Memory: that magic lantern show

I went to visit my Old Lady yesterday and she confesses – as she always does confess – that when she sits in her armchair, sometimes, of an evening, unable to see the television clearly, unable to read – her mind drifts off and random memories come back to her. She sees the exotic places she went on holiday, the adventures she had as a little girl and a teenager, her many cousins and their many wives (all dead now), colleagues she worked with, her parents, her grandparents…

Every time she tells me this she sounds anxious. She has lived a brisk and practical life and I suppose she feels guilty now for daydreaming.

And yet it was good life. She was close to her family, when they were alive. Early on she found a job she enjoyed, worked hard, studied in her spare time and made it into a career. She has had the courage – and the means – to travel widely. She has had the gift of making friends, and now she has a store of colourful memories to dip into.

My Old Lady is a bit of a hoarder, always telling me she intends to have a good old clear out. She never actually succeeds in doing this, but in her regular efforts to do so she happens upon air-mail letters from long dead pen-friends, invitations to dances in foreign capital cities, letters from travel agents in faded type, holiday brochures and envelopes full of dog-eared photographs, and these bring everything back.

Youth is the most beautiful thing in this world – and what a pity that it has to be wasted on children! [George Bernard Shaw]

I suppose it is inevitable that this should be so.

It is better that children start life afresh and that adults are not tempted to describe to them the horrors of old age. It is better that they dance through their childhood under the illusion that life is bound to go on in exactly this sunlit way forever. When I see on the news children in awful circumstances, forced to witness or commit atrocities, converted into adults before they have properly been children, this is what saddens me – that in having their childhood and youth cut short they have also been deprived of their capacity to imagine, and of the memories of Better Days which would have sustained them later, in times of trial and in old age.

So, my Old Lady tells me once again about her Magic Lantern Show and I once again, attempting to reassure her, tell her that something very similar happens to me. I tell her that when I am washing up all those cat bowls of a morning, and gazing out at the garden and the too-long grass, and the dew still on all those fallen leaves and faded hydrangeas, images and fragments of memories flash up, unbidden.

I don’t tell her, but mostly they are unhappy fragments, of my current life at any rate: I don’t seem to have her knack for happiness. But occasionally they are strange fragments – flashes of lives I don’t remember having lived, and faces I don’t remember ever having seen before; even, occasionally, visions of flight, swooping down over lakes or battlefields, or strands of music it feels exactly as if I am in the process of composing. All of which are so brief, dissolving instantly, so that all that is left is an impression, a memory of a memory.

I worked in a call centre for five years or so, at the broken-down end of my ‘career’. This involved sitting on a rickety office chair in a kind of plywood rabbit-hutch for seven or eight hours at a time surrounded by rows and rows of other rabbit hutches. We all wore headset and the calls came in to us automatically.

Our sole task was to persuade people to do market research surveys – no selling involved – but of course people never believed that. And so, every so often an irritable person answered the phone and you had to, basically, read a script to them, asking them if they would like to take part and then if they agreed asking them a whole string of questions so nonsensical that you wouldn’t have been able to answer yourself.

On short surveys it would be seven or eight hours’ non-stop repetition of the same five minute survey. On long surveys it would be perhaps one respondent per hour; twenty minutes of script-reading and typing; nothing to do in between. We were not allowed to read, do crosswords or to write down anything apart from survey-related notes, or a tally of the surveys we had done.

Most people did not last five years. Two years was considered by the employers to be a good innings. Memory, and imagination helped me to stick with it. (I needed the money!) During those hours my mind sent me a constant magic lantern show, like the washing-up show only more so. During those hours whole poems got written in my head, whole philosophies of life were considered, rejected, constructed, deconstructed and modified.

So when my Old Lady feels embarrassed about her daydreaming I want to tell her – but don’t know how – that the Magic Lantern Show is a gift, her reward for a life hard-lived. And when young people complain that they are bored I want to tell them to go out there and make memories, learn stuff, think stuff, see stuff, meet people, have adventures, visit places, take photos, save the tickets, save that straw hat, write a diary, record your impressions and store them somewhere. Make a memory box. Start it when you are seventeen.


I just stumbled across a website called Grasping for Objectivity, written by a 34 year old Mom in Birmingham, Alabama. She works from home as an accountant, blogs on three different sites and (as far as I can see) home-schools her children. She published a list of simple writing prompts she had made for her daughter Ali. A lot of them begin with ‘If…’

There are around 80 prompts, together with Ali’s answers. I thought I would reproduce just a few at a time (otherwise I’ll still be writing the post on Saturday midnight) and append answers of my own.

If I could go anywhere in space I would…

Ali: Go back to irth

Me: Me too. Hopefully there would be breathing apparatus wherever I got sent to, otherwise it would be more a case of floating round and round, forever and somewhat dead.

One day, I want to name my daughter…

Ali: Bela

Me: I always imagined my daughter would be called Jessica, although sometimes I thought Amelia, after a favourite Joni Mitchell song about the aviatrix Amelia Earhart. I could even imagine what she would look like.

One day, I want to name my son…

Ali: Danyl

Me: I never imagined a son, but I think that’s having grown up in a family of three girls. Maybe there is a tendency to imagine your imaginary children as the same gender as yourself, I don’t know.

Next time we go on vacation I hope to get to..

Ali: Swim

Me: I’d just like to go on vacation! With thirteen cats (who would all need to go into a cattery for however long) and no spare pennies, I can’t see a vacation happening anytime soon. However, where I am (fingers crossed) moving to, I shall be within a short bus ride of a good old-fashioned ‘bucket and spade’ seaside resort. I do believe I will make that bus journey and buy myself a bucket and spade, pretending it is for a hypothetical grandchild. When I was a child I had a particular yen for one of those brightly coloured tin buckets you could make sandcastles out of… (second childhood in the offing, obviously).

If I could fly I would fly to…

Ali: The oshin

Me: I think that’s the ocean. Me too, I think – though I’d also like to fly to India, and to  jungle ruins of Aztec civilisations, and to Norway. That might be a bit chilly, though. The old wings might ice up.

I think the world would be a better place if…

Ali: it wod have no bad gis in it

Me: …there were no motor cars and we were all forced to stay put and grow vegetables.

If I were president, I would…

Ali: do wut I’m told

Me: … hide under the duvet and never come out.

If I could have any pet in the world I would get…

Ali: a elafint

Me: A elafint would be a possibility, but what about all those gigantic wees ‘n poos? I mean, one would be forever a-shovelling. Cats aside, what pet? A mynah bird, possibly – something I could pretend was talking to me. My friend Daisy has a parrot and he makes the most apt comments. Sometimes, when unobserved, he laughs exactly like her husband, a big, deep, booming laugh. That parrot actually inspired me to write a short story called Wordsworth’s Little Holiday, which is on this site somewhere. It’s in four parts. I tried linking to the first part, but it caused nasty red writing all over my screen. There’s probably a more technical term for it.

If I had been on Noah’s Ark with all those animals, I would have…

Ali: Fun

Me: …been wondering where the other human was.

If I designed clothes I would make them all…

Ali: Shirts

Me: …bigger than a size 8.

Barley Sugar Sticks

The rock pool is through the village and then a longish way on, hidden in small bit of forest by the side of the road. Archie knows that Ralf thinks Matilda is likely to be there but pretending not to. Hiding in the bushes or up a tree. Wherever girls hide. Ralf didn’t used to be interested in girls. Only last year he said Matilda was a carrot-topped gawk. Gawk was a word Archie didn’t know. Ralf didn’t explain it and of course Archie couldn’t ask.

He did start to speak, his mother tells people, but then he stopped. All of a sudden. Ralf tells anyone who asks that it’s because Archie’s tongue is so big – it gets in the way. Archie can’t explain why because he doesn’t speak, and when you can’t speak it’s difficult to think – not in a straight line, anyway. Everything’s round in a circle, thinks Archie. Sun in the day sky, moon at night. Bicycle wheels, even.

Ralf gets to ride the bicycle. Archie would like to ride the bicycle, sometimes, but Ralf says he’d only fall off and get hurt. Dad made a kind of cart to go behind the bicycle, out of a wooden box, and Archie gets towed about the village in that. It bumps a lot, and it’s splintery, so Archie hangs on to the sides. The village kids laugh as they go by but Archie doesn’t mind. Not much, anyway. But soon he’ll get too heavy for the cart, and then he won’t be able to go anywhere. But Ralf will. He’ll still have the bicycle.

The sun is hurting the top of Archie’s head, his right cheek and part of his neck. Mum just cut his hair short in the kitchen. She uses a pudding-basin for a guide. She won’t let him go to the barber in Comsonley like Ralf and Dad do. All the men come back looking like Hair-Hitler, she complains. Razored back and sides, floppy on top. Ridiculous! The pudding-basin haircut looks ridiculous too, in Archie’s opinion. Just a different kind.

Barley sugar! Ralf shouts – as he always does when they get near to the village shop. Mrs Selby barley sugar sticks are kept in a glass jar on a shelf behind the counter. She isn’t very tall which means she has to reach up for them. Sometimes her blouse comes untucked from her skirt and then you can see an inch of her wobbly middle. This makes Ralf laugh. Archie isn’t much interested in ladies’ middles, but he is in barley sugar. It’s the shape as well as the taste. He wonders how they put those twists in it, like the stair-posts at Grandma’s. He supposes the barley sugar must be soft at some point – then it would twist. But wood is never soft, so how did Grandma manage to twist her stair-posts?

I suppose you’ll be wanting your usual? Mrs Selby enquires, glancing downwards and sideways at Archie but managing to avoid his eyes. Only trouble is, I’m waiting on delivery and there’s only one left in the jar. Shall… he… have it, or are you going to share?  She flicks her eyes at Archie again. The mongol-thing might be infectious, for all she knows. Catch her letting any of her kids share sweets with one of those.

Naked, Ralf jumps into the pool with a showy splash. He’s still convinced that Matilda is watching him from her hiding place in the woods. I spotted a flash of red over there, behind that tree, he whispers. Just like those red shorts she likes to wear. She’s here, all right. Can’t keep her eyes off, I reckon.

Archie takes off his clothes more slowly, sits on the bank for a while and lowers himself into the pond. It is green and cool. Mud squelches and twigs snap between his toes. He can’t swim – Ralf said he’d only go and drown himself, so it safer not to teach him – but it doesn’t matter. the water is cool and sensual against his hot skin. Trees bow in above their heads, a leafy umbrella.

The pool is strange – shallow at this end, deep at the other. Ralf once explained. It’s like a ledge on a mountain. Archie doesn’t know how deep the deep end is and it doesn’t matter because he’s never going to try it. Ralf tells him there’s a monster – like a dragon or water-snake. Like the one at Loch Ness, he says. Archie wonders where Loch Ness might be and whether the monster there would be bigger or smaller than the one in their own rock pool.

After a while, when Matilda – if she is there at all, has failed to come out of hiding – Ralf becomes more reckless. I’m going to dive into the deep end!No, thinks Archie. What about the monster? He shakes his head violently.

Ralf ignores him. He is imagining how he will look to Matilda – his admirer and imaginary audience – as he executes a perfect swallow-dive into the deep end – fearless – heedless of water-snakes and whatnot.

The sun has gone behind a cloud and Archie shivers, imagining his brother poised white and naked on the brink, staring down into the black water. And the monster staring right back up at him, its jaws open wide, showing rows of needle teeth. Archie decides to his eyes. If you shut your eyes you can’t see bad things happen. Scary things go away.

He keeps them shut for a long time, waiting to hear Ralf’s voice – shouting, boasting, and calling out in triumph – but no sound happens. After a long time, reluctantly, he opens them. The sun has come back. In the bushes on the far side of the pool he too thinks he sees a flash of red, but it might be dazzle, or the lights your eyes make when they’ve been squeezed shut. He wonders if Ralf has run away. That’s it – Ralf and Matilda are playing a joke on him, and have run away hand in hand into the bushes – leaving him to worry. Like hide-and-seek. He waits a while longer, then puts on his clothes and shuffles round to the deep side of the pool. He doesn’t want to look, but he does.

A long way under the water he sees Ralf. Ralf is floating, face down and his arm is caught in something – a tree bough, maybe. No bubbles are coming up. Shouldn’t there be bubbles? All is still. Again, something red in the bushes. And something else red, rising in a little vertical stream and spreading out over the surface of the water. Making patterns like oil on the puddles outside Ben’s Garage. After rain.

Archie shuts down. He does that, sometimes, when he can’t work things out. It’s like closing your eyes only on the inside of your head. He makes it all dark inside his head and then, carefully, he picks his way back to the shallow side of the pool. Ralf’s clothes are in a soggy heap in the trailer.  Archie leaves them where they are. It’s as if they’re dangerous. He thinks about taking the bike, but knows he can’t just get on and ride it. It takes practice to ride a bike and Ralf said he’d only fall off if he tried. Ralf is usually right, and Ralf…


But he does find the solitary barley sugar stick. Mustn’t waste it. Waste not, want not. He slots it in his jacket pocket and starts to walk home as fast as he can go, which is not all that fast. He passes the shop just as Mrs Selby is turning the sign on the door found. Open has become Closed. She darts a suspicious look at him from behind the glass. She must be wondering what he’s doing on his own.

Why Ralf isn’t with him.

And the bicycle.

And the wooden cart their Dad made.

Archie knocks at the door of his house. He hasn’t got a key. Ralf carried one for both of them but it’s still with his clothes at the pool. Mother comes to the door and lets him in, and at once the telephone rings. Distracted, she turns back into the hall to answer it. It is Matilda’s mother. Archie doesn’t like Matilda’s mother. Her voice is too loud. There is a long, faltering conversation. Archie’s mother is asking Matilda’s mother a lot of questions but isn’t waiting for the answers. Her face has gone pink and watery-looking. Tears start running down both her cheeks. She looks silly like that. Archie doesn’t like it.

He’s very tired from his long walk, and by now also very hungry, so he fishes out the stick of barley sugar begins to suck. It tastes sweet, as always, but this time salty too, like tears got mixed up with it in his mouth. At the close of the conversation, his mother drops the phone and it swings about on the end of its black cord. She runs back down the corridor and makes a swift grab for Archie. Now her face is red.

Her hand comes down with a crack on the side of his face.