The Gift of Memory By Angus Walker

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Dr Beamish,

Since yours is the name on the paperwork I was given I am assuming that it is to you that I should address this document. Not with any great enthusiasm, I must confess, but Dr Hansted insisted that a commitment to keeping a journal was an essential prerequisite for acceptance onto this trial. Translation: stop whinging or you won’t get the pills. He further suggested that I start each entry ‘Dear Diary,’ but that would be ludicrous, so henceforth I shall be addressing you directly as above.

I asked Dr Hansted why I had to hand the journal in each week, and he replied that you wanted to ensure you had an unvarnished record of the progress of my condition. Translation: don’t try looking back on what you have previously written in order to pretend that your Alzheimers-ravaged brain has retained the memory.

As if I would bother doing such a thing, merely to impress somebody I have never even met, and never will.
Dear Dr Beamish

I no longer have access to last week’s journal entry but I feel that it is perhaps incumbent on me to apologise for its tone. If truth be told I was in a bad mood when I wrote it – consultations with Dr Hansted have been known to have that effect – and I may have come across as somewhat abrupt. The fact is, putting my innermost thoughts on paper for the perusal of another is something that does not come naturally to me, but I shall of course do so to the best of my ability.

Joke: a man goes to see the doctor.
Doctor: “I’m afraid I’ve got two really bad bits of news for you.”
Man: “What is it? What’s wrong with me?”
Doctor: “Well first of all I’m afraid you’ve got cancer.”
Man: “Shit, what’s the other bit of bad news?”
Doctor: “You’ve also got Alzheimer’s.”
Man: “Thank God for that. For a minute there I thought you were going to tell me I had cancer.”

***

Dear Dr Beamish,

According to Dr Hansted my ‘journal task’ this week is to record my feelings about my condition at the start of the trial. Which begs the question, of course, of what exactly you mean by ‘condition’. My ex-wife would say that my permanent condition is a near-sociopathic lack of consideration for others, but then she could hardly be regarded as a neutral witness.

I’m guessing that what you are more interested in is my feelings about my medical condition. Which could be summed up in two words, or three on a bad day – the two-word version being ‘pissed off.’ My condition, if I’m honest, is that of somebody who is listening to a string quartet with earplugs in. Or watching a sunset through dark glasses.

I used to be so proud of my memory, you see. At school I was one of the irritating types who never had to revise for exams— I’d read over something and that’d be it, once seen never forgotten. Until a few years ago you could ask me anything you wanted, from the dates of accession of the Plantagenet kings to the molecular weight of tungsten, and the answer would be there instantly.

Or at least I think it would, because that’s the point. I think I used to have an excellent memory, just like I think I got married too early and divorced too late, had a successful career as a barrister and retired at the age of fifty-five on the last of the final-salary pensions going. But if I try and focus on any of the details I just cannot. It’s like zooming in on a low-res photo: meaningless disconnected blocks.

I ignored it for a while. I mean everyone struggles with names sometimes, don’t they? And if I took the wrong turning on the way back from the shops that was because I was thinking of something else. Nothing odd about that, just part of the ageing process. And it’s hardly surprising I forgot Jack was married. I mean he’s not exactly a frequent visitor. I’m lucky if I get a Father’s Day card and yet I’m apparently supposed to keep up to date with every detail of his relationships.

But it is a problem. Struggling to find the right word is one thing but it’s when you can’t even remember what your own son was like as a child… I saw a father and son in the park the other day. They were feeding the ducks and the kid’s hat flew off and landed in the water. And all I could think was did I ever do that? Was I ever that father, telling his little boy it didn’t matter that he’d lost his hat? Huddling him into my coat while the ducks clustered round.

Still, I manage. And at least I can remember that I have got a son. Not like poor Cynthia in the room next door. I can see it in her face sometimes when her family comes round— pure, unadulterated bafflement. She caught my eye one time and I could see the pleading in it. “Who are these people?” her expression was saying. “Why do they want to know what I had for lunch?”

They brought her granddaughter once. Only about two and she took the newspaper from Cynthia’s bed and pretended to read aloud from it. The parents thought it was hilarious but Cynthia snatched the newspaper away from her and the little kid started crying.

It’s 183.8 by the way. The molecular weight of tungsten. Only I had to google it, and the only reason I even knew I’d mentioned it was because I looked back on what I’ve written.

To be honest I’m quite looking forward to being in a medical trial. It will be my first since the one I did at uni all those years ago. That one was something to do with the importance of REM sleep, though all I can remember is getting a stiffie when the nurse came round.  Hoping to God she didn’t notice. Of course there were always stories around at that time about trials for LSD. So-and-so had a friend whose brother had done one. Urban myths, probably, but I do remember feeling a bit left out, and wondering why my university never did anything cool like that.

In fact you could say that Mnemosynine will be the first mind-altering drug I’ve ever taken, assuming you don’t count alcohol.

***

Dear Dr Beamish,

I was told not to expect any changes straight away and that’s just as well, because today was a bad day. Simone rang up, out of the blue, and for a moment I didn’t have a clue who it was. She had to say her name twice and I pretended the phone wasn’t working properly. Giving myself time to think.

I’m not even sure I mentioned her before when I wrote about Jack. Of course, you will be able to check, because you have my previous entries to go on.

Bastard.

Doesn’t make any difference though, not really. The fact is that my daughter phoned me up and for a few seconds I had no idea who she was. How do you think that feels?

Not your fault of course. And yes, maybe the Mnemosynine will help.

Dr Hansted, being a psychologist, was more interested in my reaction to the call. He wanted to know if I was angry with her for not keeping in touch with me. I told him I didn’t know. I said until this morning I didn’t even fucking remember I had a daughter.

He said he understood why I was getting upset but asked me to keep my voice down.

***

Dear Dr Beamish,

Any improvement yet? I expect that’s what you’ll want to know. Must be nearly a month now, after all, so I imagine you’ll be eager for news. Well I’m sorry to disappoint you, but the patient continued to score well below the age-adjusted norm on the standardised tests. Translation: fuck all improvement, actually. Have you any idea how humiliating it is not even being able to remember a word you were told ten minutes before? Not being able to remember what fucking school your daughter went to? Or how old your son is?

I’m pretty sure I’m no worse than I was (Dr Hansted wouldn’t tell me if I was, but I’d have read it in his face) but I expected more, quite frankly. Not a miracle, but a bit of a glimmer perhaps.

Something to pin my hopes on.

***

Dear Dr Beamish,

Pretty excited today. First tangible signs of improvement. Dr Hansted told me not to get too carried away, but my scores were definitely way better. You’ll have all the records but what you won’t know is how it made me feel. Brilliant, is the answer. Manage to remember eight out of ten words given me at the start of the test and suddenly I feel like Albert Einstein.

I can’t say I feel like me yet, not really. But it’s a start.

***

Dear Dr Beamish,

Ten out of ten today. Impressive, eh? I caught Dr. Hansted looking sideways at the nurse. Maybe wondering if I was cheating somehow, but I wasn’t. “Now, do you remember any of the words I gave you a while back?” he’d said and of course I bloody did! How could I not, with my memory as clear and sharp as winter sun?

And it’s not just the tests. I want to keep my feet on the ground, like Dr Hansted tells me to, but honestly, it’s fantastic. I can feel the improvement every day and it’s like that moment when your ears pop in an aeroplane and you suddenly realise how muffled everything was getting.

I mean, how could I have forgotten Jack was married? I was there! I remember sitting beside him in the church, feeling the pew shake as his leg jiggled. He was always a terrible leg-jiggler, even when he was little.

I can’t at the moment recall Jack’s wife’s name, but still.

Bits and pieces from before the divorce are coming back too. I remember when the nurse gave me Simone to hold. Unless that was Jack. The delivery room was painted pale green and the doctors and nurses were all wearing wellies. I made a joke about that but they’d heard it all before, you could tell.

We had a dog. I used to take it for walks and it would sniff out the smelliest mud it could find and roll in it.

Or was that when I was a kid?

The point is though, I remember it. I remember the way its wet nose would nudge at my leg when it wanted to go out. The smell of its fur when it rained.

I remember it.

***

Dear Dr Beamish,

Do you mind if I stop beginning every entry like this? I know you wanted me to, but it seems faintly ridiculous, that sort of formality.

Dr Hansted wants me to focus on what he calls functional recall. You know, how often I set out to the shops and come back without half of the things I went out for (or without even having made it to the shop, as I believe happened once) and yes, that’s all fine. The magic pills are doing their job, no question. You’ll see it in the test scores, and I can assure you that the effect carries over into real-life situations. Quoting Dr Hansted there, revealing his belief that what he is dealing with is not real life.

But to be frank I don’t give a shit about any of that. Who cares if sometimes I used to make a cup of tea and forget the teabag? It’s the loss of the real memories that was getting to me, because that was the loss of my past. And it’s coming back. Slowly, erratically and not always conveniently, but it is definitely coming back.

I remember the morning I walked out on my marriage. We’d been rowing all night and I’d gone through several bottles. I can’t remember specifics but it would have been about me never being there and how she might as well be bringing the kids up single-handedly. Me telling her how stressful my job was and that if she wasn’t going to support me I’d be better off on my own.

Probably meaning it too, at the time. Stupid prick.

Then Jack and little Simone came down the stairs and Angela started weeping. Jack’s voice, puzzled and a bit scared. In my mind he said, “Don’t go Daddy,” but that’s like a line from a film, so maybe I’m making that bit up.

I do remember that he wouldn’t give me a hug goodbye.

I wonder sometimes whether you have really thought through what you are doing to people when you give them this stuff. They used to say manners maketh the man, but it’s our memories really that make us, isn’t it?

***

I got talking to Dr Hansted after this morning’s session and he told me to treat my newly uncovered memories with caution. I can see what he means of course: don’t want to be living in the past. And yes, I know all memory is a construct, but then all experience is a construct if you go along with George Kelly, so where does that lead you?

So yes, I do appreciate the improvements in the quality of my life and yes, I am looking to the future. I might even consider enrolling as a magistrate, now that I have a realistic prospect of remembering the first day’s evidence when it comes to summing up.

But Christ! You don’t know what it’s like, remembering things at last. Well you do, I suppose, because it’ll be normal for you. Experiencing moments from your own past as if they happened yesterday. As if they’re happening right now in fact.

I was a stupid prick you know. I see that now. I just wonder why I didn’t see it then.

Went through a pretty low patch last week. Considered coming off the medication— jacking the whole thing in and telling you where to stuff your journal. I’m glad I didn’t though, because other stuff is starting to come back too. Real memories that make me realise how much I lost when the Alzheimer’s started chewing up the old brain cells.

It’s not all dramatic stuff either. Just this morning I saw a mum taking her kid to school and suddenly a complete memory came back to me—Simone’s little hand in mine as I walked her to reception on her first day. Telling her it’d be fine and the other children would all be lovely to her and Mary her teacher would definitely take her to the toilet if she needed to go.

I can tell you, that was the most exhilarating feeling I have ever experienced. Just a flash at first and then it built and strengthened, like a photo developing in the tray. Until suddenly it was there, whole and complete and beautiful.

And a couple of months ago I didn’t even know I had a daughter.

***

I may have given the impression in previous entries that my time with Angela and the kids was one interminable argument. But there were the lovely bits, and they’re coming back too. I remember when I first met her; how beautiful she looked. Tall and willowy, in a sleeveless brown and white spotted dress.

I remember once when Simone picked up my copy of the Times and started pretend-reading from it. She can’t have been more than two but the way her little voice chuntered away was hilarious. I remember how I tried to keep my face straight and say, “Really Simone, and what else happened?” while Angela was literally rolling on the floor laughing.

And I remember crouching beside the lake, holding Jack inside my coat as the ducks clustered round us. His body was warm against mine under my thick woollen coat. And his heart-beat was light and quick as he pressed himself close against me. The absolute trust of a child whose father has yet to break his heart.

***

Dear Dr Beamish

Dr Hansted tells me that the trial is to be terminated early so you will have no further use for this journal. He hinted that some subjects have experienced what he called ‘undesirable memory effects’ from the Mnemosynine, but I would like to put on record that I am not one of them. The last few weeks has been an extraordinary experience and I would just like to thank you for all that your treatment has done for me.

I remember when I first met you and you asked me to participate in this trial. Mind you, the fact that I remember it is something in itself, isn’t it? I remember your office, with the framed certificates on the wall. I remember your face and how you smiled at me as you spoke. I remember your voice, wise and gentle. I remember everything. Anyway, you told me not to get my hopes up: “This isn’t a miracle cure,” you said. But I really think it may be, Dr Beamish, because what has happened to me is little short of a miracle.

When I was in my last year at University I got wind of a medical trial investigating the effect of LSD on REM sleep. It was after my finals so I thought what the hell? Not that I told my parents of course. They wouldn’t have approved and they’d have talked me out of it. I’m glad they didn’t though, because it was the most mind-blowing experience of my life. I saw things more clearly than I had ever dreamed of seeing them. It was as if someone had suddenly taken off a blindfold and shown me the reality of everything that had been waiting there beneath the surface all the time and for the first time in my life I felt awake and free and alive.

Recovering my memories has been like that, only better. Because the bottom line is, all I got then was acid dreams. This time it’s reality and that makes all the difference.

###

glasses

Angus Walker

Angus was born in Madagascar and spent his childhood in Aberdeenshire, Berkshire and Argyll. He then worked on a smallholding on the Isle of Mull, an alternative technology workshop in rural Maharashtra and a series of London comprehensive schools. He made it to Headteacher before jacking that in, taking up writing and moving to Sussex. He now lives virtually next door to Virginia Woolf’s old house with his partner Julie (also a writer) and too many cats.

Twitter: @angusdawalker,

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/angus.d.a.walker

Instagram: @angus.d.a.walker

Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

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