Do You Remember?

I sometimes eat Butterkist Toffee Popcorn. It was the sort of thing we would normally only get when we went to the pictures when I was wee. We didn’t often go as a family because there were lots of us so it would have been expensive and dad worked shifts as a polis so we would seldom have weekend evenings together for a trip to the cinema in Edinburgh. Finally, my mum only learned to drive when I was in my early teens. Still, we’d go to the NPH in St Andrews when we were on our hols in Fife and the weather was too Fifey to do anything outside.

I remember one trip across from St Andrews to Lundin Links in a more than usually Scottish thunderstorm. There were almost two very Catholic families crammed into a Volkswagen Beetle. We were like one of those record attempts where students would see how many people they could cram into a small car to raise money for charity but we were doing it to get fish suppers. Anyway, one Beetle, lots of noisy kids, several stressed out adults, rain stotting knee-high and arm-thick off the road, lightning flashing all over the place, and my grandmother yelling at us not to touch the sides of the car in case we were struck by lightning.

There is something about the smell of Butterkist. It has a sweaty, sweet smell sometimes that reminds me of something else and I can’t quite place what that is. There are loads of things like that, smells and tastes which trigger a hazy memory and nothing you do can drag the rest of the memory out into consciousness. The synaesthesia doesn’t quite kick in all the way. You taste the madeleines and there’s something there but it’s not enough. The messages go from the tip of the tongue to the back of the mind and get stuck.

There’s a spice I can’t quite identify but it’s in some curries and it’s another of those subtle tastes which almost trigger memories. Maybe it’s not a single spice. Maybe it’s a combination of them. Asafoetida does odd things to other tastes but I like adding it to my curries. I just have to remember to keep the jar tighly sealed, inside a Tupperware box which I bury in the back garden. I can’t describe the flavour because it flits chaotically across my memory, a butterfly sent hither and yon by the currents of other, stronger thoughts. I can’t even tell you the last time I tasted it or what I was eating, just that something almost tripped the switch in my head.

Do you ever feel something in your shoe on a long walk on a cold or wet day? You put up with it because it’s not quite annoying or painful enough for you to go through the faff of finding somewhere sheltered to remove your boot and sock. Nonetheless, finally you find somewhere out of the wind and rain, remove your rucksack, loosen the laces on your boot getting mud all over your hands in the process, take off the boot, waggle your foot in the air so you don’t get your sock wet in the puddles on the ground while you take it off only to find bugger all there. That. That’s the search for that memory. I’m not sure there’s anything really there at all.

I am sometimes surprised that really obvious things aren’t more memorable. Scotch Abernethy biscuits are much sweeter and crisper than ordinary digestives but they leave a particular paste and taste across the roof of my mouth and it’s not completely pleasant. It’s why I don’t have them very often but every now and again I’ll forget that and buy a packet because they go very well with a glass of milk as a nice wee afternoon snackette. I remember I like that but not the slighltly offputting mouth feel.

The trouble for me with talking about memories is that mine isn’t great. I forget names and titles of books very easily. I have picked the wrong sport to follow. Athletics is one sport but it’s so many different disciplines. I have trouble remembering the names of even my athletic heroes. It took me ten minutes to remember Michael Johnson’s name yesterday. I had to go an look stuff up to be sure of his name. I can’t always remember who does what, even if I have a vivid visual memory of an event or a perfomance. I’ve talked before about all the labels falling from the memory so I can’t tell you the identity of someone even if I know exactly who they are and what they’ve done.

I’m off to reinforce some memories now by rewatching The West Wing. That’s apparently what we need to do to make sure memories hang around for longer. While I write, I’m listening to The Buena Vista Social Club which is triggering memories from years ago when my ex used to sing along to Omara Portuondo singing Besame Mucho on a Saturday evening in the house we shared in Oxford. It’s a surprisingly sweet memory to end on.

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I have books all over the place. They are in piles by and under the bed, in boxes all over the house, on the shelves in the living room, in Anne’s wee office and the dining room where I have my workspace. They are also all over the dining room table, in piles as high as your head. The ones I am reading just now have bookmarks in them of various kinds.

Last spring I was in Paris for the marathon. I bought a couple of books in St Pancras on the way to the train. One was a book on the the Mongol Empire. I read it over the course of my trip and it now has a Paris Metro ticket slipped into its final pages. It’s one of those 10-trip carnets you can buy for about sixteen euros and I used each of the trips over the four days I was away. I used all of them and more, in fact. There’s another book somewhere in the house with another Metro ticket in it but I can’t remember which was the second book I bought while I was away so I have no idea where that ticket is.

Italy is good for train tickets. The trains aren’t very expensive and the tickets make for good bookmarks. They’re longer than most paperbacks and pole out the top and bottom like a tall man in a short bed. The first one you buy ends up tattered and battered after a few days’ service. You have to remember to validate the tickets in the machines by the platforms or you could face a fine if you come across an inspector. The one time I did encounter an inspector I had of course forgotten to validate my ticket. I was saved from a fine by his unpleasant racism because he was much more interested in putting the black men further down the carriage off the train for travelling while black. So then, Italy: magnificent, inexpensive trains as long as you’re not a black man.

One last wee story, better than the one above. I have a waistcoat which belonged to my grandfather. He was a fine man, a trades unionist and artist. I am very fortunate indeed to have original art hanging on my walls because of him. My grandmother gave me one of his landscapes and it hangs on the wall above the piano here in my living room. There are other paintings, drawing and etchings hanging here done by my mother and my wife. Ours is a decorated home.

My grandfather died when I was about six or seven years old so while I have some memories of him, they are vague. I remember a slightly grumpy old man who was still happy to see us visit him in his shed at the bottom of his garden where he did his painting. He was very good at still lives and I never really understood the process whereby fruit went from bowl to canvas. He said that he used a knife. I thought he sliced it very thinly with his palette knives and smeared the flesh onto the surface of the canvas. The flesh of peaches and apples shines in two dimensions more than ever it does in three.

He taught me to draw. Well, he tried. He showed me how he could draw a profile and create the impression of an eye with only two or three brief strokes of a pencil. I was young and inept. I might have improved with practice and tutelage but we never had enough time. Fast forward a few years and my grandmother gives me a waistcoat which he had owned. It’s that mid-1960s old man’s yellow checked pattern, has mustard yellow buttons up and down the front and four pockets, two with little flaps over them and two without. One day I was having a rummage in one of these pockets for a coin I’d slipped in there to pay my bus fare and I pulled out a piece of thin paper, as thick as you might once have used for rolling a cigarette, rolled up tightly. It was a payslip from 1968 or 69. It’s about a quarter of an inch wide and sixteen or seventeen inches long and records his pay for one week in tiny, faint, near illegible handwriting. I can’t read it at all now, any more than I can remember his face. All that’s left is a handful of hazy memories of a man who gave me slices of peach in a shed, paintings on my wall and this long, strange strip of paper.

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