FICTION: Available Memory by Joe Devine

I took the day off work today. I fancied a Friday off. I went for a nice, long walk through South London; adrift on a warm sea of toxic particles. It’s been such a lovely, sunny July day, and I haven’t had to worry, or shackle myself to the present. I could slip away. It took me a while to even notice how puffed and itchy my eyes had gotten, or to feel the filthy tickling at the back of my throat. I treasure my obliviousness at times. My talent for escape. It has real, practical uses for me.

I felt tired when I got to this pub; late afternoon dragging its feet into early evening. I like it; it’s old; all buttoned up in wood panelling; segmented by chest-high partitions. You have to go outside and come back in through another door to get to the dining area, which is quieter than the rest of the place. It’s where I’m sitting. I haven’t looked at the menu. I’m not hungry.

There’s supposed to be live bands later. I can see across the bar, despite the partition. There’s kit all set up but no one’s gone near it yet. Instead, there’s quiet pop music, slipping through the tiny speakers mounted high up on the walls; it lingers, like a bored child, beneath the heavy stratum of chatter coming from the after work crowd, all clustered around the island bar, or hunched, inches from each other’s faces, across polished little wooden tables.

I’m far enough away from the noise and the strained, white-shirted press of bodies to revel in my own little space and still orbit the Friday evening atmosphere. A happy satellite with an IPA. I could talk to someone if I wanted to, hypothetically.

I make eye contact with a woman sat a few tables away, eating dinner with a friend. She has blondish-brown hair. We hold each other’s gaze for a wobbly moment. Nausea zigzags through me. She turns back to her friend and carries on chatting. Relief. Two tables over, four men fire off half-sentences at each other in quick little bursts. Garbled. They laugh a lot. Loud laughs that bomb up through their throats; hard and dry noises exiting mouths that need salving with heavy swigs of beer; laughs in danger of becoming coughs.

These people near me, enjoying the warmth of being with friends, it makes me self-conscious: I may be largely content but I am by myself. People can see that I’m drinking alone, while everyone else is insulated by the company of others, even if they’re not enjoying that company, for whatever reason, I can think of a few. And, anyway, when you’re with other people, things can change quickly. You could have the best night of your life. An average Friday could turn into something amazing. People cram into the same places with the same people every weekend, and one of the main reasons is because they hope that tonight will be different and, in some way, memorable. You hope something will happen that pierces the obliterating, boozy fog that usually obscures the whole evening from your mind the next day.

One of the men a few tables away is about to take a photo of his mates. Two of them lean back awkwardly and plant an arm on the shoulders of the friend sat between them; he buckles slightly under the weight. The designated picture taker warns he’s about to snap; they loosen; their natural smiles surprise me. They make a wheey noise, their faces captured in buzzy contortion.

Watching them, the tiredness rises inside me; close to high tide; it laps against the inside of my skull, just below the eyeballs. I can’t keep this kind of engagement with the outside world up for long, especially when I’m somewhere that’s getting busy. I have to drain it. Pull the plug.

My eyes and fingers are drawn to my phone. Among other things, it helps me look a little less alone. It’s just that I’m quite limited with what I can do on it these days. I got rid of my smartphone. It pulled me away from the world too much. Too well. It kept me on a digital string, forever tugging.

Now, I’ve got a little £9.99 phone. A cheap echo of the late 90s. A throwback throwaway. Calls and texts only. It’s got Snake, too; always worth a few minutes of thumb-wriggling bus stop nostalgia. After that, though, I’m reduced to reading through old texts. Mine only extend back to just before Christmas, when I first got it. Small reminders of things I’ve done over the past seven months, refracted back at me through the loose, hurriedly tapped out words of those I care about enough to actually talk to.

The oldest text, from before Christmas: my friend Mark’s birthday. That was a good night, I think. A bit fragmented. It’s hard to put all the pieces back together in my head. We were all a bit split off from each other that night; broken off into little twos and threes, shoulders turned. That’s the way it’s been since, too, with me and my group of friends. We haven’t felt like a solid whole in the way we used to. In part, I suppose it’s nothing more than all our lives just getting in the way. Still.

Then the next few texts: two dates I had with a girl, Yasmina. Where are we meeting? Sorry, running a bit late. Traffic at Elephant and Castle’s so bad. They act as prompts; they mould, into solid, fixed form those slippery half-memories, those images that would otherwise slide loose and misshapen around my mind: kissing Yasmina at the bus stop while Christmas partiers danced past in the sodium yellow street light, bellowing to themselves. It never went anywhere after that. Not that it matters now. It’s mostly forgotten. A shame, though. She was nice.

No texts from New Year’s Eve; it was quite a low key one this year. Plenty from my dad about the cricket around then, though: England touring South Africa; the Boxing Day and New Year Tests. I had lots of time off. I remember lolling in bed, listening to Test Match Special, hungover; sunk in a relaxing fug; no work, no hassle, no one to talk to; the whites of my sheets a tired, contented grey in the porridgey afternoon light.

After that, a bit of a gap between messages. Not a lot until Easter. I was so angry with everything then. I had been for weeks. An argument with Mark, and my friend Chris, they said some things about me; it seems silly now, looking back; a stupid argument; but still, what with that, and stress at work, it was all building up inside me. I had to get away for a few days. Off to walk the Dorset coast. Clear my head. Tread my discontent out into the limestone. Be alone. More than usual. I’ve got a few texts from then that cheered me up, though. Ones that got me speaking to people again. People I’d been avoiding for a while. Texts worried about where I was. And some that made me laugh, too. Ones about Spurs.

Texts like that, they meant more than a cheap laugh. They were little bridges. They helped me cross back over, away from isolation. It’s why I’ve kept them on here over others. My matte-smooth little plastic toy only has so much memory. When I was alone in Dorset, I was sat in a pub doing exactly this: going through my phone; only then I was deleting. No space for new messages. Wiping all the dross from the first three months of the year, when nothing worth remembering happened; when I drifted into an angry distance. It’s just a shame the reconciliation never lasted.

Other people who still have phones like this, do they wipe indiscriminately, or do they do what I do? Do they scroll through and keep what’s evocative? The messages I’ve saved on here have been carefully curated; they remain while the rest disappear. Each surviving text is a key to unlocking some little moment from the recent past that I want to re-inhabit. Slip back into my old skin as I walk alone along a cliff; or stand on the frosty, glistening pavement with Mark, talking at a happy, rapid pace between each sip of beer, oblivious to any signs of a fracture in our friendship. It’s often a strong feeling, or a vivid image, that I initially recall through these messages. Moments when I was very much here. Anchored in the present. I do live in the world around me at least some of the time. And those times, exciting or quiet, can be really worthwhile.

Some texts survive one cull, only to get wiped the next time memory hits full capacity. Whatever it conjured from my recent past didn’t mean enough a second time, not compared with all the others jostling to keep their place. Moments hanging by a thread in my mind, clinging on as data packaged on my phone. The thread gets cut. I’m sure there are great days and nights this has happened to. Not that they’re gone forever, necessarily. Just out of reach for the time being. My own memory’s a bit addled; the constant snowstorm of images, data, stimuli being flung in my face every day, demanding attention.

Nothing saved on here represents a big moment in my life. I can still recall them well enough. Not that there’s been any lately, not personally. There are no references to big world events or earth shattering news stories, either; moments when you turn to other people in shock; and there have been quite a few of them so far this year.

This phone preserves the smaller moments. Their sum total might be greater than all the big events in your life, I don’t know. It seems like I’ve not had to deal with a huge amount of drama so far this year, but I know that’s not the case. My innards feel more strained than they used to.

After Dorset, a few more pockets of activity. None from my birthday, but then it was a low key one this year. The rest are from the summer so far. From my holiday in Portugal. There aren’t many solid moments conjured up this time; too hazy; too lost in a hot, beery fog; drowned in a fishbowl. The happier memories are like that, anyway. I did have a good time with my friends for some of it, for the first time in quite a while. There are texts from my dad asking how I was, asking what the weather’s like compared to London, hoping I’d landed safe. More banal messages. They fire off a blur of inextricable images in my head. Nebulous fun in beachside bars. I should try not to forget what I did enjoy.

It’s the less happy memories that are solid, though. The concrete isolation, so tangible I felt encased; I could still run a hand down my arm and find clumps of grey-brown dust stuck to the hairs. The feeling of loneliness, even with my friends, all seven of us, walking down a cobbled alleyway to the next bar. Me languishing at the back, by myself, angry, while the other six paired off, two couples and then Mark and Chris chatting away, inseparable. The distance between myself and other people on crowded dancefloors. I could twist my body whatever way and still not so much as brush another soul. The arguments back at the villa, the voices rebounding off the tiled stairs; the headaches the next morning and the filthy dehydration; the knowledge that every row was my fault, every time.

The pub has gotten really busy. The ambient chat’s spiked to a bellow in places. Still no sign of any bands turning up. Drinkers have encroached, invading the space set aside for them. Men laughing, drinking loudly; bellies straining, eyeing escape from their white cotton confines.

The louder things get, the more distant I become. It hurls me back, repels me; the swirl of conversation that people whip up, back and forth, it cuts me off; I can’t get through to anyone. I can’t engage or remain in the present for any length of time.

I’d like to think I mostly don’t care how others view me, drinking by myself in the corner. But when I do start worrying, or if things get a bit overwhelming, I can always get away from it. Retreat. I can use my phone to take me somewhere else, and that place does offer respite, at times, and reassurance, but it also reminds me of the very feeling I most want to escape from.

I wish I could just delete most of my messages, despite all the memories they trigger. Ideally, there’d be no room for them on this phone. Even the most evocative would be elbowed out. I’d erase enthusiastically, and use the available memory to store long text conversations with someone; just one person; I don’t know who, just someone I’d like to meet. Connect with. Maybe fall in love with. Dense, excited, tangential messages, articulated by sheer enthusiasm, by the desperate joy of needing to squeeze, to will these thoughts and feelings out of yourself into written form. A desire that seizes you, shoots through your brain, and keeps you glued to where you actually are, in the present, so you can revel in the pleasure of truly communicating with someone, right as you’re doing it, nothing dragging your mind off somewhere else.

At first, these texts would just be short and tentative: setting up meeting spots, times, nothing more than that; and then they’d build into mad, huge, happy blocks on my screen, full of everything I’ve always wanted to share with another person: favourite books, favourite songs, secrets, the stuff I don’t share with anyone now. Excited, candid, reciprocal bursts. Then they’d change again, the messages. They’d be just as passionate, but calmer, less full of the desperation to put your whole self across to someone new, and instead just brimming with quiet understanding; they’d be full of simple questions, how was your day?, content, but forever seeking out more, still showing an intense interest, and even wonder, and surprise.

I want to delete these texts, because of what they actually remind me of, but instead of trying to do anything about it, I just imagine texts that don’t exist. I fantasise about non-existent memories, and what they might remind me of: the opposite of how I feel now; something that I can’t reach because I’m always disappearing off, escaping.

Through a crowd of friends, all laughing by the door, a man walks in, carrying a guitar. His bandmates follow behind him. I think it’s time for me to go.

Joe Devine

Joe Devine lives in South London and is currently working on a novel.

If you enjoyed Available Memory, leave a comment and let Joe know.

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