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Posts Tagged ‘memory’

You were standing by the building society in town, where you’ve worked for forty-five years. You wore cashiers’ blue polyester. It was lunchtime, Saturday, closing time, I guess. I’d seen you in there from time to time, those quaint decades of savings books, and mortgages. You served me once or twice, fed my book into the machine, caught up the interest, but did not recognise me. I was afraid of embarrassing us both by reminding you, I mean, with a queue behind. And anyway, it seemed pointless.

“We were at school together, shared literature and Mr H.”

It always sounded a bit weak, when I ran it through in my head, and I didn’t want you to get the wrong idea.

But, though it seems the fates decided long ago you shall never know me, you always meant something. I felt you were a good soul, and more besides. You were a datum, I suppose, one of the beacons in time and space, by which I found my way, from the ways I had already been. I don’t mean this in the romantic sense. I would have liked you to have liked me, that’s all, but I was always too shy, when we were kids, to make friends.

Unlike many of our year, who are now unrecognisable to me, your face hasn’t changed at all. So, every time I see you, I am transported back to when we were both sixteen. You were a bright girl, and you understood all those novels and poems and plays we had to read in Mr H’s literature class, while I struggled. I enjoyed Hardy, and Frost, and Heaney, even though I didn’t understand them the way I was expected to. In time, though, their seedlings would take root and carry me through to other things, things which have been a blessing of becoming. While as for Dickens, I have never forgiven him for being the darkness that blighted the summer of my fifteenth year. Now we’re both pushing sixty-two, you and I, and, forgive me, but I note you’ve filled out a little. Me? I’ve grown bald and deaf, and bottle-bottom myopic. You’d be even more hard-pressed to remember me, now.

I was with my son. We had found a new Italian place in town, and enjoyed lunch, wondered if this could be the start of a renaissance for the town, which has been very much down at heel since the crash, and seemingly getting worse. But there’d still been that ragged old toothless guy, on the car park, begging, so I guess not. Indeed, I felt guilty at blowing so much on a lunch, on a whim, while the beggars are counting coppers. But anyway, we were oblivious of the state of things, for a time, my son and I, bolstered by a lunch that seemed to tip things back towards the way they used to be. We were chatting about the world, about events,… and the sun was shining, and the pink spring blossom was on the trees,…

And then there you were, that magical touchstone. At once, I felt the years, as I always do, when I see you, felt the gulf of them. It was not the gap between us, because we never knew each other, nor aspired to. It was more simply the span of time, an ocean of events tossed and swept under the bridge since our schooldays. I remember bits of them like it was yesterday, and it’s still hard to believe I retired last year. You are evidently still working.

From a safe distance, I paused and looked back, as the Saturday crowds swept by, and I wondered. You were moving away. I saw you leaning into your hip, then, and propelling yourself into the arthritic gait of advancing years, and I felt something give. How could it be you had grown old of a sudden, without my knowing, while I still feel so young? But that’s what souls do, I suppose. They deny the mantle of age, whatever the body says to the contrary. I trust you feel the same, inside, as I do.

Meanwhile, our world has grown old, hasn’t it, while the world, for my son, is still new. Indeed, about the only thing not to have changed for me is that I still hate Dickens. I’d give the guy another chance, except sometimes it’s worth more simply accepting things the way they are, because that’s just the way they have to be.

Anyway,… go well.

Thanks for listening.

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It’s nineteen eighty five, October, a Tuesday evening, and I’m in the Library of the Bolton Institute of Technology, as was. It’s been a long day; ten hours of lectures so far, and another two to go. It’s pitch black outside and raining, and I’m reading something up on the mathematics pertaining to electrochemical erosion. My diary tells me this much. It also tells me that across from me there’s a bunch of girl students in their teens, and at twenty four, I’m already feeling like an old man.

It’s hard to say what attracts a man to a woman other than, like I’ve said elsewhere it’s the reflection of something as yet unknown within himself, though I understand this makes little sense when you play it back. But there’s this one girl in particular and I don’t know why she stands out but she does. She has long, dark hair, wears a denim jump suit with a small enamel teddy bear in her lapel. She speaks to her friends with a soft, Scottish accent, never looks my way, never notices me at all.

Twenty years later she becomes a character in a short story I’ve hawked about pointlessly before sticking it up on Feedbooks – The Man Who Could Not Forget. And, like the man who could not forget, and with a little help from my diary, I have not forgotten her, but it’s not her I want to talk about tonight.

There’s this other girl in the library that night, a psychology student. She’s gorgeous, as all girls seemed to be back then, or maybe, like sunny days, I only remember the pretty ones. I’m up at the book shelves now seeking out another reference, and she comes up to me with a piece of card.

“I want you look at this,” she says. “It’s a picture of two people arguing.”

Thus primed, she flashes this card at me. It shows a cartoon of a black man and a white man. Their arms are out, as if gesticulating. Right. So, these guys are arguing.

She covers the card and asks me: “Which one had the knife?”

There’s something of a challenge in her tone, like she already knows the answer I’m going to give.

I’m confused for a moment, and want to see the picture again, because for the life of me I don’t remember either of the guys having a knife, but I understand this will defeat the point of the exercise. Yet, if there’s no knife, she’s forcing an answer to a false choice. Why would she be doing that? There must have been a knife. I must have missed it. By the way, did I tell you I’m basically this young white guy, and she’s this beautiful Asian girl, with long shiny hair and glittery eyes?

Then it clicks. There was no knife, and yes, she is forcing a false choice on me. I can read her mind, and I’m a bit upset by it. I’m supposed to say it was the black guy who had the knife, because I’m a white guy, and all white guys are supposed to have these prejudices about black guys, or any other guys not the same colour as myself, so even if I’m not sure there was a knife, if I’m forced to admit there was, because she’s saying there was, then I reveal my racism by saying it’s the black guy who had it.

At the end of her survey she expects to count up all the ticks and show a graph that most white guys like me are basically racist. But even in Bolton, in 1985, if racism was an issue, I was unaware of it, but then I had my head in things like Electrochemical Erosion, so maybe it was. I don’t know.

Perhaps I should reverse it, I’m thinking, say it was the white guy who had the knife. Then maybe the girl will think I’m not a racist and might be more inclined to like me, because the goddess is strong in this one and I really want her to like me. But this is too deep, and a pointless application of reverse psychology anyway, one than can only screw up her experiment. The inside of my head is strange sometimes. People think they are sealed up, secret from others, when by the slightest thing they render themselves nakedly transparent.

“I didn’t see a knife. Sorry.”

Her expression gives nothing away. She does not thank me for my participation. I think she’s beautiful and I wish we could talk some more. I manage a smile. It is not returned. I think the experiment was flawed anyway – a definite experimenter effect. I do not ask her if she fancies a coffee sometime. And not because it would be a crass and desperate thing to do in that situation, nor yet because she’s the daughter of another culture and I’m a white guy, because really I’m too naive to take such things into consideration. It’s more that she’s beautiful, and I’m afraid she will reject me.

There was a time when I saw the goddess in all women. She has many aspects, sometimes alluring, sometimes scornful, sometimes challenging. She is the thing that animates a man, but projecting her into the material world renders him vulnerable to the fallacy that women are something other than human. It’s a fallacy that fades with age and experience. A fallacy also that in trying to understand the goddess within ourselves, a man should expect women to know anything about it at all, like expecting the canvas to understand the painting. More likely she will look at him blank, or suggest he goes to see the doctor.

I muddled through my final exams that coming summer – mostly an average student on that course, having reached the limit of my mathematical and technical ability by then. But over the years I’ve found little use for mathematics anyway, that intuition is a surer guide when it comes to the oftimes shady byways of the daemon haunted world I live in now. I rest assured neither aspect of the goddess in the library that night remembers me, and it’s puzzling I should remember them, when there are other human beings I have more reason to remember but do not.

I’m not sure what else I’m trying to say here, except I swear I did not see a knife.

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The concluding part of my story The Man Who Could Not Forget:

In the end, I was disappointed. Lanchester’s prose was convoluted and ultimately banal. Speed reading, I devoured the entire text, looking for just one jewel of home-spun wisdom, but there were none. These were the memoirs of an ordinary, and poorly educated man, the record of an unremarkable life, bloated with pedantic minutiae. Brady and I were of the same mind: fifty pence was about its worth, and I regretted wasting my memory on it.

After finishing the book I dozed a little, only to be roused by a loud rapping on the door. I looked at Clarissa, but she was still sleeping. Thinking it might be an anxious relative, I hastened downstairs to open it.

It was Brady. “I should have guessed you’d be in it together,” he said.

“What? You followed us here? For fifty lousy pence! You’re crazy.”

“It’s the principle,” he replied. “Now, where is it?”

I still had the book in my hands and there was no point now trying to hide it. Brady reached out and took it. I felt powerless to stop him. It was his, after all.

“I don’t expect to see either of you in my shop again,” he said.

Clarissa woke after dawn, looking brighter and fresher. I knew her recovery would be short lived, though. She gave me a tender look when she saw me waiting at her bedside, but became gloomy when I told her what had happened.

I tried my best to reassure her. “He won’t come back,” I said. But she was less concerned about Brady’s visit than the book he had taken.

“I’ll never find another copy,” she said.

I tried to make light of it. “Well, from what I read – it’s not much of a loss.”

“You read it?”

“Cover to cover, while you slept.”

“So you could recite it to me?”

I didn’t like the sound of that. “It would take days.”

“You could do it, though? Word for word?”

“Of course. But it’s dross. Why waste your mind on it?”

She looked at me then, a steely determination coming over her. “I must have that book,” she said.

“Why should I help you to commit suicide?”

“Is that what you think?”

“What else am I to suppose, when you seem bent on burning yourself out? You’re almost there now. Another book will kill you.”

She looked at me curiously. “I don’t keep this knowledge, you know? I pass it on.”

“What do you mean, you pass it on?”

“I mean, literally. To students, mostly,… I’m a tutor at the college. I also do other,… freelance memory work. But you don’t understand, I pass it on directly,… from my memory to theirs – not that they’re aware of it of course. They just think I’m a good tutor.”

She could see I was struggling with this concept, so she enlightened me further. “That time we met, at college, remember? I gave you some saucy images of me, so you’d want to go out with me. They were Polaroids I’d taken of myself. I thought of them, then projected them into your mind. It was cheap, I know, but I was younger then and not so sensitive. Funny, it had always worked on men before.”

I felt myself go pale. Could it be true? Was it possible? Had she really done that?

“I’m surprised you don’t know the technique.” She grew serious then, and drew herself closer. “You don’t do you? You really don’t. You’re still carrying it all with you! Your whole life! But,…. how can you bear it?”

“What choice do people like us have?”

“But surely, you know that in passing it on, you’re relieved of the knowledge yourself? That’s why people like us live the way we do,… so we can put other stuff in there as well – like,.. like,… those bus numbers from last night and any other trifles that keep accumulating. We,…we,… excrete them.”

I shook my head in disbelief at this. “You mean you dump the garbage into other people’s heads? But don’t they know?”

“You jumble it up,” she said. “It’s just background noise to them – and quite harmless,… but to us,… to us, such a relief!”

“But, how is it done? How do choose your subjects? And what do you mean, you project it? You mean like ESP or something?”

“I don’t know about ESP,” she said. “I only know that it’s easy. You can do it to anyone – even a passer by.”

It was a revelation! Such a technique, if true, would extend my useful life to the norm. SO, the obvious question now was: “Can you teach me, Clarissa?”

She gave me a sly look. “Of course,” she said. “Just as soon as you’ve given me Lanchester’s essays.”

“But if you teach me now, I could give you the essays directly, and rid myself of them in the process.”

“It might take months to teach you,” she said, “And those essays are urgent. My client must have them, and soon.”

So we began – me typing out the essays word for word, comma for comma. It was not a difficult task, only tedious, like copying out the pages of a dictionary. Every hour or so, I would produce a sheaf of printouts, which she would then settle down to read. The task took two long days to complete, the last full stop being punched in around midnight. After that I slept on a futon Clarissa had prepared for me in her spare bedroom. I woke the following morning to find her sitting cross-legged on the floor regarding me strangely. Something was troubling her.

“You will teach me?” I reminded her. “You promised.”

“Yes, I’ll teach you. Have you realised though, the price will be your memories? Which ones and how many, only you can decide. Once gone, they are gone forever. I’m worried you’ll be reckless, destroying half your life in an attempt to preserve it.”

“Surely I’m the best judge of that.”

But already I had begun sifting my memories in an attempt to label them for execution. It had been harder than I’d thought. Was it only the good memories that sustained us? The successes? The times of deep satisfaction? Could I safely dispose of the failures? the cringing embarrassments? the heartaches, the insults? or were they as important in defining us? Was Clarissa right? Was there a danger I would destroy my person in an attempt only to preserve its mortal vessel?

She reached out and squeezed my hand. “Of course I’ll teach you.” “Besides you still have pictures of me I’d like returning.”

“Ah no, Clarissa,” I replied, teasing her. “Those pictures have kept me warm for years. Some things I will never be persuaded to part with.”

By now she was almost too weak to leave the house. It was as if Lanchester’s infernal essays had proven too much for her. In the end, I had to drive her across town to her appointment with the mysterious client. I was curious about him – even more so when she directed me through the gates of a geriatric home.

We were greeted at the door by a senior nurse. Clarissa’s client?

“Clarissa, darling. We were worried.”

“It’s fine,” she said. “I’m fine.”

“You have them?”

Clarissa tapped her head. “All in here,” she said. “Safe and sound.”

We were shown along a corridor, the air heavy with a soporific heat, and finally to a lounge whose walls were lined by the vacant expressions of many ancient souls, each one looking up in expectation as we passed. The nurse led us to a frail old guy in a wheelchair, and knelt beside him. He was in a bad way, his skin almost transparent over his bones. I offered him my hand, a gesture he returned by some long embedded reflex.

The nurse smoothed back the thinning remains of his hair. “Poor love,” she said. “Stone deaf,… Can’t even remember his own name any more.”

But I knew it of course. “Mr Lanchester, I presume.”

Now I understood the value of memory. What to me had been worthless, to him was a spotlight, cutting clean through the fog of his decrepitude to the finest of his days, days that had leaked away from him to be gathered into two temporarily stronger minds.

I tightened my grip on his hand, and Clarissa lowered her head, as if to concentrate. Then she sighed and I swear, as I looked into his eyes, I saw a glimmer of light, not much but enough perhaps to sustain him.

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Continuing from part one of my story, The Man Who Could Not Forget:

The bus station café was just across the street. It was not renowned for its cuisine, and even less for its ambiance, but it was rest and refreshment we sought, and she really looked like she needed to sit down. So we sat, and for a while we watched the buses swinging in and out. Her name was Clarissa and her memory was indeed every bit as perversely proficient as my own.

“You were reading art,” she said. “You were writing notes, in green ink. You had a lovely tortoise-shell fountain pen. The ink had stained your fingers.”

“An essay on Monet,” I recalled. “You were reading Wordsworth’s Prelude. You had on a denim jump suit, a blue scarf, and a little badge on your lapel, a teddy bear,… yellow enamel.”

As we continued to compare notes from that brief encounter, I began tingling with anticipation. Clarissa was different from all the other women I had known. We could understand one another, but almost in the same breath I saw the futility of it. A relationship with her was no more likely to succeed than any other. Indeed it seemed twice as likely to fail, neither of us ever able to forget a single word of all the words we might share, and especially the cross ones. As a distraction, I asked her why she had taken the book.

“It’s rare,” she said. “It’s the last copy in existence. I’ve searched everywhere for it and would you believe it? I find it on the day I’ve left my purse at home. It didn’t seem such a dreadful crime – and I was going to sneak it back when I’d read it. As you know, I need only read it once to possess it.”

“Woudn’t Brady have put it to one side for you?”

“You clearly don’t know him very well. I’ve asked him to do that sort of thing before and he’s always refused. He’s not exactly the most obliging of characters.”

“Actually, I do know him, and you’re right. He does have something of a cantankerous reputation.”

“It sounds irrational, but I was afraid it might be gone by the time I came back. You’ve no idea how important this book is to me right now. It’s vital to my work, to my client.”

She took the volume from her pocket and turned to the inside cover where I noted it was a first edition – 1946. Here also, the price was scribbled in the top corner: fifty pence. For all his faults and they were many – Brady did have an eye for a book’s worth. From the looks of it, J. V. Lanchester did not have much of a following.

“There’s one copy of the Lindisfarne Gospels,” I said. “That’s priceless. But this?”

“No, there are many copies of the Gospels – just the one original. But these essays are probably the last existing vessel of this man’s knowledge. Your paintings by Monet, my Wordsworth – those works have been recorded and printed many times and are in the minds of so many people, they will never be forgotten,… but Lanchester’s childhood in a Manchester slum? His experience as an overseer in a cotton mill? His views on social change in the nineteen thirties?”

“But they’re just some dead old geezer’s memories,… they’re not important. They don’t exactly make the world a richer place, do they?”

“Who’s to say?”

She broke off suddenly, overcome by a pain in her temples. She kneaded them with her fists and tried to shake her head clear.

“You’re unwell,” I said. “I should let you rest. Is there anyone I can call?”

“It’ll pass,” She looked at me. “I’m sorry to ask this when you’ve already been so kind but will you walk me home? Please don’t get the wrong idea. It’s just that I’m afraid I’ll pass out on the way.”

“Have you seen a doctor?”

“There’s nothing anyone can do,” she said. “It’s my mind. I’ve been filling it with too many books lately. Now and then it shuts down in protest, or like just now, it threatens to burst open. I’ll be fine if I can sleep a while. So, if you could just see me to my door?”

“You mean you still make a habit of reading books?”

“Of course. Don’t you?”

The thought was appalling. “Not books,… no way. There’s too much information in them. I collect pictures, that’s all. They’re a much more efficient way of saying something. You know? A picture says a thousand words, and all that?…”

It was essential to avoid filling one’s head with too much information. The numbers of the buses manoeuvring past our window? the faces of the passengers gazing back at us? I would remember them until the end of my useful life. And each day added inexorably to the burden, so it was enough without actually setting out to deliberately look for more. With care, I might have another twenty years before my mind burned out. After that lay only confusion in an asylum. Now I understood the nature of Clarissa’s sickness: she was nearing that stage already.

We walked slowly while she complained of dizziness, and paused frequently, crouching now and then on the pavement like a drunkard. Eventually, she led me to a respectable suburb and to the door of a tidy terraced cottage. It was here, while fumbling for her keys she collapsed, leaving me to carry her inside.

The house was impressively neat, though what struck me most, given her apparently suicidal thirst for text, was that there were no books. The walls were white and the floor was bare. There were just a few plain rugs ordered with geometric precision, and some simple chairs. It was much like my own home, nothing to arrest the attention, only blank spaces where one might safely stare and put the receptor circuits on hold.

There was no sofa to place her on, so I took her upstairs to her bedroom. This too was in the minimalist style with a low bed and a plain wardrobe. Everything was white, and without feature. I laid her on the bed, arranging her as best as I could, then sank down in a chair, beside her.

She was such a pretty woman, and we had so much in common, but all thoughts of pursuing a relationship with Clarissa, no matter how sweet, were pointless. We could become friends of course, but I already had a string of women with whom I shared a pointless friendship. I say pointless because all my life, I had craved so much more. Had I not been concerned for her health, had she simply passed out blind drunk, then I would have walked away, never to return, but under the circumstances, common decency obliged me to stay.

Perhaps it was boredom then that had me sliding Lanchester’s essays from the pocket of her overcoat. I admit I was also curious about him and I wondered if there might, after all, be something profound about his insights. I wondered too about the mysterious client she had mentioned. I mean what was so important here it could have driven Clarissa to possess these words at any price? I turned to the first page, and began,…

The Man Who Could Not Forget concludes with part three, tomorrow.

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Another of my short stories from way back, reviewed and rehashed for the blog. Printed here in three parts. Next part tomorrow:

I have a problem with my memory. It isn’t that it ever fails me – quite the opposite, in fact. Indeed, my recall of events from all but the earliest years of my life is photographic. There was little doubt in my mind then, this  woman was the one who had stolen the book. I had seen her only minutes before in Brady’s Antiquarian Book shop, having looked up from my perusal of a box of eighteenth century prints to see her tucking the book down the front of her trousers. It wasn’t something I approved of, but one had to admire her cheek.

It was Brady who raised the alarm and ran out after her. She was on the street in a moment and would have got away, except she blundered into the arms of a passing policeman. It was all a bit of a farce, and might have been amusing except Brady then delved into her clothing to recover the book. I know she’d stolen it, but to my mind, his ungentlemanly conduct trumped her petty thieving, and I found my sympathy siding with the woman.

She fought back, managing to recover the book from Brady, and she kept him at bay, clinging steadfastly to the book. “It’s mine,” she protested.

“Nice try,” he said.

“No, really. I just hid it to avoid confusion.”

The policeman listened to this exchange before asking the woman if she could prove the book was hers.

“Well of course I can’t,” she said. “But can he prove it’s his?”

This was a good point. She had taken the book from the second hand section. The stock there was low grade stuff, and bore no proprietary markings. The constable turned to Brady: “Well, can you?”

Of course, he couldn’t prove it either, but shop-lifters were the bane of his life and I could see he was determined to make an example of the woman. That’s when he turned and jabbed a finger at me.

“He’ll tell you. He saw it all!”

Now, in fact, I had not seen her take the book from the shelf. I had only seen her slipping it down her trousers, so, to the letter of his request, I was unable to help. This may seem a little pedantic, but I felt I did not owe Brady any favours. Many were the times he had asked me, sarcastically, if I’d intended buying anything, this being a barbed a reference to the fact I only ever browsed. He was not to know I did not need to buy his prints, that the act of looking was enough for me to possess them. Also, the affair seemed overblown. The book in question was a tatty volume of essays by one J. V. Lanchester. The fly cover was missing, the spine broken. Why the woman should have risked prosecution for such a worthless thing, I could not imagine.

So, all eyes were upon me: the policeman’s, Brady’s, the woman’s. She looked pale and nervous and, all right, you might be thinking my sympathies were misplaced, but there was more. I knew this woman, and apart from a few wrinkles around her eyes, she looked exactly as I remembered her from our first, indeed our only meeting, a decade ago.

“I really couldn’t say,” I told them.

Brady turned an ominous bright red colour, like he was about to pop his cork. The policeman decided to give the woman the benefit of the doubt and let her go. Then he rubbed salt in Brady’s wounds, telling him off for interfering with the woman’s clothing. I turned to Brady and gave a helpless shrug, at which he gruffly announced he would be closing his shop for the rest of the day. Then he ushered everyone outside.

Walking back to my studio, I thought about the woman. Our encounter had been in the library at the polytechnic, where we’d been students. It had been a wet afternoon and the place had been busier than normal, with very few places remaining to sit. It was thus by chance we’d found ourselves facing one another across a cramped reading table.

I’d found her attractive of course, but I was already jaded by my experience of intimate relations. It’s my memory, you see? Everything is recorded, all the things you normal people are the better for forgetting. Every slight, every cross word, every bitter misunderstanding, they’re like rocks being added one after the other to the sack on my back, and it’s getting heavier and heavier. It’s our nature the negatives always carry more weight than the positives, so is it any wonder then my condition provides so little nourishment for the first delicate seeds of attraction to blossom into something more lasting?

It was for this reason I’d tried to ignore a growing and somewhat irksome arousal, that day in the library, but with little success. Indeed, such was the strength of her effect upon me, I had begun to imagine her undressed and in all manner of lurid poses. I assure you I was not normally given to such prurience. Indeed, at the time I had found the experience rather unsettling and was only able to overcome my distraction by gathering my books and moving away.

And that was it. I did not see her again, until the day of the incident in the book-shop. That I can remember her from so long ago, and after such a brief and, you might say, insignificant encounter is not so remarkable for me since I can bring to mind the face of every person I have ever met. What is remarkable, though, is I was certain she remembered me, and with equal clarity. But, if true, that would have been very strange, wouldn’t it?

As I walked, reminiscing over the incident, I came upon her. She was waiting a few doors down, having flopped onto the steps of a shop. The tatty memoirs were pressed against her bosom. When she saw me, she eased herself to her feet and fell in step with me.

“I should thank you,” she said.

“It’s fine. I saw nothing, really.”

“But I’d like to explain. I mean, I don’t make a habit of this sort of thing.”

She looked away, perhaps reading my silence as disapproval. Then she said what she had meant to say in the first place: “We’ve met before, haven’t we?” She almost whispered the words, as if she couldn’t believe it herself. “I wouldn’t mention it,” she went on, “except I think you might also remember me, which would be rather remarkable, wouldn’t it? I mean, considering how brief that encounter was.”

“We have met, yes.”

“So,… we’re the same, you and I?”

“It would seem that way. I’d no idea there were others like me.”

As we walked, I noticed her pace slowing and her steps becoming erratic, as if she was growing dizzy. Eventually we stopped, and she took my arm to steady herself. I looked at her, wondering about the power of her memory. Could it be true?

“Obviously, we need to talk,” I said.

Part two follows tomorrow,…

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man strolling in a wooded landscape - detail - A A Mills

I lost my friend. He did not die,
He just forgot my name
And now I’m sorry
I let slide so many days.

And then I telephoned, you see?
Brim full of news and guilt,
And thinking to snatch back
Full tilt, those sacks of missing time,
Only then to find old age’s stealth
And the mind’s fragility,
Had of a sudden robbed him
Of both himself, and me.

And falling thus into the void
Was all we’d said and done,
And all we’d seen,
And all the places that we’d been,
And the laughter,… oh the jolliness,
It was gone,
And I was just this stranger,
Cold-calling, on the telephone.

__________________

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tmp_2019020318023776334.jpgThe bothy was built of stone, all randomly coursed, with a chimney and a neatly pitched, though slightly sagging slate roof. The door and windows were in good order, the woodwork showing a recent lick of green paint. It stood a little inland, but still within sight and sound of the sea. At its back rose the darkening profile of the mountain, though the precise shape of it was as yet only to be guessed at, it being capped by a lazy smudge of grey clag that wasn’t for budging, not today anyway.

It was the thing they all came here to climb, a multitude of guide books singing its praises, but I was only interested in it as background. Maybe tomorrow I’d get a better view of it.

It had been a few hour’s walk from the road, where I’d left the car, and a lonely stretch of road at that, five miles of single track from the cluster of little houses down by the harbour, this being the only settlement on the island. Then it was a mile of choppy blue in a Calmac ferry to the mainland, and a region of the UK with a population density as near to zero as made no difference.

It had been a shepherd’s hut I think, a neat little place kept going by the estate, a lone splash of succour in an otherwise overwhelming wilderness, a place that, even then, centuries after the clearances, still spoke of an awful emptiness and a weeping. It’s a scene that remains in my mind fresh as ever, and I have to remind myself this was the summer of  ’87, that an entire generation has come and gone since then who have never seen or known such stillness. But time stands still whenever I think of it. I’ve only to close my eyes and I’m there.

It was clean and dry inside, just the one small room, some hooks for wet kit, a shovel for the latrine, a rough shelf of fragile paperbacks. The floor was swept, a little stack of wood and newspapers by the fireplace, a half used sack of coal, and there was a pair of simple bunks, one either side of the fireplace. As bothies went this was small but relatively luxurious.

I lit the fire and settled in. It was late afternoon, June, cold and blowing for rain – typical enough for the western highlands that time of year.

There were only about a hundred bothies in the whole of Britain, all of them in lonely places, and I’d set myself the task of photographing every one. Don’t ask me why. It wasn’t like I was going to write a book, or pitch a feature to the National Geographic or anything. I’d tried all that, and was already waking up to the somewhat sobering conclusion I was irrelevant in what had become an increasingly hedonistic decade. This  wasn’t necessarily a bad thing because all of that was looking set to burst any day now, and many of us were braced for it, wondering what the hell was coming next.

I’d just turned twenty six, and if I’d learned anything of use by then it was this: establishing a purpose in life was everything to a man, whether that purpose seem big or small to him, or to others, it didn’t matter, and we all get to choose, but here’s the thing: the best choices always seem to run counter to the Zeitgeist, and it’s that problem, that paradox and how we deal with it that writes the story of our lives.

Me? I’d chosen this.

I always shot the land in monochrome because I had a notion you saw more in black and white. I used an old  OM10 with a Zuiko prime lens, still do in fact. But the camera was just an excuse really, like a magnifying glass you use to get a closer look at a thing. I didn’t know what I was looking for exactly, still don’t really, but I’ve a feeling I was closer to it then than I am now, sitting here in 2019, over thirty years later. Now, I’ve no idea where I am, feel lost in time, actually, and finding it harder every day to convince myself I exist at all.

Anyway, I’d gone out and I was squeezing off some shots of the bothy against a grey sea, just playing with compositions and line for the better weather I’d hoped would be on the morrow. And quite suddenly, was so often the way there, the clouds tore open a hole, loosing from the eternal gold beyond stray javelins of what I’d hoped was a revelatory light, touching down upon the water as if to illuminate the very thing I sought. It was all very dramatic,…

And that’s when I saw her.

 

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sunset

The hills do not remember,
Nor these scattered hoary stones,
Nor the foxgloves
Nodding in long sleepy lanes,
Nor the oaks whose leaves,
Turning now their silvered backs,
Anticipate the coming rains,

There is no memory, nor time,
In this hung moment,
As a white, full faced moon rises,
And a fierce heat-wave sun,
Forsakes at last the day,
Tempers its blade,
In a cooling quench
Of sparkling amber bay.

And here I sit, shouldering alone
The burden of this beauty,
Drinking down in greedy gallons now,
My last fill of tranquil air,
That I might remember, and take with me,
This pebble from an aching sunset shore,
Caressed to fleeting prettiness,
By a golden wash of sea.

Caerfynnon

July 2018

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henry cordier

It’s happened to me before, this thing with computers and writing. The manuscript I’ve been working on, maybe for years, gets lost, the file corrupted, the computer hard drive eats its self, the pen-drive fails to connect in the slot at the critical moment, or I yank it out too soon, there’s a power cut,…

It happened with The Singing Loch, The Road from Langholm Avenue, The Last Guests of La Maison Du Lac, and now The Sea View Cafe. Okay, I was able to recover stuff from earlier back-ups, rewrite the gaps from scratch and generally piece things back together one way or the other, but it’s still a blow when it happens. We think to ourselves: all that work? GONE. It’s a very existential moment.

Computers have many advantages, but the most important of them is simply the ability to backspace and delete. Storage is another plus, so I’m not suggesting they’re a bane – they’re not.  I’ve got everything I’ve ever written on a Micro SD card. A novel as a paper manuscript is about a kilogram and a lot of shelf of space. As a computer file, it’s about a megabyte of RTF, which is basically a flyspec. I don’t need a library or a study to keep my tomes or my reference works, which is just as well because my house isn’t big enough.

Some might say it’s a disadvantage, that I might now lose my entire life’s work down a gap in the floorboards, but my house could get burned down, or flooded, and all that paper destroyed anyway. Nowadays, wherever I am, it’s there, and it’s backed up in so many places I’d have to be very unfortunate to lose them all. Computers are a boon to the writer, but like anything else we need to understand the weaknesses of the system, adapt our approach accordingly and never forget it’s the word that’s king, not the tech.

DH Lawrence famously left his final draft of “The Seven Pillars of Wisdom” in the Cafe at Reading Station, never to be seen again. The version that survives is one he cobbled together afterwards from earlier drafts. Jilly Cooper left her only copy of the manuscript of “Riders” on a London bus. It was never found. She rewrote it from scratch, but it took her nearly fifteen years. Robert Ludlum’s first novel “A Literary Effort” was lost “somewhere” in San Francisco during a heavy drinking session. That was never found either, and he didn’t re-write it. Dylan Thomas lost the manuscript of Under Milk Wood three times, the last one being eventually found in a Pub. The manuscript of Carlyle’s “French Revolution” was mistaken for waste paper and burnt,…

It happens. We get over it, we move on.

My advice is never to save your working copy to a computer hard drive, ever, to use removable media instead, say a pen drive or a memory card, make regular backups, guard your primary source with your life, and have it backed up all over the place – say on other pen drives, on your computer, or in the cloud. But regarding the cloud, remember we should never rely on anything someone else has the potential to switch off or screw up. For my works-in-progress, Dropbox provides occasional peace of mind, but that’s all, and of course anything of a potentially embarrassing or explosive nature should never go into the cloud at all – your personal journal say, or your juvenile ventures in writing pornography, even if, or even especially if, it’s encrypted.

It’s not a foolproof system, and no matter how paranoid you are, you’re bound to lose something sooner or later. The first time it happens it’s like the end of the world. You’ve worked for years on this manuscript, and it’s the best of you, and it was going to change the world, have people fall down and worship at your feet, and suddenly it’s GONE, or it’s shredded into fragments interspersed with vast blocks of ASCII. But what you learn from the depth of your despair, and the time it takes you to get over it is perhaps more important than if the novel had been finished and published to resounding applause.

I mean, it’s not like you lost a loved one, is it? It’s not like your soul-mate took off with your best friend, or your house got flattened by a hurricane. These are also challenges in life, and the things they teach us about life and about ourselves are arguably more important. The most we can learn from the loss of a manuscript is to laugh at our literary pretensions. We see our ego, and if we’re lucky we see also how naked and stupid he looks.

My last backup of the Sea View Cafe was in June (I know, shameful!). Fortunately, since I’m struggling to make headway with it at the moment, this amounts to just four chapters, or about ten thousand words. And since I was struggling with it, I’m looking upon it as an opportunity to find a new direction rather than trying to rewrite the chapters from memory. Call it fatalism if you like, or a drastic editorial intervention by the muse, but maybe those lost scenes just weren’t meant to be, and who cares anyway?

Philosophically speaking, writing for the online world, the fact a thing is written in the first place is the most important thing for the writer, no matter if it’s then instantly deleted, and no one else sees it because it’s already served it purpose, to you , the person who wrote it. And if you can’t remember what it was you said, sufficient to rewrite it, or you can’t be bothered, how can it have been that important someone else gets to read it anyway?

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IMG_2745As I sit here in this garden, staring out at the sea, I realise with some disappointment the perfection of the world can only ever be approximated by the descriptive eye. Blue does not describe the sea today, nor any day, nor grey nor green. It is too approximate. The fancy writer can borrow from the artist’s pallet, attempt words like cerulean, indigo or cobalt, but these suppose the reader is familiar with such flowery synonyms and anyway they similarly fall short of being definitive. We also have teal, turquoise, beryl, utramarine, aquamarine. I take a chance on Beryl, but find it comes in two shades – one blue green, like I imagine a clear tropical ocean, and the other closer to sapphire and how I imagine the cold Atlantic on a sunlit winter’s day.

This is a warmer blue, a mid-blue, I suppose, but threaded with sinewy bands of a paler hue, tending towards – all right – towards aquamarine. These bands are also of a finer, smoother texture than the wide expanse of mid-blue which is finely stippled with the grey of wavelets. But in the time I have taken to describe it, it has already changed, a pool of something paler in the broad sweep of the bay opens up as the waters steadies, and the tide slackens. It will be different again in a moment, and in a minute, and in an hour as the light changes and this July afternoon deepens towards tea time. There will never be a moment or day when it is the same as it is now, this moment in time.

On the horizon, gliding south, seemingly on the line between sea and sky, there is a coaster, long and low and white, a handful of pale pixels in the great scheme of things. The sea, this same sea, will be different out there as it butts up against the clanking, rust streaked hull, a different dynamic to the passage of a ship and the turn of water and the way it catches light.

A writer might as well just say the sea was blue, or perhaps grey, if it was that sort of day. More useful is to accept the transience of the moment, its indescribable nature, and instead to read the sea for emotion.

Warm and languid, that’s the North sea on this sunny afternoon, under a long hot, clear skied bake of sun. Just now a pleasure cruiser out of Scarborough, bobs into view. It’s white, with Britannia bunting hung from fore and aft masts, Union Jacks fluttering. It has a jolly, perky feel about it. But when we feel the scene we have to realise we are seeing ourselves reflected in it and that once again we are failing to see the beauty of the world as it truly is, with acceptance and abandon.

I have never seen as many varieties of birds as I have this afternoon, just sitting here in the sun. I have a handful of names for birds but my vocabulary, such as it is is entirely inadequate. I resist the camera. I do not want to capture them for later classification. I try not to want to know their names in case it robs them of their  beauty.

And then we have the scent. To a former anosmic, the reintroduction of scent into the world is a dramatic thing, nothing short of revelatory, and one simply must know the source of every scent as if greedy to restore lost memory. It has a sweetness to it, like a freshly mown lawn, but drier somehow, a little dusty, damp and warm – though how scent can be dusty I do not know. It’s the wheat, I think, the vast expanse of it, like a straw coloured foreground bowl that contains the sea. The wheat is stagnant, stupefied by the heat, animated only by squadrons of wood pigeon that over-fly it in number. It is hauntingly aromatic – haunting in the way it triggers memories of childhood summer dusks at play in harvest meadows, memories forgotten until now, in passing.

Four thirty and the shadows lengthen to a few yards. The eastern face of the house affords cool and shade now. And though I continue to write, to scan my lines, I am not thinking of anything, desiring nothing but the eternal elongation of this moment.

But I suppose I shall have to be thinking soon about what I want to make for tea.

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