Eclipse

by Andrew Crumey

From I Am Because You Are (2015)


Outside the café, in the park, some people were waiting to see the eclipse. A tall, bearded man was standing barefoot on the grass doing something with a cardboard box, Claire noted, demonstrating it to two children who accompanied him. He had skin-tight purple trousers, hair matted like hemp, the look of a hippie.

Across the table from her, Adam was aware that Claire wasn't listening to him; he saw the line of her sight, following it only until he could satisfy himself that the target of her observation was nothing more than some momentary spectacle without importance. So characteristic of her, this attention to irrelevant details as a way of evading matters of genuine significance. He said to her, we could do it the following weekend, but the words expended themselves on the side of her face, that lovely face, like ripples against a pond's edge. Every time he looked at her, Adam reflected, he saw the young woman he'd first known, felt the same desire.

The hippie man was angling the box towards the sky as if it were a crude telescope. He must have made some kind of pinhole device, Claire supposed. She'd heard of such things, a means of avoiding the direct and blinding glare of the Sun. Something like that. She could see other people dotted around the park's green expanse, lingering not in the manner of ordinary picnickers or strollers, but with an air of hidden purpose. There was, Claire realised, a secret unity waiting to reveal itself, a cosmic command. Perhaps she had been wrong to dismiss the coming event, and with some uncertainty in her voice - an uncertainty that Adam could not fail to notice even if he might, as was his usual way, misinterpret it - she said, it is only partial, isn't it?

Ninety two per cent was the number Adam had heard. They say it will get dark, he told her. You'd certainly expect so. Ninety two per cent is nearly everything.

But what about clouds, she suggested.

What clouds? He could see hardly any. She was only trying to get off the real subject, he knew it.

No, she said, I mean, when it's cloudy the whole Sun gets covered.

And it gets darker.

Not by much, though.

It infuriated him, this habit she had, of fixing her mind on some random fact or unanswerable question. She was still looking out through the café window, the handle of her coffee cup in her fingers yet the cup remaining on its saucer. On hold. That was how she had kept him all this time. Like coffee she could sip whenever it happened to please her.

The hippie was adjusting his cardboard contraption. Might there be lenses in it, Claire wondered. And how considerate of him, to do this for his children. That's what it would have been like, parenthood. Pleasing and entertaining them, educating them. From where she was sitting she could have no direct view of the Sun; she could see from the strong shadows in the café, as well as from the contortions of the bearded sky-watcher, that she would need to turn right round, go to another window. But then what?

Adam looked at his watch, and again at Claire. Trying to bring enjoyment to the moment, he summoned the thought of her breasts, how soft they were, whenever she had let him kiss them. Every time felt like the last, and had done for all the years they had known each other. Nearly twelve, he reckoned, of being what they were to their spouses and the world: just friends. Then she turned from the window to face him, her lips puckered almost as if in an affectionate kiss, and with a swift and decisive gesture she raised her cup, took a sip, her eyes never meeting his. She put down the cup and looked out again. He studied the creases of her neck and face, the superficial lines of age. He thought of all the time they'd wasted.

Perhaps they ought to go outside to watch the eclipse after all. It hadn't occurred to Claire that there might be anything worth seeing, she didn't believe in astrology. One object covers another, viewed from a particular angle. It's rare and therefore people think it must be special. But she could see anticipation gradually rising; the intangible sense of collective excitement. Far off, someone was unfolding a tripod, must be a photographer, she thought. But no, he'd got a telescope by the look of it, a real one, not some cardboard contraption. She could feel Adam's eyes on her, it was irritating. She wanted him to look out of the window too, her gaze was a command he stubbornly refused to heed.

Let's go, she said.

You've had enough?

I'd like to walk.

I'll get the bill...

I paid already. When I went to the toilet earlier.

That was kind of you, he said. But he knew it meant she was already thinking of leaving when they'd only just arrived. He looked around the café at the other customers, every kind of human grouping or relationship. He shouldn't have told Claire of his decision. It had all seemed so simple in his mind: leave his wife, be honest about how he felt. But he'd been seeing it the wrong way. They really were just friends, whatever that meant.

Claire stood up as instruction to him that they should depart immediately. It dismayed her, his new reluctance in everything, this sudden need to be led. Everything had been fine before. She went ahead of him as they moved past the other tables, out of the café to the open air that was warm and bright. In the distance there was what appeared to be a spontaneous coalescing of eclipse watchers. Claire realised that its focus was the man with the telescope. She said, I thought you couldn't do that.

What?

Look at the Sun through a telescope.

I expect you can use some kind of filter.

Let's go and see, she said.

This was the last thing he wanted. They were meant to be discussing their future together, the most deeply private and personal matter, and she wanted to go and speak to an amateur astronomer. It all felt so calculated, such a deliberate snub. Her way of telling him they could never be together as free partners, she would never leave the dull, neglectful husband she clearly despised. So much sacrifice, and she wanted to talk about a bloody eclipse.

They walked in silence to the cluster of people now surrounding the astronomer. Some had come prepared, with special dark glasses of their own, but all wanted a peek through the telescope. A girl of ten or twelve bent her head over the angled eyepiece and immediately exclaimed: wow! Her mother asked, what can you see? The Sun's got a bite out of it, the girl said. Others looked and confirmed the view; Adam felt there was really little need to see it for himself. A bright circle was gradually being devoured by an invisible one.

Claire wanted to tell him: you've ruined everything. For that, after all, was what he had done. She had always valued his intelligence, his confidence, his total lack of neediness or clinginess. Their occasional sexual episodes had been physically satisfying, and had helped maintain the special closeness of their friendship, but they had changed nothing, until now. Suddenly she had to make a decision, and she resented the way it had been thrown at her without prior discussion.

The astronomer explained what was taking place. The most incredible coincidence, he called it. The Sun is four hundred times larger than the Moon but also four hundred times further away. So they appear exactly the same size in the sky, and one can perfectly hide the other. Ours might be the only planet in the galaxy so extraordinarily blessed, and since the Moon is gradually retreating from Earth, the coincidence can only exist for a limited period of cosmic history, in which our species happens to have evolved. A boy asked, why is the Moon going away? And the astronomer said it was because Earth's tides drain the Moon's energy, slowing both worlds. Things run out eventually. Nothing lasts forever.

Now even the hippie with his cardboard box and leaping offspring was coming to join the throng. Another telescope had arrived, the property of a man with a Pink Floyd tee shirt stretching across the ample curvature of his chest. This second device provided welcome back-up, though the owner warned the assembled company in a loud voice that he was not in any way responsible for the personal safety of onlookers and could not be held accountable in the event of accident or misuse. Perhaps for this reason, his instrument remained less popular than the other, as the eclipse progressed.

Claire took a turn at the eyepiece. There it was, the Sun, a pale white crescent. She could see two black spots on it, giant magnetic storms according to the astronomer's lecture, in reality very bright, and only appearing dark by contrast with the rest of the solar disk. By now most of the Sun was covered. She knew there was only one possible outcome for all of this.

Someone asked, when will it get dark? The astronomer said there would be only a slight lowering of brightness.

But they said on the news it would get dark. Streetlights would come on. Birds would stop singing.

The astronomer laughed. Those people on the news don't know much about the Sun, he said. You can blot it out almost completely and everywhere still looks like daytime. When it sets behind the horizon it takes a while before you even notice you're in twilight. No, the only kind that really makes a difference is a total eclipse. That's some sight, believe me.

As she looked through the eyepiece, Claire could sense the ripple of disappointment.

So what should we expect? It was a tentative male voice which said this. Claire recognised it as Adam's.

It's still worth it, the astronomer assured everyone. The Sun will be a thin, curved sliver. Still too bright to look at directly, mind you.

Claire moved away from the eyepiece, others were still waiting, and newcomers arriving, but some who had already seen it wondered if there was anything else worth staying for, and moved on. The unmagnified Sun remained painfully brilliant, even when she tried screwing her eyes until they were almost closed.

Adam asked her, can we go now? I think we've seen everything.

But it hasn't reached maximum, she said. I want to be here when it does. Only a few more minutes, I think. And at this point he tried to take her by the arm, she felt his hand suddenly tight, heavy upon her, a grip that spoke of suppressed hostility. Immediately, without needing to give it any thought, she moved away from him, though the grip at first remained, as if he might be willing to struggle, here among all these people. What would they think? Could anyone possibly imagine the two of them were a couple, married? That he could have any right to treat her that way? He released his grip, aware he had overstepped a boundary.

She said, I'm staying here until it's over. Go if you like.

It's already over, he said. Then he left.

Claire waited beside the telescope. Between each viewer, the astronomer patiently readjusted it, making sure everyone had a perfect glimpse. She asked him, what does your wife think of this? He seemed startled by the question, not a kind he was used to, but after a pause he laughed. She thinks I'm bonkers, he said. Just doesn't get it.

I'm not sure I get it, said Claire. It's pretty, and I suppose it's amazing in an abstract sort of way. But is it really of any significance?

The astronomer let the question hang while he assisted an elderly lady who had trouble getting her head to the right position at the telescope. Then he said, long ago, people thought eclipses were some kind of omen or portent. Then they found that they come in cycles. No one could understand why, they never realised that the Moon goes round the Earth, and both go round the Sun, but despite their ignorance they learned to predict when eclipses will happen. Once telescopes had been invented, it was found that eclipses gave a perfect opportunity to study the Sun's atmosphere, normally hidden from view. So we can learn a lot from them. And in 1919, during a total eclipse, Eddington and others measured stars around the Sun's blackened disk and saw that their light had been bent by gravity. It proved Einstein's theory of general relativity. Space and time are curved by the things in them. I'd say all of that is pretty significant. Certainly puts things in some kind of perspective, don't you think?