Into the Dark
Mid-December. It was eight in the morning and Venus was hanging like a wrecker’s light above the Black Craig. The hill itself – seen from our kitchen window – was still in silhouette, though the sky was lightening to a pale yellow-grey. It was a weakling light, stealing into the world like a thief through a window someone forgot to close. The talk was all of Christmas shopping and children’s parties. Quietly, like a coded message, an invitation arrived to a meal to celebrate the winter solstice. Only six people would be there, and no electric light.
That afternoon – it was a Saturday – we took the children to the pantomime. This year it was The Snow Queen. She was coldly glittery, and swirled around the stage in a platinum cloak with her comic entourage of ravens and spiders. The heroes were a boy and a brave, north-travelling girl. At one point the Snow Queen stormed off stage-left in her silver sledge, and had she kept going, putting a girdle round the earth, she’d have been following the 56th parallel. Up the Nethergate, out of Dundee, across Scotland, away over the North Atlantic, she’d have made landfall over Labrador, swooped over Hudson Bay, and glittered like snowfall somewhere in southern Alaska. Crossing the Bering Sea, then the Sea of Okhotsk, she’d have streaked on through Moscow, in time, if she really got a move on, to enter stage right for her next line. Of course, we have no realm of snow here, no complete Arctic darkness. Nonetheless, when it came time for the Snow Queen to be vanquished for another year, to melt down through a trapdoor leaving only her puddled cloak, everyone was cheered. Before she went, the ascendant Sun God kissed the Snow Queen in quick, knowing, grown-up complicity. I liked that bit.
The sun’s gestures are precise at this time of year. When it eventually rises above the hill it shines directly through our small kitchen window. A beam crosses the table and illuminates the hall beyond. In barely an hour, though, the sun sinks again below the hill, south-south-west, leaving a couple of hours of dwindling half-light. Everything we imagine doing, this time of year, we imagine doing in the dark.
I imagined travelling into the dark. Northward, so it got darker as I went. I’d a notion to sail by night, to enter into the dark, for the love of its textures and wild intimacy. I had been asking around among literary people, readers of books, for instances of dark as a natural phenomenon, rather than as a cover for all that’s wicked, but could find few. It seems to me that our cherished metaphor of darkness is wearing out. The darkness through which might shine the Beacon of Hope. Isaiah’s dark: ‘The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light: they that dwell in the land of the shadow of death, upon them hath the light shined.’ Pity the dark: we’re so concerned to overcome and banish it, it’s crammed full of all that’s devilish, like some grim cupboard under the stairs. But dark is good. We are conceived and carried in the darkness. When my son was born, a midwinter child, he cried pitifully at the ward’s lights, and settled to sleep only when he was laid in a big pram with a black hood under a black umbrella. Our vocabulary ebbs with the daylight, closes down with the cones of our retinas. I looked up ‘darkness’ on the Web – and was offered Christian ministries offering to lead me to salvation. And there is always death. We say death is darkness, and darkness death.
In Aberdeen, although it was not yet five o’clock, the harbour lights were lit against the night sky. Ships were berthed right up against the street, and to reach the Orkney and Shetland ferry I had to walk under their massive prows. The ferry was berthed among other ships, and though the Hrossey – the Norse name for ‘Orkney’ – looked like a toppled office block, and was therefore a ferry, these other vessels were inexplicable mysteries to me, containers of purpose and might. Some carried huge yellow winches, others supported complex and insect-like antennae. The ships were named for strength and warriors, Scots and Norse: the Highland Patriot, the Tor Viking. I boarded the ferry and went at once out on deck and leaned over the rail. There was the Solar Prince (was it not he who’d kissed the Snow Queen?) and, berthed beside it, the Edda Frigg. The Edda Frigg was in the process of putting out. It pleased me that I knew what the name meant: Edda – the great Icelandic mythological poems; Frigg – Norse goddess, wife of one-eyed Odin. Off she went, the Queen of the Heavens, taking a long moment to pass, first the prow, then the low deck, then the superstructure, stirring the dirty dock water as she went.
Then it was our turn to edge out. Aberdeen’s streetlights, spires and illuminated clock towers began to recede, and there was the moon, above the town. I was shivering now. Little scenes slipped by: two men hanging on the hook of a crane, stacks of ships’ containers, a sudden siren wailing, a line of parked-up lorries, the hammering of metal on metal. We inched past the red-hulled Viking Crusader, then the Hrossey was out of the harbour. At the end of the harbour wall, where it crooks out into the water, stood a Christmas tree hung with fairy lights.
Some of the old hands, the Shetland folk, were already laid flat out on benches. They had a long night ahead: it would be 14 dark hours before they were in Lerwick for breakfast. Many were students heading home for Christmas. Some were planted in the bar. There was a man with a proper Fair Isle jersey, a girl with a hand-knit tourie. Throughout the boat, muzak was playing. Old Christmas hits. Paul McCartney. The only place you could avoid it was a lounge with subdued lighting and big reclining chairs. There were prints on the walls, a set of three, showing a cartoon sea with a stripy lighthouse, a fishing-boat, and below the blue waves, three huge, stupid, cheerful fish. The Shetland Times, which a number of the passengers were reading, bore the headline: ‘Day of reckoning looms for fishing.’
I’d wanted dark. Real, natural, starry dark, solstice dark, but the moon was almost full. It shone through a smirr of cloud, spreading its diffused light across the water. The moon had around it an aura of un-colours, the colours of oil spilled on tarmac. I’d been hoping for a moment at sea when there was no human light: 360° of winter sea, the only lights those carried by the ship itself. I wanted to be out in the night wind, in wholesome, unbanished darkness. But the Hrossey was, after all, only a ferry, and would hug the coast. Nevertheless, I went outside often, to stand shivering on deck. There was always a light somewhere. From the port side, small towns, Brora perhaps, or Helmsdale, were an orange smudge against the darker line of land. From the starboard side I could look out at the moonlit, fishless sea. Some hours out, I saw three brash lights in a line to the east, the seaward side. I took them for other vessels, but they were too piled up and intense. They were North Sea oil-platforms, and even at this distance they looked frenzied. Maybe this was where the Solar Prince and the Viking Warrior were bound – on the urgent business of oil. As the ferry drove on, the rigs grew smaller, until they were at the edge of vision, at the edge of the night, as I imagine distant icebergs must look, only on fire.
Then, alone on the metal deck, damp and moonlit, just when I fancied darkness might be complete, I heard a faint call. The boat throbbed on, leaving behind a wave as straight as a glacier. A human call. I must have been mistaken, but I listened and – it came again. I scanned the water: there were only the waves, the oil-dark sea. It gave me a fright, and had anyone else been out on deck I might have tugged their arm and said: ‘Listen!’ I’m glad I was alone, because, so help me, it was only Elton John. The music was so nearly drowned out by the ship’s engines that I’d just caught the top notes. I bent down, stuck my ear to the speaker and yes, it was Elton John, singing, of all things: ‘Don’t let the sun go down on me.’ I gave up on the dark then, and went below for a drink.
Around midnight, the pilot-boat came out to accompany the ferry past the archipelago of low islands into Kirkwall. On all their reefs and hazards, warning lights winked.