The Memory Girl by John Asling

Eve is tired, confused. What has just happened, she wonders? She picks up the faded playing cards, shuffles absently, trying to remember the rules.

[private]I spread the playing cards face down on the living room floor and invite granddad Jacob or granddad William to sit on a big fat cushion and flip the cards over two at a time to make a match. I love the exotic scent of granddad Jacob’s cigarettes, the sweetness of granddad William’s aftershave. They smile down at me.

“Play with me. Please, granddad.” I never forget a card. When the matching card is exposed, I pounce. At the end of the game, I have the most pairs. “I won again. I must have a much better memory than you.” I giggle and dance around the living room. I never forget what is written on the chalkboard. When we move to a comfortable borough the teachers wonder if I get too much help. Mum and Dad sit uncomfortably close on plastic chairs in the head’s office, eyes lowered, as the teacher wearing a scoop-necked red jumper struggles to find the right words. Dad smiles gravely. Mum says, “I think you will see that Eve has a rather good memory and it shows in her work.” The teacher nods. In the coming weeks tests come back near perfectly.

I am at the head of the class and have many friends, long-legged youngsters like me. “Come on you guys, you have to remember this. You know it’s easy.” My arm high over my head, I lead the charge to the shade of our favourite tree. “Let’s learn this and then we can play again. In fourteen hundred and ninety-two, Columbus …”

Eve ambles to the ringing telephone, brushing aside her shock of grey hair as she picks it up. It is her daughter Louise. The doctor is not sure, Eve tells her. They need more tests, more intelligence, she jokes, not laughing. She doesn’t mention the incident at the supermarket, losing her car, someone calling the police. She hangs up, thinks of calling her mother but remembers the cancer. When was that?

Dad comes home late from the City. I listen to them, playing it back while clutching my pink pillow before falling off to dreamless sleep.

“I’ve told you it’s only work. Just work, nothing more!” he screams across the living room. The front door slams. Mum sobs in the kitchen, a dish crashes, bits scattering across the new linoleum. Dad moves out. I won’t talk to him, freezing family perfection in my head.

The granddads visit less. Granddad Jacob is in Israel and granddad William is unwell. I pull them into the newly panelled den. “Okay, granddad, time to play checkmate.” We laugh, though they see my puffy eyes. Granddad Jacob’s moves are well orchestrated. Granddad William is instinctive. But his game is fading. I know where the pieces on the board are headed. Three moves. Checkmate! I beat them and the joy returns as I brush back my long black hair.

“You’ll do better next time, granddad. I won’t be so lucky,” I tell granddad Jacob. With granddad William, I am gentler. “You must have been sleepy today.”

Eve fingers through the black spiral phone book. She doesn’t recognise the handwriting. She is looking for Lauren’s number. What is her last name?

I’m excited about university. Lauren and I want to be lawyers, like the ones we see carrying bulging files to the courthouse. “We’ll take on the City,” I tell her over milky coffees in our Greenwich café. Studies go well but I lose interest. There’s something else I want to do. I don’t want to let Lauren down. We were to be colleagues in arms, bringing feminist values to law. Mum and Dad help pay my fees. I don’t want to hurt any of them.

One night I open up to Lauren. Lauren sees it coming. “Eve, with your brain, you can do anything. What do you want to do?” I pull a wrinkled flier out of my tiny handbag: Capture the moment: hold it for a lifetime. It’s for a photography course.

“I just want to try this,” I say.

“Why?” Lauren asks.

“To understand what’s going on in the world, explain it, remember better.”

“No one remembers better than you.”

We laugh.

Eve gets up from the kitchen table. It is littered with playing cards, albums and letters. She stares at a framed photograph on the white living room wall. It is a man. She thinks she knows him.

I meet Alex on the first day of photography studies. He’s tall and gangly, has curly brown hair hanging down his shoulders. We are paired for the first assignments. Alex is an old hand with the technology. I’m a quick learner with a flair for framing the right picture. We wander London’s back streets taking stark black and white photographs of rough Hackney and Brick Lane, colour shots of architectural oddities in Kensington. We become lovers. I land a job with a wire service in Northern Ireland, Alex with a magazine in Southeast Asia. We have sweet moments together in our Greenwich flat, collapsing on the narrow bed, making love before falling asleep, waking again for pizza and red wine.

Granddad William is slipping. He remains physically strong though doctors say he suffers from a dementia that is getting rapidly worse. I bring my camera and some photographs. I take a photograph of him sitting glumly in his simple room in the care home. He smiles faintly as the flash washes his tired face.

He speaks slowly: “They say I am losing my memory. No games for me now, love … I can still remember some things, just not all the time. It’s a bit scary … I can’t remember where I put things, where I was going, what I was … saying. I don’t want to lose my memory. There are treasures … ”

I bite my lip. “And some things worth forgetting,” I whisper. I hug him goodbye.

The image stays with me: granddad William sitting idly in his bleak bedroom without a sense of history. “No games for me now, love.” To lose your memory is a hardship, though there are days …

We have trouble getting time off together. Alex is distracted. I worry about granddad William and grab a flight to visit him, arriving late in Greenwich to crash before heading to the home. The lights are on. Alex has delayed his trip to Vietnam. He is there, lying peacefully on the bare stomach of the child-like blonde who pulls pints at the neighbourhood pub. I run out of the flat and into a taxi. Mum greets me wordlessly, our tears mingling.

Someone’s at the door. A man in a red truck brings a package, a heavy box, stamped with stars and stripes. Eve is not sure whether to open it…

I work feverishly, trying to capture the Troubles. My work wins an award and I’m invited to mount a small exhibition in London. Mum and Dad attend, sitting on opposite sides of Lauren and her poet with mahogany skin. Dad is with another young woman with red lips, Mum alone. They exchange weary glances. I speak briefly to the small crowd.

“We don’t take every word our religious leaders say as gospel, and we no longer treat our holy books as infallible, yet we regard certain patches of land as sacred enough that we kill to keep them.

I hope these photographs give us pause.”

I visit granddad William. He splutters and spits in hideous laughter. I laugh along, wipe my eyes. I give granddad William a photograph of a small girl at a Belfast memorial service, the girl’s eyes somehow wide with hope. Granddad William sits quietly looking at the photograph. He whispers. “I remember you. You’re the one with the photos in your head.”

Eve turns the pages of a fat scrapbook, placing her long finger on a photograph of a veiled woman surrounded by broken bricks. She wonders who the woman is.

I move to the Middle East. A stooped granddad Jacob meets me. He is a widower, his grey beard scruffy. We hug, oblivious to the strangers in the crowded bus station. We sip tea and share finger food.

“Before you begin your work here, you must spend one afternoon with me,” granddad Jacob says.

We hold hands as we wander through the Holocaust Museum, atrocity after atrocity portrayed in understated starkness. We walk in a trance past a mosaic of men, women and children, herded like cattle, guns pointed at emaciated bodies. Heads bowed, we listen to the litany of lost children, birthed for slaughter, now just candles in a hall of horrors.

Granddad Jacob breaks the silence: “You must not forget.”

The Jerusalem bureau is hard work, bureaucratic nightmares, guns and blood. I tramp through overcrowded Palestinian villages and jittery settlements, snapping a child in the rubble, an old man quietly weeping over the death of his family, a woman wailing amid the rubble that was her home. I go to see granddad Jacob in the state home in Tel Aviv. He is frail but his mind is alert. I arrive at dusk and find granddad Jacob sipping a drink in a common room surrounded by wrinkled women competing for his attention. I wheel his chair to a corner.

“I need to talk to you,” granddad Jacob begins. “They say I could die soon …”

“Please, granddad.”

“Listen, my little world-famous photographer –”

“God,” I gasp.

We laugh.

“I’ve been thinking about what I said to you a few years ago.” He wipes tonic water from his lips. “Perhaps I was wrong. Maybe it is better after all to forget. I no longer want to remember … the look on my mother’s face as they took her away, the hunger, brutality.”

I look down at his scrawny ankles.

“Granddad, you have to remember. It’s who you are.”

“I don’t know …”

“I want to talk to you too.”

“What is it?”

“About the Palestinians …”

“No …”

“I’ve learned something of their story. It doesn’t mean we have to forget …”

“No, Eve …”

He rarely uses my name. We are quiet. Can there be a balance between remembering your story and holding a place for the experience of others? I think also of Alex, Mum and Dad.

“Granddad, I’m sorry if I upset you …”

“That’s enough,” he says.

Eve is suddenly scared. What was it the doctor said? She lies down in the tiny guest bedroom in her Greenwich flat. Her own bed is covered in books and newspaper clippings. She leaves her clothes on but takes off her shoes and socks. She is tired but cannot sleep. She stares at the ceiling, cries for no reason, finally falls asleep. She dreams of orchids.

I fly to Africa and Latin America for magazines and development agencies, trying to capture the dignity of women struggling to overcome violence at the hands of their husbands, and the dark alleys they inhabit. I meet a diplomat. He sends bouquets of orchids, jewels. We vacation in the Caribbean. I take an apartment in New York. He says he will leave his wife. I sit in Lauren’s refurbished Greenwich flat, drinking weak tea. “It was a great love, but I wasn’t going to put up with years of grief. I can picture how it would have been.”

I hire an assistant and focus on life with my brown-eyed baby. She is etched in my heart. Louise grows like wild grass; a four-yearold drawing pictures; a fourteen-year-old covered with mud on a rugby pitch; an art graduate in New York spattered with clay.

When Eve wakes, Louise is there, a jangle of ideas, affections and concern. She begins a mental litany of the growing number of lapses, holds her mother close. Together they open the box Louise has sent ahead from the school in America. It is a sculpture, a present for Eve, made by Louise. It is a woman in smooth black stone, stretching her neck backwards as if to remember, yet looking forward, fearless. “I call it Memories,” says Louise.[/private]

John P. Asling was born in Toronto and lives in Blackheath Village in London, where he works as a freelance writer and editor. He has been a journalist on several Canadian daily newspapers and the communications director for an international organization in Switzerland. He has published short fiction and poetry.

Leave a Comment