CAROLE JOHNSTONE

British Fantasy Award Winner 2014; 3x British Fantasy Award Nominee

Friday, 11 April 2014

"Your Memory is a Monster...."

A few weeks ago, I bumped into someone I used to know.  Years ago - somewhere between one decade and two - so long ago that our only memories of each other were probably the ones of note, of substance, of event.  And as we stood there, trading accomplishments and talking about our lives and families and home towns and how nothing much ever changes, she said (with a very wry smile), “But you have. You used to be a right cow”.
  
I was surprised, though not entirely.  My most substantial memory of her was a thrown pint of lager all down my best clubbing dress (very short, fake black silk, with big red roses from Top Shop), because I’d snogged the guy that she’d never told me she fancied.  On another occasion, she threatened to knock me out because I’d looked at her funny.  I’d routinely find myself unceremoniously abandoned while she had bad sex with worse men.  And every next day, I was the pointless sounding board to her endless frustrations and hysterical disappointments.  We were friends.  We were that old cliché: the shy, naive, and painfully malleable hick, and the older, street-wiser, and a hell of a lot scarier mentor.  It took me years to extricate myself from her, but not once did I stand up for myself; not once did she shoulder any of the blame.  From both of our perspectives, everything was entirely my fault.
  
And yet she remembered none of that.  But I didn’t get mad.  I didn’t even feel mad.  I felt great; she made me feel great.  Because she hadn’t changed, not one bit.  But I had.  To the point where even she was forced to acknowledge it.  I am no longer the kind of person who would put up with the kind of crap she doled out - not even if she was a stranger, never mind a friend.  And nor should I bloody be.
  
But this post isn’t about that cliché of growing up bigger than your old bully nemesis of old.  It’s about memory, and how it skews your perceptions of people.  Who they were and who they are.  I doubt that she was lying when she remembered me as being the cow in our relationship - if she ever really thought of me at all.  But in my own mind, she has always loomed very large.  So many memories of that time in my life are about her, about us.  And I’ve never again made the same mistakes again because of it.
  
Memory is dangerous because it’s always changing: deleting the bad shit and adding what isn’t true because it suits your subconscious, your psyche, to believe that something must have happened a certain way for A Reason.  We’re always trying to make sense of the random, because otherwise what is the point in anything at all?  How can you develop, change, learn?  If you lie (subconsciously or otherwise) often enough about something, over time even you end up believing it, or at the very least a little doubt creeps in.  The same goes for interpretation, assimilation. Dissemination.
  
Recently, I was trying to write a story that made me think about the really big events - the Firsts - in our lives, and how skewed these big memories might become over time.  How untrue, maybe.  How fictional.  And I thought too about how the same events might be remembered by the other players involved.  How many different memories?  How many different stories?  None of them and all of them, I suppose, would be true, but when you really start thinking about it, it gets weird.  As if we’re all wandering around inside our own lives as parallel universes that almost never coincide.  Especially not in memory.
  
My first love was a boy that I met when I was eighteen.  He was gorgeous and popular, and his pursuit of me was so full on that I never stood a chance.  Our relationship was fast and fun and, to my mind, very serious.  Serious enough that I never cared about our differences, never even considered them.  He was religious and I was not; his family was rich and mine was not; he was confident, always certain and I was not.
  
I can remember the day that he dumped me almost in Technicolor.  It was a Friday.  I had just come out of the shower and my hair was still wet when he knocked on the door.  We had coffee, and I talked about uni; he talked about his new job.  And then he said that he thought that we should split up.  That we didn’t really work as a couple because we were too different and wanted too different things.  I didn’t say much; I was completely blindsided.  He got up from the kitchen table and walked through the utility room to the back door.  I remember that he was smiling when he hugged me, and I was smiling too, or trying to.  And all the while, he was concluding our relationship with a cheerful verbal montage of all the great times we’d had.  The one image I most remember - like a Polaroid snapshot - is him smiling at me, one hand on the already opened door as he said, “And you got me listening to really great music.”  I had, that much is true; before he met me his favourite band had been Mega City Four.  Poor consolation then though.
  
After he’d left with fervent promises to stay in touch that I was at least self-aware enough not to believe, I remember sliding to the floor on legs too wobbly to hold me up any longer.  I remember sobbing so hard that afterwards I couldn’t speak for two days.  I remember running out of the house with my still wet hair (and I was not then and not now a runner), and only stopping when I reached the graveyard around the corner, because I knew it was the best place to fully indulge my sorrow; to sob and sob on a bench, in the rain and the cold, for two whole hours, and have no one bother me.  I was grief-stricken for weeks, depressed for months.  Occasionally I even stalked him and his new girlfriend, until I recognised how much good that was doing me.
  
That is my memory.  I can guarantee that it is not his.  I was not his first love.  I was a girl he once dated.  If he remembers that day at all, it is probably only fondly, hazily.  He is and was not the person that I remember, and I am and was not the person he remembers.  If we ever met again, our conversation would be as stilted and strange and parallel as the one I had with my old friend.
  
The duplicity rather than the unreliability of memory is what fascinates me.  The kind lies that it makes you believe, and the brutal truths that it helps you forget.  One silver lining...I’m almost certain that there’s a pretty good story in that somewhere...

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