Rainbows have always fascinated – and puzzled – me. I'm sure there's an explanation for them, though I am not sure I would understand it. For example, I've never grasped to what extent seeing a rainbow depends on where you are standing (or sitting). I mean – a rainbow seems to descend and disappear into the rippled surface of a Scottish loch apparently no more than a few yards from the shore pebbles I am rather tenuously standing on.
A rainbow's intangibility is evident. The vaporous prismatic colors in their inevitable order (Richard Of York Gave Battle In Vain – red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, violet) are clear but translucent against the slate-dark sky. If I walk away, will this airy phenomenon follow me or simply vanish? Does the person gazing across the water some 100 feet along the curved perimeter of the same beach see the rainbow? Any rainbow? My rainbow? Is mine a private wonder?
And now there is the question of why one sees no more than an arc – only part of a great color curve, whose ends never meet. Why is its circle interrupted?
The question has come up because of an unusual gift. It was a knowing present from a close member of the family, aware of (if baffled by) my predilection for losing contact with the usual exigencies of gravitation. Space travel and weightlessness are beyond my purse and preference, but rides in helicopters, balloon baskets, seaplanes, and small aircraft do appeal. And microlights (also called ultralights).
So I had a voucher for a microlight flight. The ground from which this adventure was to be launched was a field – literally, an airfield made of grass. In the hangar was a range of flying machines, all suggesting "Around the World in Eighty Days" or "Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines" or, at the very least, the Wright Brothers.
My generous voucher allowed a ride in any of them.
"Which one would you like to go up in?" asked the boss.
"Which is the most exciting?"
"No doubt about that: the microlight."
So I was kitted up for a cold open-air experience, with a helmet and visor, my legs splayed, and my torso safety-belted behind the only other person involved, the pilot. He explained that before take-off the engine needed to warm up a bit. Over the helmet intercom he explained that a microlight is essentially a motorbike with wings. "I steer it with this bar," he indicated, and "this bar" seemed to have an uncanny resemblance to the not-very-adequate bar that one grasps on a roller coaster under the unconvincing illusion that it is a secure affair preventing free fall or sideways slide. It does neither, but never mind. It's all part of the fun.
So now we were ready. He revved the engine a lot, presumably to make sure it was still running, and we headed off bouncing across the mounds and tussocks of the ungrazed meadow. Then miraculously we lifted growlingly into the air. In no time at all I felt utterly elated. I had never felt so close to actually being a bird.
"Oh! I want to do this again!"
I had phoned the airfield before leaving home that day, because it was typical Scottish weather – raining one minute, sunny the next – and I expected them to postpone the flight because of climatological unpredictability.
"No, come over. It'll be fine," they said.
And now as we swung and wheeled around in the cloudy/sunny sky, it started to rain. My visor was not equipped with wipers, but the splatters and droplets ran down excitedly. The whole affair seemed to be all the better for the wetness.
"Wow!" said the pilot suddenly. "Look down! Right underneath us! I've never seen anything like that before."
Looking down, or even left and right, is not easy with the wind blasting straight at you. You have to grab your helmet in both hands and force your head around – or in this case, down.
And there it was, seeming close to the ground, a perfectly uninterrupted circle of colored light. By straining, I could see it – we could both see it very clearly – a rainbow, a complete halo, without end and without beginning.
It didn't need an explanation. It was what rainbows are meant to be, free from the earth. It all seemed right, somehow – right that this exclusive, breathtaking sight should be seen only because we happened to be held aloft in wet and boisterous midair, riding a motorcycle with dodgy-looking wings.