His hands were cold, going numb at the fingertips. He’d forgotten to put his gloves back on. As he fumbled with his pockets he looked down at the city below him, a ripple of small lights, glowing, merging with the darkness far above. When he craned his neck back he could look right up into the star speckled sky. He looked for so long that it was as though the sky was expanding, shrinking him, sucking him in. Eventually it became too much. He looked down at the field sloping off before him, and swayed with a sort of existential motion sickness.
The sickness was scared away when he once again became aware of the darkness around him. Empty, and black. This was pretty, bright, farmland by day. But like with all places, the dark cursed it with a feeling of otherworldliness. If you were prone to flights of fancy, as he was, each bat overhead, each rustle in a bush, amplified, and became monstrous. He took a moment to steady himself, to tell himself, he was perfectly fine.
He tried to convince himself of this. And of how, in fact, maybe he was even better than fine. Thinking of how he’d left the pub early, packed up his telescope into a pre-arranged borrowed car. While the rest of the city were out there wasting time, he was savouring it. Or was he? He was cold, and he was alone. He’d come up here to not think. But now he was here it was all he had; thinking, and over thinking.
He turned to the telescope, the task at hand. He put it up automatically, his actions commanded by muscle memory. It felt foreign though, to be touching it, adjusting its settings. It was all so familiar yet far away, like recognising a friend from long ago. He looked up into the sky and found what he could by eye, with a kind of childish trick he’d never let go of.
Find Orion, face him, swing his head back to see the oncoming Bear, on his left would be the Queen, who Orion was trying to save, of course. He knew the constellations real names now, but this is the story he’d told himself when he was little, and it was the memory he returned to every time he looked up at the night sky.
He plucked his phone out of his pocket and checked his app; he looked into the sky and waited for the ISS to pass overhead. This was better he thought, he felt useful now. As he waited he closed his eyes and listened, there was nothing. It was peaceful, empty. It was nice while the novelty lasted, then he felt cold.
He opened his eyes, he would walk around, get the blood moving. He took a step forward before looking back up, to where the ISS was disappearing over his head. He turned and watched it blink into the darkness. Sometimes he liked to imagine he was there, not on the station itself, but somewhere in the thermosphere. Travelling around the world, seeing it all from a peaceful vantage point, somewhere between home and the boundless possibilities of the darkness beyond.
He was always thinking about that, the darkness. It didn’t matter what time of day it was, it didn’t matter if he couldn’t see the space beyond the heavy grey skies. His mind was filled with the unending possibilities that could exist out there in the darkness of space. Just think of it, he would say to anyone who listened. There is always another person, another country, another planet, another galaxy, but there is not another universe. It just goes on, and on. Whenever he thought about that, and it was often, his mind seemed to empty out. It was awesome, in the true sense of the word. People would act like they understood, but he never felt they got it.
He had been gazing up into the sky for some time he realised, lost in his own thoughts. But for how long? The thing about being alone, and being in the dark, is that it unhinges you from time. He did not know how long he had been standing there. He decided not to check his phone. What would be the point? He looked into the telescope and moved it to his central point, the point from which he could find anything. Just below Orion’s Belt; the Orion Nebula. His favourite spot, he would leave it for later.
He moved the telescope on so he could take in Jupiter, a childish curiosity. Its swirling storms had always fascinated him, The Great Red Spot covering an area larger than two earths. He unfolded a deck chair he’d brought with him and sat himself down at the telescope’s eyepiece. He watched the planet’s atmosphere, its swirling circles, winding themselves around in a peaceful slow motion. A quiet carnage, that would decimate his world. That’s how he saw all things in the night sky. First he would see their beauty, then their otherworldliness, finally he would imagine being up there. He would swing and sway in the gravitational pulls before ultimately being crushed, or asphyxiated, or burnt up.
It wasn’t exactly a happy end to something which excited him so. But still it fascinated him; the uncontrollable, unfathomable sense of being just another thing, another speck in a universe. It was somewhere he felt safe. It was only down here that he felt lost. A little lost boy was what his mother had once called him. Lost in his thoughts, lost in the stars. Some girls had said it too. First, with a sort of dreamy adoration. Then, finally, with a kind of loathing.
He pulled away from the eyepiece, his skin was prickling with the memories of scowls, words said in anger. He swallowed as if that would push it all down. His phone buzzed and he dared himself to look at it. A message from a friend; still at the pub. His stomach dropped. He didn’t know what he had been hoping for. He supposed he was always expecting something else, someone else, to reach out. Something to bring meaning. But who could it possibly be?
That girl the other week? What was her name? He’d been drunk and she had been friendly and warm, and that was all he could really remember. And then there was that girl from the coffee shop, she was nice. But that was about it, he felt bad he could not like her more. Then there was the last one, the flirt from work, albeit a hot flirt. She could have used him up and he would have been grateful for the thrill. Though in the end it wouldn’t have meant much. It just would have been something, something that wasn’t whatever this was.
He turned the telescope to Saturn, to the Moon, trying to distract himself as the feelings brewed in his stomach. It was wretched. He was used, and he was the user. He wanted to not be lonely anymore, but being with anyone made him feel lonelier still. He was lost. And he was bitterly alone in it. He looked away from the telescope and out towards the city. It would have been so much easier to have stayed out, gotten drunk, to lose himself completely, just one dark lost night. He sighed deeply, why had he thought coming up here would be a good idea?
He wrapped his arms around himself and squeezed hard. He was fine, that’s what he told himself. But then he told himself that a lot. He sighed again and allowed himself to slump back into his chair, with exhaustion, with resignation. He leaned back and looked up at the sky. For some reason he never felt quite so lonely when he looked up and took in the smallness of his space in the universe. Maybe because it made him see that everyone was alone. They were all alone together.
He looked back down at the lights of the city. He could see thousands of people with friends, with lovers, with families. Some of them looking for escape, looking to be filled up, just like him. Some of them had found it, found what he was looking for. He stood up and looked up into the sky. He allowed his eyes to adjust, to take in all the faint stars barely glimmering in the distance. He looked towards his beloved Orion Nebula, where stars were being born.
Then he thought of what lay beyond that. He let his mind wander further and further across the universe. Beyond what he knew, beyond this time, beyond everything, to all the stars he could not see. That he would not see, until their light found the Earth, long after he had left it. Strangely, that didn’t make him feel sad. It made him hopeful. He would see some one day. Their light would find him, and she would find him. He couldn’t see her yet, but that didn’t mean she wasn’t out there, somewhere.
He looked down at the telescope. The temptation to drive back to the city and go back to the pub was a real one. Who might he meet? It was naïve and he knew it. It wouldn’t find anyone at the pub that would last past tonight. No, he would pack up and go home. He went to dismantle the telescope, and then stopped. But why go now? He could stay out here just a little bit longer. He rubbed his arms for warmth and sat back down. He looked up into the sky, let his body relax into the chair, and allowed his mind to find comfort in the possibilities he had not yet imagined.