He was twelve when his parents took him on holiday to the country. Just the three of them, visiting some great uncle in Grafton that he’d never met before. It was rare they got to go away, with Dad’s pastoral work and Mum’s nursing at the home. He wanted to stop in every town along the highway, but asking would make his father angry so instead he just imagined what it would be like to live in Bulahdelah or Coopernook or Kempsey.
The farm was huge and he was the only kid there. He wandered paddocks and watched spooked browns writhe off into the long grass. He climbed trees and picked up beetles, and he stared into the eternal eyes of the Herefords as their mouths worked the grass. But the image that had not left him in twenty years was the night sky on those nights: stars like the powder of crushed Greek marbles tossed into the infinite; scattered everywhere, clumping in places, older than everything. The lazy tentacle of the Milky Way reaching out from the eastern horizon; meteorites breaking up low in the sky. You never got to see it like that in the city, where orphaned stars floated in illuminated filth. He remembered asking his mother, Can you see an aurora from here?
Because even before that holiday in the country as a boy, a photo of the aurora borealis in its most flagrant pomp was the first thing to ever amaze him. It appeared in an old National Geographic, in the days before Photoshop. There was no doubting the veracity of the photo. Above an igneous landscape cloaked in snow, ribbons of green and red unspooled across the night sky. Great curtains of charged photons draped above the high latitude of Reykjavik. God’s universe is amazing, said his mother over his shoulder, crooked hand on his back.
This quiet, intense curiosity had never left him. There was so much to know. If he didn’t explore, he thought, he might as well be dead. He went at things as a dilettante, questing for sensations and impressions. Being an accountant, menial and unsatisfying though it was, left time for exploring other things. He enrolled in courses on a whim and in doing so, abandoned former temporary passions. Yes, he said, I’ll learn French, shelving his banjo in the cupboard. He hardly got past telling the time before screen-printing took control of him, and there he made one t-shirt of his own design before he bit the bullet and enrolled in drama class. Drama had been a particularly long-held fantasy. He’d harboured the notion that throwing himself into that sort of thing would change him, make him less timid, help him to meet new people. In the other classes it was easy to avoid forming relationships, but in drama class he would have to talk to people. Drama class, as it turned out, was a misstep, because he was hardly an extrovert. That was half the idea, but unfortunately it was only a half. He pulled out after a few weeks, and beat himself up about it.
At some time or another he had signed up to an email bulletin from the Ionospheric Prediction Service, which he often ignored. That week he opened it, having recently read an article in the Herald about a mass coronal projection the writer suggested it might cause increased auroral activity on Earth. The email seemed to concur that there was a high probability of seeing an aurora from the Tasmanian latitudes. What would it cost to fly to Tassie? A couple of hundred bucks?
With the October rush still to come it was easy enough to cadge a day of last-minute leave. 'Oh, can you even see the aurora from Australia?' said his boss, Beverley. 'I didn’t even realise.' He was out of Mascot on the second scheduled flight that Saturday, and at the rental car desk in Hobart before nine. The hotel was a converted stone lodge overlooking the Derwent. He asked for a single, south-facing. The woman at the desk handed him a metal key from which dangled a tag with the room number. He remarked to her that you didn’t see that anymore, an actual hotel key, and cursed himself in the elevator for the inanity.
Daytime. He hadn’t considered what to do during the daytime. A drive out to Port Arthur seemed the way to go, until he saw the pamphlet for MONA on the racks in the lobby. He had heard the museum was buried in a hill. To access it you followed a spiral staircase down a narrow tunnel into the earth.
He wasn’t sure what to make of much of the work. He thought of himself as the kind of person who enjoyed art and liked to believe that all work had some merit, and that the challenge lay in gleaning that merit, in deriving a meaning from the most disparate elements. However walking around he was …well, not offended, but cynical. He felt like maybe this was all a big con. He didn’t get it. A machine that was fed food and enzymes produced faeces at the other end. Another exhibit featured chocolate casts of dead bodies and wounds. He couldn’t really see the point, besides to make people talk. Was that all art was? A catalyst for conversation? He spent half the day underground, trying to understand it all. He wanted art to be something more sacred or transcendent, but he wasn’t sure what that looked like, exactly.
When he resurfaced, the day was bright. Back in the city, he walked Salamanca Place trying to digest what he’d seen. The same breeze that tinkled the boat riggings and made the thick looped ropes groan against their moorings was arranging small clouds above into larger and more ominous formations. Tonight was not looking good.
He turned in early. It had been a long day, and tomorrow’s forecast was more promising. If only he’d thought to check the forecast before he booked. He began reading Rabelais and fell into sleep, sentences read and re-read through the blistered vision of fatigue. A little after two he woke with a heavy bladder. Returning from the bathroom he peeked around the curtain to assure himself he’d not made a mistake. No. The sky looked like the scrappy fleece from a woolshed floor.
The next day he slept in late, and over the dregs of the buffet he resolved to drive out to Port Arthur. The sandstone prison blocks glowed as though from within. He stopped to read every information board about the convict days, but more recent events were on his mind, as he knew must be for every visitor there. There would have been nowhere to hide. Even those who come here now suffer, he thought, both for the memory of those gone before and the knowledge that they are here in part to satisfy some morbid titillation. He liked to think he would have known what to do in the café that day, but he knew he would have been as terror-struck as anyone. He was not a brave man.
He returned in the twilight. Through streaky cloud he could see Venus to the northwest. The hotel restaurant was already open for dinner and a few older couples were filing in for an early supper. He found himself envying their easy company. Up in the room he flicked through the channels and tried to plot his night. Dinner, early bed and then up again at midnight? Or would he be better off just powering through?
He woke up sometime after nine. The restaurant had stopped serving. Walking out to the car, his heart sank past his knees at the sight of clouds. He spent the drive hunched over the wheel, looking up through the windscreen for fissures in the cloud. The kebab he found at the end of a row of closed shops was dirty enough to match his mood. He sat in the car, careful not to spill kebab juice on the seats, and listened to an adagio on Classic FM. He wrote the name of it down: Górecki’s Symphony of Sorrowful Songs. How many nights had he spent like this of late, hunched over joyless food, alone? He meandered back to the hotel along foreign streets, taking detours, losing his bearings.
Waiting for the lift, he saw across the lobby that the bar was empty. Yeah, why not? He ordered a cognac and the barman made chat, most of which he managed to deflect. He found a booth over in the corner, near an empty stage, dumping his iPad and room key and unbuttoning his jacket. The whole place was way too dark, and he wondered whether that was for effect or to save money on lighting. He Googled aurorae on his iPad, poring over the photos and videos, sipping slowly at his drink.
'What ya looking at?'
He flinched at the voice. Behind him stood a young woman, younger than him, with curly blonde hair and a freckled unmade face. 'Oh wow, that is incredible,' she said, looking over his shoulder. 'The aurora? Sorry, sorry. I shouldn’t have interrupted. I’m Amy. Couldn’t sleep. Figure a scotch or two’ll do it. You after a drinking buddy?'
He introduced himself and said he was fine on his own.
She beckoned to the bar. 'Gee, the nightlife in Hobart, hey?'
Why hadn’t he gone back to the room? 'I’m sure there are places where things are happening.'
Her smile retracted. 'Was just kidding. You sure you’re not up for some company?'
Getting the sense he was being rude, he gestured for her to sit.
'Shame, isn’t it?' she said. 'All the cloud. I was hoping to see it while I was in town, too. I know it’s kind of luck whether you get to or not. What brings you down here, anyway?'
'The aurora, actually.'
This seemed to impress her, in a way he felt was disingenuous. She proceeded to give him her whole life story, or just about. She lived in Brisbane, worked in arts curating and education and was down as a guest of MONA.
'Have you been?' she asked.
'Ah, yes, I was just there yesterday,' he said, putting his iPad to sleep.
'Did you enjoy it?'
'It was interesting.'
'It’s incredible, isn’t it? David Walsh, he makes millions with this betting system and just, you know, buys art from all over the world, builds an art gallery. As you do. I guess you know all about gambling, coming down here to take your chances with the aurora.'
Was she flirting with him? 'Yeah, I guess.'
'I mean, to me that is so cool. So brave and adventurous. Putting everything down and taking off on a whim to follow your passion.'
'I wouldn’t say that.'
She asked him what caused auroras. 'Aurorae,' he corrected her at first, immediately wincing at his superciliousness. He went on to explain, volubly, how it was the collision of charged magnetic particles and atoms in the thermosphere, and that the particles were born on solar winds, which were attracted to the poles.
Despite the fact that everything he said was correct, his voice trembled with doubt. 'What must ancient people have thought when they looked up at a sight like that,' she said. 'Makes you understand why people invented gods. Sorry, you might be religious.'
Swirling the drink in his glass. 'I don’t know if I am. When I’m sure I’m not, something happens that tells me I should be.'
'Can I buy you another?'
He said he was probably going to turn in soon.
'Oh, come on! Aren’t you going to wait up and see if the cloud clears? There’s a bit of a breeze outside. You’re going back tomorrow, right?'
After much insistence on her part, he relented and asked for a coke. She returned with their drinks and sat, chin on fist, with wide and expectant eyes.
'So listen,' he said, looking down at the table, 'be honest. Are you really an art curator?'
'Well, for you to come in out of nowhere, the only other person here, and say that’s what you do for a living… I just wondered whether you were making that up.'
There was a sliver of pity in her eyes. 'No, that’s what I do. I’m an art curator. Why would I make that up?'
'To impress me. Not, I don’t mean like that.'
'Don’t worry, I’m not trying to impress you,' she said, deadpan, before shuddering with laughter.
'Just that, you know. I work in accounting and when you came and sat down, I did think about saying I was a lion-tamer or something. Something exciting.'
'Well, no way I would have believed that. I mean, look at you!' She nodded at his iPad. 'You had the perfect story right there. You’re an astronomer who’s down here to observe the aurora. You travel the world doing astronomyish things, watching the Transit of Venus on a tropical island or something.'
'I couldn’t pull that off.'
'What would be the harm? Jesus, be a little interesting! I don’t know you. You could say anything and we’ll probably never see each other again.'
He wanted to be out of there. His palms and forearms were alive with the hot prickling of sweat. A stunted laugh forced its way out of his throat. 'I don’t know enough about it. I’m just a dabbler. I’d run out of things to say.'
'And how would I know any different whether something you said was true or not?'
'But I would know.'
She withdrew, frowning. He finished his drink and made his excuses. He had an early flight. He left money for her to buy another drink, thanking her for her company. He was halfway across the lobby before she called after him. 'You forgot your key,' she said, holding it out to him.
Back in his room he changed for bed. He watched some more video of aurorae, great sheets of green and red ghosting across the retina-image screen, and glanced at his Rabelais before burying his head in the pillows.
It was hard for him to know how long she’d been knocking. The clock said 12:46. 'You should see it!' she said. 'The cloud just blew away, voom, vanished! It’s amazing!'
She began to advance excitedly into his room but he stood firm in the doorway. They stayed like that a while.
'Do you want to go out and watch it?' she said eventually. 'Come on.' He was pretty tired, he said. He might just watch from the window. 'I’m sure you need some sleep, too,' he said. He thanked her for letting him know and said he’d be fine watching it from his window.
Putting her hands up, she stepped away with a weak smile. 'Well, suit yourself. Good night. Take care of yourself.'
He closed the door before he had time to apprehend the look on her face, and said thank you once more for good measure from behind the door. He listened to her trudge back down the hall. Yanking the curtains back, he saw it for himself.
Slipping on shoes and buttoning a long coat over his pyjamas, he drove twenty minutes searching for a good vantage, pulling to the shoulder at Risdon Cove, where there were no houses or streetlights. It took a few minutes in the parked car for his vision to settle. The Derwent grafted benignly against the straggled bank, the lights of Hobart encrusting the sweep of the river. The colours jostled and flitted high over the peak of Mount Wellington, whipping and shimmering like radiant veils. He felt as though he existed between two worlds. The sight of the clear open sky was more intense than what he’d seen as a boy in Grafton. Memory was powerful, but it could not compete with the moment. The colours began to run in his eyes and he wiped them off on his cuff. He was alone.