Bruce in the Packet

103. Encounters on a Summer Night in Cardiff

Cardiff is an eclectic jumble of buildings. It is not an attractive city as a whole, but one can find individual buildings to admire. Plenty are worthy of study. Some developers have had the good sense to preserve the original façade and build behind it. From my window, I see new skyscrapers rising. Throughout the city towering cranes are erecting new structures. The pandemic might have slowed development, but development continues.

The view from my flat is a clutter of rooftops. They are densely packed and nowhere is there a view of the street. I have two balconies, one off the living room and one off the bedroom. Both are facing the southeast. This is the top floor, but it is only a five storey building. I like the jaggedness of the cityscape’s nooks and crannies. The fractured facets of buildings in diverse styles fascinates. Day and night, seagulls fly in every direction among the canyons and crags, squawking and screeching, sometimes laughing.

Sunday’s sky, the 19th July, was clear as midnight approached. Jupiter and Saturn were bright. It was a chance to put my new binoculars to use. I purchased my Olympus PRO 10x42 during lockdown,hoping  to expand my horizons. Saturn remained a speck, I could not see its rings, but I could make out some of the moons of brighter Jupiter. That night became the first time I took the binoculars outside.

Since the pandemic, since the lockdown began, they have been neglecting to close the gates to Bute Park, leaving them open all night. While I suppose you are not allowed to enter at night, in the darkness the signs giving the park hours are not clear, and are easily overlooked. I have found the solitude of occasionally strolling through the park after midnight consolatory. There is no need to take the face mask from my pocket.

Darkness was the very reason I wanted to be there. There was no moon to reflect the pavement. The deeper I went, the further I was from the streetlamps. BONG! went the striking clock of City Hall; it was one o’clock, an hour into the 20th July. When the trees gave way to Coopers Field, I was perfectly positioned. Ursa Major was clearly visible in the north. I knew where to look, beneath the constellation and to the right, but I couldn’t see it. Nearer the horizon, the night sky’s blackness was washed out and grey. While it wasn’t visible to my naked eyes, when I brought the binoculars to my face, it appeared. Comet Neowise.

It was just a smudge with its tail hanging above it, but I felt an abstract satisfaction, because while the vision was ephemeral, I understood its significance. This was a comet possibly big enough to make dinosaurs extinct, but it was passing us at a comfortable distance. It was named for the space telescope that found it, NEOWISE. The telescope is out there searching for near-Earth objects (NEOs) whose trajectories might threaten humanity. If we can detect them soon enough, we might, in theory, employ a rocket to divert the object from such a destiny. We will need to refine our abilities. Comet Neowise, which is three miles in diameter (five kilometers), was detected only recently, on 27th March, and not recognized as a comet until the 31st March. It won’t be coming back for another 6,800 years, so we can relax about this one.

Wednesday was Quiz Night at The Packet, a pub in Cardiff Bay where I joined a team to compete against others. The pub has been closed, the quiz canceled during the pandemic, but some of us continue to meet via video conferencing in order to continue playing the quiz. There are five of us and we each take a turn at being Quizmeister for the evening. At one point, one of the players received a NASA alert on his smart phone informing him that the International Space Station would soon be visible overhead. We all took a break to have a look. I stepped out onto the balcony.

Despite the weather reports earlier in the week, Wednesday night, the 22nd, was clear. Out of the west and sweeping directly overhead, the ISS moved with astonishing speed. Still reflecting the sun that had set more than an hour earlier, ISS was brighter than any star. Travelling 250 miles overhead and at over 17,000 miles per hour, it took only a couple of minutes to traverse the patch of sky visible to me. It passed overhead in eerie silence. Why should we expect the noise of aircraft?

Because the night was unexpectedly clear, after the quiz I grabbed my binoculars and returned to Bute Park to have another go at Comet Neowise. It would be closer to the earth and, since it was before midnight, higher above the horizon.

It was not as peaceful as my previous visit. The number of people on the street surprised me. In general, there was a disregard for keeping distance or wearing face masks. At the intersection of Queen Street and Castle Street, there was one young woman who spoke and laughed particularly loudly to those standing next to her. I could envision the viral particles rocketing from her and splashing her friends.

Entering the park by the Castle North Gate, I didn’t get deep into the park before I heard voices and steps approaching. They were a couple, their dark shapes visible only when they were within twenty feet, their thick shadows passing me going the other way.

When I reached Coopers Field, I could still hear the young woman on Queen Street, even though she was 1,200 feet away and there were trees and the Cardiff Castle compound between us.

It was a clear night behind me and overhead, but where I wanted to point the binoculars there was a thin cloud. I waited a long time for it to move, but it never did. However, it eventually dissolved in place and there, through the lenses, was Comet Neowise. How tiny the virus, how large the universe, how insignificant were both the loud woman on Queen Street and myself, I was made conscious of all this. To avoid the noisy woman, I departed the park by a different gate, the West Lodge Entrance adjacent to the Pettigrew Tea Rooms. As I approached the archway in the black, crenellated stone wall, beyond was the brightness of streetlights. The lit city made me feel proud of life’s insolence to persist and grow in spite of the juggernaut of physics, the crushing cosmos, and I felt happy.

Mr Bentzman will continue to report here regularly about the events and concerns of his life. If you've any comments or suggestions,
he would be pleased to hear from you. 

You can find his several books at Enshrined Inside Me, his second collection of essays, is now available to purchase.