Tripping the Fantastic Light
I don’t know much. I know that. You’re not academic they said. Meaning I was thick, only they’re not allowed to say things like that anymore. Didn’t have what they called, a general knowledge. Didn’t know dates of things, like Waterloo and the Industrial Revolution, or what the capital of Malaysia was, or why your tongue stuck to ice. Was OK with numbers, still am. Can add up and take away - got that from darts. But there’s one thing I do know about. Light. I know about light. You could ask me anything: how it works, what it does, the speed – anything. Got Aunt Alice to thank for that. Her obsession with darkness led to my fascination with light.
She lived in a house with a big purple door. Strange that she had such a bold colour on the outside, when inside there was hardly any. It was always too dark. There were just shapes, lots of grey murky shapes. I was always walking into them, ending up with bruises the same colour as the front door.
The sitting room, the parlour as she liked to call it, was choc full of second hand furniture - chairs, tables, sideboards - shit like that. All piled up on top of each another. In between were the newspapers, boxes, stacked as high as the picture rail. Every room like a basement – dark, damp and full of junk. She didn’t like electricity, too vulgar she said, meaning too expensive, so there were candles everywhere, they led you through the clutter like mini lighthouses.
Sometimes George strayed in. We’d watch him jump from one level to the next, before attacking the thick curtains. For a big fat cat he was a good climber. He’d squeeze between the pelmet and the ceiling, then blink at us in the smug way cats do. Weird how you can see their eyes in the dark.
Sometimes a slit of light fell in. It came from where the curtains didn’t meet. We’d see George flicker across it in strips. Imagine it zapping him like a ray gun and he’d be gone; up there with the rest of the dust, spiralling in the sunshine.
Told my sister that if she put her hand in the light it would burn a hole in her palm. She didn’t believe me so I showed her with a magnifying glass and burnt the carpet. We did it all the time at school. If you held someone’s specs the right way round it was as good as a magnifying glass. The crucial bit was the aim, you had to get the angle right and the nearer the glass was to the target the more powerful the light was. It was great, watching the rainbow ring brand the paper, see it discolour, the smell of the burning and that wisp of smoke just before the flames. Wicked. Zapped ants. They’d just fizz and disappear. Magic.
Wanted to study light and its effects – lasers, that’s what I wanted to get into. Told them I knew all there was to know; that I’d had an interest since I was a kid, read books, had experience - proper practical experience - but it didn’t count for anything. Formal qualifications, that’s what they said. You need ‘A’ levels, degrees, shit like that. Killed it for a while. But I still dabble, amateur physics style. Pick up glass from scrapyards. Old headlights are good. Parts from the big artics are best. Rigged up spotlights in the garage and managed to get a 5mm beam keep its intensity for over 30 feet. It lit a solid object. It’s beautiful when you catch all that energy and transform it. It’s not about destroying things. It’s the light. The light’s what it’s all about.
Catching rays direct from the sun is something else. Harnessing energy from that far away is amazing. Made a plan. Got a list of stuff - mirrors, foil screens, prism, a big fuck off prism to bounce the rays, intensify them so the heat triples, quadruples, magnifies so much it’ll drill through stone.
The first time I went up into the hills it got out of hand. The grass was really dry that year. They blamed it on hikers. I made the call. Had to use a phoney voice but am good at that. They needed crews from all over, took hold so quick. That’s how the house must’ve gone up. They said it was a tinder box with all that rubbish. Poor Aunt Alice. They reckon her cat knocked a candle over. I like to think she walked into the parlour and flung open the curtains, as if she was about to step onto a stage, and all that light she’d denied for so long just took her.
That was the last time I saw him. At least he had the decency to stay at the back and be sober. He left after the service. Didn’t go to the cemetery. There wasn’t the scene we all expected but there were the whispers, the conversations behind the cups of tea and ham sandwiches. Didn’t care. Thanks to Alice we could move. Get away. She left premium bonds, thousands of them, to be split between the cat and Mum. They never found George, think he made it out though. Hope so.