Posts Tagged ‘remembering’

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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1630020_000I’m writing this for my friend Ken, who died last week. I’d lost touch with him in recent years, then heard he’d fallen ill with vascular dementia. I rang him up last Christmas, but he didn’t know me. He spent a while in a care home in the earlier part of this year, then passed away alone, in a hospital far from home.
Ken was a writer, the first, the only real live writer I have ever known personally. Like me though, he never made his living by it. We worked as engineers and that’s how we met. We began as strangers, peeing into neighbouring urinals. By way of breaking the ice he turned to me and said:
“What I want to know is who’s Armitage, and what’s Shanking?”
I laughed. Oh, how I laughed. Indeed, I laughed my way throughout the 80’s with Ken. And we walked. I didn’t think you could devise a twenty-mile hike in the West Pennines, but Ken managed it. And as he walked, he imparted jewels of quirky wisdom. He came to my wedding, was godfather to my firstborn. Then, he got potted in the great downsizing that began in the nineties. I was devastated for him, but he described it as the best thing that ever happened. It released him from servitude at the age of forty-nine. It got him a pittance of a pension, but enough for him to realize his dream of writing full time, and freedom. You manage he said. I should have starved to death decades ago, but you don’t. You manage.
His cars were always interesting, a variety of makes, though all of them decrepit. The most impressive was a Vauxhall Viva whose gear-box was held in place by rope. The rope gradually stretched, lowering the box to the ground, from which it raised sparks. He generally had warning of this as the gear stick became shorter, and he knew to tighten the rope when he got home.
He could have bought a better car but had this theory about the universe. It only ever gave you so many problems in life to solve. So he preferred to have them contained in one place, in his car. If he’d ever solved all those problems, say by buying a better car, goodness knows where they’d show up next. A bad leg? A bad heart? And fair enough, who’d want to risk that?
He and his good lady read my early stories, were enthusiastic about them, told me to keep going. But he also warned me there was a dark secret to writing that few authors cared to admit. It was that, actually, there was no money in it, even if you got published. Also, you should beware the vanity of authorship. If you wanted to write, you had no choice in the matter, because it was in your blood. That’s all. Some of us were just made that way. Writing shaped our lives, our thoughts, our interests. That was the mark of writing, and its true reward, even if no one else read a single word of it.
It was advice I was a while warming to, because I wanted more than anything to be a successful novelist. I wanted to wear the tweed jacket, and sign books for an adoring fan-ship, in a proper book-scented bookshop. He had that pleasure once, and I was pleased for him, excited for him, but it didn’t bring him fame and fortune. He never courted it, because he didn’t want it.
On hill-walking he held the view that no matter how arduous the climb, the respectful walker never claimed the summit cairn, but veered away from it, as if within reach of the last few feet, you settled back and said: enough. It was the difference between respecting the hill and conquering it. The wise man never sought to conquer it, because that just fed the ego. And if you struggled with that concept, your ego was already too big.
Although a devout Catholic, there was also something of the pagan about him. He saw God moving in mysterious ways. It was his last wish he be seen out by the full-monty of a Requiem Mass. I’m not a Catholic, but have attended a few of those, and for sure that’s a Roll’s Royce of a way to be signed off for the next life. He was denied it though – covid and all that. There were just three people at his funeral. It was a done deal before I caught up with news of his departure, and which is partly why I’m writing this now. I’m sure the universe will forgive the humbleness of his bon-voyage, because he paid it plenty of respects while he was living. I only hope the universe will also forgive my neglect of our friendship in his final years.
The value of a person’s life may not be apparent to that person themselves. Indeed, it would be narcissistic to value oneself. Rather, it’s in the hearts of those who knew them, were guided and influenced by them, either directly or indirectly. Ken, if you’re listening, my friend, you made a big difference to my life. There was always a twinkle in your eye, a sense of irreverent mischief never far from the surface, and always a good yarn. But more than that, you were a steadying hand, a listening ear, and your quirky philosophies were always reassuring that I wasn’t actually as odd as I sometimes felt myself to be, if only because you were much odder, though in a way to be treasured.
I was always better, lighter, happier for an hour in your company. Then, I’d return home with the boot of my car full of rubbish you’d been clearing out. It was ancient books mostly, but once I recall a broken old valve radio no one in their right minds would give house-room. After electrocuting myself on it several times, I somehow managed to restore it. If I still had that old thing now, I’d be tuning in to the static around the names of stations that no longer exist. And there I’d be half expecting to hear your voice coming out of the aether, saying to me:
“What I want to know is, who’s Armitage and what’s Shanking?”
God bless you Ken, you were a legend, and though there weren’t many around to see you off, there were many, many more whose lives were all the brighter for knowing you.

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swiza clock

It was a good clock, sitting there,
On the mantle of my childhood,
Black-cased and glossy
As a piano’s ebony key.

It was the size of my hand,
And a good weight,
With gold fingers, like daggers drawn
On a white dial, peppered with soot.

There it ticked down the years,
Gained ever so slowly,
Was drawn back now and then
To the steadying pips of the BBC.

But in memory it never falters,
Just marks time, those fingers
Imperceptibly moving, scything
A rich harvest of days.

I don’t know where it went, that clock.
I heard it had stopped, was thrown away.
Pity. I would have liked to see
If I could get going again.

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