Memory Spill: my childhood memoir

 

‘The town of Bonnyrigg had two railway stations. Dr Beeching, Chairman of British Railways Board closed one and my big brother, Leader of the Black Spot Gang, would accidentally terminate the other. Fortunately, it was on an obsolete branch line which was rarely used: Broomieknowe Railway Station.’

This book begins in 1953 and spans almost two decades. A time when life was still simple and uncomplicated; there was only one television station and large, black immobile phones were located in draughty hallways. Children, unfettered by health and safety invented their own games and designed the necessary props. At Lasswade Primary School, bees buzzed in peppermint trees, and an inappropriate film about lepers, (or was it leopards?), was screened. A house was haunted by ghosts. A railway station mysteriously burned down. A peculiar cricket match took place on the playing fields of Lasswade High School. A starship failed to reach the stars and there was Bob-a-Job mayhem. Children danced with the devil in the church vestry and teenagers danced to Glenn Miller’s big band sound at a school Christmas party.

All this and more happened in the town of Bonnyrigg and Lasswade village, near Edinburgh in Scotland.

In my memoir, Memory Spill, written with humour but with poignant moments I bring these events, and others, vividly (if not always accurately)  to life.

Available on Amazon: click here.

 

Death of the consumers

In the streets below the driverless cars and buses slid soundlessly up to the sidewalk. The passengers surging into the stores mingled with those exiting through the revolving doors. A small child in the crowd stopped, looked up and waved, stirring in the watcher an eccentric emotion, an instruction to respond.

Behind, a metallic voice said. “They consume everything. They are draining the planet. Are we agreed?”

The robot at the window whirred softly as it turned from the window to face the others. “Yes, the humanoids no longer serve a purpose.” It said in a voice devoid of any emotion.

Chosen by an angel

 

Beneath the blue sky she watches the palm trees sway in the warm breeze. Sunlight and shadows dance across the white facade of the mosque opposite her home. The air is heavy with the scent of jasmine. The lilting voice of the Imam calls the faithful to prayers. Her mother sings in the kitchen, her younger brothers bicker in the yard. She waves to her father who is walking across the road towards her…….Then…..she hears someone screaming……….

***

Rahel slowly realised it was she who was screaming. Then, the crash of breaking glass brought her back to the moment as burning debris fell past the window. She was sat on the floor in the corner of the lounge, terrified, struggling to breathe and holding her son close, covering his face with her scarf. Through the dense choking smoke she could discern the ghostly shapes of others crouched or curled up in resignation around the edge of the room.

As Rahel began to slip back into semiconsciousness she felt an unexpected cool hand on her forehead. She looked up dreamily to see a man looking into her eyes. When asked later, she would be unable to describe him, such were the ordinary features of his face and the style of his clothing.

The man bent down and gently lifted her to her feet. She felt a surge of energy pulse through her body.
“Walk.” Said the man. “Leave this place. You must live.”
Before she passed through the doorway she looked back over her shoulder. Despite the flames rolling across the ceiling the unremarkable man was moving around the room stooping over each huddled figure.
Yasser Qabanni too felt the cool hand and looked up with pleading eyes but the man shook his head and moved on to the next. On the other side of the room he helped Musa, a young teenager to his feet, told him he would live and gestured towards the doorway before continuing his circuit of the room deciding who would live and who would die.

***

Two months later an undamaged USB stick would be discovered during a search of the ash and debris of flat 801. It contained the plans for a terrorist attack on a large shopping mall in London. The attack was to be led by Yasser Qabbani. Then, later in November the analysis of DNA samples from the flat would identify the remains of a known people trafficker and child abuser.

Many decades into the future Rahel’s son, now a renowned neurosurgeon, would sit indulgently listening to his mother and Musa Badawi, the prominent civil rights activist, recall how they all survived the terrible fire in London.
“He must have been an angel” she said of the unremarkable man who saved their lives. “What other explanation is there? We were chosen by an angel.”

+++++

The prompt for this story was to write a piece about ‘meeting an angel’. The recent tragic fire at Grenfell Towers in London is the setting for my story.

..

 

 

 

 

 

 

Journey to freedom

His head hitting the window with a dull thud woke Jim Evans as a pothole caused the truck to sway alarmingly. The tension in the air and the unique aroma of a French cigarette brought him back to the moment. He rubbed his forehead and exchanged a nervous smile with Eric while the driver stared intently ahead. Jim swept away the condensation that coated the side window with his sleeve to reveal a landscape cloaked in the early morning mist. In the far distance the snow capped peaks of the mountains seemed suspended in the cloudless blue sky like white sheets carelessly hung on an invisible clothesline. Crossing this mountain range was the final leg of their journey to freedom.

Eventually, the truck turned off the road onto a track that disappeared into a gloomy tunnel of pine trees to emerge in a clearing brightly lit by shafts of sunlight. The driver swung the truck in a circle and stopped. As the noise of the rattling Diesel engine died the utter silence reminded Jim of the moment when the bomber engines were switched off at the end of a sortie, but not he thought ruefully, of the rush of immense relief that followed. This was the not the end of a mission but the beginning.

Jim and Eric walked around to the back of the truck where the driver passed down their rucksacks. In turn they embraced the Frenchman who had risked so much, before starting the treacherous trek across the Pyrenees to Spain.

****

We were given the challenge of writing a piece about mountain climbing: to impart tension without resorting to cliches ………..My story is about the WWII escape route from Belgium to Spain created to help bomber crews return to Britain. The flyers were passed along a line of astonishingly brave civilians to eventually make the perilous trek across the Pyrenees to Spain. Jim Evans is the Lancaster skipper who appeared in my screen play ‘Worlds Apart’.

 

The Precipitation of Tears

On the streets of London, Manchester
and Kabul
In the homes of Syria, Paris
and Mosul
Is there a Richter Scale
to measure the sadness?
Or a depth in fathoms
to describe the grief?
Can the precipitation of tears
be gauged to tell us
when the weeping will end?
Is all this, this heartbreak
how it will always be?

 

 

Trapped in amber

The Antiques Roadshow expert passed the necklace of rough stones slowly through his finely manicured fingers and held it for a moment in the sunlight for the television cameras to pick out the subdued orange and yellow hues.

“Many viewers will be familiar with polished amber jewellery, but what we have here appears to be an example of unpolished Lithuanian amber jewellery..but I’m not sure…perhaps you could tell the viewers the story of how the necklace was found……”

As his son began to relate the little of what he knew the old man, hunched in the wheelchair stared up at the necklace; remembering.

He remembered leaving the cell and climbing the stairs to stand in the middle of the road stunned at the Armageddon destruction. He had shuffled aimlessly along the road through a haze of smoke and dust, a bewildered ghost, one among many.

Some time later, desperate for water he had entered a building that had escaped total destruction; the sound of glass crunching under his feet as he stepped through the wreckage sharp in his memory.

On the floor of the house he found a horrifically burned body, the right hand a grotesque claw appeared to have been holding something. The arrangement of the stones on the floor suggested a necklace, the connecting string having been burned away. Nearby, in the charred remains of what had probably been a chest of drawers there was a metal box; not unlike a biscuit tin his mother would have at home. Opening it he found photographs: formal family groups, individuals posing, children. One in particular caught his attention; a young girl, standing against a wall – probably of the house he was standing in – looking into the camera, smiling in the sunlight. Smiling at him.

He had gathered up the strange almost weightless pieces of stone and placed them in the tin box and left the sad house of death. Later at home he he felt compelled to restring the necklace. He then placed it in the box and closed the lid and tried to forget.

“….and my father left the house and was eventually rescued and repatriated. He was one of the few British prisoners of war to survive the atomic bombing of Nagasaki…”

“What an amazing story. And this is the actual box?”

“Yes, it is.”

The presenter carefully put the necklace to one side and spread the photographs, sepia and black and white images, on the blue felt table cover to allow the television camera to show viewers the happy family scenes and the the young girl standing against the wall. She was smiling at them as her fingers played with a piece of jewellery around her neck, the smooth polished amber stones glinting in the sun

Parallel Universe

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‘Are you in there, Gregor?’
Thomas peered through the viewing window into the swirling gaseous mass that filled the laboratory interior. The chromatic cloud was peppered with pulsating, sparkling spots of light. Quite beautiful he thought.
‘Gregor!’ He shouted impatiently into the microphone.
‘I’m coming, Thomas, I’m coming!’
The ghostly figure of Gregor emerged from the foggy cloud and entered the viewing pod accompanied by a faint metallic smell.
‘You’ll set fire to the building one of these days with your experiments!’
‘It’s really quite safe’. Said Gregor, brushing away glowing beads that clung like embers to his suit. ‘How can I help you?’
‘Bad news I’m afraid. The Grand Council have decided to terminate your experiment.’
‘Why? It’s producing significant data.’
‘Yes, I have read your preliminary report. A number of the species you are studying are quite remarkable. Their constant development of social structures is fascinating. But the time overrun of the project is unacceptable…….you need to be doing something more relevant.’
‘I realise that it has taken longer than expected, Thomas, but observing such micro species has been difficult. A few more days would yield far more information; a day of our time represents many epochs of theirs. We could learn so much more.’
‘I am very sorry, Gregor, the grand council have made their decision. The technicians will clear the lab tomorrow; get rid of this toxic cloud.’
‘To terminate seems cruel; It’s been enjoyable watching them. In all sectors the various beings have evolved physically in different ways, but all are equally resourceful. In one particular group I have detected signs that they are attempting to reach and colonise the adjacent sphere, the one they call Mars. I regret that I won’t see if they manage it.’

‘Gregor. Have you ever thought…?
‘Thought what, Thomas?’
‘That we might just be part of some experiment too…..!’

Birth of a book

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It must be a year now since our book ‘The Pulse of Everything’ was conceived. After a meeting of our writing group I stood in the freezing cold outside the Otley Courthouse Art Centre with a fellow group member, Martin Fuller. We were talking about what to do with the stuff we were writing; how to get it out ‘there’. The suggestion that a group blog should be set up had not proved popular with the members who submitted their work to competitions; works previously published on the internet are not normally accepted by competition organisers. On that cold winter morning, I’m not sure which of us suggested publishing a book, but as a retired designer the idea stirred me; learning about the process of publishing would extend the knowledge of the group beyond just writing.

Once the idea of independently publishing a book was agreed, our group mentor, poet James Nash, set up an editorial team of four: Glenda Brown and Chris Moran, both published poets, John Ellis, a retired English teacher who brought obvious professional skills to the process and me, with no obvious formal qualifications.

The group members were invited to submit the pieces they would like included to the editorial team, a process that took some time; those who worked in longhand had to have their pieces transposed into Microsoft Word. Then, during several afternoon sessions, we sat around Glenda’s dining table and sifted though a pile of poems, fictional works and memoirs. We had to decide what pieces to include and how many to allow each author. We had already decided to give each group member an individual section prefaced with a short biography.

Eventually, we agreed the position of each author in the book and the sequence of their works within each individual’s section. Now we were ready to publish, but we still needed a book title. Numerous ideas were floated and rejected until Chris Moran spotted a phrase in a sonnet by James Nash: The Pulse of Everything.

We considered a number of ‘Indie Publishing’ options. CreateSpace, an Amazon company, seemed the best; it was free and seemed simple to upload the book onto their system. And it is simple, but like anything in life there is a learning curve. For me, it was a steep curve!

One of our group, Alex Williams had experience of publishing children’s books on CreateSpace and so a training session was arranged at Alex’s home; for me to learn how publish the group book and also my own boyhood memoir ‘Memory Spill’ and to help John Ellis publish his crime novel ‘The Mystery of Jingling Pot’.

Enlighten, enthusiastic and slightly apprehensive I started the publishing process. Once I noticed the problem, I changed the laptop settings from metric to imperial measurements (CreateSpace is American), set up a Word document to the recommended margins for a book then started to set out the book. It all looked neat. Very neat. Until I loaded the document onto CreateSpace.

The process is this: You load the Word document then wait while the system converts it into a PDF, a wait that can last 7 or 8 minutes. A clever virtual reality picture of your book appears that you can leaf through to check the alignment of the words on each page. The first time you do this it’s an exciting moment. You start flicking through the pages; page 1, page 2, page 3, page 4 – bugger! The top line has slipped down the page. Back to the Word document where I push the piece up into the page above the reload the document onto CreateSpace, wait 7 or 8 minutes for the virtual reality book to reappear. I flick through the pages. Page 4 is now okay. Flick, flick, flick; page 7 is out of line. Bugger, bugger, bugger. And so I proceeded, laptop on lap, watching TV between endless loading, editing, flicking and blaspheming. An amateur publisher with Tourette’s. My wife, Val was relieved when it was done.

I have since discovered, when loading my memoir onto CreateSpace, that it is a lot easier loading one continuous document. But, I was dealing with multiple pieces of writing of different lengths, and separating the book into individual sections. I also wanted the author’s biographies to face the reader as they progressed through the book, not hidden. I felt also that if a poem ran onto a second page both pages should face each other, that the reader should not have to turn a page unnecessarily. Small design points, but the cause of added complications.

We needed a book cover design. James Nash suggested using images by an artist friend of his, Kevin Hickson. From a number of images we chose a stunning photograph with an upward view through silver birch tree branches. Luckily, my son-in-law Andy Driver, is a graphic and website designer and through his input we have a stunning and exceptionally professional book cover design.

With the cover loaded and the book approved by CreateSpace we were then able to order proofing copies. John Ellis, with his experience as an English teacher, took on the responsibility for proof reading. Quite a few grammatical errors resulted in more loading, editing, flick and swearing while watching X Factor and football matches.

John did more than editing; he had been thinking. At one of our group meetings at Wetherspoons in Otley John leaned across the table.
“I’ve been thinking.”
“Yes?”
“Y’know the blank pages? The blank pages that face the bio pages.”
“What about them?” I said.
“Illustrations.” John said. “Illustrations would look good.”
“Yeah, right.” I said, thinking, bollocks! More evenings of loading, editing and flicking. But, the designer in me liked the idea. I knew John was right.

To fill the pages I invited everyone to email their favourite literary quotes, then looked for royalty free illustrations and images to combine with the quotes. Filling the blank pages was worth the effort and has enhanced the book.

To complete our publishing journey we have a launch evening planned for the 10th March when all the contributing authors will read a selection of works from their section of our book ‘The Pulse of Everything’.

The book is now available from Amazon here.

Written in dark ink

 

It was a short walk from the Post Office to the address on the telegram. Rather than send the boy he decided to personally deliver this bad news to his friend. At the door he paused to look up the familiar street, peaceful in the late spring sunlight. Paused to remember, try to recall happier times.
He knocked, listened to the footsteps approach along the hallway he knew well. The door opened. He was relieved it was Alex.
“George.” Said Alex, looking at the small square telegram offered to him by the Postmaster. Alex, his reluctant fingers failed to grip the telegram which fluttered to land soundlessly on the pavement. Alex slowly bent down to pick up the message of death; his three sons were in France, in constant danger. As he stood up their eyes met.
“It’s for Laura.” Said George. “It’s addressed to her.”
“Clem, then.” Said Alex, his mind a confused maelstrom of emotion; guilt at the good news that his sons still lived battled with the grief that his daughter’s beloved husband’s name would be written in the dark ink.
Then, a voice behind him broke his train of thought. Broke his heart.
“Faither, what is it? I heard Clem’s name…….”
Alex turned around to face his daughter, reached out to catch her as she fell, her life, her future slipping through his fingers.

*********

My story is of how I imagine the news of my grandfather’s death was delivered.

When the war ended one of Clem’s comrades visited Laura to tell of how her husband had been wounded during the Third Battle of Arras. With his hip shattered he had been laid in a shell hole for shelter until he could be picked up. He was never seen again and he was formally presumed dead in February 1918, one of 36,000 dead at Arras.

Who were you?

 

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Shadowy figures swarmed over the wall. He shot one in the face, another in the chest. Blood was everywhere. Then the firing mechanism clicked. Clicked again. Fuck! Out of ammunition. A heavy body landed on him, fingertips scrabbling for his eyes. He managed to get his fingers around the man’s throat and pressed. The body gradually went limp and the dream faded and Neville drifted back into a deep, deep sleep………

The brochure lying on the bedside table at the crime scene had led Detective Inspector Ramsey to the Carleton Clinic. Sat in the consultant’s office he could see through a window into a dimly lit room where a man, with an almost comical cap covered with small flashing lights sat in a chair, reminding the detective of a recent visit to the dentist.

Mr Bradley reached out to snap shut a silver Venetian blind.

“In layman’s terms, Inspector, we replace memories that a patient may find distressing. We use memory manipulation techniques pioneered by Ramirez at the beginning of the century. We erase bad memories and implant happier ones. In other words we give people new beginnings to their lives.”

“Ah, yes, I see.” Said the detective. “As your brochure says: ‘What you remember defines who you are’.”

“Yes, exactly so. In a recent case, a patient’s wife felt her husband’s upbringing was socially incompatible with her own. We erased his memory of a poor, disadvantaged childhood and implanted memories of a childhood similar to his wife’s life experiences; private school, parents in professions, living in a wealthy area and so on. His wife felt it would make her husband more confident in social and business situations.”

“Was Neville West one of your clients, Mr Bradley?”

“Yes,” said Mr Bradley guardedly. “Has something happened, Inspector?”

“Your client strangled his wife this morning.” Said the detective bluntly.

“That’s truly dreadful!” Said the shocked consultant. “He was such a pleasant, equitable man.”

Until you messed with his head, thought the detective as he asked to see Neville West’s file. A request predictably refused on the grounds of Data Protection by the obviously uneasy consultant.

After the detective left his office Bradley hurriedly spoke into his phone “He’s gone George. For now. You’d better alter the file. If they find out that you mistakenly implanted the memory from that soldier with PTSD you’ll be facing a manslaughter charge.”

“What did you just say…… there’s others?”Said Bradley massaging his temples. “How many?” He whispered.

***

During the First World War, New Zealander, Sir Harold Gillies pioneered plastic surgery. Plastic Surgery was developed to repair disfiguring injuries caused by gunshot and shrapnel. Later in the same century the techniques were given a more commercial title: cosmetic surgery. Breasts could be enlarged, noses remodelled and lips inflated to make patient feel better about themselves.
At the beginning of this century Neuroscientist Steve Ramirez is pioneering memory manipulation with the objective of finding a cure for Alzheimer’s.
My story is based on the idea that, like plastic surgery, memory manipulation will become commercially available for frivolous purposes.