Sunday, 6 April 2014

Under big skies in Norfolk

Under big skies
The water is steaming, a white vapour sponging the darkening sky. I watch the heavens smudge grey and pink before deepening to navy-blue.
High above us midges dance in dizzying circles. I plunge under the warm, bubbling water and when I surface again, one single star has appeared, alone in the sky. “Vega, Arabic for swooping eagle,” says Tom my husband. “It’s one of the brightest stars in the northern sky.”
We’re in the Norfolk Broads, the part of England that juts out like a bottom. We’re travelled less than 200 miles for an autumn break, but it feels as hot and exotic as the Okavango Delta in Botswana or the Sundarbans of India. We’re sitting outside our cabin in a hot tub.
Vega blinks at me and the longer I gaze, the more certain I am the star is moving, swooping towards me like a silver eagle. “Just think,” says Tom, my husband. “It takes twenty-six years for the light to reach us here on earth. Vega could have died for all we know - since we’re looking at the past.”
It’s a dazzling thought.
And one by one, other stars appear. The sky is clear, the night still, the air almost balmy. It’s hard to imagine that a violent storm, St Jude, had passed over here just a short time ago.
On Monday, Jude - the patron saint of despair - had whipped the oaks behind our cabin in fury. Branches and twigs crashed onto the roof, the birch trees lining the wetlands in front of the window bent over at an alarming angle. We gazed out from the safety of four walls, feeling stranded, like a ship at sea. Then the storm was gone as suddenly as it arrived.
With the return of calm, we’d taken bikes and cycled the Norfolk lanes. The sun shone benignly, the trees motionless: it was as if the storm had never happened - except the roads were swollen with mud and stones and the debris from the winds. Occasionally trees protruded onto the lanes, already cleared, cut back from where they’d crashed onto the road.
But grey returned to gold. Autumn shone. Now and again, the roadside held little offerings of garden fruits and vegetables: marrows and pumpkins, apples and sweet chestnuts. I filled the basket of my bicycle with plump cookers and Coxes. We pedalled on past wooden barns, thatched cottages and village ponds, scattering grouse and pheasant and duck. Overhead wintering geese shot an arrow across the big, big skies of Norfolk. 
By Wednesday, the sky was deep blue, the sun warm on our skin. We hired a canoe and paddled up the River Waveney, listening to the whisper of the reeds. We tied up our canoes and ate our sandwiches, lifting our faces to the sun. Heading back downstream, we held our paddles across our knees and let the current take us gently home.
Now in the hot tub, the sky’s filling, filling up with stars. A satellite shoots across our vision. And I realise that I am an insignificant speck out in space, yet I feel the universe belongs to me.

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