Part of the ‘Stranger Stories’ series
Disclaimer: The photos used in my Stranger Stories series are taken from charity shops, yard sales, etc. I don’t know the real identities of the people in the photos, and all stories are entirely fictional. Any similarity to actual persons, living or dead, or events, is purely coincidental. The photos are a tool to brainstorm new characters and experiment with style.
Scroll down to the bottom for Author’s Notes.
I’m little. Only two years or so. I must be less than three years old, because she’s still alive.
I’m outside, somewhere. I’m surrounded by people – large, looming faces that I don’t recognise. I tip my head over the arms that hold me to look around.
There’s a beautiful one,
two old ones,
a big one,
a really big one,
a furry one,
and there’s her. The constant, the person whose skin is soft and whose voice is calm. I know that if I can only get into her arms, I’ll be OK.
I reach for her with two small, splayed hands, but before my fingertips can touch her dress I’m swept away, passed from hip to hip. I mostly remember the arms – being held too tight, bounced too much, and wrong, all wrong. Someone picks at my curled hair and plays with my toes, scrunched up in wool boots. I want them off but no matter how much I squirm, I can’t get to the green grass below me.
“Ooof, lively girl,” someone says, tipping me on my side and passing me to someone else instead of her. I cry and feel the drone start in the back of my throat, pure devastation at being so far away. I open my mouth as wide as I can to project the sound and someone runs their fingers over my gums, laughing.
“You’ll have to watch yourself when her teeth come in.”
Was it my birthday? The photo looks like a christening dress. But she wasn’t religious – was I christened?
“Bop, bop, bop,” they say, swooping me between each other, their hands squeezing me tight. My legs hang stiff, like sausages on a stick. I hate this. I arch my back and push out my fat arms and wail and wiggle.
“She’s had enough of being held, I think,” one of the old ones says, patting a wooden chair painted gloss blue. “Put her down, straighten her dress.”
My legs are scooped up and I feel the chair underneath me. They straighten my collar as I pull at it with clumsy fingers. One of the chair legs has sunk into the grass and I can feel myself lose balance, tipping to the side slowly, limbs useless. A hand, a whole arm comes out of the air and holds me steady.
The full, glorious memory only really starts there. Only when I feel the pressure of each slender finger of that hand on my arm. Suddenly something else kicks in and I can smell the milky clothes, the stale water combed into my hair, the dry, brown leaves on the floor behind me. The sun is rising over the house in front of us and it warms me. The fingers holding me are gentle; the nails pink and smooth. There’s a stone in my tiny boot.
She comforts me; adjusts her grip so that she’s barely touching, but hovering behind, ready to catch me. I can barely identify the feeling of love at this age but I know I feel it with every part of me. Safe, important, precious. She’s there, she’s watching me and I exist for someone else.
“Smile, baby,” the arm says, “Smile for the camera, sweet girl.”
I hear the gentle Irish lilt of her voice, my mother.
Someone else with a thin arm and purple veins wiggles their hand at me from behind a black box.
I lift my hand up, thinking I can take the black box from him. He laughs and lifts his hand, waving it back and forth at me. I copy him, my arms wrapped in cardigan and chub so thick that I can barely raise them.
Her hands run across the threads of my cardigan as she strokes my back and then gathers the material in her hand to steady me.
“Done,” the man with the box says. I feel her arms hook under my shoulders as she picks me up and holds me against her chest. I nuzzle my head into her neck and my eyelashes graze her pale skin.
“You’re such a clever girl,” she cooes, parting my hair, “such a clever, beautiful girl. Mummy loves you.”
The SMT pulls some forms across the table and brings a pen up to her ear to click it.
“Thirty-seven next Tuesday.”
The SMT looks up.
“Thirty six. Sorry, thirty six.”
Gwen cycles through the questions: her address, medical history (mild anxiety, crashingly low iron levels, childhood asthma).
“And your family?” the SMT continues. “You’ve told the nurse that you’ve had instances of heart disease and liver failure on both sides?”
It goes on for almost half an hour, a dissection of her entire life, the third time she’s had to do this in two weeks.
“And how did you hear about this procedure?”
Gwen picks at the clothes she’s wearing, suddenly panicked that the cameras in the waiting room will have captured that she’s been to every appointment in the same ones.
“I’m an organ donor, so I got an alert, I guess?” she starts. “At least that’s what I think. I thought I’d give it a go because I’m – I really need the money. My iron levels are too low to give blood and I don’t think anyone really wants my eggs – so this is what’s left. The nurse last week, she said I was a good candidate.”
The SMT nods. “It’s a new procedure so there’s a lot of hoops to jump through – and you’re here, at the end. So all the tests ….” she pauses, flipping through a folder with my name on the front, a realisation that makes me feel a bit sick, “… that you’ve done so far have been good.” She smiles. “Any questions?”
Gwen wonders whether she’s failing some test by asking, but still, she says: “How much will I get for it?”
The SMT clicks her pen and lays it down. “This is procedure is in its infancy, so you’re among the first hundred patients who will be taking part. What I need to do first is take a look at your MRI from last week, work out the quality of the product we’ll be extracting, and what price we think you’ll receive for it on the market. Then, if your happy with the offer, we’ll carry out the procedure and you should be home within a few hours.”
“Any idea what it might be?”
She smiles again and opens her hands, showing Gwen her palms. “It depends. The minimum payment for a viable product is £4,500, plus additional expenses – travel, scent or sense caches, things like that. The clinic have a service charge of £999 for the procedure and for any aftercare up to 3 weeks. So, that leaves you with around £3,500, if we can use it.”
“But,” she continues, “lets take a look at your MRI, and I’ll be able to tell you what yours is actually worth.”
She slides the file to the side and logs into her computer. Gwen looks down and focuses on the brown slacks that are poking out from under the table. They sit in silence for a minute or two and Gwen starts to wonder whether it’s the clock she can hear, or her heartbeat.
“Well, this is very good news,” the SMT finally says. She moves the mouse mat off the desk, brushing some crumbs off the table. “Really, really good.” She swivels the screen around and points at a cross-section of Gwen’s brain.
“So Gwen, during your MRI we helped you isolate one particular memory, and then used the machine to assess how strong your associated emotions were. You can see here,” she points to a few areas of the brain that are lit up in color, “that you’re experiencing really strong levels of positive emotion when you recall it. This is exactly what we want. Your hippocampus is in red, here,” as she flicks through the slides, it pulses with color, “and this is the part of the brain that stores memories.”
“I’m confused. That doesn’t say whether they’re good or bad emotions. What if they’re strong but horrible?”
“Good question. You see here,” she points to an area of the brain lit up in blue, “this is your limbic cortex. It’s where happiness originates, so we can tell that the emotions are positive. Your neo-cortex and the amygdala are lit up in yellow and the basal ganglia, which processes emotion, is in green. This is particularly important for our needs because this is also the part of the brain which controls formation of habits, movement and learning. So it really suggests to us that this memory and event was pivotal in forming positive base emotions and personality foundations for you.” She adds: “Hopefully, for our client too.”
Gwen’s cross-section flickers like a christmas tree as she sits, watching the slides cycle past.
“Yes, I can say with certainty that this is a premium product. The elements that we judge it by are whether the memory is well recalled, whether it provokes a strong emotional reaction and whether it was an event that took place during the first four years of life – when we understand memories to be most impactful and life-establishing.” She pulls down the MRI slides and brings up a pricing document. “In truth, the actual events of the memory aren’t that important – we really just want the feelings of happiness, love, security that it provokes. That’s what clients are paying for. Someone who is emotionally impacted due to the absence of happy memories in those first four years would find the implantation of a memory such as this one to be completely life-changing. It could change the very makeup of their personalities to be more mature, positive and enriched. It’s a way of accessing the benefits of SSRI medication without needing to prescribe it. It’s not a fix-all, of course but the clients who’ve had happy memories implanted seem to experience unprecedented positive changes in their mental health and personalities.”
“And,” Gwen stumbles. “Just making sure – I’ll lose it, if I opt to have it implanted?”
“I mean – did the nurse-?”
“Oh she did, I just want to hear you say it-”
“Yes, you will certainly lose it. Expect to lose it. We’ve found that the process of removal for implantation does do irreparable damage to the original memory. It is unlikely that you will be able to remember anything.”
“Right, yeah. So if this is so great for the person who gets my memory, then what happens to me when I lose it? The brochure said that effects are likely to be minimal, but it sounds like-”
“Again,” the SMT interrupts, “it depends. We have no real way of telling the full risks of this procedure. It’s so new, and there is no control case – every single memory is different, and similarly, the importance of the memory to someone’s identity varies. It’s riskier for you considering the subject matter – but in turn, that’s what makes it so strong and therefore such a good product. We do what we can to preserve overall mental health, and we need to trust the patient to understand their own mind and the impacts this might have.”
She continues. “That’s why the payout is so high, too. Because we don’t hide that there are risks. In your particular case, the Group would be happy to offer £7,300 for this memory – service charge not included. Oh, and I know you bought a scent cache – your mother’s perfume – to prompt the memory, so that’ll be covered in costs too.”
Gwen’s heart soars at the mention of more money she’s ever had, but another feeling drags it back down and her stomach fills with the feeling of cold, cold water.
She leans over. “Gwen, I know you’ve seen the psychologist already and she’s given you approval, but I must ask again if this is definitely what you want to do.”
Gwen looks over at the name on her desk – Dr Alice Willis, Senior Memory Technician. She wonders whether Alice likes her job.
Gwen breathes. “What’s the next step?”
An hour, a contract and a consent form later, Alice lowers the machine over Gwen’s head.
“It’ll be fast,” she says, “and you shouldn’t feel anything. If you do, tell me immediately.”
The machine grips Gwen’s skull, sliding down the nape of her neck like a scalp massager. She shudders, but not because of the machine. The wires trickle down past her legs, onto the floor and to a large chrome box, rolled in on a trolley. She pinches the wires with her fingers and thinks of the money.
“Try to relax,” Alice says, placing a metal ring around her wrist. “I’m going to turn the machine on now.”
“Will I get to see it one more time?” Gwen says.
“You’ll need to recall it for us so that we’re able to identify and remove it. But first I need to clear your mind entirely.”
She presses a button on the side of the box and it hums with an electric buzz. Gwen’s forehead twitches, ticking with the seconds. This always reminds Alice of the moment before the old television in her front room completely turns off. She holds her finger over the power button until it clicks, whines and dies, pulling the color into a small spot in the middle before going black.
“Gwen? Can you still hear me?”
“Yeah, I can hear you.”
“When the memory comes into your head, just watch it through like it was a movie. I’ll add in markers so we know when it starts and ends, and then I’ll pluck it out. Simple as that. Try to stay focused on that memory only.”
Gwen closes her eyes and tears are already there. She watches the picture slowly come to her.
Seven thousand pounds.
She’s being passed from hip to hip.
Seven thousand pounds.
The blue wooden chair.
Seven thousand pounds.
She feels a gentle hand on her back and knows it’ll be the last time.
I’m not happy with this one either – gah! A bunch of weeks where I feel like the original concept is good but then I try to do too much with it. I definitely need to get more used to the structure of a short story and stop trying to smush a novella’s worth of information into 2000 words. Oh well, lessons.
I’m not quite sure what made this particular idea pop into my head originally. When I was trying to come up with an idea to pair with this photo, I was running through my list of ‘What if’ questions and came across: “What if you could sell your memories? Would you?”
Clearly when I wrote it, I had no idea how to bring the strings of it together because I just left it alone. But after reading ‘Let me not be mad’ by A.K.Benjamin (which I will be reviewing next post), and re-watching ‘The Island’ (banging movie from 2005), I started to think more about what kind of impact memories have on us.
This has also been fabulously explored in the past by ‘Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind’ OF COURSE but this was primarily about wanting to delete memories – and it was mostly following the love story of this couple as they struggled to hold onto their relationship once they realised it was slipping away. But it was never really explored (because it didn’t have the time), what other impact on your actual personality and mental health that removing an important memory might have. I have a few memories in my life which are incredibly important to me, and I know have directly shaped who I am growing up. I’ve even written them down because I’m so afraid of losing the bright colors of them over the years (and I’m aware that humans tend to embellish real memories with fake elements subconsciously over time). But I don’t think that I will ever lose the feeling associated with those memories, because they’re now embedded in me. I’m intrigued by the idea that you could sell memories. And if you could, how many do you sell before you start to impact what makes you, you?
Are we made up of our memories, experiences, or is it our DNA? Could we cure someone who has experienced mental health issues throughout their adolescence because of an absence of good memories – by giving them some? Could we implant the feeling of security, happiness, importance, acceptance – love?
I honestly find this idea fascinating and that’s what I wanted to explore with Gwen. The little girl in this picture is clearly surrounded by adults, who are showering her with attention, have dressed her and brushed her hair for a photo. She’s being supported by a motherly arm and is feeling confident enough that she’s even waving at the camera. It’s the kind of memory which I think could bring back real feelings of being loved and the centre of attention. But it’s particularly dangerous for her to sell this memory because it is the last one she has of her mother and therefore once it’s gone, doctors can’t predict how an absence of a motherly figure might affect her. What’s more important to us, money or memories?
I of course had to suspend belief here when it came to the machine. I plopped in a couple of medical nods (mostly to do with sections of the brain), but I had neither the intelligence or the space to explain what a memory-suctioning machine would look or perform like. But the rule is to include one thing that suspends belief, so I think I’m OK.
Also, if you’re wondering, I changed the tense of the second half because I wanted it to be up in the air about who was the one getting the memory removed. Not sure that it works though.
What did you think? I think the idea was good but the execution was one of my worst. Let’s call this a work in progress! How could I have made it better? Please help!