I left work late on Friday night, and walked along the corridor with the caretaker, switching the lights off.
Thank God the week-end's here. - time to boogie on down, eh?
I laughed uncomfortably.
or getting stuck into the proof-reading? Or whatever you do?
That seemed closer than she could have imagined.
Earlier in the day I'd picked up some new glasses, worried about my dodgy driving. Around 21:30 I went outside to bin some stuff, useless scraps of unused carpet and old calligraphy ink-bottles. I was wearing the new glasses and I saw clear pinpricks in the sky. It was the first time I'd seen them for ten years. The sky had grown all mothy, I realized.
I'd never been interested in stars, but it made me think of something. It was a cold, clear, frosty night.
Well, what else was I going to do? Why the hell not?
There were some Xmas presents for Lil that I hadn't yet seen her to give; she was up in North Uist. I tore open my own wrapping-paper and pulled out the pocket star atlas. Then I buried myself in coats and scarves, grabbed a clip-on book-reading light that I'd never used before, a thermos and some fags. I went out to the sidings feeling horribly furtive. At my very first step away from civilisation a dog behind the terraces sounded the alarm with all its might: SOMETHING TERIBLY WRONG HERE! EVIL ABROAD! SOMETHING WIKED THIS WAY COMES! it barked. (Dogs can't spell.)
I slithered muddily through the thicket and out along the shuntings, and was most unpleasantly disturbed to hear behind me the hasty steps of someone else coming the same way. I crunched along with as much noise as possible, to indicate how right-minded I felt about being here. So did he. I got out into the wide gravel and veered off to one side and halted. For a moment he seemed to be coming my way, but no, the long shadow went past and away and the steps dwindled. God knows what he was doing here but he must have crossed over the river using the rail bridge, which isn't something I'd fancy doing myself because it's high, long and narrow. Perhaps he was scared shitless too.
My nerves shaken, I wanted to find a spot with horizons all round but somehow occluded from passers-by. I ended up on the ballast at the top of a steep bank. The grass was already creaking with frost. I hadn't thought to bring anything to sit on. The clip-on reading-light was too dim to read the star-maps. But I was warm and began to look about.
The whorl of stars around the pole was upside-down. Eventually I followed the line from base to lip of the Big Dipper and found Polaris. I only knew the Dipper and Orion, so I turned round and looked at Orion. I took off my distance glasses and peered at the tiny names on the map. Gradually I began to make a chain of bright stars. It began with Sirius in Canis Major in the SE - I made a big triangle with Procyon in Canis Minor and Betelgeuse on Orion's shoulder, then I topped it into a diamond with Castor and Pollux in Gemini. Gemini! That was a zodiac sign, wasn't it? Where were the rest of them? Meltwater seeped into my jeans from stone and bramble.
I tesselated another triangle which took me out to Capella in Auriga, This, I learnt, was looking away from the centre of our galaxy and out towards its far end. It was a strange feeling; like for the first time in my life I could see where I really was; at the same time, "where I really was" turned out to be a movie, rather a long one (maybe Serge Leone) but I could still feel the tension. I was hooked.
My eye snaked off through Perseus and got to where I'd wanted to get to, that big W or M that I'd admired distractedly in my youth, without ever knowing its name. I had to leave the equatorial map and go back to the circumpolar one, but now I knew: it was Cassiopeia. Then westwards again towards the Pleiades - and what was that? It was the big red eye of Taurus, Aldebaran, and for ten seconds it wasn't me watching, it was me being watched.
I went home and packed up the star atlas for Lil again. The next two nights were cloudy.