(inspired by Alphonse Daudet’s Les Étoiles from Lettres de mon Moulin, 1866)
Read Part 1 Stories of Starlight here
All I can recall is little details, as sharp as a story painted on shattered glass. The summer of seventy six I took a temporary job with a film company working in the English Lake District.
If I’d got the camp-fire going by the time the runner arrived we’d maybe sit down together and share a joint – and I don’t mean of meat -and a can of beer. The runner was an Ozzie named Ben, which he pronounced Bin and he took the view that, you deserve it mate, stuck out here all night long. Then he’d look around a bit and say, but mate, there’s no-one partying in Ambleside either, which I knew wasn’t true. When I think back it seems like it went on all summer long, but in fact I was only there for four or five nights and once or twice the runner and I talked about Stephanie.
She’s some gal, mate, Bin said. You could do a lot worse than our Steph.
It’s strange how memory works. We forget so much, fill in the gaps. We put events in an order that seems to make sense to us now, but which might not have been the order they actually happened in. We remember looking, but we don’t always remember seeing. We know something happened, and something didn’t, but we have no image of it in our mind. I remember Stephanie had dark hair, and the most beautiful eyes I’d ever seen.
The company was making a low-budget feature film set in the Middle Ages, and at the back of an old stone bank-barn, the other side of a small hill from a popular tourist spot near Ambleside, they had constructed the elements of a medieval village. A cobbled road, a pack horse bridge, the entrance to an inn, the side wall of a mill, various doorways and arches had been faked up, mostly of hardboard and plaster. In the bank-barn itself, signs and street-furniture, heavy drapes and nail-studded doors had been stored in readiness for use.
There were helmets made of glass fibre, and swords that you couldn’t actually draw out of their scabbards, and there was a round shield made out of baked beans tins that had been opened up and beaten flat and burnished and fastened to a circle of hardboard.
The gaffers, grips, best boys, carpenters and electricians had all finished their work and left, but the location shooting was not scheduled for a few days later. Though no footpath passed through the set itself that tourist car park was only a few hundred yards away and a footpath crossed the ridge high above, from which the eagle-eyed might look down and notice something strange, and worth investigating. The producers were worried about vandalism, or even theft, and wanted a guard to camp-out on site until the full film crew, with caravans and generators and other paraphernalia turned up.
That was one of the hottest summers on record. Sheep were dropping dead, it was said, in Little Langdale, and sapling trees were curling up their toes and dying in the tree nursery not far from Carlisle. There were hosepipe bans in force and talk of water rationing.
Though it didn’t pay too well and wouldn’t last for long, it was a dream of a job. The only responsibilities I had were to stop anyone interfering with the set and props. If you get any trouble you can’t handle, just give us a call on the radio, they told me. I spent all day loafing around the barn, sometimes sunbathing on the short sweet grass of the intak pasture, sometimes roaming, but not out of sight, on the sides of the ridge, sometimes taking a dip in the cliché-clean water of the nearby stream. In the long hot evenings I lit a fire using dead wood gathered from a small plantation about half-a-mile away. I don’t suppose I should have, considering the drought, but nobody ever stopped me. Nobody came near the place, and once or twice I even considered wandering over the hill and inviting somebody to come along and have a guided tour, just for someone to talk to. Mostly I wished that Stephanie might show up but each time I got the chance to talk to her I chickened out of making the suggestion.
I had a little gas stove for heating things on, and the makings for tea and coffee. There were a couple of those Bluet gas lamps too, though with it being high summer and the nights so clear I hardly ever got to use them. They’d equipped me with a camp-bed inside the barn, but the nights were so warm I used to drag it outside and sleep in the open air, under the stars, not even in my sleeping bag until the cold hours before dawn. They’d given me a small radio-telephone. This was long before today’s mobile phones. Every morning I’d call in to report that all was well, and every afternoon they would call me to let me know that the runner was setting off to bring me supplies for the next twenty four hours.
There used to be a baked potato shop in Ambleside, on a little passageway up beside the stream off the main road. They’d make up a meal for me, packed with insulation to keep it hot. Then the runner would fill it out with stuff for breakfast and lunch, and put in a couple of cans of beer or a bottle of cheap wine.
Nobody seemed to be counting the cost. It might have been low budget, but their idea of low was nothing like mine. The day I was interviewed there was an executive present who had this little suitcase stashed with banded wads of twenty pound notes, like something from a heist movie. He kept on flipping it open and saying things like, have you got enough to be going on with? to which Stephanie, would reply that she was fine. Then he’d nod, and say, OK, and close down the lid and click the locks into place.
The supplies were all carried up on a quad bike – that was a rich man’s toy in those days and had only three wheels. Motorised trikes, they used to call them, but it didn’t stick, and around six-ish in the afternoon I’d hear the hoarse wine of the engine as it crawled up the rutted path to the barn. The runner would be standing up on the foot-rests, but unlike the local farmers nowadays he’d always have the ungainly shape of a helmet showing as his head appeared above the stone walls beside the track.
Stephanie was a Production Assistant but they’d given her a special job title: Location Manager, just until the main crew showed up. Then she’d be back to making coffee and collecting people from the railway station at Windermere. Some nights I dreamed about her. She ran the little office they’d set up in the town. I met her a couple of times. The day they first took me up to the set we piled into a hired Land Rover that had seen better days, and bounced and jolted between the stone walls on the narrow track. The runner took the wheel and Stephanie sat next to the passenger door. That left me to squeeze in between the two of them. I had to sit with my legs open to keep my knees clear of the gear stick, and every bump and sway of the journey pushed me up against her. I can still feel the warmth of her thigh against mine, and this happened forty years ago. When we got to the barn and were unloading all the stuff, she said, if there’s anything we can do for you while you’re up here, just let me know, and I had a momentary recollection of a scene in a film where Marilyn Monroe says something similar.
The last night I was there, at the medieval village, I was feeling maudlin. I hoped the runner would appear with a spliff like he had a couple of nights before, and maybe wine, rather than beer for my last night, but I knew the Ozzie was more likely to go for beer. I was edgy I think. Perhaps it was a sort of gate fever. Perhaps I was already feeling nostalgic for the past few days that would soon be over. I lit the fire early. I’d dragged enough dead wood out of the plantation to stage an impromptu bonfire night. It was pine, dead, brittle, white as bone. It burned brightly and crackled like frying bacon.
I sat staring into the flames. There was something absurd about it. The temperature all day had been in the eighties. The air was still and hot, as brittle and bright as the dead wood. The last thing you needed was a fire, you’d have thought. But it’s the flames we love as much as the heat, perhaps more so. It was the flames I loved. I was sitting there in shorts and a T shirt, staring into the flames when I heard the sound of the quad bike on the track. It’s funny, I always remember that bike as if it were a four-wheeler, but I don’t think they’d even been invented by then.
The head that bobbed above the stone wall was lower down than usual, and smaller. As she drove into view I realised it was Stephanie, riding the quad bike, helmetless and seated. I thought my dreams must have come true, but I was scared shitless too.
I sent Bin home early, she said, and I brought enough for two. I thought you might like wine, for your last night. She clutched two bottles of red in one hand, and in the other she balanced the flat cardboard box of a take-away pizza, though in those days there were no take-away pizzas, not in a place like Ambleside.
I got the chef at the Salutation to make them for me, she said.
Darkness falls gradually in the mountains in high summer. The heat leaks slowly out of the air, and seeps slowly back in from the stone walls and the bedrock into which it has soaked all day long. The clear blue of the sky fades to bands of subtle colours, tinged with purples, pinks, and yellows, and the false horizons of the mountain sides turn to black. Stars are pinheads of light that have penetrated the dome of the heavens, and as the colours leech out and the light fades they brighten to diamond sharpness. Sometimes it makes you catch your breath, as if to continue with ordinary breathing might crack its fragile beauty.
The dome of night filled and we sat on, letting the fire die down and the brightness of the stars grow. We ate the pizza and drank the wine, and smoked ordinary cigarettes. Fireflies glowed in the blackthorn shadows. Neither of us had ever seen that before. I never have since. But there they were, in England, like curled green-yellow electrical fuses lying on our palms. We held them, magical, as amazed as children, seeing each other’s faces lit up in their un-real incandescence.
We talked until the last mauve glow of the sunset had finally been extinguished. Then, and I’m still not sure, we discovered that the lights on the quad-bike did not work.
You can’t drive back without lights, I said. We didn’t worry too much about the drink in those days.
Away from the fire all was absolute darkness, save for the stars, and the lights of isolated houses, no bigger than stars, across the valley. There were and are no street lamps on the fells. The moon had not yet risen, or had set, or was absent.
I said, you take the camp bed, in the barn. I’ll stay out here in my sleeping bag. But it ended up with us both outside, beside the dying embers of the fire, in the fading warmth, beneath the stars. Cassiopeia zig-zagged across the sky and Orion’s belt glowed blue-green, and the triangle of The Pleiades was fuzzy and indistinct.
Do you know the names of all the stars, she asked?
No, I said, hardly any.
What’s that hanging down, she asked, beneath Orion’s Belt? I said that’s his sword, and she replied Oh! as if that hadn’t been what she was expecting me to say.
The next morning, Bin came up in the Land Rover. The man with the little suitcase was with him and paid me in cash. Ah, mate, Bin said, what did you and our Steph get up to last night, eh? I didn’t go back to Ambleside with him, but packed my gear and set off up the ridge path. I followed the fell tops over to Langstrothdale and found my way down to the shores of Derwentwater and on to Keswick.
I still remember Steph from time to time, and wonder what she recalls of our night together, under the stars.