. Mournful knots of minicab drivers hunched like pimps under the leaky awnings, dreaming of the South in outlandish tongues, the rain glistening on their leatherette bomber- jackets. You might as well be in Watford. You might as well be dead.

At the very least, you might as well be in the All-Nite Diner in Bloomsbury with me, warm among the chip-fumes, because what's going on outside is autumn; and it's not what it used to be.

It used to be my favourite, once, long ago, in a different world, in a previous life. The mist and rain smudged the harsh edges of adolescent anxiety; the air still crackled with the electricity where the trolley- bus cables once ran, and possibilities hung in the air like the smoke of illicit cigarettes. Girls were transformed from the reckless unattainability of their summer selves, bundled up in soft, warm clothes, rain-wet eyelashes hinting at complicit un-bundlings behind carefully-closed bedroom doors, Joni Mitchell on the stereo, parents downstairs, dozing over Cliff Michelmore...

But the girls stayed bundled, by and large, and all those parents could have been drugged and shut in a room with the band of the Coldstream Guards and still have heard the snick of a zip through four closed doors. But we still hoped and pretended and told lies and, above all, we knew that things would be different. We knew that we would be changed.

And we were changed, all of us, bit by bit, in all sorts of ways, and autumn remained special: a time for rites of passage, a time for moving on, the changing of rooms, cities, habits, friends. Autumn was the time when things began, but its smell always remained the same: leaves, smoke, wet tarmac, privet, the sharp, galvanising scent of promise.

I cannot smell it now, here in the All-Nite Diner. There was a time when it would have been a perfect autumn place: the rain on the windows, the hiss of the cappuccino machine, the halo of steam around the lights, all the chiaroscuro glamour of a night frontier between present and future. Not any more. At some point, autumn lost its scent, but I don't know how, or when, I stopped being able to smell it. Summer became my high season, the one I wanted, the time when I knew that memories were being docketed, indexed and neatly filed. Perhaps the heart's vision becomes cloudy like an old man's sight, so that after a while we need the harsh clarity of heat and sunlight to see, clearly, or indeed at all.

But I miss it; I know it's here, now, out there on the slick pavements, sleek as a raven's back, in the early mistings of breath, the days drawing in, the clocks going back; but I miss it, like a much-loved but familiar woman, when you can no longer remember the first early shock of her beauty.

Maybe it's the promise that has gone, or maybe I no longer hear it being made, sunk in grumpiness, a miserable git moaning about the weather, sat on my arse like a stuck pig in the All-Nite Diner, trying to think of something to think about, staring at the MTV screens, getting cross. I don't want this music. I want "After I've Gone". I want "Every Time We Say Good-bye". I want "Don't Worry 'Bout Me". I don't even want the songs of my own past; I want songs of a previous past, someone else's, far enough back not to reproach me, personally, with another autumn, another set of missed chances, the po-faced copper's plod of my own damned mortality.

I don't get it, of course. What I get - what all of us get, here in the All-Nite Diner - is monotonous, up-yours, chest-prodding gen-eric drivel. Two flavours. One, chanted more-or-less out of tune by young black men who work out at the gym a lot. Lyrics: inarticulate, incoherent, incomprehensible, but the message is clear; they go: "I've got a torso /And I work out /And put oil on my torso /And I want a lot of sex /Sex sex sex /Sex sex sex /To go with my torso."

Well... we're all grown-ups, here in the All-Nite Diner, and we know when to slam the head into the hands and give way to inchoate mourning. And, being grown-ups, we know that after a while the head grows heavy and the hands start to ache and you have to surface for another slice of fruit cake and another cup of tea. So here we sit: fat cabbies wheezing over their fry-ups; Securicor men on a crafty break; a cartoonist in a mac, drawing gargoyles on his napkin; a strung-out, washed-out blonde, sobered up and chucked out of the cells, trying to talk to people but nobody will talk back because, look, she's fucked up her life and, God knows, it may be catching.

And a couple in the corner. Early twenties, heads like bulbs, nodding to the "music". Him with his goatee beard (and when the hell did they come back?), her with her lips pierced, nose pierced, a spike through her eyebrow and a bolt through her cheek; both clearly in the grip of a tremendous pre- or post- or maybe even intra-coital sulk. And then they look at each other over the coffee-steam, and he raises his head, and sniffs the air, and so does she, and they can smell it. So I try it, too; and catch just a hint of it, faint and distant. Crisp, smoky, autumnal hope, here in the All-Nite Diner.

And then it's gone again. !