It’s that moment in an i-tunes playlist when a song begins that, not only do you not remember including, you actually do not recognise at all. It is the point on a journey that you have made almost every day for forty years, where you pass a house that you could swear wasn’t there when you drove past this morning. It is the moment when you realise that they have inserted a whole new chapter into a book you have read a thousand times. It is the column of figures that you add up incorrectly a thousand times, making the same mistake on each occasion. It is the point at which you realise that you are perfectly capable of missing the same thing a million times. It is the peeled onion in the fridge that was definitely not there this morning.
I don’t know what it is called, this moment – I don’t even know where it lurks in the shadows of the psyche – but it never loses its capacity to startle. It rests occasionally, biding its time until it knows that it can catch you fully unaware, before dumping its big one on you – the dentist’s appointment that you’ve had for ages, the coat you’ve always had (it’s even got last year’s poppy in the lapel), the scar from an injury you cannot recall – and then it amuses itself trickle-feeding a thousand little surprises into your life over a number of weeks, before it falls back to sleep for a while.
Once it has started its little game, nothing is ever where you’re sure you left it; no instance is quite as you remembered it; nobody’s name is the one you’ve been using for the last fifteen minutes. Don’t worry; this is not ‘forgetfulness’. This is not me descending the slope (yet) towards ‘who are you?’ and ‘where do I live?’ This is something far more calculated. This is what the pixies do when they get fed up of nicking my socks.
The difference is subtle, but I cling to that difference if it might hint that I am not going daft. It does not centre around absent-mindedness – about things that I have lost – it is about things that suddenly appear where they didn’t use to be. It is about the moment you find half a maggot in a just-chomped apple; it is about the message that appeared on your phone cancelling an appointment only after you got there – that wasn’t on your phone when you set off, but somehow found its way into yesterday’s messages; it is the scene in the film that suddenly appears, explaining what you have not understood for years; it is the hole in your pants that wasn’t there when you put them on.
These moments are not even new to me – I have had them all my life. You must all have written a word – a word that you have written a countless number of times before – only to realise that you don’t know how to spell it. Try thinking about how you walk if you want to discover that you no longer can. Try to think about how to swallow whilst you’re eating.
If you’ve been around here for any time now, you might recognise the symptoms, you may already have deduced that I’ve been moving the photo’s again: a thousand crystal clear 6x4inch memories, crisp as the day they were made. Familiar and comfortable… and then a time I do not recall, a place I do not recognise, full of people I do not know, and yet
I am there, right in the midst of them. Was it a moment, so awful that it has been consciously excised from my memory or, perhaps, one so banal that it has simply faded away beneath some kind of shabby-chic chalk wash – with all the accompanying certainty that when all the chic has been washed away, just the shabby will remain. The only thing that convinces me that I am not going mad is that my wife is also on the photo, and she can’t remember it either. Some night that must have been!
Photographs should not be like that, should they? They should be a physical manifestation of a memory – like a scar, but less annoying in the cold weather. If you don’t recall the location in which a photograph was taken, then you should never be on it. Particularly in the company of other people who don’t recollect the occasion either. Obviously we will both remember sooner or later (she sooner, me later) and wonder at our ability to forget such a thing. And then, with a self-deprecating ‘tut’ we’ll put the photo away with a final glance – at which point one of us will say, ‘Hang on a minute though. I don’t remember that castle being there…’