Remember to Forget (Part 1)
An oversized fly lands on the back of his neck, but Aaron makes no move to flick it away. The insect jitters back and forth for a few seconds, legs tickling across his skin, then it takes wing, darting toward a window.
Aaron is 46 years old, male, white, head shaved to reduce the impact of hair loss, glasses and a face he once considered handsome. He reminds himself of these things while clasping and unclasping his hands, pressing hard, as if checking he is still there, still real.
In the bar, he sits silently, disengaged, while his two friends talk about house prices and interest rates. Neither Nathan or Chris or any of the other people in the pub are aware of Aaron’s disquiet. Even in the hubbub of the Ivyhouse, he suffers, alone.
An hour ago, Nathan, Aaron’s lawyer friend, told a story about a blind date when he first came to London. They all smiled and shook their heads, remembering how people met like this in the pre-smartphone age, sight unseen. No profile pic, no bio, no reassurance the other person had swiped right. The date was a disaster, Nathan said. Stilted conversation, nothing in common, clearly going nowhere. Then she tried to SMS her friend, asking to be “rescued from this bore”, but accidentally sent it to Nathan instead. Toe-curling awkwardness ensued.
As they laughed, Aaron tried to think of his own anecdote from the same period. He’d come to London in 2001 and recalled the first few weeks – moving into a bedsit, days of leisure visiting museums and theatres still thinking like a tourist, starting his new job with a firm of surveyors – then he tried to visualise what came after. The office friendships, the Friday night drinks, his own awkward, unsuccessful dates, all the things he knew must have happened.
But there was nothing, a gap, an empty space where his recollections were supposed to be.
Now he sits at the table, no longer able to follow the chatter from his companions, brow furrowed, staring into his pint, still grasping for something, anything of the years after arriving in London.
“Elizabeth.” he says, the thought blurted out, involuntarily.
“What’s that?” Nathan asks.
“Elizabeth. I can remember meeting her.” Aaron says, referring to his wife.
A pause, a glance shared between Nathan and Chris.
“Okay.” Nathan says, smiling, eyes narrowed.
Aaron bites his bottom lip, exhales and tries to explain, “I remember being a kid, my hometown, my parents, university. I came to London, had a job. I was happy. Then, nothing. Until Elizabeth.”
Their smiles drop away. Aaron feels the heat of embarrassment on his cheeks. He’s only known Nathan and Chris for a few years, their kids attending the same school. He shouldn’t be sharing this with them.
Aaron places both hands flat on the table. “I’m trying to remember what I was doing between, say…” he looks up, calculating the years, “2002 and 2006.”
They lean in, finally understanding his seriousness, accepting their role as confidants. Nathan traces a finger across the table as if making a diagram of Aaron’s problem. “So, you have a four year gap in your memory? Like, nothing at all from that time?”
Aaron makes one more attempt to retrieve some detail from the recesses of his mind, to be able tell them it’s all a silly joke, but he fails. “I don’t think I can.” he says.
Chris says, “Okay, not something to panic about. You’re probably feeling the pressure, yeah? Happens to us all.”
“‘Course it does.” Nathan adds, jovial now, “I was talking to a colleague the other day. Worked with her for 12 years. For the life of me, I couldn’t remember her name. Terrifying. Ten minutes later,” he clicks his fingers, “I have it back again.”
“This is different. Worse.” Aaron says, “I can’t even remember when I forgot, if that makes sense.”
“Not really.” Nathan replies, shaking his head.
“At what point in the last thirteen years did I forget that period in my life? Why have I only just realised?”
Another awkward silence descends and Aaron can feel a word floating, unspoken between them: Alzheimers. Or the old word, the one you’re not supposed to use anymore? Senile. He shudders. Do 46 year old men go senile?
Finally, Chris says, “I’m sure you’re worrying over nothing. Like Nath says, tomorrow morning, it’ll come flooding back. But maybe you should go see the doc though, yeah? Have them run some tests?”
Aaron nods. Chris is better at the sympathetic tone than Nathan and he appreciates it.
Nathan tilts his head to one side. “Interesting though, isn’t it? Worth talking it over. What’s the last thing you recall?”
“I’m not sure this is a good idea…,” Chris begins, but Nathan waves his protest away.
“It’s okay. We’re all friends here.”
“Last thing?” Aaron asks.
“I mean, in 2002.” Nathan holds out his palms. “What is the last thing you remember before it all goes blank for four years?”
It is a good question, the kind a lawyer would ask.
Aaron closes his eyes and, for a few seconds tries to take himself back to those early London days. He wants to remember, very badly. At first, there is nothing, just vague images of the house where he rented a room, the building where he worked, and the faces of a few colleagues. None of it exists in order, just as a jumble of moments, frozen in time.
But then he gets the faintest outline of an image, and slowly, it blooms, details emerging as if someone were colouring it in for him.
A residential street, terraced houses stretching out into the distance on both sides. But the building in front of him is not a house. It is taller, more substantial than the rest, with a wooden façade protruding into the street.
A pub, different to the modern bar he sits in now. It is rundown, neglected. The windows are large, but the glass is mottled, denying any view of the inside.
Before Aaron can describe what he is seeing (remembering?) to Nathan and Chris, the image is dispelled by a tickling on the back of his hand. He looks down and sees the fly, the same housefly one as before, he is somehow sure, twisting and turning at right angles across his knuckles. He wipes it off and the insect flies off.
Then he looks up at Nathan and Chris. “I can’t remember. I can’t remember anything.
Their son, Oliver, runs ahead, a thick mop of black hair bobbing around his ears, a picture of frenzied anticipation. Aaron and Elizabeth saunter behind, holding hands, taking the path across Peckham Rye Common.
The Fayre is an annual family ritual, a raucous communal activity Aaron would’ve loathed as a younger man. These days, he enjoys the delighted squeals of his son, the joyous chaos of the rides, the games and noise. He smiles to himself, knowing this is progress.
Elizabeth squeezes his hand and he turns to her.
“Still worried?” she asks.
“Yes.” He says, returning her smile. “I’ll go with it, take my time, create the space to remember.”
She laughs, “You’re just repeating what I told you.”
He shrugs. “It’s good advice.”
“When is the first appointment with the therapist?”
Elizabeth had told him not to bother with the NHS. It was run into the ground, she said, people waiting years for appointments. So, he went private and came back clear – perfect MRI and scores in verbal and written memory tests which put Aaron in the top 5% of the population. The specialist told him dementia was an impossibility, and recommended a course of therapy to see if trauma or some other psychological baggage could explain his mysterious memory loss.
“Tuesday. Anyway, I don’t want to think about that now. Let’s enjoy this. See if we can get the little fella sick with too much candy floss.”
She leans in and kisses his cheek and for the thousandth time he wonders at his fortune in finding her. She is beautiful, driven, intelligent. He has no idea why she chose him. Dizzy with this mixture of happiness and confusion, Aaron looks up and spots Oliver in the queue at the entrance to the Fayre. The boy does a fidgety dance on the spot, a 6-year-old’s bodily expression of, ‘Hurry up!’
Aaron walks over and picks him up, holds him in a tight hug. Eyes closed, breathing him in, the precise scent of his son’s skin always hits him hard. A mix of cleanliness, boy-sweat and his mother’s perfume. It never fails to raise a lump in his throat.
He pays the vendor and the three of them enter the enclosure, greeted by thumping dance music and teenager cat-calls. Oliver darts this way and that, pointing to the attractions, finally deciding on the spinning waltzers.
One after another, they tick off rides. The swinging boats, bumper cars, carousel. Aaron is amazed by the boy’s fearlessness. After a second go on the helter skelter he hopes they can go sit down somewhere for a coffee and donut. But before he can speak, Oliver is pointing excitedly at another attraction.
“That one!” The ride is on the edge of the enclosure, bigger than all the others. A ring of pods suspended from the frame of a huge lateral wheel, which turns and twist as it spins. A ‘high-flyer’, Aaron decides, retrieving the name from childhood trips to his hometown ‘Mop’.
He looks down at Oliver than back at the huge ride. “Might not be for you, pal. One for the bigger kids.”
“It might be okay. “ Elizabeth says, “Let’s go talk to the man.”
They walk over, arriving just as The High-Flyer slows and comes to rest. An old man opens the exit and people stream out. Then he opens the entrance gate and Aaron realises they’re already at the front of the line.
“Is this okay for him?” Elizabeth says, pointing at Oliver.
The old man has greasy white hair clinging in clumps at his scalp. He wears a grimy looking T-shirt that may have once been white beneath a black waistcoat. At the neck-line bones are visible under liver-spotted skin. He smokes a self-rolled cigarette. Aaron considers asking him to put it out. It can’t be right, around children. Then he catches the man’s eye and thinks better of it. He smiles, showing a set of brown teeth.
“Course it’s safe, darlin’” the old man replies to Elizabeth, “Safe as houses.” His South London accent is sharper, more distilled than Aaron is used to.
Elizabeth looks to Aaron and, grinning, gestures for them to proceed. Aaron hesitates.
“Come on!” she says, “I’m not letting you boys have all the fun.” And she hands over three tokens to the old man.
Elizabeth and Oliver rush ahead. More slowly, Aaron moves to follow, but the old man places a hand on his arm before he can go further.
“You be careful now. You and your lovely family.”
“Of course.” Aaron says, frowning.
As he moves away, eager to catch up with his wife and son, Aaron notices something emerging from the old man’s mouth. It twitches back and forth, moving over the lips, then down his chin.
Aaron watches, still moving past the man, eager to be away, but unable to take his eyes off him. Another fly escapes from the old man’s mouth. Then another and another. A steady flow of the grey-black insects is emerging from within, each one pausing on the old man’s chin and cheeks, then ascending into the neon-lit air.
He seems entirely untroubled by the flies, opening his mouth wider to reveal more and more crawling over his tongue and gums.
Aaron tears himself away and races towards Elizabeth and Oliver, intent on ordering them off the ride, telling them that it can’t be safe with such a man, such a thing, in control. But when he gets there, they’re already settled in a pod of two, smiling, talking excitedly. A teenage boy is locking down the safety bar.
“Get the one behind, Daddy,” Oliver shouts, “Don’t be scared on your own.”
Aaron looks back to where the old man was stood, but he is gone. In his place, is a teenaged boy is beckoning more people onto the ride.
He pinches the bridge of his nose and closes his eyes. A heavy, empty dejectedness washes over him, the same as in the pub a few nights before. The feeling is so powerful, he is momentarily paralysed.
“Daddy! Get on! You’ll miss the ride.”
“Come on, Aaron.” Elizabeth says, almost as excited as Oliver.
He shakes his head and goes towards the empty pod as instructed, still thinking of the flies crawling from the man’s mouth. Once in his the seat, the teenager locks the restraint over his legs.
Soon after, the ride is moving, lifting Aaron up, the huge central wheel turning on its axis. Slow at first, speed increasing, he is whisked into the air, feet swaying up and out and around, toes pointing towards the wispy clouds in the dusk sky. In front, Elizabeth and Oliver’s pod descends and he follows, dipping, in tune with the twisting hub of their exterior wheel. Faster and faster they go.
Aaron looks down. The world beyond is stretched and blurred by the ride’s velocity. Light smears into lines, coloured patterns repeating. People on the ground move between the lights, flitting from one attraction to another.
Two figures catch his eye, stood beside the railings near the exit for the high-flyer, one looking up at him, the other, head down, concealed with a cloak and hood.
The first and second times around he discerns only their outline, but it is enough for him to recoil, to shift to the inside of the seat. On the third pass he turns his head, following their position as he rushes past. The old man is there, grinning, watching him.
He holds the other by its arm, like a nurse steadying a weakened patient.
His companion is an oversized, misshapen figure. Even under its robes, the thing betrays a gross, twisted parody of the human form, ridiculously tall and thin, the head too far from the shoulders, implying an unnatural, elongated neck.
On the next pass, he looks again, trying to convince himself it is a costume, some bizarre stilt wearing mascot for the fayre. But even from a passing glimpse, Aaron sees the fidgety, stop-start movements, the twitching of its head, which lols sideways, and knows its form is genuine - a true living-breathing abomination.
The sight of it leaves him winded, unable to breathe. He sweeps by, again and again, taking in new detail with each pass.
The rippling movement of the cloak suggests the tall figure owns other appendages that lurk beneath. And Aaron thinks he sees something more peeking out from the hood, groping from the garment’s shadow: two stork like antennae appear and disappear, so fast that Aaron is unsure if they are there at all.
Tossed and turned by the motion of the ride, Aaron feels his mind slipping from a redundant flight or fright to a more dangerous place, the edge of of his sanity. Whatever is happening, Aaron knows he cannot be near to the thing in the cloak The ride slows, intensifying his dread. He holds his head in his hands, like a child hoping the world will go away, if only he can avoid looking at it.
The pods are lowering, bringing him closer to where the old man and the thing lurk. Desperate, he looks up as the ride comes to a sudden halt.
He scans the crowd surrounding the ride once, twice, three times.
Kids and parents. Teenagers and smiling, laughing patrons of all types mill around the high-flyer. He scans the people over and over. There is no monster in a cloak, no leering old man.
A small hand pats Aaron’s arm and he finches. It is Oliver, Elizabeth stood behind him.
“Time to get off Daddy. Can we get some candy floss?”
Elizabeth tilts her head, then reaches out for him “Aaron, are you okay?”
End of part 1.
Part 2 is here: https://www.abctales.com/story/charlie77/remember-forget-part-2