We are surrounded – in the darkness – by points of light. K’s eyes are full of them as she looks up; tiny reflected specks. Her skin is tinted silver blue from above.
It’s a quarter to midnight. The clock face on the ayuntamiento building is illuminated; round and white with the skewed grin of the hour. Near it the ex-soldiers’ residence is also lit, and the church, and the port, and the castle. Seen from here the town is ramshackle and rambling; draped over a last minute drop to the coast.
The bell towers, the grand old white-walled houses, the innumerable laundry lines and billowing sheets …if I had been commissioned to paint a southern Spanish fishing town – and if I could paint – I probably would have produced this.
Alleys in shadow, gloomy rooftop terraces and brilliant windows here and there like bright square dots; screens across which are played the lives of others in episodic, fragmentary scenes.
The irreality is added to tonight by the absence of our customary wind and the lounging tones of a rather well played saxophone which rise from a plazuela somewhere nearby and waft over balconies, patios and people. On a silent night like this the instrument can be heard all over town, indoors and out – everyone an audience member.
I hate the saxophone, usually.
“Naked man alert!”
K has crossed the roof and fixed her attention on one of the windows that face us from a nearby hostal, La Estrella de Tarifa. I stay where I am. It’s been a beachy day and we are half-naked ourselves; me in shorts and K in a blowy skirt and bikini top. The air is warm and gentle on our skin – silky and gorgeous. I can’t remember being so comfortable at night and outdoors since I was a child on holiday. In a high window at the back of the local hotel a reading lamp gives off dim light.
“Naked woman alert!”.
I join K on her side of the roof. The town now slants before us from left to right. The box-like, blue and white building with its perfect, evenly spaced little windows is one of our near neighbours. I spot the man first moving through one of the bright screens before joining the woman in another. Disappointingly, she isn’t naked – she is wearing a skimpy and low cut top or dress. Silver lamé; she will hit the clubs tonight and bring some Hollywood bling with her.
She touches up her make-up in a mirror we can’t see and is clearly the main act – his is a supporting role, appearing behind her intermittently to find some mirror space and “mess” his hair.
“I can smell the ocean”.
K steps back from the edge and lies down on one of the terrace steps. I lie down beside her and we look up. The sea air whispers over us and the black vaulted sky is pin pricked by a thousand suns.
Ursa Major‘s seven brightest point us toward Ursa Minor and the North Star – the direction from which we came here. The Big Dipper has been there a long time and isn’t going anywhere soon. We find it in the night sky, in the bible, in the Iliad.
Dubhe, Merak, Phecda, Megrez, Alioth, Mizar, Alkaid; constantly travelling but always where we can find them. Since we learned to look up they have shown us the way – Merak and Dubhe guide us north; Megrez and Phecda show us the way to Regulus; Alioth, Mizar and Alkaid cast an arc towards Arcturus. Because of this the constellation has been used for centuries to introduce the student to astronomy – a beginner’s lesson, a starting point.
These days it isn’t just other stars or coordinates – the Hubble Deep Field can be found just above the rim of the dipper where the handle joins it. A little map of the sky made by machines made by man.
“Something’s moving up there.”
K points and I follow the line of her finger. I think I see it. A perfect little dot like the others but gliding. Then I realise it isn’t moving at all – it’s stationary but appears to move in relation to a nearby object. It’s like sitting on a train and believing you’re moving only to realise that it’s the adjacent train that has pulled off and yours is quite still.
I thought I was looking at a plane or a satellite but I was looking at a star. What I thought was a star is a plane or satellite or telescope. Our map of the sky is moving. Without our involvement the points of light are as eternal as we are capable of conceiving; changeless and time proof – their movement in relation to us and each other mapped out forever in simple mathematics.
Factor us in with our flying devices and the skies shift and bleed – the angles slip and slide from one fugitive geometry to the next.
We complicate the world merely by looking at it – infect it like an uncertainty virus. The objects of our scrutiny are thrown out of focus by the machines we use to look at them. We end up looking at the machines.
Believing them to be the stars.
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