No. 20 Memory

We are happy I think. I can’t know for sure.

I am not entirely confident that I have the emotional intelligence to make the call. I watch other families and compare. We seem to be OK, as far as I can tell. The house smells of toast in the mornings, which I always associate with contentment. We are easy with each other now. The silence that sits between us in the evenings is restful and calm, rather than taut and uncomfortable.

The light fades over the hillside as the last late stragglers make their way back to the rookery, disconsolate cries pierce the still of the evening, offhand flapping of clumsy black wings suggesting some kind of avian existentialism – a statement, about something, possibly.

My memory is shot. I’m missing large sections of my life. I don’t sleep well at night and I often suffer from bad dreams and tantalising partial memories. People say they will come back, but I’m not so sure. It’s been a while.

I don’t know who I am without my memories. For a long time the feeling that I was actually someone else was acute. When I googled it, all I could find was ‘Capgrass delusion’. I looked ok on the outside. I looked just like myself. But on the inside I was different. I was inhabited by someone else, someone hidden from view but ever-present, concealed in hidden memories, secreted in muscle memory or body-knowledge. There was someone else in here, unseen, buried in blood and breath, and flesh and bone.

That began to fade over time. I’m not sure if it was because the new memories I was adding every day were more relevant to my life, more vibrant and immediate than the supposed past memories I could no longer recall, or if it was merely that my new memories were instantly accessible – if I wanted or needed to recall something I would unconsciously always dive into the new memories – so reliable and quick.

I used to be deeply bothered by the origin of any of my habits or quirky preferences. For instance, on week days I love to start the day with an espresso coffee. Why is that? Or more importantly, who is that? Is that my preference, a new preference, or is it a preference grown in someone who now no longer exists, scoured from my brain by the ravages of anaphylaxis?

Whatever it was, whenever I noticed it, I would become obsessed with the question. Whose habit is that, what life events engendered that perspective, that attitude?

Amputees often experience ghost feelings, ghost pains in cremated limbs, vagrant sensations in flesh long since gone to the furnace. I felt a similar thing, ghost associations, phantom recollections – the shadow of redolence in the taste of Shiraz. The sensations of foreign objects triggering strange familiarity, the heft of a nine-iron suggesting past intimacy.

These things drove me crazy. I was hard to live with, I know it. We made enquiries, tried to find out who I was, or whose I was, but nothing came up.

With time the obsession faded. I was who I was, just like everyone else. I was me, whoever that is.

Those first heady days of craziness and fear have passed and with them the extremes of high and low. We are at peace, finally.

She works part time, mornings only, to leave time for everything else she packs into each and every twenty four hours.

She likes to entertain. We often have parties, perhaps not as often as when we were younger, but often still. We cook lamb on a spit and she makes huge quantities of potato salad, tzatziki and an incredible white garlic dip, which should really come with some kind of government health warning, hotter than you would imagine, or expect. The fridge is always filled with homemade garlic sauce and hummus vying for space with the loan ampule of adrenalin she keeps on hand, just in case.

The backyard fills with smoke and the whole place smells of barbequed lamb for a week.

She is of Irish-Greek heritage, born in Melbourne of course, in St Kilda when it was a slum. She is exactly as tall as me, which is tall enough for a woman, but not very tall for a man, and she has a smile that lights up a room.

Lately she has taken to painting and drawing. Never one to constrict her options, she works in oils, acrylic and watercolour, gouache, pastels and charcoal. She produces large quantities of work in rapid succession, each time shaking her head in frustration, standing back, pursing her lips, saying ‘what do you think?’ and then knocking out another one almost before you can reply.

She has talent but no patience, which is unfortunate – but she is improving. She pulls her long hair angrily into a thick bundle and places it savagely between her teeth. She looks quite piratical at these times and I find it is often best to withdraw and put the kettle on.

Her studio is filled with apparent chaos and smells of turpentine. It has fantastic views across western Sydney to the Blue Mountains. It’s too hot to work in in summer and too cold in winter. That’s why she mostly works on the kitchen table and why there is an ancient dried up tube of Windsor and Newton Chrome Yellow oil paint in the cutlery drawer. It stays there now, that is its place. It has gained some kind of totemic power. It cannot be moved or thrown away.

All is not well however, not perfect. I get incredible migraines while I’m awake and vivid dreams when I sleep. At these times I sometimes see a kind of double. I see another now or time or place superimposed over this time and this place. It’s as though I am looking out from the inside of a giant soap bubble, through the swirling, scintillating colours, at another world, perhaps as real as this one, just a micron away, the other side of the shimmering veil.

Occasionally I reach out, trying to break through, hoping to rip apart the veil between the worlds. I have this tantalising feeling that if I just tried a little harder, just stretched a little further, I would tear a hole in the gossamer curtain and it would all flood in, two separate and very different worlds, rushing together.

I see a woman sometimes, dark and slim, younger than me, and a little boy with my eyes and curly hair. There is fear in the image, or foreboding. Is she my mother? Is he myself? There is no way of telling.

I am left nauseous and wrung out. Powerful waves of vertigo overcome me if I shift my head too quickly. Sometimes I am convinced that the visions are real, or represent something real. Lost memories perhaps, or visions of the future or of an alternative reality – I don’t know. I just wish they would go away.

Our first meeting was less than auspicious. I was homeless, unemployed, and penniless. Distinctly the worse for wear having just been treated for anaphylactic shock. I’m sensitive to everything and anything. It will be the death of me I’m sure.

We bumped into each other quite literally, or I bumbled into her, in Canterbury Hospital Accident and Emergency Department. I am profoundly allergic to mould spores and had suffered a massive allergic reaction to something on the skin off an elderly Ugli fruit. I was leaving the emergency room as she was being brought in with an asthma attack. I walked smack bang into her.

She wasted no time in expressing her displeasure at my carelessness, but, as she later acknowledged, I appeared dazed and confused, and she felt sorry for me.

Even today the smell of a fruit market and/or the sight of an Ugli fruit make me sick.

That was ten years ago. Now we have a daughter, and an exuberant chocolate brown ‘Australian Surf Dog’ sporting dashing blonde streaks and devoid entirely of common sense. He is part Labrador and part Schnauzer which means he is energetic, playful, food oriented and insanely territorial. He protects us enthusiastically from anyone and everyone who comes to the house. His name is Schtumpig and he reeks always and unremittingly of dog.

Our daughter is seven years old and reads. She reads all the time. She has twice been asked to leave the local bookshop, where she hides in the corner and works her way through the stock, and she has once been locked in at the local library.

She is named Natasha after her maternal grandmother whom thankfully she resembles not in the slightest. Natasha has thick curly auburn hair, very distinctive.

‘Must be from your side of the family.’ Her mother insists, ‘no one on my side has hair like that!’

We live in a small weatherboard house with a tin roof in a nondescript suburb of Sydney and we have, as has everyone in Sydney, an enormous mortgage.

I work as a building manager in Pyrmont. She got me the job – no previous experience required, which was just as well.

I have a considerable, but essentially useless, knowledge of capital markets, bonds and derivatives and I am an avid reader of the financial pages.  Where did that come from? No point dwelling.

As we don’t have so much as a cent saved I think it is safe to say my interest would not even constitute a hobby.

We love going to the beach with our daughter and the dog, but we never go to Bondi or Manly which are too crowded and commercial. She jokes that I have developed something of a complex about it. We tend to go to Brighton-le-sands as its only takes about twenty minutes in the car.

We are, I suppose, settled in our ways, or becoming so.

Lately, much to my surprise, I have found odd memories popping out unexpectedly. I remember Flemington Fruit and Vegetable Market. I have a sort of a half-memory of being in the market, people swirling around, hundreds of stalls, every kind of exotic fruit, huge piles of Asian vegetables and dried things from all over the world. Somewhere someone is playing Islander music, loudly, on a tinny PA. Very optimistic, heavy reggae beat.

I needed some exotic fruit. It was for a Caribbean Pork Casserole. It suddenly came to me the other day. We were watching one of the endless cooking programs and it just popped into my head, ‘Caribbean Pork Casserole’. Funny, I don’t recall ever eating it.

Curious thing, memory.

Tomorrow, Sunday, we are going to Watson’s Bay for lunch at Doyle’s, Sydney’s premier fish and seafood restaurant. It’s a bit outside our price bracket but thankfully some old friends visiting from Melbourne, are treating us.

‘I don’t know how long it is since I’ve been to Watson’s Bay’ she says, not really inviting an answer. I say nothing. I don’t remember ever having been to Watson’s bay, which, for a Sydney-sider, seems impossible.

I am not a great believer in using GPS. I suppose it’s a guy thing. I pride myself on my knowledge of Sydney, on being able to navigate from anywhere to anywhere without electronic aids.  In order to bolster this pretension I review the route to Watson’s Bay in the Sydney UBD. I find it relaxing to trace the route with my finger across pages, flipping back and forth to find where one suburb joins the other. It seems somehow more real than being told ‘turn left’, ‘turn right’ by a disembodied voice.

I am wiggling along Old South Head Road, my fingernail tracing out the twisting route.

I suddenly find myself talking, thinking out loud really.

‘To be honest, I’m not really happy about it. The trip I mean.’

‘What trip?’

‘To Watson’s Bay. I don’t really like the idea.’

‘Why not?

‘I don’t know.’

‘You don’t want to turn down lunch at Doyle’s surely?’ she is incredulous, Doyle’s is her idea of luxury, we don’t have spare cash for posh restaurants.

I’m not sure what I think, or what to say. I have this sense of foreboding, or something deeper, dread perhaps.

‘I feel uncomfortable about it.’ I venture.

‘In what way?’ She is not yet angry, still more curious than anything else.

‘I can’t explain it. It’s probably nothing.’  The conversation trails off. Neither of us is happy. A sense of malcontent lies across the room, rank as teenager’s socks.

Our friends are arriving tonight, we will meet them tomorrow. We have plenty of cleaning and tidying to do. I am allocated the back and front yards. We have to pretend we live without clutter or mess of any kind. It’s a ritual I think.

I begin to round up the various toys that have been left lying around, a bike, Anastasia’s reading hammock, some kind of sculpture, or possibly an invention, that Anastasia says she is working on. All go into the shed, with a bit of effort. At last I get the bolt closed and the padlock snapped shut. I don’t know why I bother locking it, there’s nothing of any value inside, for that matter there’s nothing worth stealing in the bloody house either. Ah well, another habit I guess. Vaguely, somewhere at the back of my mind the old, unanswered questions rears its ugly head – whose habit? Yours or someone else’s?

Next I go round to the back yard where we grow vegetables in raised beds and put all the gardening tools away.

Are they supposed to think we do it all with our bare hands? Whatever. No point arguing, she’ll just stomp out here and do it all herself, along with everything else. There’s no negotiating with her when her mind is set. Once the bulldozer is engaged you either get out of the way or get run over.

It doesn’t look too bad actually. I collect up a few hand tools and line them all up neatly in the lean-to.

There is an enormous swarm of fruit flies buzzing around the composter. The door is wide open. It’s Anastasia’s job to chuck the scraps into the barrel which, to be fair, she does without too much complaint. She’s not a finisher though, she will always open the fridge but not close it. Same with drawers. You can follow her path around the house by following the trail of items left open.

The sliding door on the composter is stuck. I can’t shift it at all. Well I can’t blame the poor girl for that I suppose. I put one foot against the frame and pull hard. Harder. The damn thing won’t budge, there’s no movement at all.

‘It is a bit stiff.’ I hear my beloved call, helpfully, from the kitchen window.

I try again, pulling with all my mite and main. At last, suddenly, the slider gives. It slams shut with a loud bang and I fall over backwards. A billowing cloud of fruit flies swarms around me, followed by a puff of dust – millions upon millions of tiny particles, spreading in glorious slow motion from the ventilation holes in the large old drum.

I land hard on my back. I am unprepared. The breath is knocked out of me. I hear a gentle giggle coming from the kitchen window, more rueful than mocking.

For a moment I struggle for breath and then suddenly take in a giant lungful – of fruit flies and those infinitesimal slow motion motes.

I struggle to my feet with such dignity as I can muster.

She is watching from the kitchen window, only the shadow of a smile now plays across her generous mouth.

And then it hits me. I am dizzy, struggling once again to breathe. I take two steps towards the windows, choking, gasping. I hear the fridge door bang loudly as I hit the ground. I hear her feet on the steps. The last thing I remember before consciousness fails is the ice cold prick of the needle and the peculiar, unlovely sensation of chilled adrenalin entering my blood stream.

I wake in the emergency room of Canterbury Hospital. My head aches and I feel wrung out, but other than that, not too bad.  My hands are shaking of course and I feel jittery, but that will pass.

‘You need to look into desensitisation therapy.’ I look round. A young Indian doctor is studying my chart.

‘You’re the most allergic patient I’ve ever treated.’ He says, ‘It could quite easily kill you if you’re caught away from medical attention.’ I nod, there’s nothing else I can say really. I’m on the waiting list.

‘It was only your wife’s swift thinking that saved you this time.’ I catch her eye across the room, somber, tender and full of concern.

‘You are right’ I say, ‘I will look into going private.’

The doctor gives us the usual advice and tells us to return immediately if I have any trouble breathing. We say our good byes and thank-yous.

We make our way out of the emergency room into the early evening air. It is one of those glorious Sydney evenings when the clouds spread in equally spaced rows across an azure blue sky lit purple and red and orange by the first rays of sunset.

We are silent on the drive home. She drives, I sit in the back with Anastasia who clings to me like a limpet.

I can feel the start of another migraine. My lips are going numb, my fingertips tingle and bizarre patterns of brightly coloured light flicker before my eyes. It’s going to be massive.

‘Migraine’ I say, a warning. She knows what to do.

‘Home in five minutes.’

By the time we are home I am all but incapacitated. She leads me into the house and puts me to bed. She closes the door silently, returning a few seconds later with some tiny blue pills and a glass of water. I choke them down and lie back in the dark.

‘I’ll be fine in the morning.’ I say, ‘Don’t worry.’

I fall quickly into a deep sleep. I don’t hear her getting into bed.

About three a.m. I wake up and feel my way to the bathroom. I turn the light on, tentatively, not sure if I can take the brightness. I run the cold water for a few moments and then take a glass.

My breathing is fine, my heart rate is normal, I don’t feel sick. I am not blinded by the light. So far so good.

I stare at my reflection in the mirror. I look like shit.

I take another look. I have a sort of double reflection. I see me, as I am now, middle aged and greying, and a younger me, fresher faced, confused, staring back. For an instant, for the briefest flash, there is mutual recognition. I know him and he, me.  And then he is gone from sight, but his presence lingers, somewhere.

I stand and stare at my reflection, examining every feature, every pore. He’s in there somewhere, I known that for certain now. He has revealed himself, in plain sight, for the first time. He’s not getting away now. I must know who he is. I will track him down, no matter what.

It comes as some surprise when, at last, staring into the reflection of my own eyes, asking myself the usual existential questions that the early hours and a close shave with death will drag out, I see him, staring back at me, through the same eyes. I know who he is. It’s clear at last. He is me. But who is that?

We turn off the light and creep back to bed. Dawn is a few short hours away. At last sleep engulfs us.

Morning arrives with merciful gentleness in the form of a big mug of strong Irish breakfast tea and a tender kiss.

I really don’t feel too bad. We have a couple of hours before heading over to Watson’s Bay. I have the time to take one glorious sip of tea before Natasha comes racing in and throws herself on the bed.

‘I’m going swimming at Watson’s Bay’, she says, ‘There’s a saltwater pool.’

‘Sounds great.’ I reply, stretching out for my mug. She shifts on the bed, threatening to spill the tea.

‘Can we go to see the Gap’ she asks with a sunny smile, ‘where broken people throw themselves to their inevitable doom?’

An ancient memory stirs, jarring my subconscious into momentary life.

‘I’ve been to the Gap’ I say, to no one in particular.

I remember the waves crashing maniacally against the rocks. The wind raging in from the endless Pacific. The spume over topping the cliffs with ease, soaking me to the skin, chilling me to the bone. I remember the constant roaring sound, drowning out thought.

I wrap my arms around myself, protection against remembered elements.

‘Did you curse the mother who bore you and consign yourself to hell and perdition?’

‘Where do you get that stuff?’ I laugh, despite myself.

‘A book. When did you go there daddy?’

‘I don’t remember.’

‘Well, why did you go then?’

‘I don’t remember that either.’ A justifiable lie.

My younger self stirs. He remembers all too well, but he is keeping his own counsel.

I jump up from the bed, Irish breakfast tea forgotten, and head for the shower.

Torrents of near scalding water strip away my sins, scouring mind and body, reducing me to whimpering innocence.

At last the sound of someone banging on the door penetrates my stupor.

‘We have to leave in an hour!’

‘Ok’ I shout back, ‘I’ll be right out.’

‘Wear something nice! Your stripy shirt with the button down collar.’

I have my orders.

I make my way back to bedroom, steaming prodigiously, a towel wrapped around my waist,. I don my R.M. Williams – dark brown ankle boots, light brown jeans, a heavy leather belt with an ornate buckle and the stripy shirt with the button down collar – Aussie Chic.

‘You look nice.’ She sweeps into the room, Natasha in tow, ‘You didn’t drink your tea?’ She gives me a sharp look – I always drink my tea.

‘I’m just about to have it’ I say, ‘I thought we were in a hurry.’

‘It’s cold’

‘Nonsense, I’ve timed it to perfection. It’s finally reached the exact right temperature.’

I take a sip. Stone cold.

‘Ummm!’ I manage, as a swig it down,’ Lovely.’

‘Daddy says we can go to the Gap and watch the people throwing themselves off!’

The look she shoots me somehow manages to be both penetrating and inscrutable in equal measures.

‘I did not!’ I almost shout.

‘Oh! You big fat liar, you did so!’

‘I said I had been to the Gap. I did not say we could watch people throwing themselves off!’

She is quiet, for a moment trying to remember what exactly I did say. She gives up at last, memory proving unreliable.

‘Well what’s the point of going to the Gap if you can’t watch the people throwing themselves off?’

‘It’s not like they do it all the time.’ The conversation is getting out of hand, ‘There isn’t a queue. You don’t have to take a ticket and join the line, like at Medicare.’

‘We can go then?’ she has somehow managed a fait accompli, ‘We can go and see where their poor frail bodies are crushed against the rocks?’ A consolation prize at least.

I cast a beseeching look at my supposedly supportive partner, the mother of my child. She steadfastly refuses to be drawn.

‘I don’t know what you’ve been teaching this girl.’ She says, grabbing her smart handbag and wafting out of the bedroom.

‘I haven’t been teaching her anything. If anything, she’s been teaching me.’ I shout after her. It’s pointless. I’ve lost.

We bundle ourselves into the tiny second hand Toyota and I start the engine. I grab the map book for one last check while she, rather ostentatiously in my opinion, turns on the GPS and programs it for Doyle’s Restaurant. It’s about forty five minutes’ drive according to the machine.

We drive in silence until we reach the ANZAC bridge.

‘That where they shot The Matrix’ I say, pointing out an iconic grain store, relic of a different century and another way of life.

‘I know’ Natasha moans, ‘you say that every time we drive into the city.’

‘Load jump program!’

‘You say that too.’

‘Great film, based on the Gnostic heresies you know?’

‘And that’ Natasha and her mother, speaking and laughing in unison.

I navigate the lanes of the Anzac bridge with aplomb and manage to find my way into the cross-city tunnel with relative ease. Next thing we are whooshing out into Rushcutters’ Bay and the eastern suburbs.

The sense of unease that has been stalking me since yesterday is back, grumbling – it hasn’t had its dinner. The watcher inside me is awake too, and alert. As we begin the wiggle through Double Bay and up towards Vaucluse I begin to see older, somehow familiar, images of landmarks, buildings, parks and vistas. ‘There used to be a little clothes shop there’ a tiny voice inside me notes as we exit Double Bay and begin the decent into Rose Bay. Fleeting flashes of what might be memories attend the internal narration – I am picking out a child’s T-shirt, I am slickly changing gears in some flashy car – too brief to grasp, to crisp to deny.

‘I have been here before.’ I find myself saying as we begin the winding ascent to Vaucluse.

‘I thought you said you’d never been over this way?’

‘Well I have’ I am almost whispering, ‘a long, long time ago.’

She is sitting upright now, staring across at me.

‘Are you ok? Do you want me to drive?’

I shake my head, barely able to speak. Images and memories are coming thick and fast now, a snow storm of icy, razor-sharp recollection.

I feel sick. I am afraid I may actually vomit.

‘I used to live here I think’

‘You think?’ she is fully alert now, reflexes tuned and quivering, her instincts are strong.

‘I know.’ I say, my voice cracking, ‘Just near here, on the right somewhere.’

I glance at the GPS. There is small, winding road coming up on the right.

‘Captain Piper’s Road’ I say, more to myself than anyone.

She hears me.

‘Is that where you lived?’ her voice is taught, controlled.

‘Yes!’ I manage, as I wrench the car across the on-coming traffic and up into the narrow street.

Memory and actuality are merging now, catching up with each other, synchronising. I recognise the street, the houses and gardens.

‘Around the next corner’ I am gasping, retching, struggling to breath.

‘What’s wrong with Daddy?’ Natasha has finally put down her book having the noticed the wild swerve across the main road.

We round the bend a little too fast. I stamp on the breaks and the car squeals to a halt partially on the pavement outside a smart little California bungalow. A woman and a boy are just coming out.

Memory is flooding back, what had been a storm of individual recollection has become a flood, the narrative of my life, swamping and filling my consciousness.

I remember sitting alone late at night in my office at the bank. I remember the endless scrolling red on the screen, uncovered positions, loss-making trades, pitiless margin calls – a virulent cancer eating away at my life. I recall the sense of utter devastation and loss. I remember driving away at speed. I remember the Gap. I feel again the heat and sweat of the ascent to the cliff top. My heart is pounding. I pull off my jacket. It is instantly snatched away by the wind and hurled into the gulf. I realise that my wallet and keys are in the pockets. No matter. I see a light across the way. An elderly man is looking at me from his doorway. He begins to walk towards me. I climb over the feeble little barrier and approach the cliff edge. I climb a little way down and peer into the raging waters, all but invisible apart from the heaving white spray. I mean to jump. I tense for the leap.

Courage fails. I half run, half crawl along the side of the cliff into the bushes. I slink away into the night leaving my life behind.

I feel a touch on my arm.

‘Are you ok?’ She is calm, concerned.

I am staring through the dirty windscreen at the woman and boy. They have seen me. They are staring back. The woman is in early middle age, slim, pensive. The boy is about fifteen, he has thick auburn hair, very distinctive.

I open the door and step out into the street. I hear the car doors open and close behind me. For a moment my legs give way. I grab the bonnet of the car. The boy has my face, my eyes.

He looks back at his mother, uncertain. Then back to me.

‘Dad?’ he says.

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