Tag Archives: Polaris

Careering: Saturday

It was late by the time Rob and Sarah arrived back at the house with Maria. She’d stayed at the hospital for twenty four hours, reluctantly agreeing that she might need the rest but impatient to be away from the array of medical equipment and drugs and professionals that could do nothing for her. She’d joked with the nurses that she was like a diabetic with a sweet tooth in a candy store. You got nothing I can have but I want it all. Sarah had insisted on organising a taxi, worried about the hustle and bustle of the tube on Saturday evening. Maria had agreed on condition that  she paid, they use a black cab, and that they make the driver cross the Thames via Tower Bridge. She told Sarah that it’d be another landmark she could sketch for her game, another little source of dopamine for people playing, another marker to help them navigate. Sarah thought there was more of the tourist in Maria than she cared to admit and that she probably just wanted to see the strange castle on the river.

They crossed the Thames as the sun was going down, its towers short and squat against the skyline in comparison to the jagged thrust of the Shard which dominated the view to the west. London was a city of silhouettes in the dusk, the fading light leaving just familiar shapes, the impression of places. Rob pointed out the sights as they appeared, sometimes just a momentary glimpse between office blocks and flats, and then a broader sweep of buildings as they crossed the bridge. A jumble of shapes and styles from the past and from the future. St Paul’s. The Gherkin. The Tower of London. City Hall. Traffic was unusually light and they didn’t get stuck in their crossing. Rob had hoped that perhaps they would so Maria would have more time to admire the view but she had to absorb it in less than a minute before they plunged into Whitechapel and everything closed in around them again.

When they stopped outside their house it was dark. The streetlight hadn’t been fixed and all of the lights inside were off. Rob let them in and called for Alex. There was no reply but it was then that they heard the shouts from outside.

……

Alex hadn’t gone back to the hospital. The others knew he blamed himself for what had happened but didn’t realise how hard it had hit him. He’d said he wanted a bit of time on his own and they’d respected that. In the time they’d lived together it was something they’d gotten used to. Rob teased him for being grumpy and they knew he’d never really settled into corporate life but neither of them thought there was more to it than that. If he was honest with himself he knew that the way he felt had a name. Depression. He should have been more clinical about it, more scientific, but he found it hard to apply his usual, objective mode of thinking to his own internal emotional landscape. He knew it had been getting worse and could trace some of it to the small sets of decisions that had taken him further and further from the things that he’d thought of as making up who he was. He remembered the genuine disappointment that Prof Miller had expressed when he’d told him that he was giving it up. He hadn’t been angry and he’d even understood it – noone’s getting rich mapping the universe – but there was almost a resignation to it. A sense that another bright talent was about to be eclipsed by the need to make the rent. There had been occasional rational moments when he realised that he could just jack it all in, walk away from the office and start again. Lately those moments had come less often. The sane and reasonable voice in his head drowned out by a choir of anxiety and regret and sadness.

Seeing Maria in the hospital had shattered what was left of the fragile peace in his head. It wasn’t just the guilt, on some level he knew that it wasn’t his fault, but the stark confrontation with mortality that had shaken him. There seemed to him to be a pointlessness to it. He’d always valued order and structure, causality and consequences, and whilst he could understand the facts of her disease he couldn’t explain why it was happening anymore than he could explain his own illness.

He put on his suit, straightened his tie, and headed up to the terrace.

……

Up on the roof Alex had his back to them. There was a small wall that ran round the sides of the terrace at knee height, there as a gentle reminder if someone got too close to the edge. You could perch on it and dangle your legs over the side of the house if you didn’t mind the guttering. None of them had ever thought of it as particularly dangerous. Early on the landlord had offered to put up a taller set of railings but they thought it would obstruct the view and had told him not to bother. Alex was standing on the wall, seemingly oblivious to the shouts from people in the flats in the adjacent street telling him to get down.

“What are you doing, Alex ?” Rob spoke quietly, holding his arms out, palms down, trying to signal a sense of calm that he didn’t feel to Sarah and Maria.

“Alex, please,” said Sarah. “Just step down and let’s talk.”

Alex didn’t reply and didn’t move. It had been a cloudless day and the temperature was dropping now that the sun had gone, the air was still. Alex didn’t feel the cold through his suit. Pure wool. He vaguely remembered that fact had been important at work, they’d all been given pointers on personal presentation in the first year on the graduate scheme. A couple of the partners, knowing his background, had joked that he’d have to leave the cords and the elbow patches behind now that he was a professional. There’d been no malice in it. He hadn’t been offended. It wasn’t until later that he’d begun to reflect on his decision and wonder whether he’d got it badly wrong. It was Maria that broke the impasse.

“Where are you Alex ?” He didn’t turn but this time he did reply.

“I don’t know. I honestly don’t know.”

“Latitude. Start with that. Tell me our latitude,” nudged Maria.

“I don’t know,” said Alex. “How would I know that ?”

“We’re not so far from Greenwich. I bet it’s roughly 51 degrees north and a touch over zero degrees west. How would you know if I hadn’t told you ? You taught me this Alex.”

“A fixed reference point. You need a fixed reference point and then you can work it out.”

Across Islington the lights went out. Later it was reported as a power cut, some problem with a sudden surge on the National Grid causing fail safes to kick in and the electricity to switch off. Around them the shining rectangular frames, the windows of the surrounding flats and houses, winked out. The streetlights snapped off. Shakespeare Street went dark. As their eyes adjusted to the absence of light Maria walked across the terrace, reached up, and took Alex’s hand.

“Tell me what you see,” she said.

“You can never see much here,” he replied. “Usually just Venus and some of the brighter stars. The moon obviously, when it’s out.”

Rob and Sarah cautiously crossed the terrace and stood on Alex’s other side from Maria. Sarah took his other hand.

“I saw Mars at the planetarium,” said Maria. “It’s the last thing I remember before I fainted. Where would it be if we could see it now ?”

Alex described its position relative to Venus and slowly began to tell them what he could remember about the positions of the distant objects they could see and the ones that they couldn’t. He was a little rusty but none of them would have known if he got anything wrong. He showed them Orion’s Belt, the three stars in a line that they could usually see above them, bright enough without London being dimmed, and then he noticed that the slightly skewed rectangle of Ursa Major. It was just visible now that the glare from the ground had been subdued and, just a slight turn of the head on from that, if he followed an imagined line from its two pointer stars, then he could make out Polaris. The North Star. He described it to the others.

“So you know where you are now,” said Maria squeezing his hand.

“It’s a start,” said Alex. “I could work out latitude but you know longitude is always trickier than that.”

“Because we’re always spinning, always moving,” said Maria.

“Yes. Yes, we are. I just wanted to make it stop.”

“You can’t make it stop Alex,” she answered. “Not like this. It’ll stop for you, sure, but everything else keeps on spinning. You’ve got your fixed point up there,” she gestured at the sky,  “and maybe you just need to pick your own fixed point down here. Your own Greenwich.”

“I think I had it,” said Alex. “I think I used to have it. Maybe I just need to find my way back to it again.” He stepped down from the wall and quietly accepted Maria’s embrace. Rob and Sarah clutched at his back and the four of them stood on the roof holding him as he wept.

They stayed sat out on the terrace until the power came back on about an hour later. Sarah had made them all tea and they’d sat staring across the rooftops, hands wrapped round warm mugs, steam rising into the night air. When the lights returned the stars overhead faded but all of them swore they could still see the North Star, unwavering, the sky rotating around it.

Careering: Monday

It was already dark by the time Alex returned from work. He walked down Shakespeare Street underneath the orange-white glow of its streetlights, his shadow lengthening as he got further away from each one, and then shortening as he approached the next. He paused at the mid point between two of them and briefly tried to remember the maths. Why would his shadow grow ? He figured it was just triangles. He used to know this stuff. As he continued down the street the light closest to his destination, number 42, faded to a dull orange and winked out. That’ll save the Council about 27p tonight then. He’d just finished a project reviewing potential infrastructure savings for all the London Boroughs; something the Mayor’s office had commissioned. That was the stuff he knew now. Next door’s cat, tabby with white feet, watched him from the wall outside the house, both of them now in darkness.

“Alright Schrodinger ? Bet you’ve had a better day than me,” he said to the cat to no reply. “I guess you’ll only answer to Socks, eh ?”. Socks remained silent and Alex, shaking his head, let himself into the house.

He could hear voices from up on the terrace as he stepped into the hallway, almost tripping over a large, flower patterned carpetbag that had been left behind the door next to a propped up umbrella. Rob and Sarah and a woman’s voice he didn’t recognise. They seemed to be laughing a lot. Their guest. Air BnB. A bag and brolly he didn’t recognise. Slowly he put the pieces together and somewhat reluctantly headed up to join them.

“…so then Rob moved in a few months after we’d met at some event.” Sarah was just finishing the story about how they’d ended up in the house as Alex emerged on to the roof. She was sat forwards in the deck chair talking to a small, immaculately dressed lady. Late 60s ? Alex was terrible at gauging ages. The first time he’d met Sarah he’d guessed she was 35, largely on the basis that she had been wearing a cardigan and had just told him that she was a big fan of Countdown. She’d been 25 at the time. Their guest had short, grey hair, pushed back on one side with an ornate mother of pearl hair clip, a bright white flower design above her left ear. She was looking at Sarah intently and smiling. She sat straight, upright and there was something immediately confident and calm about her, like that moment when a passer by intervenes at an accident and announces “don’t worry, I’m a doctor”.

“Hey, Alex, you’re back,” said Sarah, noticing him and jumping up from her chair. “You must meet Maria.”

“Hello part timers,” replied Alex before more formally turning towards their guest and extending his hand. “Hi, Maria, lovely to meet you. I’m Alex.”

She stood and took his hand, her grip firmer than he’d expected. They held eye contact for a few seconds before she closed her other hand on top of their grip and squeezed, smiling. “It’s lovely to meet you too Alex.” She spoke softly and slowly, drawing out her vowels slightly.

“Was your journey okay ? Did you have far to come ?” he asked, curious about her accent now.

“I’m over from Kansas. It’s been a fun trip so far.”

“We’ve done the Wizard of Oz joke,” interrupted Rob before Alex could reply.

“All you London folk do sound a little like munchkins to me though,” said Maria, eyes twinkling. She sat back down smoothing her skirt on her lap before folding her hands together. She was precise and graceful in her movements. “I was saying to Rob and Sarah how much I adore your roof terrace. It’s the reason I booked the room.”

“It’s the reason we took the house,” said Alex. “It’s just a shame we get more light from the streets than we do from the sky. You must have more luck at home ?”

“Oh sure. Out in the countryside it’s glorious. And if you ever get a chance to get over to Bryce Canyon then it feels like the stars are laid out across the sky like diamonds that you could just pluck down and claim as your own.” She briefly paused and looked down at a ring on her left hand, turned it on her finger, rubbing its single stone. “But it’s good to see a different view of it once in a while.”

“Maybe we should swap,” laughed Alex. “I don’t seem to make out what I want to see up there.” He gestured up and out at the night sky.

“When things get dark you’ll see what you need to see,” she replied.

The four of them contemplated the London sky for a few minutes, lost in their own thoughts. Sarah broke the silence, insisting that they were being terrible hosts and rushing downstairs to fetch glasses and a bottle of wine. Maria sat and had a drink with them for half an hour or so before declaring that jet lag had defeated her and that she ought to retire to be fresh for her planned tour of London’s galleries in the morning. She asked Sarah if she’d like to accompany her. Alex filled in the blanks and realised they must have been talking about her painting before he’d arrived home. Impulsively Sarah agreed, shushing her house mate’s queries about work. Looking quietly pleased Maria left them and went downstairs to her room.

“How are you going to get out of work ?” asked Rob after Maria had gone.

“I’ll chuck a sickie or something, “ said Sarah. “It’ll be okay. Besides there’s a game in the production schedule for next year set in London so it’ll double as research if I take my sketch book with me.”

“But we don’t know her ?” said Alex.

“And yet we’re perfectly happy to have her stay in our house,” said Sarah. “That’s kind of how AirBnB works.”

“I think what Alex is saying is that it’s not AirBnBnTourGuide,” said Rob, trying and failing to enunciate each ‘n’ clearly.

“Don’t talk with your mouth full,” said Sarah. Rob faked a silent laugh, sarcastically, by way of reply. “It’ll be nice. She’s over her on her own, doesn’t know the city. Why not show her that Londoners don’t deserve their less than legendary reputation for hospitality ? What do you think, Alex ?”

“I guess it’ll be fine,” he said. “I don’t know. There’s something about her that I can’t really describe though. Like she’s got a…”

“An aura ?” said Sarah. “Really ? Coming from you, Alex ?”

“Not an aura,” sighed Alex.

“A dark and mysterious past that haunts her ?” said Rob, now switching to mock film voice over mode.

“Not that either. I don’t know. A presence. There’s something assured about her. She just seems utterly and completely herself if that makes sense. She knows who she is. And, no, Sarah, I haven’t started believing in auras.”

“Sounds a bit like it to me,” teased Sarah. “I think I know what you mean. That’s why I’d like to spend the day with her.”

“One things for sure,” said Rob. “None of us are in Kansas anymore. I’m going to bed.” He theatrically clicked his heels together, muttered ‘there’s no place like home’ and left Alex and Sarah sat out on the terrace looking up at the night. Out of habit Alex looked for Polaris but there was too much light. It seemed rare that he could find it these days.

Polaris

There is no fixed point in the universe. That’s what she used to say to me, with that half smile, lips together, eyes dancing, back in those early days when I fell for her. You’re the fixed point is what I’d told her and that’s what had started it. Later she’d told me that it had felt too soon to hear something like that but I still remember catching, just momentarily, the startled look of delight that surfaced on her face as I’d said it. As quickly as she’d revealed herself it was hidden away again and she settled her features back into that half smile. We were walking home from a bar and though the lights of the city dimmed the canopy of stars above us she picked out one, pointing up at it and grabbing my shoulder so that I looked. That’s Polaris she told me. Teased me that it was sometimes known as the guiding star and that perhaps that was what I was looking for. Did you know that it’s brighter now than when mankind first looked on it ? She didn’t tell me this, I looked it up later. She had been teasing but she was right; I was looking for a guiding star and though I never told her I saw some equivalence in the steady brightening of that distant celestial body and our relationship as it blossomed between us. We came back to it, as our little lover’s in joke, again and again. It’s not fixed she would insist. It might as well be I tried to reason with her, all of the other stars in the Northern sky appear to rotate around it. We can take our position in space relative to that point. She used to laugh and assert that everything was inexorably expanding out from the moment things began, that everything was getting further away from everything else. More distant. Nothing was fixed. I would pretend to be sad and playfully detach from her, taking literally her inference that all things pull apart until she’d give in, wrap her arms back around me and whisper that changes in the universe were happening so slowly that we’d never even notice it. The universe won’t pull us apart I would whisper back.

I remember this each year, particularly as the season turns to Autumn. The sun always hangs lower in the sky and it more directly catches my attention. I find myself staring at it, the most prominent star that we can see, marking out our days in constant motion.

There is no fixed point in the universe. Not anymore.

……

This is the third story in my series of 42 shorts that I’m writing to raise money and awareness for Mind, the mental health charity. Please share if you liked it. If you’re interested in donating to a great cause then please visit my fundraising page: https://www.justgiving.com/42shorts/