Flying out of Northern Ireland from the airport in the countryside, not the one in the city by the shore of Belfast Lough. There’s half a moon, drifting escapes of black cloud blowing like scraps of burnt paper, and our ascent is long and low enough for me to pick out towns, or to try. Bearing west over Lough Neagh we head in the wrong direction until the wing dips and we turn, and I feel like I’m on a fairground ride and everything down below becomes close. I can see Christmas lights draped on a monkey puzzle tree, I can see the big wheel in Antrim’s Castle Gardens, I can see a stream of molten gold pouring along the motorway. Is that Ballyclare? I’m confused, can’t get my bearings. All at once, Belfast expands before me. Does Lisburn really run into Belfast like that without any break in the urban sprawl? It is so dark below that I struggle to distinguish between streetlights bounding the sea, and streetlights that cut through black, uninhabited land. A trick, an illusion is being played in my brain: first, I think all darkness is land, then all darkness sea, but I begin to discern a subtle difference the two shades, it’s just like how Father Ted distinguishes between priest’s socks – which are black – and those worn by the laity – which are ‘very, very, very, very, very, very dark blue’. To the west of the city, the Black Mountain’s peak is lit, a communications station masquerading as a star on the Christmas tree. In this darkness I see how Belfast narrow is, squeezed between Divis Mountain and the Castlereagh Hills. Bangor and Newtownards are connected by a yellow brick road, or, if you didn’t know better, it could be a bridge across water. The Shore Road snakes from the north of the city towards Carrickfergus and looks so close to the water that you would think the waves might lick the tarmac. Half a million people down there, an urban sprawl with crazy things going on, but from up here in this bird, the illuminated version looks peaceful, organised, simple. Like a prayer card, I run through the names of those I know down there and I put a pin in the map, I imagine them shining red through the yellow. I am Superman with super sight into homes in Greenisland, Glengormley, Belmont, Malone, Holywood. I say goodnight to them all and that I’ll be back soon. On a wing and a prayer, I’ll be back soon.
“The villages were lighting up, constellations that greeted each other across the dusk. And, at the touch of his finger, his flying-lights flashed back a greeting to them. The earth grew spangled with light signals as each house lit its star, searching the vastness of the night as a lighthouse sweeps the sea. Now every place that sheltered human life was sparkling. And it rejoiced him to enter into this one night with a measured slowness, as into an anchorage.” ― Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, Night Flight.