The first in a series of four short stories, inspired by science and written by science communication students at Imperial College.
In a world where every passerby seems to have a phone and every phone seems to have a camera, how many times a day are we all unknowingly photographed? In how many facebook albums do we unwittingly make a cameo appearance, slouching in the background of a stranger’s ill-timed snap? And what do those strangers think of us, the unknown, unrecognised figures forever preserved only a few pixels away? Are we intruding on an important occasion, or simply insignificant blurs at the edges? Are we being judged, or do we simply go unnoticed? This story tries to do justice to the power that such accidental records can have, and to the unexpected meaning that can arise from seemingly serendipitous connections.
The Müllers would have been the first to notice something odd. They would have returned to their dreary Munich apartment block after their brief visit to London, and within 24 hours they would have seen it. They would have unpacked their bags, and delicately pulled out the rolls of photographic film Heinrich insisted on stuffing deep inside his rolled-up socks. Heinrich had, in recent years, grown obsessed with photography, a passion which had developed in as queer and unexpected a manner as any of the photographs he had ever produced.
Rosa tolerated his latest mania with a patient disinterestedness; believing, no doubt correctly, that it would prove less expensive than a new Italian car and less humiliating than a new Italian mistress. Rosa had always found herself particularly troubled by the fear that Heinrich would begin an affair with a woman of Italianate origins. Maybe she ascribed to her Genovese sisters a more alluring personality; accorded to her Neapolitan rivals a more provocative manner of dress, or to her Tuscan antagonists a freer way of walking down the thoroughfares of Florence than she could ever imagine finding in herself.
So she tolerated her husband’s new-found obsession. She forgave the darkroom which now occupied their son’s old bedroom, and which she had long hoped to turn into a study of her own. She had even grown accustomed to the smell of sulfur dioxide which now permeated the house, as it was in no small way preferable to the stench of exotic perfume she had endless nightmares about discovering on her Heinrich’s jacket.
So when Heinrich called out “liebchen” as he was wont to do from behind the closed door of his darkroom, Rosa would have known better than to walk in unannounced. Instead she would have waited, patiently, for him to emerge. Sleeves rolled up to his elbows, sweat gleaming on his bald patch, and a thin sheet of photographic paper still dripping wet in his arms.
“Look at this,” he would have said, laying the artifact onto the kitchen table she had only just cleaned in the manner of a domestic cat presenting a partially-digested squirrel for his owner’s delectation.
“Ah, yes,” she’d have said, appreciatively. “Buckingham Palace.”
“No!” Heinrich wiped the sweat off his face with a kitchen towel. “Look.”
Rosa would have followed his gaze. He was pointing at a bright speck in the clear blue sky. He might have thought it was a helicopter, or even an airplane, glinting in the sun as it passed overhead. He couldn’t have begun to imagine the overwhelming energy and power contained within that tiny glowing dot. That solitary firework launched from the other side of the galaxy, inexorably propelled forward and yet frozen in the air forever; waiting for its moment to burst.
But Rosa would not have seen that. Her eyes would have been caught instead by a young, tanned, dark-haired woman holding on to the Palace railings, who was smiling happily at a point somewhere off to the camera’s left.
Who was that girl? And why was she so happy?
What right did she have to smile like that? And why had Heinrich taken a photograph of her and who, come to think of it, was she smiling at?
I knew it, she would have would have thought to herself, I knew it. It was always going to be an Italian.
* * *
When Mike visited London that July, as the point of departure for his grand tour of Europe, he stayed at a quaint little hotel in one of the side streets off Earl’s Court Road. He’d chosen it after several hours of mousewalking around the cardboard cutout version of London that Google Maps chose to provide him with. He’d fallen in love with it from the moment of his first virtual footfall. With the rows of identical white houses, their pristine colonnaded entrances and those respectably solid wooden front doors behind which all manner of impropriety could safely be committed.
Looking down Onslow Crescent from the vantage point Google offered him on Collingham Gardens, the street resembled nothing so much as a row of pearly white teeth, curved into a welcoming smile. Ironic, he remembered thinking, for a nation infamous for its lack of dental hygiene.
He’d had no trouble finding the hotel – it was, to his disappointment, the single decaying yellow tooth in the great frozen grimace of Onslow Crescent. There had been some confusion with the rooms – he’d originally been given the key to room 16 instead of room 12, and after a brief dance of Oh I’m So Sorry Sir It’s My Mistake Please Forgive Me, and Not At All Don’t Mention It with the receptionist, he soon found himself laughing at the misunderstanding at the hotel bar with the German couple who were staying in Room 16. Heinrich and Rosa Müller were in London to celebrate their silver wedding anniversary; and their son’s recent departure from home made them all the more favourably disposed to this respectable young man with the UCLA T-shirt and the American accent.
The three of them had dinner together that evening in an Irish pub around the corner from the hotel. Mike tried to shock his new associates by exaggerating his desire to find a nice European boy he could take back to America with him. And as the Müllers laughed in their refined, cosmopolitan way, Mike couldn’t help but think how much easier it would have been if his parents had been more like the Müllers, and the Müllers couldn’t help but hope that Mike stayed the hell away from their son.
It was over his fourth beer of the night that Mike suggested they all go to see Buckingham Palace in the morning. While he provocatively claimed to want to see an English guardsman in his bearskin (a joke which provoked enthusiastic laughs from its baffled Teutonic audience), he somehow felt the draw all anti-monarchists feel when confronted with the pomp and grandeur of Royal families. Something to stare at in repulsed fascination, unable to either dismiss or quite comprehend.
And it would have been some weeks later, after his passage through Paris and Vienna; through Milan, Rome and Venice, that Mike would have bothered to look at his iPhone. It would probably have been Tyler, in fact, who saw it for him. Tyler, the sort of clean-cut, all-American boy that Mike had come to Europe to avoid, and whom he had met and fallen in love with at the departures lounge in Stockholm. Tyler, who with his short blonde hair and Vitruvian Man tattoo on his chest, would have pulled himself up the headboard in Mike’s New York bed and thumbed lazily through the photo albums on Mike’s new phone.
There would have been photos of Mike’s face in clubs in Eastern Europe, photos of various other of Mike’s extremities in hotel rooms across the Southern Continent, and a range of unremarkable landscape shots which could have been taken anywhere between Trieste and Stettin.
“Who are they?” Tyler would have asked, suddenly.
“Mmmm?” Drifted through from underneath the covers.
“These two in front of Buckingham Palace. The fat guy and this woman with the glasses. Friends of yours? Jesus Mike, they aren’t your parents, are they?”
Mike would have groaned quietly and sat upright. Blinking and peering at his own phone. “No idea,” he’d have said, before returning to his eiderdown igloo.
“You took a photo of them and you don’t even remember their names? Fuck, I hope I get better treatment!”
And then his smile would have faded. And he would have looked closer. And zoomed in with his thumb and forefinger in the way no-one born after 1984 would ever admit to finding counterintuitive. And he would have looked behind the smiling face of Rosa Müller. Behind the awkwardly contorted face of her husband Heinrich, surprised as he was in mid-photograph himself. He would have looked at the clean triangle of blue sky between the forearm and soft neck of a beautiful, bronzed Italian girl dangling from the railings surrounding the palace.
And he would have seen it.
“Shit.” He would have said.
* * *
Which, if one allows for any inexactitude in translation, would have been precisely the reaction of Gianna Rodolfi and her husband, when, 20 or so years later, they would have sat on their living room sofa with their teenaged son and daughter to relive the days when their mother was young and beautiful and bronzed, and could make middle-aged German hausfraus sick with jealousy across a continent.
The picture which Gianna and Bruno had chosen to print off and stick in their honeymoon album couldn’t have been chosen too carefully. They would, after all, have been busy in the weeks and months following their return. So the pictures, chosen at random from the hundreds of obscurely-named files on their camera’s memory stick, could easily have survived two decades in a photo album without being given so much as a second glance.
And as they looked through their photographs in cheery reminiscence, Gianna and her family would have seen a glimpse of what history would never give them a chance to see.
They would have seen what historians later came to call Near Earth Object 1032.
They would have seen a blurred fireball of molten rock and iron, capable of covering fifteen kilometers a second – trapped by the viewfinder of a camera as it passed through the lower atmosphere less than twelve kilometres overhead. Frozen forever on a photograph that could not be. Frozen in an instant in which their histories abruptly came to an end.
An instant when their stories were cut short.
* * *
There had been four hundred and twenty-eight men, women and children outside the gates of Buckingham Palace that fourth of July. They had, between them, three hundred and twelve camera phones of varying sizes and specifications, twenty-eight video cameras, twelve professional photographic lenses and one Sony HVR-Z5 camera which was the property of the BBC, and had been sent out to file a celebratory report tenuously linking some minor member of the Royal Family with the American Declaration of Independence.
And yet, not one of those three hundred and fifty three lenses which had charted these people’s journeys across the London landscape, which had sought to preserve for all eternity their arrival at the gates of Buckingham Palace, not one of those lenses happened to capture the moment when an asteroid the size of an ocean liner fell through the roof of SW1A 1AA. The moment when those iron railings would come to be the gates of Hell.
And all their stories would end.
The ensuing explosion ripped through the city. It surged down the Mall, engulfing Admiralty Arch and Trafalgar Square, passing across, over, under, around and through all three stories of the National Gallery, and was across the M25 by the time it would have taken any one of those cameras to capture even a single still.
The only cameras capable of recording the blaze were the NASA satellites, orbiting in silence thousands of miles overhead. And by the time Near Earth Object 1032 made landfall, the men and women operating those satellites had other things to worry about. It was Independence Day, after all, and hotdogs didn’t eat themselves.
And somewhere in the sky above them, those expensive, delicate ships which had seen something amazing, had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.
Gilead Amit is an Imperial College student studying for an MSc in Science Communication. The next story in this series of four will be posted in the 2nd week of May.