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Friday, June 17, 2011

An eclipse and two comets I won't forget (pt 2)

We’d travelled from Vienna all the way by train to Sweden. When you look at the geography of northern Europe, that might seem slightly strange, because in 1973, it usually involved going across the sea between Denmark and Sweden. The way they did it then was that the entire train rolled on to the night ferry and rolled off again at the other end, and continued the journey. That, as you can imagine, solved a lot of logistical problems, as people didn’t have to get on and off the train from Denmark for the entire journey.

Boarding the train ferry: Photo courtesy
    The only problem was that it was winter, and very cold outside. I better put that another way – as the train was heated for as long as the engines were running, the sub-freezing temperatures outside didn’t matter. On the contrary, the countryside was a snow-picture-postcard delight of Nordic houses and forests and towns. But because the train stopped once it boarded the ferry, the heating also turned off. I was sleeping on a top berth of the compartment we were in – no great novelty for me in one sense, as you’ll know from this unedifying story from my wicked past.

    Within seconds, I could feel the cold closing in through the roof of the carriage just above my face. It didn’t feel like the heat being sucked out; rather that the cold just descended like a freezing blanket from above.

    I’m sure everyone in the train froze until its engines were switched on and it rumbled off the huge train ferry, and headed for Køpenhavn. (OK OK, Copenhagen – I feel more comfortable with that....) The warmth flooded through the train and into our frozen bodies as if we’d skolled a tumbler or two of cream sherry.

The coast is at 4 o'clock in the map below Køpenhavn and above Kage
    All of which, I’m afraid, hasn’t a great deal to do with my story, except that on the way to Copenhagen, the train-line passed by the sea on the eastern coast. It was winter, as I said, and the sun had no intention of getting out of bed at a respectable hour.

    Still, it was far from pitch black outside, and now here’s the picture as it remains in my mind, nearly forty years on, that I want to paint in words for you.

I looked out of the carriage window as we travelled along the shoreline. Leaden waves were lapping a narrow beach. As children of the tropical coast of Australia, waves lapping beaches were in our blood. Yet this was an alien world.

    On this occasion, it was starkly remote for me, because the waves were breaking lazily into thin ice offshore. The beach was not the fine white sand we were used to, but covered by large patches of snow. Icy waves were breaking on to the beach as well, like shards from some giant mirror that had been shattered into a million pieces.

It made me think of the magical Hans Anderson tale, The Snow Queen. If you've never read it, please do as soon as you've finished this! That story, set in a world so remote from any I knew as a child, peopled by characters and creatures so bizarre and entrancing that I read the story scores of times.... here on the Swedish coast was its setting, it seemed to me. Kay and Gerda, and the enigmatic Snow Queen who so fascinated me as a child; they couldn't have been far away from that alien shore.

 I looked beyond the horizon and above the bickering waves, and there it was. A comet, hanging in the sky, and not another celestial body in sight. If it hadn’t been so entirely motionless, I might have thought it were a plane, but any such notion was quickly dispelled. Planes move. And this had a flaring tail, immobile as well, or so it seemed from my vantage point.

    Until then, I had never seen a comet before. My sister Lyn told me of a comet she had seen early one morning round 1967 at Calliope, but this was my first time. It was Kahoutek, though I didn’t know that. I didn’t even know a comet was visiting the solar system, as we had been travelling round Europe for some weeks previously and had lost touch with all such things.

    There was my Dali-esque scene. With hesitation, I used the word ‘surreal’ already in the past week on my blog, but this world of dark water and waves and ice and snow, with a mysterious comet pinned above the horizon was something I feel he would have painted with great relish. Maybe there's an artist reading this who could take his place and paint one for me to include!

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