By Martin Reed
STEP ONE: Secure your location. Identify optimal charge position and direction of sun.
I’ve lost track of how long I’ve been doing this. Two, maybe three years. Long enough I could light the candles blindfold if I wanted. But I still keep the direction sheet beside me as I go. There’s something reassuring about it. Its five step predictability. Not a lot of that around nowadays, predictability, what with everything that’s happened.
I started it at first to chase a girl. Back then, well, it was early days for the whole candlelighting project, and it was easy to get anyone whipped up with the whole idea of it. It sort of felt like we were replacing something of what was lost. It was the noble idea of trying to bring a bit of London back to life, or something like that. At any rate we were doing something constructive after we all headed to London from the northern towns to do our bit for the relief effort, help rebuild after the Surge, only to discover there was no relief effort. Everyone had given up already. There was no London to help.
So me and Emily, this girl, we went out lighting most weekends along with a few hundred others. Floating down the canals in motor boats, yachts, beer barrel rafts. Hunting for buildings that could still be accessed. The places where people once lived.
Of course, Emily is long gone now. She lost interest after the initial buzz and headed back up north, like most of the rest, which suited me since I’d found myself getting more keen on the lighting than I was on her. In fact I was more than keen. I was obsessed.
At last count there were only eight of us still doing it. But I suppose that’s better than nothing.
STEP TWO: Unpack media reader, solar kit and transmitter. Check contents. Construct rig in accordance with manufacturer’s guidelines. DO NOT RUSH. CONSTRUCT TO LAST.
I’ve been working this high rise for weeks now. I’ve got my rigs set up in careful rows all over the roof, no one rig blocking sunlight to the solar panels of another. This one I’m doing today, it’ll be the thirtieth I’ve set up here. It’s sort of a round number so I’m half tempted to leave it at that. Move on to another building. But I’ve barely worked through a third of the flats here. I could light up another fifty before I need to move along.
Besides, I quite like it up here for the view.
Get here at dawn and look at the skyline with the towers of the old city in silhouette, I can fool myself that London is more than just a floodland. Blurring my eyes to smooth the crumbled edges, it looks like the only thing missing is lights.
But with the sun high like this the ruins tell their own story. When it came, the Surge swept in from the east. So the eastern side of every building shows the worst damage. Those that are still standing here at any rate. Rooted in their canals like this, canals that were once streets.
The same goes for the interiors too. I hardly ever find anything usable in east facing rooms. Me and Emily discovered that pretty early on. The few times we forced our way into such a room we were lucky to recognise anything. Everything had been ripped apart by the force of water through windows. Furniture, people, pets.
Thinking about it, I think that’s why she left. Probably why most of them left. I think they thought that the few of us who stayed were so hard-hearted we weren’t bothered by the death we were clawing through. I know it got to Emily. And it isn’t that it didn’t get to me. It just felt like I was taking some of those smashed up pieces and putting them back together.
One of the other lighters, Stef, he summed it up once with: Of course I see sights I’d rather not see. But what of the things I need to see and share? How else can I get to them?
STEP THREE: Clean then insert media cards.
It’s mainly cameras, phones and video cameras that I’m trying to find when I search a home. They’re usually shattered beyond repair but their memory cards are often undamaged. It depends on the force of the impact when the Surge hit. It depends on the amount of water that remained in the room afterwards. It depends on so many things.
A bad day for me is when I find a whole set of cards, a phone for every member of the family, a couple of cameras, a video camera, spare cards — only to test them and find they’ve all been wiped by water and time, washed of every memory.
But today is good enough. A single phone on the floor of what was once a living room. I test its memory card in my handheld. It flashes positive. It holds content.
STEP FOUR: Test playback. If there are multiple media, set a play order.
It’s only when I finally connect my handheld to the media reader and press PLAY that I know the whole thing has been worthwhile. The images and films on these disks and cards, they’re the candles. They’re the memories we’re reigniting.
I skim through today’s images and videos. It’s a family of three. Mam, Dad, a young boy. In the videos they’re speaking some language I can’t follow.
There they are against a mountain background, hugging friends, tearful relatives, painful goodbyes. Then on a train, Mam rifling nervously through a bag, the boy staring wide eyed out of the window as the train departs. Then they’re in a city that isn’t London. Paris? Berlin? Photographs of a hotel room where they must have stayed for a while, Mam looking anxious all the while, pale, questioning whether they should really have done it. Then views of London. Dad looks relieved, proud that they’ve made it. And then a party, in a flat, here. Other people, the same language. There’s a birthday cake in the shape of an eight. And the boy running, laughing, a tennis racket in his hand, raised high, as he runs towards the camera, Mam in the background, settled now, no longer pale, stroking her tummy, her bulge barely there so she thinks it’s still secret. The date stamp in the bottom left corner, 3 March 2123. A week before the Surge.
Before she left, Emily pressed me why I wanted to carry on with the folly of it. Who’s going to watch it, she asked? Somehow the answer didn’t matter.
STEP FIVE: Begin broadcast.
I click RADIO ON and a panel of five lights on the transmitter flicker on, then off, then light in turn: power on, input signal received, connecting to network, requesting IP. Then with the fifth light green the rig is transmitting. Job done.
I flip open my handheld, scroll through the icons and open the Candles application. The display shows a map of London as it was. At least that’s how it’s supposed to look. The shape is correct. But it isn’t drawn with lines to show roads, it’s made up of a yellow glowing cloud, clusters of intensity. I click to zoom on the south west area, my present location. Then zoom again to where the yellow is most intense. As it zooms, the cloud fragments to individual points of yellow, each representing a rig transmitting. Zoom again to my high rise, and there they are, thirty candles glowing strong.
The latest addition is easy to spot, flashing as it is to show that it’s new. Clicking that begins the download, please wait… streaming, then there he is, my tennis racket birthday boy, running to the camera again, racing to Dad, racket held high, his laughter not quite so lost now.
Martin Reed’s debut story collection ANGEL CAGING is published by Proximate Dawn. He lives in London with his partner and two children and works for UK authors’ union The Society of Authors. www.IamMartinReed.co.uk / @IamMartinReed . You can find more of Martin’s work on Amazon.
Featured image via ESA/Hubble & NASA and N. Grogin (STScI)