When the evening is spread out against the sky
There was a sunset Wednesday last week over Paignton that I think Turner might have liked: arching across the fading sky in successive colours of the spectrum, from a red over the hills at eye level right through the repertoire until it segued into black above my head. I saw it from the sea, or at any rate from a boat that I had taken for a trip across the bay, eschewing the football, with all its noise and conflict, for the sounds of waves against boat, of engine against waves. For the sight of natural splendour and of human insignificance.
It was not the deepest of reds, not a blood-red, not a red of foreboding. It was almost the red one associates with the Rockies: it had that texture, that dustiness, that adaptation to the yellow of the sun. Where they met, higher up the sky, it merged into the yellow, creating a thin band of orange at the border: and then the yellow appeared to disappear into the distance, being higher, so seeming further, but also being lighter, emptier, tending to an almost invisible, almost absent white. Above that, overhead, to the east where night had already started, came the darker colours, the blues and indigos, the violet-becoming-black. It spelled out the spectrum and counted out time: it showed what had gone and what was to come.
As if we were on the brink of entering a cave, the point - rather, the line of darkness appeared almost exactly above us: to the one side, darkness smothering all colour, to the other, colour defying the darkness. But it seemed a tableau, a painting, rather than a progress, for the air was windless, still. There was not, not any rate within the sky, any sense of movement: what there was came only from the boat and from the sea beneath it and beside it. The sky, itself, appeared to be in stasis: there need be, perhaps, no what was to come. Just the red, filling the half of the sky that was not yet lost. Filling it, or appearing, by dominating it, to fill it, glowering - I was going to say - in the portion of the sky that it retained. But not quite glowering, because it was so peaceable. So quiet, so gentle, so attuned to the ease of evening. Perhaps even dominating is too strong a word. The sky was infused with red. Red upon red, red in patches covering other reds of different shades, red insinuating itself everywhere, red impressing itself upon your eyes, and even if you closed them, impressing itself into your mind's eye instead.
What made it all the more striking, all the more insistent, was that there were several streaks of cloud - of long clouds, clouds a mile or more from tip to tip, across the panorama, long streaks of cirrus that scraped across the sky much like the first marks of a paint scraper against a wall, but longer, harsher, almost from one edge of the sky right up to the other. But these streaks, reflecting the sky above them, gave the strange impression of having been dipped in red, like wool in dye: but then inverted, so that, instead of staining the bottom of the clouds, the red stained the top, the upper half, and, being set across that whitest of all whites, stood out against that background all the more.
What completed the impression of stillness, of the appearance of a painting, was the presence of a small number of small, fluffy clouds, dotted about the vista like an afterthought, like a change of mind in the artist. They must have been closer to us than the other clouds, because rather than merging into it, they seemed to be placed over the red-stained cirrus, neither touching it nor reflecting any colours. As if they made up a different layer of the sky, much as an artist, working in oil, might add another figure to a painting. It had the same quality as you see in an oil painting, where two different figures overlap, try to occupy the same space in the viewer's eye, but seem not to come into contact with one another, for one is, in fact, painted over the other.
That was the first impression that they made on me, but there was another, underneath. Obscured, much as the smaller clouds obscured the view behind them, but something communicating the same quality of separation I had already detected. I thought awhile before realising that they reminded me of fingerprints on glass. On the glass of a display, a glass dome around a clock, a glass case in a museum. As if the whole sky - or the half of it that had, as yet, resisted night - as if the whole picture of red upon red, of red into yellow, of red-stained white, had been preserved, had been saved from the night into which it would otherwise dissolve, and had been placed, for our pleasure and its protection, into a giant glass case, invisibly occurring between an unknowing Paignton and an apparently unmoving night.