almost immediately, a juddering and veering jolted him out of his reverie. The sudden change of track had caused the small rectangular card to fall off his lap and he leaned down uncomfortably to retrieve it, hoping none of the other passengers was paying him any attention. As he sat back up, he met the gaze of a man sitting opposite. He was older, thin hair balding, rounded stomach unfolding, glasses slipped down his nose. It took him a moment to recognise his own reflection, and another to remember his name. Ed. No, Ted.
The card was a postcard, one of those that had never had a picture on the front. Both sides were covered in tiny writing, his handwriting, but he didn’t need to read it to remember what was there, despite the instructions he had been given when he’d got on board a few minutes ago. It was his most precious memory and the reason he was on the train.
She had been young, and so had he. They were in love but their first kiss was their last.
He pictured the scene (it was never far away): London, New Year’s Day. They had spent three hours shyly negotiating the streets, trying to work out where they were. At last, he’d had to catch his train home and went through the ticket barriers at Embankment station. Then he’d had to explain to the station staff that he’d gone through the barrier by mistake and, once he’d been let back through, he walked up to her again. “I don’t want to go.” “Neither do I.” As they came outside again the sun fell and a wintry dusk embraced them. They’d kissed somewhere on the Mall and a thousand volts discharged.
It’s no metaphor. There was an actual electrical discharge, a literal spark between them that was literally shocking. One of the agents told him later it had been measured at around 17 watts – about the same as it takes to light a household bulb; a little less than the power of an average human brain.
It was enough to throw them apart, bodies stunned on the ground. When the agency tracked them down, less than half an hour later, they were still lying prone, apart. He was bundled into a vehicle and driven to a location where they wouldn’t tell him what had happened to her. At some point he assumed she had died. Now, though, he was getting her back.
A tunnel and the carriage went dark. He’d been warned about this. He had to concentrate hard on his postcard, focus the memory, fix his destination – otherwise he’d have no chance of getting there. The whole experience was so terribly familiar, but he’d also been warned that déjà-vu was a highly likely side-effect of powering the train with all of their distant sparks combined. Obviously this was the real start of the journey. Soon everyone on board would reach their own particular destination, whatever the place, whenever the time.
He stared at the postcard resting on his knee, consciously trying to turn the letters into images of her in that moment. He picked it up and the recollection of writing it elbowed into his mind. Someone in the agency – young, probably, back then – had hit upon this idea of harnessing the sparks. They’d worked out that these moments had the potential to be signposts, a specific source of energy and guidance. All the subjects in his facility were instructed to write down as much as they could remember about the exact moment of the spark – the physical surroundings, their mental state, emotions, sensations. These days he had to consciously suppress the doubt that he’d been left only with the memory of a memory – or that this postcard contained a memory from a man who no longer existed, that the memory he now held in his head was somehow different, truer perhaps, but less precise. He swallowed and tried not to get caught in a philosophical loop. After all, he had read and re-read that postcard every day for 17 years; the memory itself had become almost physical, so much effort had gone into building and honing it.
It had taken some time for physics and technology to catch up with the initial idea. So much change, people in charge coming and going, each with their own ideas about how the project should run. The tube train itself was one senior person’s whimsy – there was no reason it had to be a vehicle at all, but by the time they’d left, a train on London’s Circle line – a ring the length of the collider tunnel at Cern – had seemed just about the most natural way to go.
When it had all come together and was ready to be tested, he had had to fight to be included. In the end, they accepted his argument that as by now the oldest living person to have experienced a spark – or at least, the oldest living person who could still remember it – they had to include him to find out just how far back they could go. Oddly, this was the first time he could remember wondering what would happen to him if it didn’t work, or if he was unable to save her.
His fingers started to tingle, then snap with static. He closed his eyes, but
I wrote this story as part of a writing course I am doing with Adam Marek. This is the first output, and was inspired by a connection made between two random photographs we were shown.