Under a dark sky (repost)

I’m sorry if some people see this post twice. WordPress and Facebook became disconnected, so when I posted it the first time, it failed to appear on Facebook.

I’ve been interested in astronomy since childhood, and when I moved to Devon I attended a few meetings of the Devon Astronomical Society. At the February meeting we sat, about thirty of us, in uncomfortable chairs – the stackable kind, steel frames with fabric seats – while the chairman, Richard Wilberforce, gave a presentation about the Society’s observatory. It looked impressive, and when he asked for volunteers to help man it for a fortnight in April I expected a rush. But not a single person came forward. I raised my hand; I must have had a rush of blood to the head, or something!
“Thank you, Amelie. You’ll be working with Lawrence. He rang me earlier to let me know he was available. He’s fully familiar with the equipment; you won’t have any trouble.”
I hadn’t met Lawrence, but I’d heard about him. He was the closest we had in the Society to a professional astronomer; he had a PhD in astrophysics and wrote articles for magazines.
Astronomical observatories are, by their nature, solitary places. If you wish to gather light from a great distance, you must shun the brightness of the world, forsake the city, and go into the darkness.
To tell you the truth, I was a little apprehensive as I drove from Crediton after sunset on my first night as a volunteer. Exmoor is called a dark sky area, and that made more and more sense as I followed the directions of my satnav down smaller and smaller lanes. There were no streetlights, no other cars and, as far as I could make out, no farm buildings. The beam of my headlights illuminated my way forward; other than that it was completely black.
Branches from the hedgerow sprang out of the shadows to poke and slap at my car as I descended a steep hill. Water ran across the corner of the road at the bottom of the hill, and the lane rose even more steeply on the other side. There was grass growing in the middle of the tarmac.
“You have reached your destination”, announced the satnav, taking me by surprise.
I slithered to a halt, skidding on the red Devon mud, wondering whether this could really be the right place. There was a battered Land Rover pulled across a farm gate. N207GHU. I checked against the note I’d made on my phone. Yes. That was Lawrence’s vehicle, so all I needed to do now was find him.
The only place I could park off-road was beside his Land Rover. The ground was scarred with tyre tracks that I could see were full of muddy water. If I put my poor little Clio there she was likely to stick. I shrugged. There was always a rope in the back of a Landie; Lawrence would just have to pull me out. Then I hesitated. What if I couldn’t find Lawrence? I kept my car on the tarmac and left as much room as I could. You could squeeze a small car through. Probably.
Before switching off the engine and the lights, I made sure that I had my mobile phone in my pocket, and my torch switched on and in my hand. With my car abandoned in the middle of the road, I walked across to see whether Lawrence was in his car. He wasn’t, but a small, faded sign next to the gate read “Devon Observatory. Private.”
By now I was becoming quite cross. ‘You would have thought that they’d provide proper directions for how to find the place in the dark,’ I fumed. ‘After all, that’s when you want to find it!’
There was a track over the grass. Presumably it went to the observatory. My torch was bright, but the area a torch illuminates is tiny by comparison with the darkness. I shone it around, trying to visualize exactly where I was standing. I didn’t want to get lost. Also – and I don’t really like admitting this – I was a little frightened. I had no idea what might be lurking out of sight. Fear of the dark and the unknown evolved to protect us when we were primitive, but I’m rational, intelligent, I know about the cosmos and I know about statistics. The chance of anything bad happening to me, other than becoming cold and wet, was about zero.
I slipped and skidded up the track. The drizzle was fine and penetrating. Every part of me that wasn’t covered by cagoul and leggings was rapidly becoming saturated. I wondered whether my torch was properly waterproof. It would be a problem if it failed. I could hear a faint throbbing, more like a flutter in the air than a noise, and wondered what it could be. It must surely be something to do with the observatory. Then, at last, I saw two small buildings, the domed observatory and the control room. I half ran the last twenty metres in my eagerness.
The control room was a wooden structure, a shed rather than a building, but when I pulled open the door it was warm and, after the pitch-black of the field, dazzling.
“Oh, there you are. I thought perhaps you were lost. I’m Lawrence. You must be Amelie. Welcome to the Observatory, and…would you like a coffee?”
Luxuriant curly black hair. A strong face with brilliant blue eyes. Tall and slim, but not in any way puny.
“Coffee would be lovely, thank you.” At least, that’s what I meant to say. In reality I stammered, spluttered and used “Er” and “Um” almost as often as “Sorry”, which was meant to be an apology for being late but became muddled up with apologies for being incomprehensible and for dripping rainwater onto the desk where he was working. What is it about masculine beauty that renders me incoherent?
Lawrence grinned. “It doesn’t matter,” he said. “We’re not going to see anything before two a.m. with this rain. However, the good news is that the weather forecast is promising and we should have clear skies from then. Have you worked in an observatory before?” He handed me a large mug of hot coffee, and the biscuit tin
“I left my car in the lane,” I say. “There’s room for a little car to pass it, but anything bigger…I didn’t want to park in the mud until I was sure you’d be able to pull me out if I got stuck. Had I better go back now and take it out of the way?”
“I shouldn’t bother. I’ve been here overnight dozens of times, and I’ve never known anything come along that lane except members of the society. Now, let me show you how this beast works.”
It was a startlingly sophisticated instrument. The mirror was six hundred millimeters diameter. The telescope was equipped with an interferometer and a computer-controlled device that measured and corrected for upper atmosphere turbulence and temperature fluctuations, which cause stars to twinkle.
“That must have cost thousands!”
Lawrence nodded. “Hundreds of thousands. It’s lucky that some millionaires prefer astronomy to sport!” His smile was charming. It made me feel all wobbly inside. “It deserves a better situation, really. The seeing here is never better than moderate, and it only reaches those heights on about thirty nights a year. But then, if we were in the Arizona desert with wonderful visibility, we wouldn’t live in beautiful Devon would we?”
Lawrence explained that when the rain had cleared, we would check the weather forecast and, provided it was still favourable, we would open the dome and start observation.
“We shall be looking at Messier 4, which is a globular cluster,” he told me. “We’re going to record separate spectra from different points on the cluster; we can just about achieve the necessary resolution.” He paused, and looked at me.
“You mean, we can measure the speed that the cluster is rotating? Gosh, I’m seriously impressed. I thought you’d need a much bigger instrument for that.”
“Brains as well as beauty!”
“You wouldn’t say that to a man, would you?”
The conversation paused. I watched his face as he considered all the implications.
“All I meant was that I was glad you were following my explanation. Most of the volunteers don’t know very much. And I meant that I find you attractive; I don’t find men attractive.”
What an odd reply, I thought. He looked perfectly candid, and a little puzzled. Surely he couldn’t be that naïve?
“Lawrence, my appearance has nothing to do with my suitability to be your co-worker. Beauty and brains are orthogonal variables.”
His face cleared. “Oh, I see. My would-be compliment was incongruous and offended you. I’m sorry; I’m not very good at knowing what other people are thinking. It’s probably why I’m an astronomer.”
“No problem.” I smiled at him. “Thank you for the compliment. I find you attractive too.”
The briefing he gave me on operating the telescope was comprehensive. By the time we’d covered everything, and I’d set up the necessary computer accounts to be able to control the observatory it was gone midnight. The drizzle had ended, replaced by full-blooded Devon rain that was lashing against the building.
“Is it really going to clear for two o’ clock?”
“We use the farmers’ weather forecast. It’s usually excellent.”
“It sounds like Niagara out there!”
The lights dimmed. Lawrence looked across at the control panel, where a red light was flashing.
“Mm. The generator’s gone down. What time is it? Nearly one a.m. The batteries should hold out, but if they drop too low we have to stop observing. I’d better go and have a look. It can’t be fuel. There was plenty there; I checked when I arrived.”
He was already pulling on waterproofs. He changed into his wellingtons at the door and left. There was gust of air, which felt very chilly by contrast with what we’d been enjoying. There was a ‘pinking’ sound, the sound of metal contracting as it cooled. I went over to the radiator under the window. Yes. That was it. I pulled on my sweater.
I went over to the library. There were about two hundred volumes, a mixture of standard texts and books on specialized fields by acknowledged experts. It was most impressive; there was just about everything a professional astronomer would need.
The room was chilling rapidly. The red light still blinked. I logged onto the auxiliary systems computer to check the status of the batteries. Seventeen kilowatt-hours; still close to fully charged. I wondered how long Lawrence would be, and whether he’d mind if I switched on the electric fan heater. But that might shorten the time we could observe. I left the heater switched off.
Anyway, where was he? He’d been gone nearly fifteen minutes. How long should I leave it before going to look for him? By now I was pulling on my cagoul and protective trousers. Bother it. I was going to go and find him. I’d probably bump into him on the doorstep.
As I pulled on my boots, I realized I wasn’t sure where the generator was. It was presumably close to the control room, as it was waste heat from the engine that warmed the radiator in the room. I decided to turn left out of the door and walk anti-clockwise around the building. If I didn’t find the generator, I would widen my circle. That way, I must eventually come across it.
Left out of the door was downhill. I slipped on the mud, and nearly went over. I turned across the front of the building. The raindrops flared with light as they fell through the beam of my torch.
“Lawrence! Lawrence!”
There was no reply.
At the far end of the building, I turned left and played my torch beam over the ground ahead of me, and there was Lawrence.
He was half on his back. His eyes were shut. The rain was running over his face. He didn’t move.
No reply.
I dropped to my knees beside him. Was he breathing? It was hard to tell. I thought so, but it was very shallow. I must get help, I thought, get an ambulance. All the time I was thinking, ‘How did this happen? Was Lawrence attacked? Is his attacker still here?’ I shone the torch around me, looking for an assailant, then realized that was probably the most stupid thing I could do. If there was someone, he wouldn’t want a witness…
Mobile phone. I patted my pockets. No. It must be in the Control Room. I rushed back. It was lying on the desk. My mouth was dry, and I fumbled the phone as I tried to pick it up.
I dialed 999.
“Emergency services. Which service do you require?”
“Um, er, ambulance, please.”
“What is your emergency?”
“My colleague is unconscious. I don’t know what happened to him. He’s lying on the ground outside.”
“Are you able to rouse him?”
“I shouted at him, and he didn’t move at all. I think he’s still breathing.”
“Where are you?”
“At the Devon Observatory. It’s on Exmoor. The grid reference is…” I hastily searched my pockets for the scrap of paper on which I had scrawled the location. Why am I so disorganized? Was this it? Ah! Yes! I recited it to the man on the phone.
“My word, you are in the middle of nowhere aren’t you? Is there any change in the patient’s condition?”
“I don’t know, I’ll have to go outside again, I’d left my mobile indoors when I went to look for him.” The rain drenched me as I rounded the building again. I tried to keep the mobile under my hood so it didn’t get wet. “No, he’s the same as before.”
“Right. I have an ambulance on its way to you. Stay on the phone. Do you have anything you can use to cover the patient to keep him warm?”
“Um, I don’t know. Had I better go and look or stay here with him?”
“Stay with the patient, please.”
Lawrence didn’t stir. Tentatively I felt his hand. It was cold, but not icy. There was some warmth. He was still alive. I looked more carefully at him. His head was against a rock, and there was blood on the rock. He must have fallen and hit his head. He’d been unconscious for an awful long time. I wished that I’d gone out to look for him sooner. I wondered how long the ambulance would take, and suddenly remembered where my car was.
The man from the Emergency Services was talking. “Right, they’re getting close now. You should be able to see the blue lights shortly.”
“They’ll come to a red Clio which is partly blocking the lane. That’s my car, and it’s right by the gate to the observatory.”
“OK. Got you. I’m passing on your message now. Can you see the lights yet?”
Lawrence moaned and stirred.
“He’s coming round! What should I do now?”
“Keep him calm if you can. Just talk gently to him. Reassure him that we’re on our way, and everything will be fine. Tell me immediately if he shows other symptoms, if he vomits for instance.”
“Lawrence, you’re okay, you fell and hit your head.”
“Ow! Oh, my head!”
“You’re going to be fine, Lawrence. There’s an ambulance on its way. Just stay still.”
He moved fretfully.
“I should fix the generator.”
I took hold of his hand.
“Lawrence, you’ve been unconscious for ages. You need to go to hospital.”
He sighed, and closed his eyes.
“Lawrence?” No answer.
“He’s lost consciousness again. Should I try to wake him?”
“No, just stay by him. Can you see the lights yet?”
“Oh – yes I can. They’re close, they’re probably at the entrance.”
“Shine your torch in their direction so they know where you are, but take care not to dazzle them.”
I shone my torch down the hill, to where I thought the gate should be.
“Okay, we’re with you.”
The white faces and yellow hi-vis jackets of two paramedics loomed out of the darkness. Swiftly they examined Lawrence, then they slid him onto the stretcher they’d brought.
“Which hospital are you going to?”
“Royal Devon and Exeter. The neurological unit is there.”
And then they left.
I went back into the Control Room. The red light was still blinking its futile warning. I felt chilled, and desperately sad. It was a few minutes before I summoned the courage to ring Richard Wilberforce. He was so kind. He promised to ring Lawrence’s parents straightaway, and told me to switch off, lock up and leave.
“And I’ll ring you tomorrow and let you know how things are going. I’m sure he’ll be alright, Amelie.”
The room seemed very empty without Lawrence. Even though I had my torch, turning off the light was scary; it felt so final, somehow.
I walked carefully down the hill. My phone alarm sounded and I realized that it was two o’clock. I looked up at the sky and, just as the forecast had promised, the clouds had rolled away and the stars were brilliant. It was breathtaking.
My spirits rose. I made a promise to myself to visit the hospital in the afternoon and see Lawrence. We had some observations to make together!

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