by Oscar Sapper
At one in the morning, somewhere in Surrey, precisely 4.2 miles from the nearest street lamp, an astronomer sits on the crest of a hill.
The skies are still; the seeing is good. Orion is bright above him. When you’re this far away from any man-made light sources, the sky isn’t black so much as ink-blue.
With a sigh, he lies back in the grass, feeling the dew seep into the back of his shirt. He lets his eyes wander across the sky, picking out satellites and Cepheid variables, mentally sketching out the constellations.
He brought his wife here once. A long time ago, when they still liked all the stupid, trite, perfect parts of romance. Of course, she never really shared his interest in the minute details of the night sky. The star charts on his bedroom walls, the endless notebooks and diagrams, the chunks of meteorite and moon rock on the mantelpiece, these were eccentricities. Odd. Charming, even. But eccentricities all the same.
The astronomer smiles.
Space rocks. That was what she used to call them. He had never quite been able to explain it to her — the magnificence of it, the sheer cold brilliance of the burning stars, the distance, the vastness, the precision. He’d never had the words. But that was the point, wasn’t it? She was good with words. Where his thoughts turned to parallax angles and spectral classes, hers wandered under the arches of Gormenghast. And that was fine.
He writhes a little, stretches, sighs again. His breath fogs the air.
It’s getting too cold for this.
There’s going to be a lunar eclipse soon. That should be worth seeing, at least. Although — he blows into his hands — it might be better to observe it from the relative comfort of a flat equipped with central heating and ready supplies of tea and brandy.
They met in a museum, of all places. Heavens, what a cliché. The amateur astronomer and the literature lover. Two intellectuals taking tea surrounded by the bones of creatures that had been dead for tens of thousands of years. Sometimes they went to the Natural History Museum and stood under the statue of Charles Darwin. They both liked old things.
The moon is gibbous tonight, and it hangs bright and swollen in the sky. He clasps his hands behind his head and begins to pick out lunar features. There, Mare Crisium. Mare Procellarum. Sea of Crises. Sea of Storms. He almost thinks he can see the crater Tycho, there at the bottom. But then, it’s probably his imagination. He notes — somewhat wryly, and with the faintest dash of bitterness — that his eyesight isn’t what it used to be.
Of course, they had their fair share of modernity, too. Staying out all night in the clubs of Camden or Soho, getting so drunk they couldn’t see, finding their way back home and into bed by instinct alone. When she was tipsy, the words used to pour out of her like water coming through a sieve — “Halcyon, halcyon, this is halcyon, halcyon days, heliotrope nights, the evening is spread out against the sky, come on...”
When he got drunk, he would lean back and look at the sky, and the cigarette smoke always looked like noctilucent cloud.
Orion really is bright tonight. Idly, he names the stars in order of absolute magnitude. Betelgeuse, red supergiant. Rigel, blue supergiant. Bellatrix, warrioress. So on and so forth.
Things progressed quickly. They went out to the countryside together. They travelled. Sometimes, when Aldebaran was high in the sky and Mars shone on the horizon, they argued. For a few hours, the tension between them would be as sharp and hot and heavy as war poetry, as a dead star. And then the page would turn; the lunar phase would pass. They would make up, and move on, and speak no more about it.
There have been more sunspots recently. Interesting, but so awkward to observe. Night viewing is far more satisfying. He glances at his watch, squinting to see what time it is, so he can work out where in the world the sun is currently rising.
They went to South Africa together and stayed in Cape Town, in a little hotel by the harbour. They watched the seals sunning themselves on the pavement, looking for all the world like fat, grey speed bumps. The stars there were different. Southern stars. Strange-eyed constellations, she had called them. Strange stars amid the gloam.
Maybe he should go to Finland, see the northern lights. Naturally, he knows exactly how it works, what causes it, why it’s there. But then, the science is beautiful in itself.
Albireo was in the sky on their wedding night. It seemed fitting, somehow, to have the strange old double star wending its way through the darkness whilst they exchanged their vows below. She would have been Albireo A. Golden. The colour of Lothlorien and four-hundred year-old book pages. He, of course, was Albireo B — deep blue. TARDIS blue. The precise colour of a B-type star.
A flicker of light catches his attention.
So many people see satellites, and mistake them for shooting stars. They look similar, he supposes. People see a point of light, streaking across the sky, and they think it’s a comet, a meteor, a star. In reality, it’s a lump of metal plates, stuck in an endless orbit a million miles above their heads, catching the sunlight for one brief, glorious moment.
He wonders vaguely if wishes made on a shooting satellite are still valid.
And then it all went wrong. Maybe it was when solar minimum came to an end, and the flares started in earnest. Maybe it was when Mars passed into the retrograde phase of its orbit. He was never quite sure.
First came the headaches, the faintness, the book pages blurring before her eyes; then trips to the hospital, scans, surgeons, disinfectant, and they were sorry, but there was really nothing they could do. Inoperable. Malignant. Terminal. One month. At the very most.
The next three weeks passed in a blur of late-night 999 calls, tears hastily swallowed, condolences and the soft whispering of ashes scattered over the sea. At her funeral, he read out a poem he didn’t understand and got tipsy on red wine. He forgets where the stars were that night.
Back on the hilltop, the astronomer sighs. His breath clouds the air. The back of his shirt is soaked and freezing, and his hands are numb with cold.
For some reason he can’t quite fathom, he thinks of the physics teacher he had when he was a child. An old man with a bow tie and starlight in his eyes.
Other than the sun, Proxima Centauri is the Earth’s nearest star. Now, boy, think of a mile. It’s about how far this school is from your house. Think of two miles. Four. Eight. Think of how many miles it would take to go round the entire Earth, and come back to where you started. Now, if you take that number, and times it by how far away the sun is from where you and I stand, that’s how far away Proxima Centauri is. Just imagine it.
Above him, the sky glows. He feels as small as a speck of dust on the skin of a leviathan.
From ground level, Orion is no bigger than the palm of your hand. Here, you can block it out by closing your eyes. In reality it is a billion times bigger than the sun.
He stares up at Polaris, Sirius, Bellatrix, Rigel. Betelgeuse. Betelgeuse is nearing the end of its life. It’s a dying star. Soon it’ll be gone.
In astronomical terms, “soon” can mean more than a million years. By the time Betelgeuse burns out, there likely won’t be anyone left to observe it.
The stars are still in the vastness of the sky.
As if any of it matters.
For a moment, he is a grain of sand on the floor of some silent, forgotten sea. And he knows, really, that it isn’t important. None of it is.
It’s going to be all right.
Copyright © 2011 by Oscar Sapper