Gems

 

I used to feel cursed by my memory. It set me apart from other people and made me unlike them. Although individuality is often seen as a desirable quality, it wasn’t valued by my pre-pubescent self as I tried to fit into a new community. I found that my memories of other times and places, so different to the one I was trying to align myself with, would pop into my head at the most unexpected times and cloud my perception of the present. I know that this lack of control over our recollections is just a quirk of memory and no different to most other people’s experience of it. What bothered me was the fact that these were scenes that others couldn’t relate to. It was a reminder that I did not have a shared history with the people around me.

 

I remember in my early teens sitting and chatting with a group of classmates in an empty classroom during a break. They had all spent the majority of their childhoods within a ten mile radius of the school we went to and were talking about local parks they used to go to when they were younger. As the chatter carried on around me, my mind snapped back to a wintery day on a frozen canal. The sky was a solid block of white, casting a dull, shadowless light on everything. The air was bitterly cold and stung my nostrils with each inhalation. All around me children were whizzing by, screaming with joy as they slid along the ice in a noisy, writhing mass. I was sitting right in the middle of them, having just fallen over yet again, trying desperately to push myself up before anyone could smack into me. But I couldn’t get my skates to dig into the ice enough to give me any grip. A hand tugged my arm and pulled me to my feet. I looked up into the beaming, rosy-cheeked face of my friend Maartje, framed by a fuzzy pink bobble hat and a thick orange scarf. She led me towards the bank and I plonked myself down on the frozen ground. She looked down at my feet and asked me what those things strapped to my trainers were. I tartly replied that they were skates. They were in fact my neighbour’s strap-on skates and were about four sizes too big for me, held onto my feet only by virtue of a couple of lengths of string that I had inexpertly tied around them. Maartje’s pale blue eyes twinkled with laughter as she pointed out that no one else was wearing skates and that I may have more luck if I took them off. My feet easily slid out of the contraptions. She sprung up and launched herself into the crowd, skilfully dodging the lanes of children going by at high speed, and stopped in front a group of kids on the opposite bank. The youngest of them was sat on an old kitchen chair which he had been using to steady himself as he slid along the ice. The next thing I knew Maartje had brought the chair over to me and stood me up next to it. She placed my hands on the back of it and gave me a push. With my body weight taken by the chair, and without being weighed down by the skates, I felt lighter and freer to move. Beside me Maartje was shouting encouragement as I shuffled along.

 

It was then that I realised that I was actually still sitting in the classroom and that all eyes were me. I registered that a question had been asked of me. My face must have been the picture of bewilderment as I desperately struggled to replay in my head what had just been said. When it became apparent I had no idea, I tried to explain what I’d been daydreaming about, but all that came out was a few words about ice and chairs, which were evidently unintelligible and did nothing to ingratiate me to the group.

 

At any time I can be transported back to other times and places. It’s as if I’ve fallen foul of a Tardis-based technical hitch. It happened just now, as I was looking out of my window at the car park below. The streetlamp on the pavement opposite has just come on, although it’s still too light outside for it to have much effect. Despite the nip in the air, the fact that the days are getting longer is a welcome hint that warmer weather isn’t too far away. I’m thrown back to a balmy night in Greece. The street that I’m standing on is bathed in orange light from a streetlamp, around which buzzes a horde of moths and the occasional bat.  Night has brought some relief, but the heat of the day seems to rise up through the pavement itself. Concrete apartment blocks loom over me. Three men are sitting on plastic garden furniture outside their tiny shop, congenially chatting as they smoke and drink coffee from small ceramic cups. They are half covered in harsh florescent white light that spills out from the open doorway. They sell, judging by the display outside, most things, including vegetables, cigarettes, magazines, nappies, pipe cleaners, comic books, cutlery and toys. A boy, barely a teenager, stands at the counter in case any customers should wander in, slowly flicking through a magazine with an expression of abject boredom on his face. The air is scented with the mingled smells of grilled chicken and rotting fruit. Above the sound of the conversation I can hear a radio or TV from one of the nearby apartments blaring out music. The singer’s ululating voice and the rattling bazouki echo down the street. Permeating all of these sounds is the incessant chirruping of the cicadas. I’m skipping along with my cousin, and can sense the towering presence of my uncle beside me. And then, just as suddenly, I am again looking at the English scene outside my window, but my muscles feel as relaxed as if they had been in warm sunshine all day and the sweet, heady scent of a Greek summer fills my nose.

 

As with many things that I feel I have no choice in, I resisted and dismissed these unsolicited memories for a long time. It took me a while to see that they are in fact gems that allow me to carry whole other worlds with me. I may not be able to fully share them with anyone, and that has made me feel lonely in the past. I’ve come to appreciate that no one can ever fully experience another person’s perspective, no matter how similar to your own it seems to be on the surface, so in that sense every one of us is alone. But with each rich and varied memory these seemingly distant moments are kept alive, connecting people and places in a way that they couldn’t normally be. At last, I am quite happy to give in to reminiscence whenever it so happens to hit me.
 

© 2015 by Aliki Waller