It was when Albert backed the car into the driveway and turned off the engine that he got stuck.
It wasn’t the car that got stuck, it was Albert.
And he wasn’t stuck physically, he was just stuck. He could unbuckle his seat belt, he could open his door – in fact he was fully and freely able to get out of his car and enter his house. But he was just stuck. He had reversed into his driveway, stopped, cut the engine and then there he was, stuck in his seat, looking through the windscreen at the blue sky above.
And what a radiant sky it was. Azure. Cerulean. All those words. Blue blue sky without a cloud, filled with white blue light from a sun he could not see because it was blocked from his line of sight by the car roof.
It absorbed him. It was bottomless, or topless, he thought, as he was looking up. Endless maybe. But whatever “less” it was, he knew there was more of it, more and more and more. It was unfathomable. He knew there was meant to be black there somewhere, but there was no evidence of it. No stars were visible, nor any moon, nor hint of the universe he had seen at night and studied in school. It was just blue. A vacant, replete and aerated blue.
He couldn’t pull himself away.
He scanned the blue. He moved his eyes from one end of the windscreen to the other, until he reached the beige window struts in which he knew were embedded the structural beams that made the car safe in the event of it rolling. Then he returned to study the blue again.
He searched and searched it, to see if there was any break in the blue, any crack in the canvas as it were, that might, if you leant on it, slit open and let through a sliver of dark. But there was none. It was seamless. He looked to the right. He looked to the left. He looked up, and down. But all there was, above the green bonnet of his car and the red rooftop of the house opposite his, was the inexhaustibly unplumbable space of the sky, a gargantuan opalescence that for whatever reason favoured him and the rest of world – all the innumerable species of plants and animals – with its presence. All there was to do was look at it.
So he did. He sat there in his car and stared at it.
He felt peaceful, and relaxed into his seat. A smile formed on his lips and his breathing softened. A joy filled his heart. He hadn’t felt like this for ages. He felt the air enter his nostrils, and his chest rise, just a little, and then felt each breath as it left his lungs and nose. He felt his cheeks relax. The stress across his forehead dissipated. He relaxed his hands on his lap. Somewhere below him, his feet rested on the car floor, his left foot in the cradle beneath the dash board, his right below the pedals. He felt calm. He felt present, as present as the sky was present above him.
In fact, he realised, the sky wasn’t just present above him, it was present about him, with him. The sky was air, blue air from the distance, but air nonetheless. And the same air was in the car, and immediately outside it, and up and down the street where people walked and gardens grew and birds flew and pets and insects roamed. He was in air, conjoined with sky air. He looked at his hand. It was not discoloured by blue. But as he looked away and up, the blue reappeared and smiled upon him. He smiled back. He was part of the sky. Now there’s a concept, he thought. People don’t usually think that.
In this manner he sat, and watched the sky. He didn’t care to know how long he sat there.
There was a knocking on the window. He turned and saw Ursula, his wife. Through the thickness of the glass he heard her say, “What are you doing, Albert? I didn’t know where you’d got to.”
His wife of thirty-four years. She had aged. Her short grey hair was once long and dark. Lines had appeared across her face. When he met her she had youthful smooth skin which he had tasted in years gone by. She had some lipstick on; she always wore lipstick. Albert described it as a mild red. He didn’t really know colours. He just liked what he saw. Ursula’s voice again.
“Are you coming out?”
He couldn’t wind down the window because he had turned off the engine. So he cracked the door open. Her voice was clearer now.
“What on earth are you doing just sitting there, Albert.” It wasn’t a question, but an observation. “Are you getting out?”
“No,” he said. It seemed the simplest answer. It would be too involved to describe the sky to her and the sensations he had of his own body. Besides, he hadn’t quite worked out what he was doing there. He was, as his children would say, going with the flow.
“But you’ve been here for over an hour,” said Ursula. “Are you feeling alright?”
“I’m watching the sky,” said Albert.
Ursula looked at him quizzically, muttered something about men under her breath and then strode back to the house.
At least he knew how long he’d been there. It gave him a frisson of delight, to know that he and the sky had been together for that long. It was a start. There was more to come, he was sure.
After a little while the sun appeared in his field of vision. Or his skyscape of vision as he preferred to think of it. It lightened the blue, which became more of an aqua, or cornflower blue, rather than the rich azure of earlier on when he first started watching.
He looked as closely as he could at the sun, but knew he wouldn’t be able to stare directly into it. At its fringes the sky was egg white and brilliant, and as Albert moved his gaze it melded into the baby blue that stretched into the distance above the houses opposite his. This was fascinating, and he stared at the white orb as it moved with implacable grandeur across the upturned bowl of sky, much like a star fish moves across the sea floor. He could see why the ancients thought that the sun hung inside the firmament: as much as the sky had enshrouded him, it also seemed to enshroud the sun, and persist beyond its light.
He noticed a fringe of the sky had turned pink. Or rather, a pinkness stole a fragment of sky, as time steals the colour on aging skin. He wasn’t sure if the sky was trying to camouflage itself, and if so, from what, but as the sun disappeared over the neighbourhood rooves the sky went pink lipped, like a prayer for the night.
Ursula came out again and rapped on the window.
“Albert, what are you doing? It’s late,” she said. She was frowning.
How he had loved his woman. Summer skirts and laughter, flowing hair. They had been introduced by family members, and although he complained about being so obviously set up, he immediately warmed to her smile and soft hair, and had spent the rest of the afternoon unashamedly talking with her and admiring her delicate features. Their first date was at the movies – he couldn’t remember the film now – they had held hands almost immediately they sat down. At the end, as the rest of the theatre goers moved out, he and she had enjoyed a tender, but not (according to him anyway) ostentatious, kiss. All seemed sunny and full of hope.
The next – what was it – thirty years was the thrall of family, work, savings, home building, regret, compromise, triumph and joint pride in the small but significant achievement of melding life and love while raising and releasing a family.
“I’m looking at the sky,” said Albert.
“But it’s late,” said Ursula. “The sun is setting. You’ve been there for hours.”
What could he say to mollify her? He tried what he always said when she was most anxious. On those occasions she would lie in bed fretting about whatever cause upset her – the children or something she had seen in the news – and he would stroke her forearm or her cheek, and say “Ursula D.” ‘D’ stood for darling. “Ursula D,” he’d say, “Ursula D.” It was simple, and was usually effective, and she’d smile and kiss him and snuggle into his arms to get to sleep. Then he would lie awake and congratulate himself on helping her through it.
He looked at her and said,
“Don’t you Ursula D me, Albert. You need to come inside straight away.”
Well that didn’t work.
“Come on in,” she said, her voice rising. He thought it more anxious than angry. No doubt she thought his behaviour odd and unsettling. But it wasn’t. It was meaningful and peaceful and enriching for him.
“Don’t be worried,” he said. “I’m watching the sky.”
“That’s crazy,” she said. “The sky’s always there, you can see it any time. You can watch it from inside the house. Come in.”
“I like watching it from here,” said Albert, and returned his face to the impending evening.
She muttered something he didn’t hear and stormed back into the house.
The sky meanwhile was beguiling. It had turned a musty blue grey, and had dimmed. There was, in fact, nothing in it. It was the mud tide at the day’s estuary, where the light seeped out and in the dullness of eventide welled up in its stead. But muddy as the sky was, it was still portentous. Night was about to emerge, that vast and insuperable void of space that had, until now, been shadowed by the daylight. Stars would appear; Venus and Mars might already be visible behind him in the east. The moon too, although he was not sure what phase it was in. He thought he really should pay greater attention to the moon, and the stars. He hadn’t studied them since school days.
So he sat in rapt anticipation of what was to come.
He was so caught up in the thrill that he did not see Ursula arrive with her brother, Thomas. He startled when Thomas knocked on the window.
“Albert!” said Thomas.
Albert tolerated his brother-in-law, especially as Ursula looked up to him so much. And family is family. Thomas spent far too much time at their place, boasting of his golf prowess or the latest deal he’d made. Or his past sporting exploits. Or how the maître de at this grand hotel or that had given him special attention and earned a very generous tip. He often leaned on Albert when Albert was sitting down, to stop him getting up, or interrupted him when he was about to say something. Albert wasn’t sure if Thomas’ wife was concerned by the amount of time he spent at Albert’s or was happy.
“Oh hi, Thomas,” he said. “You startled me.”
“What are you doing, man?” said Thomas. He always said ‘man’.
“I’m watching the sky,” said Albert.
“Ursula told me that,” said Thomas. “But why here, in the car?”
Albert smiled and shrugged. “Because,” he said.
“That’s crazy,’ said Thomas.
“That’s what I said,” said Ursula. “I told him it was crazy.”
“Who spends all day in their car staring at the sky? No-one does that,” said Thomas.
“I am,” said Albert.
Thomas opened the door and leaned in and put a hand on Albert’s shoulder. Albert smelt barbecued meat and sauce on his breath.
“Albert, are you okay? I’m concerned for you,” he said. “We both are.”
“I’m fine,” said Albert.
“It’s just not what people do, man,” said Thomas. “Why don’t you hop out and come inside the house. We can sit down and have a meal and glass of wine.”
Albert looked up at his brother-in-law.
“I appreciate you interrupting your dinner to come over,” he said, “but I’m fine here, really.”
Thomas moved his hand to Albert’s arm. “Come on, man. Ursula’s worried something’s wrong, and if truth be told it’s looking like it might be,” he said. “Just come inside.”
“Really, I’m just dandy,” said Albert. He gripped the steering wheel tightly, anticipating Thomas’ attempt to pull him out. Thomas tugged at him, but he held on.
“Come on man.”
“No, Thomas, I’m staying here.”
Thomas glared at him and withdrew. Albert heard him say to Ursula, “He’s refusing to come out, he says he’s fine.” The two of them went back in the house.
To his great joy he noticed a star above him. He hadn’t seen it appear because he had been engaged with Thomas, but there it was, as clear as – well as day. He chuckled to himself at his little irony. The sky had its night colours on now, its dark navy pyjamas. It was soft, like flannelette, spotted with one industrious little star. He scoured the sky for more.
There was a knock on the window. He saw Ursula, Thomas and the local priest, Father Peter standing on the passenger side of the car. He didn’t have his collar on though; Albert wondered if, when priests get home after a day’s ministry at the hospital or the bedside of dying parishioners, they fling off their collars and slump on the couch wishing for a glass of single malt. Much like Ursula does with her bra after a long day out, but with a glass of pinot grigio. “Oh that underwire,” she’d say, and settle into the couch taking care to keep the wine steady.
“Albert,” said Father Peter, his voice obscured by the glass of the window. He had a steady and reassuring voice, which Albert always thought he must have cultivated during his years in the church. He wondered if Father Peter still knew what his authentic voice was. He looked thinner without his frock too, diminished in stature and authority.
Albert waved at him. “Hi,” he said cheerfully.
Father Peter moved around to the passenger side of the car.
“May I open the door?” he said.
“By all means,” said Albert. “It’s not locked.” The priest got in.
“Good evening,” he said.
“It certainly is,” said Albert. The priest chuckled slightly, politely. He placed his hands on his lap.
“Your good wife tells me you are preoccupied with the sky,” he said.
“Preoccupied,” said Albert. “That’s a good word. I am, yes, preoccupied with the sky.”
“And what has occasioned this preoccupation?” said Father Peter.
That’s how the priest impressed his flock, by using words like ‘occasioned’. He’d never say, “How come you’re doing that?” No, it was ‘what has occasioned’. As if life was cycle of gentle causative events that could be unravelled and redirected under the merciful guidance of the divine.
“Look at it,” said Albert, and he pointed skyward with his hand.
Father Peter looked, and the two men sat there for a moment, silent before the sky. Then Father Peter said, “I see a tiny star shining prettily up there.” He pointed in the direction of the star Albert had noticed previously.
“In reality,” said Albert, “it isn’t tiny at all, but is a broiling hyper-mass of flaming gases millions of light years away.”
“Does that worry you?” said Father Peter.
“Not in the slightest,” said Albert.
“God has placed these things far away from us for our protection and our enjoyment,” said Father Peter.
Albert nodded, and said, “Perspective is the thing, isn’t it.”
“How so?” said Father Peter.
“From here, the star looks beautiful and safe and we can gaze upon its twinkling charm,” said Albert. “Get up close though, get inside even, and we’d be melted in a millisecond. We use that deception to fashion our interpretation of things. You say God put us at a safe distance to admire it, others say we survive because of the distance.”
Father Peter nodded. After another pause he said, “Is that what concerns you? Do you not want to get outside and get in the middle of it? Is it beautiful and safe here in the car?”
Albert looked at him, and then back up at the sky. He was a good priest.
“That, and more,” he said, “I feel calm. I feel I am present. If I get out I’ll lose that. But I know if I drove away I’d lose it too. So I am stuck, between leaving and staying. But here I feel I am in the presence of some great and vibrant being.”
“What is the way to the abode of light?” said Father Peter, “and where does darkness reside? The Book of Job.” Then he added, “We are all in the presence of God.”
The pair were silent for a short while before the priest said, “Albert, your wife and relatives are concerned for you. Will you come inside?”
Albert said, “There are more stars to come out.” He leaned forward to look more directly above them and said, “In fact, if I am not mistaken, there are a few higher above us.”
Father Peter strained to look, and said, “Yes there are.” Then he smiled at Albert and raised his eyebrows inquiringly.
Albert said, “You go. I’ve got more to do here.” He held out his hand. “Thank you for your time. I appreciate you coming to see me.”
Father Peter took his hand and shook it gently, as if Albert was one of the day’s dying parishioners whose hand might fly off if he shook it too hard. Then he got out of the car. Albert watched as he spoke with Ursula and Thomas and then ushered them back into the house.
Stars were positively jumping out of the night now. Quite a number had appeared. He didn’t try to count them. He’d once read there were sextillion stars in the sky, so many you would die before you counted anywhere near all of them. A sextillion he recalled was ten to the power twenty-one. He didn’t feel like dying just now.
Ursula opened his door.
“Albert, please come inside. Stop malarking around like this and be sensible for goodness’ sake.”
“Malarking?” he said.
“Well this silly stunt. You’ve had your fun, now I need you to come in,” she said, and added “Please.”
He looked at her. The expression on her face was one of distress. She didn’t understand what he was doing – he didn’t fully understand it – so she was upset. A plumb of ache rose in his heart. He so wanted to comply and relieve her of her anxiety. But he was not ready.
“Please,” she repeated. “I need you in the house. I want you to come indoors.”
He did not respond and they stared at each other. Her eyes were pleading and angry, his were resolute. Eventually she said,
“Alright, be the obstinate fool you are,” and she slammed the door shut. She shouted at him as she walked away, “I’ll get you out.”
Albert wondered where they had got to in their time together. He felt overburdened by life’s demands, her anxieties, the committees she was on and the projects she undertook. By the business of life. The busy-ness.
He returned to his sky. He ran his gaze across the car window from left to right and back, and still the stars and night did not move. This made him smile. They were resilient and not to be put off by a simple human like he.
He was annoyed when his thoughts were disrupted by a parade of flashing blue lights. A policeman walked to the car and shone a torch on Albert’s face. Albert recoiled, momentarily blinded by the harsh light. He put up his hand to shield himself. The torch light dropped and the policeman said, “Mr Bateman?”
Albert nodded. “That’s me,” he said.
“Mr Bateman, can I ask you to step out of your car please?” said the policeman.
Albert opened the door a crack. The policeman opened it wide and leant in and placed a hand on the back of the seat.
“Mr Bateman, your wife called and needs our assistance in getting you in the house.”
Albert noticed that a man in a dressing gown had appeared on the other side of the road. Terry Bramble, he could tell by the bald pate which, despite the street tree he stood beneath, reflected the light above. Behind him, also in a robe, was his wife, June. They were nice people, good neighbours. Friendly. They always said hello in the street, and attended the street party that Carol from number 7 had organised last Christmas. Nosey Carol, that’s what Ursula called her.
Albert said to the police officer, “Can I ask you to turn off your lights? They are disturbing my sight of the stars.”
The policeman sighed and removed his bulk from the car. Albert did not close the door. When the policeman returned Albert said, “Thank you.”
The officer resumed his half in – half out stance.
“So, Mr Bateman,” he said.
“Call me Albert,” said Albert.
“Albert, we need you to go into your house,” he said.
“I understand,” said Albert, and looked up at the sky. “I’ve been studying the sky,” he added.
“So Mrs Bateman tells me,” said the policeman.
“It’s fascinating,” said Albert.
“Mr Bate- Albert, I’m not sure you heard me fully,” said the officer. “We need you to go into your house.”
“Why?” said Albert. “What’s the problem?”
The policeman sucked in a bit of air between his teeth.
“Well, Mrs Bateman is very worried.”
“It’s okay,” said Albert, “you can call her Ursula.”
“Okay, well, Ursula then, is worried about you, and wants you to go inside.”
“She has no need to worry. I’m enjoying myself here, looking at the sky,” said Albert.
“I get that, and they are, as you say, fascinating. But it’s time to stop now and head indoors.”
Albert sat still.
“How about it?” said the police officer.
Albert looked into the street again. Terry and June had been joined by Carol, and the new couple who lived diagonally opposite. Young, with a newborn. He often saw her walking with the pram. He had stopped once and admired the tiny bub who lay swaddled in muslin and gurgled.
He said, “It’s very peaceful here.”
The policeman lowered his head for a moment. Albert waited for the new tack. He wondered how old the policeman was. Mid-thirties, perhaps?
“Look, Albert, I understand if you and Mrs B have had a tiff or something. God knows I have some with my wife, but there comes a time when you’ve got to make up somehow and get back together.”
“Can I ask how old you are, officer?” said Albert.
The policeman wasn’t expecting that.
“Oh, err, thirty five later this year,” he said.
“Been married long?” said Albert.
“Six years,’ he said.
“Love your wife?”
“Well, as I said we have upsets every now and then, but yeah, I guess so,” said the policeman.
“Boy and girl, four and two and a half,” said the officer.
“Do you enjoy your job?” said Albert.
“Mr Bateman -’
“Albert,” said Albert.
“Albert, I’m not sure this is relevant.”
“Do you see yourself doing it all your career?” said Albert.
“I haven’t really thought about it too much,” said the officer.
“But the kids are precious,” said Albert. “You’ll sacrifice everything for them. Work hard, put a roof over their heads, feed them, put them through school, take them to hospital when they break a bone.”
The policeman looked askance at him. “S’pose so,” he said.
“It’s hard work,” said Albert. “Good work, but hard. It can wear a man down. You gotta keep that job, officer, even if it means attending some crazy in a car in the middle of the night when you’d rather be at home canoodling with your young wife after you’ve put the little ones to bed, and talk about whether or not you want, or can afford, a third.”
The policeman looked at him with a vexed expression.
Albert said, “Go home, officer. Go and be with your bride. I’m doing nothing wrong here. I’m on my property, not causing a stir, just sitting in my car enjoying the sky. There’s nothing unlawful about that, and nothing unseemly or odd.”
The policeman retreated, and Albert closed the door. He looked up at the sky again. Figures from across the street were approaching.
One knocked on the window. Carol’s husband Ian. Or latest boyfriend, Albert never knew which. He was at the street party though, so everyone got introduced.
“You okay, Bert?”
Albert waved at him. “All good,” he said.
Carol was hovering in front of the car, talking to Terry, who Albert noticed had gone inside and put on a pair of pants. Another person appeared, Albert didn’t know his name. He heard Ian say “It’s Bert Bateman, he won’t get out of his car.”
In the space of five minutes his car was surrounded by a dozen or so neighbours, all cooing and clucking about his supposed predicament. He heard his name mentioned repeatedly. Someone put their face up against the side window, but Albert couldn’t tell who it was because they had their hands on either side of their face, and was in shadow. Once or twice a torch light swept across him.
Terry knocked on the window. “All good in there?” he said.
Albert nodded and smiled, embarrassed at the attention.
Terry said, “Can I get you something? A beer maybe?”
Albert shook his head. “No, thanks.”
Ursula came out, and a few neighbours flocked to her. They pointed at the car and at Albert, and at the sky. They pointed at some stars, then turned and looked at Albert before looking back at the sky again. One of them left the group shaking his head. One of them pointed a torch into the night sky. The person next to him knocked his shoulder and the group laughed.
The door opened slightly and a hand poked through holding a flask and plastic container. “Here you go,” said Terry. “June knocked up a thermos of hot milk and a sandwich in case you get stuck. I hope ham’s alright. Not Jewish are you?”
Albert took the items and placed them on the passenger seat. “Thank you,” he said, but the door had closed and Terry was gone.
The crowd milled about. Albert recognised a few of them from Carol’s street party, but couldn’t recall their names. Many of them were new to him. They stood in clusters of three or four, some beside the car, others in front. A couple leaned back on the bonnet. Andy Smith, a knock about character who lived up the hill in a granny flat behind his parents’ house, swung a brace of beer cans in their plastic holder, offering them around. He was a beefy bloke, square shoulders and huge thighs. A cigarette clung to his bottom lip.
He approached the car and opened the passenger door. Albert smelled the cigarette smoke.
“Wanna beer, Bert?”
“No thanks,” said Albert.
He lowered himself on to the seat, but jumped up immediately.
“Geez, sorry, mate. I think I sat on your whatever it is,” he said.
Albert laughed. “Don’t worry about it. It was a ham sandwich Terry across the road gave me.”
Andy held up the flattened bag and put it on the dashboard.
“I’ll put this out,” he said. He flicked the cigarette into the gutter. Then he said to Albert, “Word is you’re stuck in this here car staring at the sky. What’s goin’ down?” He looked about himself and added, “Nice ride by the way. What is this, a Volvo?”
“It’s old,” said Albert.
“’S’nice interior but,” said Andy. “Don’t show my ex, she might want one.”
He snapped a beer open. It bounded into his gullet like a fish into a pelican’s beak. He wiped his mouth with the back of his hand.
“Sorry, shoulda asked if it was okay to join you,” he said.
“It’s fine,” said Albert.
“Good oh,” said Andy, and held up another can of beer. “Sure?”
Albert nodded and raised his hand in a gesture of refusal.
“All g, mate, all g,” said Andy and took another swig. He leaned towards Albert and said, “Been on the turps a bit tonight.”
He pulled back and looked up into the sky.
“So what’s deal with the sky?” he said.
“Look at it,” said Albert.
“I’m lookin’ but I’m not seein’. Expliquez-moi, as the Frogs say.”
“Just look,” said Albert.
Andy looked. He scratched his ear. He fiddled with his groin. He burped. “’S’cuse me,” he said, and laughed. “It’s the friggin’ sky, Bertie mate. The same as every night.”
“I know,” said Albert. “That’s part of what makes it so interesting.”
Andy looked at him with a smirk. “You been dog kennelled, have you?”
“No,” said Albert, “the police officer asked me that. I’m just taking time out to contemplate the span of the universe and what it means.”
“Well, you’re causing a kerfuffle doin’ it,” said Andy. “Look at all them Wallies. Nothin’ on free to air, so they come out for a bit of how’s your father in the street. Wish I had some weed. That’d make the night.”
“You don’t need weed,” said Albert. “Just look at it and let it sink in.”
Andy looked again. He said,
“Ah,” said Albert, and raised his hand. “Just look”.
Andy looked. Keeping his eye on the sky he picked his nose. Then he rubbed his groin, and muttered, “Might see the doc ‘bout that.” But he kept looking and soon fell silent and still.
After some time he opened the door quietly and got out. He said to everyone, “Hey, it’s cool, Bert’s just looking at the sky. We should join in. Everyone, just look up, and watch the night!”
To those who hesitated he said, “Go on, take a gander. Nice and slow. Just be chill and watch it.” Eventually everybody obeyed. Someone coughed, someone said they weren’t too sure about this, but no-one left, and soon all were standing with their heads up, staring silently at the sky.
Albert saw Terry put his arm around June. Carol hugged Ian. They looked up together. Andy held his beer but did not drink.
The night was clear. The stars twinkled in the dark and the dark accommodated them all. It was like the blue sky, but bigger. It was all around, and Albert concluded that he was in the night as much as the stars were. The night was in his car. It enveloped the small crowd in the street, and the trees above them and their houses and beyond that, the distant stars and everything else that was visible or not to the naked eye. He sat and stared in silent wonder.
The passenger door opened quietly. It was Ursula. She got in and sat beside him. She said nothing, but did as everyone else was doing, and looked up.
Albert wondered if Ursula saw what he did in the sky, or was just being tolerant. He did not ask. He did not want to start a discussion about it. He just wanted to sit and enjoy the stars and sky and the release they afforded him. He took a glance at her in the shadow of the car. She was staring up. He returned to the sky.
He wondered again if he could see the stars move. He stared hard, but saw only stillness. He had no background or reference point to judge movement, so they might be moving – he knew they were – but imperceptibly so. A plane slipped across the sky near them, or it seemed near to Albert, compared to the stars. Its green lights flashed and were followed by a muffled rumble as it passed. Albert marvelled at the variety of colours among the stars. Although his vision was constrained by distance, he noticed purples and reds and blues and emerald among the yellows and white. Some were so clustered together they looked like clouds. But he knew, that like the stars in the Southern Cross, they only appeared in the formation they did as perceived from Albert’s location. They were not on a common plane or locus, but were in fact millions, if not billions, of miles apart.
Gradually the people in the street moved away, back to their homes, back to their beds, to their TV’s and their lives. Andy was the last to go. He waved cheerily at Albert as he headed back up the hill to his granny flat.
Albert and Ursula sat together in the car. They did not speak. The night was around them in the cabin, and they breathed it in and out and kept their gaze to the heavens. Sure as eggs, Albert noticed that some of the constellations he had been focussing on were now lower in the sky than before. He thought it was the night’s game, that it could move the stars without Albert seeing it do so. He felt privileged to have been invited to play it, even though he had not won – had not really tried to – and the night had proceeded with its nightly task. He felt small, extremely small. The night, the sky, the universe and all that was in it was so incomprehensibly large. He wouldn’t even register on the scale of things.
Yet he also felt large. He had registered on whatever scale it was that one registered on. He existed, the stars existed, as did the void, and the light and all the things in between. He was here, in his car, a little piece of gravity planted on the spinning earth, next to his wife who also existed in the same night, with him, beside him, silently spinning on the same earth absorbed in the presence of it all.
He took her hand. She did not refuse it. He rested his hand holding hers on her thigh and together they remained still and upward looking. This woman, this partner of the years, this fellow manager of the project of living, day to day, night to night, year by year. Life with life.
Why she had chosen him he did not know. Somehow he had charmed her in the early years. Something about him had caught her eye. But he had not always lived up to the promises they had made, or the unspoken expectations they had had for each other. He was at times irascible, at times sullen. He did not always put her first, or consider her needs. He hadn’t earned as much she would have liked; he did not feel she could be proud of his achievements.
Mind you, she was no saint either. However much he failed her, she returned in equal measure, or so it often seemed to him. There was a list of trifling irritations. He often felt she ignored him. Her behaviour, which at times came across as convivial, was often grating and raucous. She bought too many clothes she did not wear, yet admonished him for spending too much when he bought a new pair of socks.
But these were petty tyrannies compared to the larger issue of the way life pulled them apart. The effort in living, the management of family and work, the scrutiny of finances and superannuation, the attention to children’s needs and community networks – schools, Oxfam, the gym, Father Peter’s church (about which, to be honest, he had an ambivalent relationship) – all these took away from them the unity that had been hoped for – nay promised – at the start. The idle times of lying in bed, or reading together in a park, or taking a walk in the woods, all these had been gradually eroded as the task of living took hold. They spent so little time just being together. It seemed to Albert that love’s early dreams were too easily purloined to forge its future: love’s work destroys love’s past. As slowly, as surely, as the world turned and night saw day and repeated.
The sky for him was freedom. He existed there, in and beneath it. He re-existed. Just as each day the blue turned to night and night to blue again, he felt his existence resurge, and his worth and worthlessness in this vast universe was revitalised. He understood the peace, and the call, of self and the need for refinding love in the stillness of distant stars behind the blue opaque of day.
He felt his heart stir. He was there, in the car, with Ursula his wife, being together in a moment, jointly observing the sky. He felt a sort of communion, a restful togetherness, a brightness in her presence with him. The stars were with him. He was with the stars. They were always there. Ursula was always there. She ran the family, was an active and diligent mother, but not always there. Even though she was. It was confusing, she was in his life and days but too often distracted, but now she was here, with him, he with her, in the air of the night in their car. They did nothing, save look at the sky.
She moved her left arm over and held his hand with both hers. Her hand was warm. He snuck a peek in her direction. She was smiling, staring upwards, and her breath rose and fell softly in her chest. He returned his gaze to their mutual task, and looked up into the great dark distance.
He awoke in the early morning light. He was not conscious of having fallen asleep, but he obviously had, because now he was awake. Ursula sat next to him, still sleeping. He admired her aging form, a body he had watched give birth to children, age, work, walk, shop, holiday, beautify, dress and undress. He saw a drop of drool on her cheek. Her breathing was deep and steady, her head leaning against the wall of the car.
He looked at the morning sky. It was mauve. It was slightly chilly but light and fresh and full of promise. A few clouds were scattered in the distance, but none threatened to obscure the fulfilment of day. The streetlights went out above him. He presumed they were on a timer, or was there a person in a room somewhere with a big switch?
Ursula stirred. She shuffled in her seat and wiped the saliva from her cheek. “Ooh, how gross,” she said, and complained about being stiff.
“Hello,” said Albert.
Ursula rubbed her eyes. “Mmph,” she said.
They looked at each other. Then, without communicating, they both leaned over and kissed. Her hands went to his cheeks and she held him their while their lips danced. It was slow at first, a reintroduction to each other, but blossomed to a sumptuous and hungry osculation. When they had finished she said, “Morning breath.”
He smiled. The sky had restored him. He felt refreshed, if somewhat stiff from sleeping in the car.
He opened the door.
“Breakfast?” he said. “Let me help you.” He got out with awkward movements and made his way to her side and opened the door for her. “Let’s go inside,” he said.