Is This Another Piece of Your Brain?

I’m waiting for the plumber this morning; they were supposed to be here at 8.30 so we got everyone up, used the bathroom, sorted out the kitchen, put water in kettles and jugs, ate breakfast and…. nothing.  It will surprise you not at all to learn that they are now currently half an hour late.  Would it be so difficult to phone and let us know?

So in the meantime, here’s another piece of my brain – or, if you prefer, another instalment of the memoir on forgetting.
I Am The Anti-Proust No. 2

Take this morning. An ordinary day; but before I went out I had to look up a street in this city: this city where I have lived for 30 years, leaving aside a two-year sojourn in Madrid. I have known this city for more than half my life, and I couldn’t remember a street in the centre of it. This upset me because I knew ought to have known where to go: I knew that I knew the way there, but I couldn’t recall it. I remember the facts: I remember that I have lived here for three decades: I remember that I used to know the city centre like the palm of my hand: I remember that I knew the central streets within six months of landing here, and those of my area equally well. I knew which opened onto where and the quickest route from B to A stopping by C and avoiding D and E. I remembered shops and pubs; I could direct strangers like a policeman directing traffic. I was city-omniscient.

Perhaps God grew jealous: for one day she came by with her great cosmic rubber and rubbed it all out. She left me with the broad brush-strokes: I still have the Market Cross and the railway station, the Town Hall and the City Park. But everything else has gone. Not only has it gone, but each time I recover it, it goes again; like a snowflake melting in the palm of my hand.

So what should I do? I guess I could write it all down, catch the facts along with the thoughts and record them – and I often do, though I have to remember that I’ve written it down, so that I can read it and then remember. Sometimes – no, let’s be honest; often – I’ve come across notes I wrote to remind myself about an event which I missed because I forgot to look at the reminder. Yes, a calendar is essential, and one hangs on our wall which I consult every day, sometimes many times a day; and there are other reminders, on facebook, on my phone, on emails. In this way the essential things get done. But the rest is – as they say – silence.

Writing is good for me. I write a lot, but perhaps I should do more; like writing reviews of every book I read or every film I see. I already do a fair bit of this on my blog; but it doesn’t make it any more likely that I will recall the film/book/programme without reading the review – so I have to remember that I wrote it – and sometimes even when I do read it, the memories seem ‘alienated’ as if written in someone else’s hand. They don’t trigger any life in me. It’s not I who was there, but someone else: not me but yester-me, as the Beatles used to say. I remember the song, at least.

Still, the worst thing by far is the fear. When I’m talking to someone and I can’t remember if they’re just married or still married (to who?) divorced or, worse, widowed (did I go to the funeral?) or if I can’t remember their name and I know I should, or if the names of their children escape me even though they were close playmates of mine… that’s when the fear grips me. It’s not only a social fear, though that is bad enough: what people will excuse in a septuagenarian looks like pure indifference in a fifty-one year old. But the fear is also about insecurity: feeling that what seemed to be solid ground is in fact a blanket of loose snow and with one false step you’re in it up to your neck.

As with people, so with places. Finding yourself lost in a city you’ve known and lived in for over half your life is not a trivial experience: it’s a deeply frightening one. Suddenly the pavement melts beneath you; suddenly the road you are on disappears in thick fog and you have no idea where you are or where you need to go. I have phoned my husband (happily, I’ve never forgotten him) in a flood of tears because I was lost, ten minutes out from our front door. And even when he told me once more, with the patience of a priest, which way to go, it still triggered no real memory; no ‘ah! of course!’ like there is with a normal, temporary lapse. The whole path still remained dark to me.

True, I have remembered that these things happened. I can even recall where one such incident happened because the strength of the emotion imprinted it on my mind. And Google Earth helps: it really does. I can stand my little virtual woman on virtual Earth and look at virtual places I know and think ‘Ah, yes – that’s where I need to be.’ The last time I had to find my way somewhere new (that is, somewhere old-new; a place I’d often been but had forgotten) Mark showed me on Google Street View and then painted a word-picture for me (‘when you’re standing here and you look across to there and you see the shopping centre and go up the side of that and it’s on your left.’) And I remembered! And the following week I remembered it again! I felt like Dory in her moment of triumph: it worked! And it worked again! – and again! – and it’s kept on working.

Kirk out