Walking under the Milky Way

I escaped to the country this past week. It was a quiet affair, just hanging out with an old pal who was housesitting for her boss. As I drove south and west of London, through the average speed camera quagmires, the fields became more golden and the signs for fresh strawberries more frequent. The hedgerows grew taller as the lanes dwindle from two, to one, to single track with far too few passing places. And so it went, small hills and hollows and valleys with fields and the odd splash of native woodland. It was beautiful, but very tame; tempered; there might not be many people in this part of the country, but this part of the country was certainly shaped by people… and had been for at least four thousand years. You might get lost in one of the wee woodlands, but more likely than not you’d find yourself on a quiet road flagging down a newish Range Rover and asking for a lift. There’s something about it that seems like pretend outdoors. It’s probably why I like Scotland so much; there’s a little bit more wild in their wilderness. 

The house was beautiful. Converted farm buildings with a pool and two fish ponds. It was a lived-in place; two eager dogs managed to fill it in spite of their diminutive size. Light seemed a theme, with skylights throughout to allow the sun to pour in at every opportunity. The pool was long; meant to be swum in, rather than a neglected badge of prosperity. 

We fed the fish and the dogs and then opened a bottle of fizz and a couple of packets of crisps. The golden hour came and the waning sun gave the surrounding fields a new intensity of rich lustre. My pal smoked as we finished our bubbles. The dogs chased something in the high grass next to the fish pond. Birds hovered above the stacks of baled hay in the fields in the distance. The hills rolled so gently that England seemed a comfy duvet of green and gold.

We took the younger dog and walked down to the pub at the bottom of the hill. The path down ran between two bare fields, their fruits of harvest already reaped and stacked in large piles. I brought my camera - the light was good. In the duvet fold at the bottom of the hill sat the village, tucked in cozily, before it all rose again on the other side. Closer to the town the trees rose up around us; a woodland tunnel. The path got steeper, and the dog pulled the lead harder because she quite liked going to the pub. 

The pub just looked like someone’s house. There was a ‘no dogs allowed’ sign in the bar so we grabbed a picnic table outside. We drank beer. The night was cool. We talked about whatever; she asked me about writing. I answered what I could. The nice lady called us when our table was ready. It turned out one of the dining areas was just fine for dogs. We both had the pie of the day: chicken, ham, and leek. It wasn’t one of those individual tins with a bit of filo on top, either, but a proper massive slice of pie surrounded by a butter short crust pastry. The chips were good too. The veg sides were a bit meh, but that’s what veg sides are in proper pubs. There was a couple there with an old greyhound. They’d come up from Salisbury. He was quite portly, with thick glasses, nursing a glass of red wine. She was tall, thin, and on the water. They gave my pal a full rundown of all to do when she went to Salisbury. 

There are no street lights in this part of the world. We walked back by the light of my phone, up the woodland tunnel back towards the house. I looked up at the stars and cutting diagonal through the centre of the night sky, like a great pale brush stroke, was the Milky Way. I pointed it out to my pal. We talked about the stars; being able to see them. I remembered the first time my dad told me we were actually part of the galaxy - that all the talk of outer space and the stars related directly to us, as we lived there in our corner of the Milky Way. I was only 5. I don’t know how to articulate how I viewed the world before that startling revelation. Space; the universe; galaxies; they all seemed something that happened somewhere else. A different plane of existence. It was one of the most important and revelatory experiences of my childhood. “Dad, how far away is the galaxy?” “Son, we’re in a galaxy; it’s called the Milky Way.”

All at once it made everything seem bigger; closer; almost touch-able. He went on to describe our place in the solar system relative to our place in the galaxy. 

I spouted out a version of this story for my pal and she had one of her own. I’d turned off the light of my phone and we stood there, staring up and saying wow a lot.


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