I spent the summer of 1999 working in a data entry job in a sixth form college, saving up for my final year of university. The work was easy, and I was quickly promoted to a small room where I would assist the admissions officer: a bored, middle aged woman whose working day consisted of eating biscuits and listening to the radio: two things I could readily assist with.
The millennium was coming, as was a solar eclipse, and those of a superstitious nature saw this combination as a portent of the End Times. We didn’t know at the time that we were in a brief bubble of relative peace and security – one year after the Good Friday Agreement and two before 9/11. A moment of sunshine for the UK.
As the 11th August drew closer, newspapers and magazines were full of safety tips (don’t stare at the sun!) and eclipse facts. Astrologers were full of crap. And the radio? It was a golden time for Bonnie Tyler fans.
The college had decided that not only could we all take our early tea breaks at once, but we could do it on the roof of the building. By five to eleven the flat roof was crowded, my colleagues from admissions armed with pinhole cameras I had made from stationery. I patiently showed them how to use them: stand with your back to the sun, hold the paper at arm’s length and move the card, with its pinprick, until you get a clear image of the sun projected on the paper.
As the projected circles waned to crescents the volume dropped. First the traffic fell silent as people pulled over and got out of their cars to watch. Then, in the mid-morning gloaming, the birds stopped their songs.
Behind the paper of my pinhole camera, I could see the rest of Leeds. Each building bristled with people on the rooves, the streets were thick with crowds. All looked behind me at the sun. I turned around and looked at the shining sickle in the sky, opaline behind thin cloud.
The sun waxed, the sky brightened. The birds sang once more. I looked away and blinked. The darkness had been brief. We returned to our day, to our small rooms and biscuits. But for just one moment, we had all stood together under the sun and the moon.