We make quite the pair. Kenny, a slender six-foot-six giant, a difficult-to-judge thirty-something years old. He’s a Ugandan asylum seeker, or was, which you’d be hard pressed to guess from his name or by hearing him speak. But then, he’s been over here since he was a gangly twelve.
Whereas I’m in my mid fifties, five-foot-six on steel-capped tiptoes, and, some would say, almost as round. After my melanoma scare, my overly precious Celtic skin is protected by a generous slathering of dazzling zinc oxide across my nose and cheeks, making me look like a badly made-up clown, with factor fifty everywhere else. Even then, I keep my arms covered despite the sunny summer weather, and my thinning crop of bristle-length salt and pepper hair hidden beneath an I Love New York baseball cap, at least when it’s not under a far sturdier building site helmet. Both of us wear bright yellow jackets, an essential part of the official council workmen uniform.
“Your turn or mine?” Kenny asks, as we pull up outside yet another anonymous house in the endless rows of identical Victorian terraces. If someone pinched the road signs, and we didn’t have our GPS, we’d have no clue where in Grafton Heath we are. As it is, I check the map, reread Janet’s planning-office notes, and consider the question. In theory, it doesn’t matter. Not when we’re giving stuff away for free. Hardly anyone turns us down, and those that do, overly suspicious or caught on the hop, well... we just move on to the next terraced house, usually on the same street, usually in sight of the nay-sayer, and come back later that day when they start fretting with the FOMO.
“Yours,” I say, with a grunt. The name on the list is foreign, and while one shouldn’t make assumptions, that’s how we tend to break it down. If it’s a Smith, or a Henderson, I’ll be the one to knock on the door, to do the talking. And if it’s a Patel, or a Salah, Kenny will, though I’ll be stood right behind him. And if we aren’t entirely sure, we’ll flip for it.
Kenny rings the bell. Across the road net curtains twitch. You’d have thought, by now, news would have spread and we’d be of no more interest than the postman. It’s not like we haven’t been busy in the area, even if this is the first install on this street. And we won’t be back: today should be our last day, if all goes well.
Well, meaning doorbells rung, doorbells answered.
I get a frowning glance from the big man, but stood away from the door, directly in front of the ground floor window, I’ve got the inside view, literally. I give him the thumbs up, and he resists the urge to ring again. There’s movement. It’s just slow, is all.
The door creaks an inch, there’s a rattle of a chain, and then it’s pushed wide open.
“Yes?” A big woman, babe in one arm, fills the space. It’s not a particularly cute kid, by my reckoning, but Kenny gives it (him?) a toothy grin and it (he) gurgles in delight. And right there, that’s half the job done.
“Good morning, Mrs. Gatwa,” Kenny says, in his politest voice, which is definitely far politer than mine. “We’re with the council. Installing solar panels on roofs, helping to reduce electricity bills. You’ve been selected for one, ma’am.” He almost gives a bow.
She takes a half step forward. I give her a reassuring nod, and she clocks the flat bed truck, council name and crest emblazoned on the door. Blinks when she sees the size of what is strapped to the back of it.
“Big, aren’t they?”
“They’re roof-sized, ma’am.”
She nods, as if this makes sense. In actuality, it’s a happy accident. The panels are second-hand and industrial, and just happen to perfectly fit the terraced houses that stand shoulder-to-shoulder in this particular area of town.
“How much do they cost?” she says, eyeing them critically, as if preparing to haggle.
“No charge, ma’am, not for the panel, or for their installation.”
Her eyebrows rise at that, astonished. “It’s free?”
“Yes, ma’am. All part of the council’s green strategy.”
The council’s green strategy is two workmen, a truck, and half a planning officer. We’re punching well above our weight, but that’s because half a Janet can be very effective indeed.
“And you won’t be making a mess, up there?” she says, craning a neck skyward, not that she can see any of her roof from the well-scrubbed doorstep.
“No, ma’am.” Kenny says it like it’s the most solemn of promises, and perhaps it is.
“Well...” Sometimes it’s almost like they want us to twist their arm. “Well, all right then.”
“One more thing,” I say, as Kenny is handing her the paperwork. The shutters come smartly down, despite my smile. She’s waiting for the catch. There’s always one, right? Especially when it sounds too good to be true.
“Do you have cable broadband, Mrs. Gatwa?” I ask, though I already know the answer.
She frowns, and nods, reluctantly.
“Only, I couldn’t help but notice the old satellite dish, up on the roof. Shall we take it down for you?”
And now she has to reassess yet again, and the hastily thrown up walls crumble once more. Her arm is jiggling the baby like an old fashioned sewing machine, the kid making a soft ooh with every down stroke. “That’s... That’s very good of you?”
I give her my cheekiest grin. “No worries, Mrs. Gatwa. Makes our job easier, see?”
She does see. She retreats inside away from the two burly workmen and the noise they’re about to make, but she leaves the door slightly ajar. We seem to have earned her trust.
Kenny gets out the tools and I scamper up the ladder. Got to say, this is my favorite part of the day, assuming it’s not lashing with rain, or howling a gale. The first time up, above it all, you get a taste of the day, feel the breeze, check for gathering clouds, see the birds fly by beneath your feet, as well as above your head. With my eyes level with the gutter, much higher than if I was stood at an upstairs window, you can see the whole street neatly laid out before you, and beyond. And it’s quiet, up here, peaceful in a way that being in the cab of the truck never is, and being on the pavement isn’t, and living in one of these thin-walled two-up two-downs wouldn’t be. Even though I can hear Kenny down below, clattering away, preparing the top-most of today’s panels for whenever I’m done dismantling this particular semi-fossilized dish.
Thankfully, it’s none too rusted, and comes down easy enough. I lower it to Kenny, and Kenny stows it in the back of the flat bed. There’s not a lot of scrap value, not even in the aluminum ones, but it wouldn’t be very professional to leave them behind, cluttering the street or moldering in the yards, would it?
It took us half our first week before we started tackling the rusted satellite dishes. Three days of cursing and struggling to work around them before the penny dropped. And none of them, so far, have been active. They’re relics of a bygone age. Janet explained that another part of the council’s great leveling up had been to make sure there was decent broadband in the area, and that had pretty much done it for the cluster of south-facing squarials and assorted dishes. They’re nothing more than pigeon perches, now. Pigeon perches, and annoying obstacles.
Next up is the panel itself. This is the tricky bit, for all we’ve done it enough times. You might think that just two men to wrangle two hundred plus solar panels onto rooftops is woefully understaffed. But we’ve worked out a system, one that doesn’t even need scaffolding. Just a long ladder, a set of decent ropes, two burly workmen, and a head for heights. We knock off between five and six installations a day. And yes, the panels are large enough to be distinctly unwieldy, especially in windy weather, even if they’re not particularly heavy. But it would have been far more difficult if they were conventional sized, with six or eight crammed onto a roof. Then, we’d have to install a framework to hold them all, and attach each one to that. With these super-sized panels, you didn’t need to bother. The power cables usually went straight down the disused chimneys, or they went in through the holes already made for those satellite dishes, which certainly didn’t need them any more.
The panels are pre-installed with hooks on the long side. These go over the peak of the roof, latching on. Then, they just need anchoring at the gutter end, to stop the occasional strong wind turning them into the world’s worst sails. The hooks also prove useful as we lift them up to the roof. Kenny and I swap places for this bit; it needs a wider wingspan, and he certainly has that. I steady, and lift, and he tugs, and it’s not long before he’s descending the ladder again, panel in place, another job done bar the plug-and-play wiring.
Mrs. Gatwa’s timing with two mugs of tea is impeccable. There’s even a couple of oaty flapjacks. I’d give her a hug, sweaty though I am, though she only seems to have eyes for Kenny.
All too often the way, alas.
“Is that it, then?” she asks, stood in the middle of the street, staring upwards. With the panel on, the roof looks brand new, decades of moss and lichen discreetly hidden. “And this will power my house, will it?”
No, Mrs. Gatwa. No, it will not. She’s already got the brochure, though she won’t have read it yet, so I give her the short, not particularly sweet version. “If you use your appliances when the sun is shining, or even just bright like today, then yes. The panel should power most of your needs. But there’s no storage, see? So, when the sun sets...”
She nods, slowly.
“If you shift your use of washing machine and hoover and the like to daytime, you’ll definitely notice a drop in your electricity bills. And every little bit helps, right?”
She thinks she’s finally found the catch, and I think that reassures her. And it’s still far better than nothing, and it hasn’t cost her anything. It will make a difference, to her bills, and the planet. Just not a very large one. Not enough to save any polar bears.
And then we’re back in the truck and driving the half a dozen doors to the next lucky house owner-slash-occupant. We could easily install our rooftop-sized, second-hand solar panels on every single one of the two-up, two-down identikit houses on this street. And on the adjoining streets. But we don’t have anything like enough panels to do all of the close-packed terraces of Grafton Heath. Which is why there’s a gap between Mrs. Gatwa and (my turn!) Mr. Phillips. Why there are only two properties on this street with panels, while other streets are almost a clean sweep. All in the luck of the draw, some might say.
The panels come from the relatively modest solar energy park on the outskirts of the town. All those panels, from the first wave of renewables, were now reaching the end of their expected lives. Less efficient than what was replacing them, the fruit of two decades of research, wind turbines with Boeing 747-sized blades, and panels that produced twice the electricity for half the cost.
So when that solar park was recently revamped, they ended up with two hundred and forty-three used panels, a little tired, but still operational. It would have been closer to three hundred, and we’d have had two extra weeks of installing them, but the cowboys who did the decommissioning work weren’t as careful as they should have been. Perhaps they hadn’t got the memo.
But what to do with all the old, redundant eco-stuff? It wouldn’t be very green to send it to landfill. Some of the turbine blades, which are mainly sturdy carbon-fiber reinforced fiberglass, are being turned into kids’ playgrounds, and some are used for roofing for vast storage and fulfillment warehouses. But what about solar panels? They wouldn’t make very good slides.
The council, which had given permission for the energy company to build its solar array on a disused airfield on the outskirts of town, and which also agreed to its continued use with the next generation of panels, made one simple stipulation about the extension of the energy company’s lease. It was Janet’s idea, lobbied for and accepted only because the woman is a veritable force of nature, to which it is always easiest to say yes. Plus, she’d offered to do the legwork herself. As many of the old panels as possible should be reused. That was the condition. Not recycled, which was difficult enough with the complexities of multi-layered laminates, which applied to both wind turbine blades and solar panels. Rather, re-homed. Re-housed. And, with all the other stuff going on in the world, and a set of eco-targets to meet, the council (or rather, Janet, plus us voiceless grunts) offered to do the re-homing themselves, to help reduce the sky-high fuel bills for the poorest, oldest housing stock in the district. Which meant Grafton Heath.
Which had its up side, as well as down. The Victorians had built these terraced houses on a grid pattern as precise as that of any modern US city, and, as the fates would have it, the streets ran pretty much east-west. So we had a whole host of perfectly aligned, south facing roofs, with a pitch that was only a little steeper than the ideal, but not by more than five degrees, and which just happened to be the perfect size for our second-hand panels.
That’s the upside. The downside: the Grafton Heath area has far more houses than we had solar panels for.
One into two goes easily enough, but it leaves the other empty handed. We (the council’s green strategy workforce) were given pretty much free rein to choose which houses got them, and which, therefore, didn’t.
Janet, in planning, spelled it out for us. Defined the roughly circular area of Grafton Heath, provided us with the names of the occupants, and gave us a whole host of other indicators to pick from, from those on benefits, to those belonging to retirees, etc., etc.
And then she said it was ultimately up to us to make the final decision. A trolley problem quickly emerged. An ethical conundrum. Who was worthy? The old? The poorest? The ones with families? And how could we trust what little information we had? No one in the area could claim to be rich, not in these dated two-up, two-downs, not unless they were renting them out, and then the renters were the ones paying the electricity bills.
Janet, via the council, went back to the energy company, and pushed them, hard, for another concession. One that made our decision easier to make. One that made up for the sixty-plus accidentally-on-purpose destroyed panels. One that, in granting, probably showed how little difference the energy company thought we were actually going to make.
The benefits of those with the panels would accrue to everyone in Grafton Heath, because the energy company was willing to discount all the properties in the area, by some convoluted average saving metric, as long as we didn’t do anything dastardly, like wiring those panels to feed excess solar energy back into the mains.
Pressure off, we could use the information Janet provided, or pick at random. The only proviso was that we had to decide who the lucky recipients were before we started knocking on any doors or ringing any bells.
Kenny raised an eyebrow at that. Ah, the innocence of youth, even when it came in such tall packages.
“To prevent backhanders,” I explained. “To stop us workmen from taking bribes on where to install the panels.”
“Got it,” Janet agreed, reaching for the last rich tea biscuit. Sometimes, it doesn’t pay to be too polite. “Not that we don’t trust you, but...”
“But you don’t trust us. Or rather, the council doesn’t.”
Kenny looked concerned. It is his eternal worry. The thing that keeps him awake at night, along with his growing brood of happy kids. Drummed into him over the years, and reinforced by the current lot in government. The only thing that could jeopardize his “permission to remain” status in the UK, that would separate him from his wife and family, was a criminal record. And so, the one thing Kenny is pretty much guaranteed to do as a result, is to keep his nose spotlessly clean.
We talked it over, Kenny and I. Weighed up the pros and cons of going alphabetically, or picking only those on housing benefits, despite the averaging that would help them either way. We, or at least I, was under no particular illusions. I’d looked into having a panel on my own roof, a couple of years back, just before the health scare put a cap on my long range planning. Having worked through the calculations, and even allowing for the fact that in the case of Grafton Heath, there was no up-front charge, I’d come to the conclusion that this whole project was probably more about eco-credentials and PR exercises than actually saving the good town folk any real money. Otherwise, the energy company might have put up more of a fight. Though they’d got in their low blows early, insisting that the cost and complexity of letting these panels feed back into the grid was too high. As would be the cost of any sort of battery storage.
So we were doing good, we knew we were. Saving a load of panels from going to landfill, and helping houses which never in a million years would have ended up with solar panels otherwise. But still. That it was about the optics, about making a statement, about seeming to be green, rankled a little. This was the scope of the council’s grand ambitions? Two hundred and forty homes, out of how many? It was all on such a trivial scale.
Which is why we decided we might as well make our own small statement. Unofficially, of course. And it seemed, over a pint or two, as good as any other way of deciding which doorbells we were going to ring. And Janet, beaming as she listened to our tentative, does this really work in the cold light of day? suggestion, readily agreed and pulled up the street maps and resident details and did most of the work to compile the list of which houses we’d need to go to.
It was exactly the green light we needed to turn a daft-ish idea into solid reality. Solid reality, now half a day from being complete.
“Well... this is awkward.”
After finishing up at the pensioner’s, Mr. Phillips, and eating our sandwiches round the corner to escape his rather dreary tales of a life in accountancy (you might have expected a better retirement home for all the dull drudgery), we’ve moved onto the next, and final street, the last three panels ready to go. Only to find it abandoned. As empty as Antarctica. The sort of boarded-up houses the council, every so often, sells off for a pound. Janet’s notes have, for the first time, let us down. What we have must be the names of former occupants. None of these doorbells are going to get answered.
“How so?” grins Kenny, unexpectedly impish. “Just means we don’t need to ask permission, right?”
It also means we won’t be able to plug the panels in, and even if we could, there’s no one using electricity in any of these homes. But we have gone this far. So to hell with the paperwork. What difference will it make? Just as long as we don’t have to explain what the heck we’re doing, installing solar panels on derelict houses.
That they are our last three installations kind of decides it for us. Any questions asked will come when we’re off the job, back to installing roof insulation on the council’s behalf. Which isn’t as cushy a job as this one has been. Indoors, in attics, with spiders and decades of coal dust for company. At least I’ll go back to having the height advantage; Kenny is near bent double in some of those hot, cramped spaces.
Or perhaps the council will decide there’s something else we should be doing to save the planet, and keep us outdoors until the weather begins to cool…. Wishful thinking, that.
We get to it, in the eerie quiet. Whereas normally up the roof it feels peaceful, this is unnatural, and I keep looking over my shoulder as if I’m being watched by unseen people. The ghosts of houses past…. Maybe we’re not quite so careful, maybe we rush it a little, but, arms aching, we’re done by four, and that means an extra hour down the nearest pub, to celebrate.
“Will it work?” asks Kenny, as we’re finishing up, our truck empty except for a jumble of ex-satellite dishes, trailing wires.
I shrug. It seems rather late in the proceedings to be asking that particular question. Our deployment was planned with military precision, and we’ve stuck to it, with the exception of one of the Midwest states of America, which had been demolished, the houses on either side pinned into place by sturdy red-metal supports, a hiccup that had almost spun our little project off the road. “Can’t see why not.”
“When will we know?”
And that is the trickier question. We’ve had to keep quiet all this time, worried we might be found out and derailed before we’re done, but now that we’re finished... how to make sure anyone notices? Janet might have to pull some strings. Though there’s always the chance that someone clocks it without a prompt. I look up into a graying sky, hoping to see contrails or the dark shape of a metal bird.
Ironic, really. That our green statement can only be seen from one of the least eco-friendly industries of all — air travel.
Picture the scene, if you can, if you will. You’re in a jumbo, returning from who knows where, in your allocated window seat. The pilot has just illuminated the fasten seat-belts sign, you’re beginning your final descent, which means you’re pretty much passing over the rooftops of Grafton Heath, heading for the airport that lies between us and the big, bad city. And looking down over those neat, miniature terraces, you would also see all the panels we’ve installed, all at the exact same angle, all pointing the same southerly direction, thanks to those overly pedantic late Victorian town planners.
Not that they might notice, nine times out of ten. A solar panel is pretty much just as dark as the slate roofs they covered. But, if the weather gods favor this particular air traveler (perhaps if they’ve offset their carbon footprint?), if the sun is shining at the right angle, well then. Because the difference between slate roofs and solar panels is that a panel is more reflective than roof tiles. So, at the right time of day, especially in late autumn, all those panels will be bouncing the light back from the sun, each one like a smoky mirror, and the passenger will see exactly which roofs have them, and which do not.
And after a moment, looking down from high above, they’d perhaps realize that there’s nothing at all random about that pattern, and they’ll be able to pick out the design we’ve carefully sketched, one rooftop at a time.
There had been some debate, between Kenny and I, aided or perhaps chaired by Janet, over what we should draw. A big smiley face was the first and most obvious option. Simple and distinctive. But too sparse a design, too few panels required. And while it might raise a corresponding smile in those who saw it, it didn’t actually mean anything.
A slogan, perhaps? “Save the Planet”, or “One World”? Kenny pointed out not everyone flying in would necessarily read English, which might be true, but didn’t seem that strong a counter argument.
And then Kenny and I, and to a lesser but very important degree Janet, got to talking about what it was that was most important to each of us. Football was quickly dismissed, as Janet and I supported different, rival teams, and Kenny was more a fan of basketball.
One thing we could all agree on, though, was mothers. We’d all had them, all loved them, and all missed them, horribly. Kenny had to leave his behind, in the turmoil that dispatched him a couple of thousand miles to the north, the (political) sins of the dissident father brought down upon the head of the son, and he hadn’t been able to return even when she fell ill, even in her currently prolonged infirmity. Before the delights of Zoom and FaceTime, as much as half his early wage packets had gone on long distance phone calls. And now she was threatening to visit, one last epic journey, which seemed to fill Kenny with as much fear as excitement, even though I silently predicted it would never happen.
Mine — well, Covid did for her, the very first wave an’ all. Multiple morbidities. Sounds ghastly, but she only had high blood pressure and type 2 diabetes, and hardly deserved on that basis to be a mere statistic, a hand-drawn heart on a Westminster wall. And Janet, the honorary member of our band of musketeers, had lost hers to the even bigger C, and it was hard, she said, not to blame Covid for that as well, the waiting times for cancer consultations stretching so far that by the time her mum had managed to bag one, it was too late.
So that decided it. A tribute, to our mothers, to all mothers. Since anything too personal would be meaningless to our returning holidaymakers, it had to be universal. And ideally, a tribute to Mother Earth, as well. This self-imposed, looming eco-disaster being a global problem, what then, could be more fitting than a bitmap image of the globe, picked out in re-used solar panels?
And that’s what our passenger will see, if they’re sitting in a window seat on the right-hand side of a plane headed for Manchester International. In autumnal sunlight, particularly around midday, the perfectly aligned roofs of Grafton Heath are going to dazzle.
I shake my head at the thought, hear a low chuckle from Kenny that suggests he’s thinking similar things. It’s not perfect, of course. It’s the globe as usually depicted in the West, contained within a circle one solar-panel wide. Australia is hidden, along with most of China and Russia. The UK, including Ireland, is a mere four panels all in. Africa, Kenny points out, is smaller than it ought to be, because the view is over the shoulder of the world, a Euro-centric globe. Though that was partly chosen so that the only break in the oh-so-precise terraced pattern, St. Winifreds with its tightly packed graveyard, falls neatly in the mid-Atlantic.
But otherwise it’s all there and hopefully recognizable, even on a quick glimpse out of a perspex airplane window. Hubris, perhaps. The ill-fated artificial islands of Dubai spring to mind, abandoned before they were fully built (but after half of them had been sold). This is on a much smaller scale, and at the same time, we’re doing our bit to help our fellow man, to help save the planet, not stamp our mark on it.
As Kenny and I trundle our way back to the council depot, the taste of the first beer already on our lips, a place saved for Janet to join us later, I can’t help but wonder if there are other souls looking down from above on us silly idiots, who might today beam with maternal pride.
Because we made it, ma —
Top o’ the world.
Liam Hogan is an award-winning short story writer, with stories in Best of British Science Fiction and in Best of British Fantasy (NewCon Press). He’s been published by Analog, Daily Science Fiction, and Flame Tree Press. He helps host live literary event Liars’ League, volunteers at the creative writing charity Ministry of Stories, and lives and avoids work in London.