Disco lights

Excerpt #2 from Stars Light the Dark (my new novel)

1 March 2021.

The novel is narrated by Tom, a ghost, the ex-lover of Stella, a lighting designer for the theatre. Tom observes Stella, unable to let go of her, as she grapples with the grief of his death and the sadness of her past, amidst the high risks of new love with astro-physicist Walter Thompson. In this excerpt, Tom, our ghost-narrator, is observing Walter, soon after Walter has broken up with Stella…

“Walter works at the Battcock Centre for Experimental Physics, which is part of a development built in the 1970s on the western edge of Cambridge, where the city turns into meadows and farmland, on Madingley Road. The square, modern buildings of the Madingley Rise site sit amongst the trees of a pretty woodland – hidden, peaceful, and out of the city proper. Walter’s building is tucked into the middle of the site, behind the Institute of Astronomy, which is across from a large meadow holding grazing horses.

It’s been a week since Walter has broken up with Stella. He steps out of the entrance of the Battcock Centre at 10:30am and walks down a small flagstone path that leads him around to the front of the nearby Astronomy building. He crosses the road there, a small drive that runs through the site, and steps onto the grassy verge, to the fence bordering the horses’ field. Two of them pick up their heads and amble slowly over to him. It’s a cold March day with a white-grey sky, and the horses are still wearing their winter blankets. The grey dappled mare is wearing a worn, dirty, blue blanket, and the small bay gelding is wearing a black, slightly newer-looking one. Their coats are shaggy with winter growth. Walter puts his hand out flat with a sugar cube in it, one for each horse in turn, then he strokes the grey mare’s soft, wide cheek. He feels uncomfortable meeting the calm gaze of her brown eye today – somehow it sharpens his awareness of how wrong he feels inside.

The horses know. In their different minds, in their pure intuition, his disrupted emotional pathways appear as discordant pulses radiating out from him. But the horses exist in an energetic field of wellbeing which is more powerful than the discord radiating from humans. They are tuned in perfect harmony with The Energy. That is why all of nature has the same feeling, the same tone. Nature is in the key of The Energy. The two flows of energy meet and eddy as Walter strokes her cheek, the horse’s unstoppable love swirling around Walter’s belief in the absence of love. Then he abruptly puts his hand down, ignoring the waiting bay, who whickers a gentle protest as Walter turns and walks away.

He crosses the road and walks back down the flagstone path to his own building. He pulls open the door and goes into the foyer, then into the large conference room off reception where the morning tea trolley has been wheeled in, stocked with tall silver urns filled with coffee, tea and hot chocolate, large plates of biscuits, small jugs of milk and sugar bowls – the source of Walter’s sugar cubes for the horses. His colleagues are arriving, walking into the room and busily filling teacups, taking biscuits and settling into conversation groups, some standing in circles, some seated in the room’s chairs. The sounds in the room are of clinking porcelain and teaspoons clanging as they stir, and the rumble of voices, mostly male. Walter surveys the scene and is decidedly not in the mood to talk to his fellow physicists. But he wants a cup of coffee.

He could pour himself a cup and take it back to his office, but he decides to walk over to the Astronomy Institute’s morning tea trolley instead. Tea trolley, twice a day, at 10:30 a.m. and 2:30 p.m., is an old Cambridge tradition that Walter found both funny and charming when he first arrived at his job two years ago. Today he feels desperation seeping up out of the emotional containment field he has imposed on himself for the past week. He can’t focus on any of his work tasks and doesn’t even want to try. From 9.30 – 10.21 today he sat at his desk, just staring at his laptop screen, forcing himself to sit there, pretending to work for the look of it, watching the time. When his computer clock showed 10.21, he got up like a spring released from a constraining strap and went in search of sugar cubes for the horses.

Now he opens the pale wooden door of the Astronomy department and says hello to Shirley, the receptionist, as he walks in. She is in her late forties, with brown horn-rimmed glasses and shoulder-length wavy brown hair gradually turning to grey. She has a full cup of tea to the left of the computer keyboard on her desk, and she is staring at her computer screen, with a bourbon crème biscuit in her right hand. She looks up briefly to acknowledge Walter’s greeting and smile at him, then takes her eyes back to the screen, taking a bite of her biscuit. She is a visual artist, a painter, whose day job in the Institute of Astronomy, though pleasant, is like being asleep compared to the vibrancy of the evenings and weekends she spends engrossed by her canvases in the spare room at her small flat. Today, she is avidly reading an article on her computer about the next Biennale in Venice and trying to decide whether she can afford to go.

Walter stands in front of her desk, observing the scene, which is nearly identical to the one in his building, save for the shape of the room. The reception area here is larger, octagonal, and lit by natural light coming from windows on several of the octagon’s sides. The horses’ green paddock is visible through a floor-to-ceiling glass window next to the reception desk. The stocked tea trolley in the middle of the room, and the standing and seated groups of mostly men, talking and drinking tea and coffee, are the same.

Walter looks for his friend Paul but doesn’t see him. It doesn’t matter – here Walter can blend quietly into someone else’s conversation without being prodded into participation, or drift out to watch the horses. The astronomers are a peaceful, almost mystical, sort of scientist. Walter has always been struck by the difference in feeling between the two departments, often thinking, I guess they take the long view on things over here.

He walks over to Astronomy’s shining stainless-steel trolley, takes a white porcelain cup and saucer from the lower level and fills it with coffee from the tallest silver urn. He doesn’t bother with milk or sugar; he takes it black. Then he turns and walks over to the wall to the left of the building’s entrance doors. This wall is a row of offices leading down one of the arterial corridors of the ground floor. Stretching away deeper into the building, in between each office, is a series of huge, framed photographs of space, each nearly as tall as a person.

Walter stands in front of the photograph nearest to him and takes a sip of his coffee. The large, square expanse of this photo is mostly black, and shows the moon blocking the sun, a total solar eclipse. Around the moon’s crisp circular black edge are the diffused rays of light from the sun behind it, like a halo of white light around the blackened moon. Walter looks at the photo, which he knows well, then shifts his attention to the exhibition text next to it:

In 1919, Newton’s law of universal gravity still dominated scientific discourse, as it provided extremely accurate explanations of physical observations. But Einstein had a major issue with Newton’s theory: It was not consistent with his own special theory of relativity, which predicted that space and time were relative, forming a four-dimensional continuum called spacetime. He conceived a general theory of relativity, in which gravitational fields would cause warps in spacetime, thus causing light to bend around large objects and weaving gravity into the continuum.  

In 1917 Sir Frank Watson Dyson, the Astronomer Royal of Britain, created the first experiment to test Einstein’s theory: A total solar eclipse on May 29, 1919, would occur just as the sun was crossing the bright Hyades star cluster. Dyson realized that the light from the stars would have to pass through the sun’s gravitational field on its way to Earth, yet would be visible due to the darkness of the eclipse. This would allow accurate measurements of the stars’ gravity-shifted positions in the sky.

Sir Arthur Eddington, leading two teams of astronomers from Cambridge University, travelled to the remote island of Principe in the Gulf of Guinea off the west coast of Africa, to measure the stars’ positions during the eclipse. The astronomers took several photographs of the star cluster during the six minutes of the eclipse, of which this is the most famous. Eddington published his findings on 6 November 1919. Einstein became the most famous scientist in the world, overnight. [1]

A voice breaks into Walter’s contemplation, ‘Walter is that you? I thought it was!’ Walter looks up from the small placard to see Roger MacIntyre, whom he met at the Girton formal hall several months ago, the night he met Stella.

Roger is half a head shorter than Walter and wearing blue jeans, brown hiking boots and a sky-blue button-down shirt, neatly tucked in. His blue eyes are lively behind his metal-framed glasses, and his bright white hair and beard are both trimmed close. He is holding a red jacket in his hand, and with the other hand reaches out to grasp Walter’s upper arm briefly in a firm, friendly way, smiling pleasantly at him.

Roger says, ‘I take it you’ve defected from your own department for tea as well?’

Walter says, ‘That’s right – you’re nearby, in the British Antarctic Survey?’

‘Yes, well-remembered. I’m retired, but I still come and help out with things from time to time, like today – hang on; let me get a cup of tea. Back in a second.’

Walter takes a large swallow of his coffee and watches as Roger greets several of the older astronomers jovially on his way to the trolley.

After depositing his coat onto a chair and making himself a strong tea with milk, Roger returns to where Walter is standing by the large photograph, cup and saucer in hand. Roger says, ‘I often came over here when I was working down the road. There’s something about the astronomers, isn’t there? They’re not like the other kids.’

Walter shakes his head in agreement, and something makes him take a deep breath just then, and sigh. More emotion comes out in the sigh than he meant to show, and Roger looks curiously at him.

On the night of the Girton formal hall, Roger had enjoyed meeting Walter immensely. Walter had a quality that reminded him of his old friend Ted, an American researcher he had spent time with in Antarctica. Ted and Walter were physically similar-looking, both dark-haired, with a boyish squareness in their faces, and tallish. But beyond that, they both had a similarly joyous looseness, a willingness to fall straight into a joke as soon as it presented itself. Walter is expansive, like Ted was, Roger had thought that night. His smiles come fast and stay long – generous smilesand his eyes dart around – he wants to take in everything around him, but so he can understand it as fully as possible, and then get down to enjoying it. Roger had particularly enjoyed observing Walter’s pursuit of Stella that night. During dinner, while keeping pace with his wife Zora’s remarks and the couple on their other side, he had also kept an ear out for what Walter had said to Stella. For his own amusement, he had been running an internal commentary on Walter’s moves: Good. Teasing is always a quick in. Gets them annoyed. They love being annoyed with you.

Today Roger can plainly see that there is something wrong with Walter. Roger has noticed that Walter hasn’t shaved, but it isn’t the thoughtful stubble worn for fashion by some younger men these days – it’s uneven, neglected-looking.

Roger says, ‘Hey, do you want to go for a little walk? I’ve been sitting down too much already today. I need to stretch my legs.’

It’s exactly what Walter wants to do. It’s the first thing that he has felt he genuinely wants to do in a week. He nods. Roger drinks his tea in several large swallows, heartily, and Walter tips up the last of his coffee. They walk over to the trolley and put their cups on the lower level, then Roger picks up his jacket from a nearby chair, and they turn and head towards the Reception doors.

Outside, Roger, noting that Walter is only wearing a black jumper over his jeans, asks him, ‘Do you want to get a coat?’

Walter shrugs and says, ‘Nah. I don’t mind the cold.’

Roger’s coat has bright silver reflective patches on the arms and shoulders, and it’s embroidered with ‘British Antarctic Survey’ in white letters under a small Union Jack on the left breast. He says, shrugging it on but leaving it unzipped, ‘Okay. Let’s walk out towards the Brighton Building.’

Walter nods agreement, feeling passive, willing to be led by the older man.

They walk in silence at first, then Roger says, ‘Hey, did I tell you that night at dinner about my friend Ted? He’s American, too.’

Walter shakes his head, looking down at the ground as they walk down a small, paved path bordered by birch trees. Their branches still have the appearance of bareness, but close up, they are covered by small buds.

‘Yes, you remind me of him a bit. Not just because you’re American.’

‘Hmmh,’ says Walter, noncommittally.

They come to a fork in the path by a wooden signpost that has blue pointers stacked on top of each other, facing in three different directions. One says, ‘AG Brighton Building’, and that’s the direction Roger takes them, north.

He continues, ‘Let me tell you, did I have some good times with Ted – down in Antarctica, that is. Actually, I only saw him once when we weren’t in Antarctica, when he was visiting London for a conference. Don’t really remember much of that night, to be honest.’ Roger laughs a little.

‘Though we had plenty of fun down South, too. The last time I was posted there, Ted wasn’t supposed to be there, actually – I had had it in a letter from him just before I’d left, but then to my surprise he turned up. His wife had just left him.’

Walter winces internally when he hears this. The Energy has created this meeting for the three of us today, because Roger is going to say something important. Roger is a father who had a good father, who had a good father. He has something to tell us both.

Roger continues, ‘…and he begged his department head to send him on the next trip going, which happened to be just a few weeks later, and so there he was. Of course, I would have preferred for him to be happy, and still married, rather than with me for one last hurrah at the end of the earth, but there you go. Anyway, on that trip – funny story – there were three Ukrainian scientists in their national station, and they had been there for two years, which is a very, very long time to be posted down South. Well, their government kept squabbling over the funding for their return trip and delaying it. So they went on a work strike, grew their hair and beards out, started making vodka from a home-made still and turned their station into a bar! Hah! Vaidotas, Mikhailo and Pavlo. Cracking fellows, they were. It was exactly what Ted needed, just then. Ice, vodka, mad Ukrainians, and me, probably, to talk to. When you go through something like that – losing your wife – you need to talk things through a lot. You need your friends.’

Both men are looking forward, Walter mostly down at the ground, but he glances quickly sideways, when Roger says that. Walter clears his throat then says, ‘So, what are you working on at the moment?’

Roger says, ‘I’m helping advise on The Sir David Attenborough research ship. It’s being built in Liverpool at the moment. A team of engineers and ship-builders are coming for a meeting this afternoon.’

‘Oh’, Walter says.

Now they have reached the Brighton building, at the edge of the site, and Roger confidently takes the path that leads past it, to the meadows beyond.

They pass single file though a small wooden gate, and Roger chooses a path in the meadow through small hillocks in the direction of a country lane sheltered by an avenue of tall chestnut trees. Once they are in the privacy of the meadow, away from the buildings, Roger says, ‘I hope you don’t mind me saying, Walter, but you seem a bit down. Anything wrong?’

Walter thinks, I fucked up my job and things with Stella in one fucked-up fucking day, and now I can’t fucking stop fucking thinking about my FUCKING father. But he says, ‘I – my boss – my PI, I mean, gave me bad advice on my last round of experiments, and everything we did failed as a result, and now he’s blaming me, publicly.’

Roger says quietly, ‘I’m very sorry to hear that, Walter. He sounds like one of those psychopaths who climb to the top using the bodies of others for footholds. They’re about, you know – in Cambridge, in science, in life.’

‘Yeah, I guess I’m learning that.’

Roger says, ‘The up-side is that now you know what to look out for, what to avoid, next time. You can get another job. One with a better PI. It’s also worth remembering that a lot of people in your field will already know he’s like that and read between the lines of the situation.’

Walter says, ‘Huh. I never thought about it like that. That’s pretty useful to know. Thanks.’

Roger says, ‘I couldn’t help thinking when I saw you, there in the Astronomy building, of a certain young lady that you took a shine to that night at Girton. How did things go with her?’

Walter thinks, Aw fuck. How is it going to look that I broke up with her the same day as all this stupid shit went down?

He says, ‘Well, actually, we dated for a few months, but I think it ran its course, so I ended it recently.’

Roger can see perfectly well that the two things are related, and his heart goes out to Walter. He can sense the confused little boy inside the tall man walking beside him, and he can tell Walter’s hurting. He says, ‘You know, Walter, times like this come in life sometimes, and when you get to my age, you look back on them and realise they’re valuable, they’re powerful. Actually, from one perspective, they’re positive.’

Walter hears these words through a cloud of pain, glances over at Roger with his brow furrowed and his eyes dark, then looks down at the ground again. They have just reached the country lane, and the tall trees on either side almost meet to form a canopy overhead. Their upper branches are waving in the gusts of March wind, high above the pair.

Roger continues, ‘Have you ever had a tour of the Brighton Building, back there?’

Walter shakes his head but doesn’t say anything.

Roger says, ‘Fascinating place. Full of rocks. Did you ever study geology?’

Walter shakes his head again.

‘You might find it interesting. Take carbon. Under conditions of extreme pressure and heat, carbon atoms adopt a different bonding structure, changing from graphite rings into a three-dimensional network of interlocking tetrahedra, called diamond.’

Walter doesn’t say anything, but his mind focusses on the pain he feels, then converts his understanding of it into pressure. He finds this recategorization interesting – it feels like a small rope or ladder leading up and away from the overwhelm of feeling that has been constantly threatening him.

Roger keeps going, ‘Now, I’m not saying to pretend you don’t feel something. You must feel. Too many men these days don’t realise you have to feel all the way through something to let it go.’

As Roger says this, the words ‘let it go’ run all the way through my airy consciousness, circulating through the me that is still me, like information through a network, like blood through a body. I still feel like I have a heart, and when ‘let it go’ tries to circulate there, it is stopped by a dark mass of resistance. I feel The Energy all around me, all around us, attentive, focused.

Roger continues, ‘Ted had to feel like he was in the teeth of a bear trap for a good year before he let go of his divorce. I’m just saying that it’s also a time when you can gain wisdom – and wisdom is power – if you look at it the right way, if you handle the pressure the right way.’

Roger looks up and around at the waving tree tops. He says, ‘You know, Walter, I was out on the ice taking a sounding once, and a sudden storm blew up, and although I was less than a mile from the stations, I couldn’t see a thing for snow. Couldn’t see my hand in front of my face.’ Roger puts his hand up and waves it, to demonstrate.

He goes on, ‘I picked up my radio to let the station know where I was, but I had accidentally taken one that was uncharged that day, and I had forgotten to test it before I left. Someone must have put it back onto the wrong rack. I knew this storm wasn’t on the forecast, so I hoped it was just a freak and would pass quickly. The right thing to do was to stay right where I was and wait it out. I had a small tent set up to cover my equipment, and it was just big enough for me, so I climbed in, zipped it up and sat still.’

Walter is really listening now. Like me, Walter grew up without a father, and it suddenly strikes him that fathering is pouring into him right now, unexpectedly, from Roger. He thinks, This moment is significant. This matters. I need this, and it’s here, happening right when I need it. There is a little vortex of loving energy surrounding the three of us, set in motion by Roger’s focused intention to show compassion to Walter. I can feel its movement around this area that feels like my old heart. It is beautiful. Suddenly, I see that it is The Energy, purely creating.

Roger goes on, ‘So, you know, I sat there, and the storm went on and on, for an hour, two hours, then five, then eight, and I got colder and colder, wondering how long it was going to last. First, I thought about what I had and didn’t have in terms of survival, what food I had with me, what layers, what warmth. I didn’t have the right kit with me, because I had, in a manner of speaking, just popped out onto the ice near the stations for a quick task. In fact, I could still see the stations from where I was before the storm blew up.

Then, the temperature really plummeted, and I could feel the cold starting to affect me, and then I thought about how hypothermia kills you, stage by stage. I started losing feeling in my hands and feet first. That’s the first stage – you go numb in your extremities, because your body diverts your blood, and all the warmth in it, to your vital organs, to your brain, your lungs, your heart. So I was sitting there, losing feeling in various parts of my body – feet, legs, hands and arms – and the strange thing was that I found it somewhat fascinating. I didn’t have anything to do but think, and I kept looking at my hand and seeing it, but not being able to feel it.’ Roger mimes the gesture now, holding his hand up and looking at it, turning it over.

Then he continues, ‘I kept thinking, “There’s no feeling connecting me to my hand anymore, but I still feel like myself. Who am I then? Am I my body?” The answer that came to me in that tent was, “No, I’m not my body.” I kept asking myself questions, interrogating this idea that had occurred to me: “Am I my job? My age? My nationality? My name?” – and I found that I was none of those things. And then, you know, the damnedest thing happened.’

A note of pure joy has just entered Roger’s voice, and Walter glances up at Roger with a questioning, intense look in his eyes.

Walter says, ‘What happened?’

Roger, chuckling, says, ‘Oh, I still don’t really know – I just started laughing and laughing, right there at the edge of death. What tickled me, somehow, was the idea that I had thought I was my body, my name, my job, my relationship with Zora, my nationality, my identity. It just struck me as utterly ridiculous.’ He closes his eyes briefly, shakes his head, still chuckling. ‘And then I let go. I decided to let go of all of that. And you know, I felt so light. Right on the edge of life and death, I felt so happy.’

The swirling feeling around my old heart intensifies. The compassion emanating from Roger and The Energy holds me safe while the change occurs. I see it so clearly now: I didn’t have a father, or good love from a mother, and when I met Stella, all the new love that poured between us for those five years – the happiest of my life – somehow hardened into a need for her, and only her. That’s why life was intolerable for me at the end. The day I thought she almost died on the beach showed me clearly that if things ever changed, if she ever left me, or died, I couldn’t stand it, and after that I couldn’t stand anything about life anymore. Then I still couldn’t let go of her after I died. I didn’t know there was something else, after letting go.

Then, I realise that in the midst of everything I can see and sense and am now – oh it’s vast, The Energy, the love, the sight, the being – I realise how ridiculous it is to be holding on to anything, and particularly to the idea that I need Stella and only Stella. Ha! What a joke!

The mass of old need around my heart space breaks up first like chunks of concrete in a rumbling earthquake, and The Energy is laughing all around me, and then I’m there in Roger’s tiny tent on the ice 29 years, 241 days, 6 hours and 23 minutes ago from where we are in the earth time continuum, and I am laughing gloriously along with him. His face is bearded then, too, but it was reddish brown instead of white, and his face is encircled by the thick brown fur ringing his hood, and his glasses were horn-rimmed, instead of metal. Right then, his lips were blue. He is laughing so hard that he is falling sideways onto his backpack and pounding the hands he can’t feel joyously on the legs he can just about feel and the tent floor, howling with laughter, ‘AAAHHHHAAAHAAA!!!!’ – real screams of laughter, and I am right there with him, in the midst of more disembodied love and connection than anyone living can ever possibly ever even feel or know.

Walter says, ‘Then what happened?’

Roger says, ‘Well, the storm cleared off, and a rescue team arrived. I lost a little toe, but that’s all, and that’s virtually a rite of passage for an Antarctic explorer of any stripe.’ He chuckles.

Then he goes on, ‘What I’m saying, son, is that maybe it’s a good time to ask yourself what you are, and what you are not.’

Walter says, ‘Hmmh’, then stays quiet. He asks himself, Am I this work failure? The answer that comes immediately into his mind is NO. He sees it clearly for the first time: the separation between himself, and this situation. I am not this situation. This situation is separate to me. This makes the darkness he’s been carrying for a week lighten a bit. His mind processes the emotional change as an analytical measurement of the interplay of different forces and qualities in himself and this situation: If X (my identity and wellbeing resting in my identity) are not connected to N (my job), S (my relationship), T (my body), then any negative forces (-) exerted on those things (-N, -S, -T), do not ultimately negatively affect X (me) in any way. Then he asks himself the next logical thought, Who or what is X? Who am I?

The two men reach the end of the lane, and Walter says, as they turn around to head back, ‘Thanks, Roger. I think that was just what I needed to hear today.’

Roger smiles at him, his features lighting up, and Walter sees so much obvious care in it that he feels in danger of tears.

Roger thinks, I think I can get away with it – he’s American, after all, then he pulls Walter into a fierce, short hug, patting his back so hard that the percussive thumps almost feel like blows. Walter’s pain cloud shatters and disperses, and a few tears leak out of his eyes. He pulls out of the hug, hastily wipes away the tears, then says, ‘So tell me about the David Attenborough ship.’

Roger obliges him, and they talk about the new research ship all the way back to Walter’s department. As Roger leaves him, he gives him his phone number and says, ‘Call me anytime you want a pint. It’d be a pleasure.’”

[1] Credit article from Wired magazine by Lizzie Buchen, 05.29.09, 12:00 a.m.;

‘May 29, 1919: A Major Eclipse, Relatively Speaking’; All italicized are her words.

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