I watched Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind again today. I’d forgotten how good it was (oh, such irony!) but it made me remember this story. I wrote it a while back (it first appeared in Not One of Us) and though I think you can tell it’s an early one, I think it still stands up. It’s a freebie – happy New Year. 🙂
I met Jo in a bookshop, I remember that much. I’ve always thought it an excellent place to meet the woman I fell in love with. Neither of my previous girlfriends had liked to read much and so our relationships didn’t last long. What can you talk about if not books? I’d picked up an Austen and was browsing through its pages, looking for annotations, when she spoke to me.
‘Oh, I love that one. I can’t believe he dumps her.’
I looked up and there she was, somehow resplendent in a hoody and jeans: Joanne. She was beautiful, and something of my reaction to that must have shown, although she misinterpreted it.
‘Oh God. You’ve not read it.’
I was able to recover by then. ‘I don’t think so.’
‘Seen the movie?’
‘And now I’ve ruined it for you. I’m so sorry.’
I was in love. The smooth-talking type would have said, ‘Have dinner with me and all’s forgiven’. I said, ‘No problem.’
‘Forget I said it.’
‘Good idea. I’ll sell the memory.’
‘Yeah, right, who’d buy a ‘spoiled book’ memory?’
Looking at the person who’d spoiled it, I figured just about anyone with a sexual interest in women.
‘You’d be surprised what people buy,’ I said instead.
‘Not really. I work in a charity shop. Sold a painting of a goldfish this morning. Watercolour, naturally.’ And she smiled.
That’s how we met.
I wasn’t joking about the memory selling thing, I really do work for Lucid. Yeah, it’s hard to get on their books, but sell something big and they keep you on for the little stuff. To get through uni I sold something big. Obviously I’m not sure what, but I strongly suspect it was winning a regional swim because I have the trophy at home with my name on. After that I made a little extra reading classic literature and selling the experience on; it’s popular with students. Twain said a classic is something everyone wants to have read but nobody wants to read, and it seems he was right. I have well thumbed copies of Dickens, Joyce, and funnily enough some Twain. That year was Austen. Shakespeare’s popular as well, of course. Pays more, too.
But that was just a little extra to tide me over. For a proper job, when I met Jo, I worked at the university where I used to study. After my degree I couldn’t find anywhere to use it, so I taught others how to get my degree. Not very different from what I do for Lucid, really.
Jo, she volunteered at a charity place but she also worked as a florist. She’d come home smelling like camellia and carnations and forget-me-nots and I’d take deep breaths of her hair to get the scent that was hers.
‘Weirdo,’ she’d say, but she said it smiling and she always kissed me afterwards.
When Jo moved in we celebrated with takeout pizza and bottles of beer. She folds her pizza pieces before eating them so nothing falls off and I love her for it. One of her funny little ways.
‘When are you going to read something good?’ She was picking mushrooms out of the box. They must have fallen from one of my pieces.
‘I always read something good.’
‘You always read the same something good. Try Chandler or Christie or even Crais for a change.’
‘No one buys crime fiction, not from Lucid. Those who want it, read it themselves. To work it out.’
‘That’s what I’m saying, read it for you.’
‘Novel idea,’ I said, and drank to my own pun.
She slapped my arm. ‘You used to read all the time.’
‘I still do.’
‘Sense and Sensibility again? Law books? The fucking Highway Code?’
The truth was, money was tight and we needed the extra. With Jo moved in, things would get easier. Then I’d read again. I told her this.
‘Fine. But the first thing I’m buying, my contribution to the place, is a proper bookshelf.’
I looked to where we had boards stacked on blocks, each curving under the heavy load of books. ‘What about living the cliché?’
That earned me another same slap to the arm but with a bit of tickling afterwards and then we were rolling around amidst empty beer bottles and boxes full of her things waiting to be unpacked.
‘What would we do if I was pregnant?’
We were in bed, having just made love for the second time that lazy Sunday, and without missing a beat I said, ‘Well obviously I’d want a paternity test.’
She straddled me with a mock cry of outrage and before long we were at it for a third time.
I sold my first memory of us when the boiler went. After nearly two weeks of our breath clouding the air, I went to Lucid and sold the time we went to the park for a picnic. We’d said ‘I love you’ by then, but so recently that everything else we said was still a sense-heightened echo of it. Hands that touched when reaching for paper plates held a charge between them, and lips that kissed tasted for stories yet to be shared. We made shapes out of the clouds like you’d expect, fed the ducks like we were supposed to, and everything felt like we were the only ones who were ever really in love.
That’s what her diary tells me anyway.
Later, when I sold them the memory of our first holiday, it was because I thought Jo was pregnant. She wasn’t. But she was furious.
‘Why would you sell that? It was personal!’
‘All memories are.’
(Yeah, I know; it was pathetic.)
‘But Greece! Our first holiday? Come on. We went snorkelling, took that cruise around the island-’
‘We have pictures.’
‘- had sex in the fucking surf. Pictures?’
‘Well not of that.’
‘Jesus. And now someone else has those memories. Some emotional retard loser who can’t get a girlfriend remembers fucking me in the sea and drinking cocktails every night.’
I wanted to tell her it doesn’t work that way, but she knew. She was just angry. They don’t give the memory whole, they can’t. When you buy a memory you buy the sensations of recall, the feelings, the emotional experience. Think back to a memory of your own; it’s hazy, right? Sense impressions and big gaps, a spliced movie reel of images. Well with Lucid there are no images except the ones they give you after some tinkering, and maybe there’s some token souvenirs they rustle up for an extra cost. I also wanted to tell her that if we drank cocktails every night I was surprised she could remember much of it herself.
‘I thought we were having a baby,’ I said. ‘I thought we’d need the money. I teach. You arrange flowers into pretty patterns and sell junk to help old people. We’re not exactly swimming in cash right now.’
‘We swam in the Med, but of course you wouldn’t remember that.’
‘Actually, we’ve been to Turkey, too. I remember the Med.’
‘Twat,’ she said, and threw my Rubik’s Cube at me. I ducked and it smashed against the wall. I didn’t care. I could never do the fucking thing.
We weren’t having a baby, so I took her back to Greece with the money. We had a great time, fixed things, made love to repair what we had. Made new memories. On a balcony eating salad and feta cheese we decided Jo would go on the pill. Just for a while.
We had a lot of good times. I know because I still have the receipts. We were in love, and people always want that. It’s in demand, you could say, and it’s a seller’s market. For every roll around in a tangle of bed sheets, every romantic dinner, every walk along the beach I do remember, I’m sure I’ve sold just as many I don’t. I was careful, though. Or thought I was, anyway.
At first the extra money was great. We were able to do more things together, enjoy ourselves, snuggle deeper into our love as we decorated the flat, ate out, saw the newest films and pulled them apart over drinks in cosy bars. The more things we did, the more I could sell one or two of them so we could have more. But it wasn’t long before it started to show. Jo would make jokes I didn’t understand or I’d ask questions I should’ve known the answers to, things like that. Once, as she stripped off her shirt for another bout in the bedroom, I noticed she had a tattoo hooked around her belly-button, a curl of ivy with little green hearts for leaves. It freaked me out a bit, that one, because I didn’t know she had it. Luckily her shirt was up over her head at the time, caught on her ponytail, and she didn’t see my surprise. I helped her undress with a shaky laugh and we rolled around together. I kissed her tattoo a lot and as she traced patterns on the back of my shoulder I realised I had one too.
But on the whole, things were good.
Lucid Ltd is a large building, new and expensive but otherwise modest about its identity. There are no signs outside except for an engraved panel of glass. Inside it’s all thick carpet and huge photographs of weddings, newborns, children on swings, graduations, acceptance speeches, other stuff. The pair on the front desk wear their smiles like it’s part of the uniform, but I know from experience they’re nice enough really. If they still have the same staff there.
The man on the front desk was called David and he told me they couldn’t divulge the sort of information I required. I offered him money, but they must give the desk staff training or something because he turned it down. And it was a lot.
‘Please. I need to remember.’
‘Sales are non-returnable,’ he said. ‘Come on, you know this.’
I was a regular by then. I no longer got the ‘sir’ treatment.
The woman he shared the desk with was looking on with interest. She was new. I should have tried her.
‘Jenny, can you go and tell Martin to come to the front please?’
Her eyes widened just a little and she picked up the phone. Martin was security.
‘No, go get him personally. It’ll hurry him up.’
She nodded obediently and went. David took the cash I still held out and pocketed it quickly.
‘I’ll email you,’ he said. ‘And you’ll delete it immediately afterwards, ok?’
I nodded. Delete it. I could do that.
Jo and I ate the rest of our meal in silence. I’d reminisced about the time we ate here last, me relishing every mouthful of rainbow trout and she nearing orgasm with every forkful of truffle-topped risotto.
‘What did I look like?’ she asked eventually, dabbing at her mouth with a napkin. She never dabbed at her mouth with a napkin. She put her hands flat on the table and looked at me. ‘Did I have red hair, maybe? Blonde? Blue eyes? Maybe I had bigger tits.’
‘What are you talking about?’
I was pretty sure she hadn’t changed her hair in a while, and I was certain she hadn’t had any surgery. Whatever the trap was, I was missing it.
‘The girl you came here with last time, what did she look like?’ She smiled, but it was her quick one, sharp like a paper cut. ‘When we came, you and me, for our anniversary, the place was a sushi bar.’
I had no reply. I didn’t need to explain.
‘You said you wouldn’t go there anymore. You promised me no more Lucid. We’re doing fine now. We don’t need the money.’
‘I promised I wouldn’t sell anything else.’ I sounded whiny even to me. ‘I bought something this time. I bought back our anniversary but they must have tinkered with it, changed some things.’
That was when the waiter turned up to ask if everything was alright. He meant with our meal. We both told him yes, and Jo ordered dessert as if nothing had happened in that way women can do. As soon as he was gone she was back in combat mode.
‘They ‘tinkered’ with it so the dick who bought it wouldn’t see me in the street and say hi.’
I tried to speak but she held up a finger and continued, anticipating my comeback.
‘No doubt they tinkered me back in for you. What did you do, take them a photo? And they must have tinkered the food too, or not tinkered it, or whatever, because I fucking. Hate. Risotto.’
She pushed away from the table and left.
I ate her sorbet when it came and paid the bill. The sorbet tasted of frozen nothing.
I stopped selling anything to Lucid for a while then, except for the occasional Great Expectations. We got back to normal again, and eventually normal wasn’t bickering and making up; normal was only good stuff. We visited family, that’s how serious we were, and one day in January, when the air was so crisp it hurt your nose to breathe it and the sky was such a frosted blue you thought it would break if you could throw a rock high enough, I proposed. We’d moved from our dingy flat above the pet shop to a rented house that had cycle routes into the country. We’d pedalled our way through leafless woods and over tiny streams that crackled their ice beneath our wheels and when we stopped at a kissing gate I refused to let her pass until she’d said yes. I’m not making any of this up or reading it from her diary. I remember. It hurts the same way the wind did as it bit our hands and faces going downhill. We sped our way down to the nearest pub and celebrated our engagement with mulled wine and a ploughman’s lunch, of all things.
I still have the ring. Lucid offered me a lot of money for it when I sold the wedding day, but I told them they’d have to make do with just the one. It’s engraved, anyway. The best of times, the worst of times. She likes Dickens. I kept the memory of buying it, too, because the woman in the shop had said ‘If it makes her as happy to wear it as it’s making you to look at it, you’ll be fine’.
I like to remember that and imagine it’s true.
There was a case in the papers, you might remember it, about a young woman who breezed through her exams two years early because she’d bought memories from her lecturer. That lecturer was me. It wasn’t the first time I’d done it, but it was the one that got me fired. The little bitch sold the story to the papers herself to recoup the money she’d spent at Lucid. The university couldn’t fire me for the memory thing, it’s not illegal (though my case forced a few revisions there, I think), but they could fire me for being under qualified, which they decided I was after I failed an exam of my own.
Jo wasn’t angry. She was upset and cried a lot (which was worse) but she wasn’t angry. I’d started selling my education because I wanted to keep everything that was ours, but I needed to sell something because by then she was pregnant. Our darling little Daniel. Oh, Danny boy. So, so beautiful.
We moved closer to her family after the scandal. With me looking for work, and a baby on the way, we needed their support more than I liked to admit, and she needed them in ways I used to be good enough for. I got a job in a warehouse. There was no need to promise not to go to Lucid because Lucid had made a show of firing me too. But that’s all it was; a show. I was kept on as a sort of thank you for the publicity. You know, just so we could pay the bills.
By the time Danny was born we never talked about the good times anymore, so I sold a few.
We got married before Danny was born. Neither of us were religious, and our families didn’t push for it, but we wanted it done before raising a family of our own. I often wonder if Jo knew back then that I’d eventually sell the day and so did me the courtesy of keeping Danny out of the picture. Maybe it just turned out that way. He would have been barely a bump back then.
I’ll never sell my memories of him. Not ever.
There are still some things I haven’t forgotten. I remember the day we met. I remember Jo asking me to move in, and then us deciding she’d be better at mine then getting the most drunk we’d ever been. We ended up singing karaoke in a gay bar somehow. I remember her hiding her Sex and the City DVDs for the first three months we lived together. I remember the time she laughed so hard she wet herself because of the way I looked in scuba gear. I remember the way she shudders if kissed on the back of the neck during sex, and I remember the way she sings in the morning after an all-nighter. I remember her at the kissing gate, sobbing so hard she had to say ‘yes’ three times before I heard her, and I remember the way the ground felt under my knee, and the way we kissed against the fence, and the bikes toppling over, and the way we cycled to the pub so fast that our faces were red with cold, and I remember grinning so hard for so long that my cheeks actually hurt for a while after.
She’s remarried now.
When divorce looked like a possibility I went to my guy at Lucid and tried to buy back everything I’d ever sold about Jo. I got a few of them. Some people I couldn’t find, whereas others wouldn’t believe the memories were mine in the first place. One man even got violent and broke my nose. I broke his. I was cautioned by the police.
When divorce was discussed, I thought about forcing the names I’d been given to sell back what was mine. I fantasised abductions and drugged cooperation and wondered how much a Lucid employee would need to extract a memory by force. But they were only daydreams. I stole Jo’s diary instead and tried to recall firsthand the things she’d written. She found me reading it and used it as the final straw.
We split up, divided our things, and arranged custody and visitations.
I got to keep the diary.
At 19.37 on Tuesday the 25th of March I kidnapped James McVey from a supermarket car park. I forced him into my vehicle at knifepoint and instructed him to drive us to a remote location where I held him captive and threatened him with violence for two hours. I only released him when the recollection provider – Lucid Ltd – notified authorities after I attempted to bribe an employee to perform an illegal transfer. I was arrested and James was returned home to his family who were described as ‘relieved and thankful’.
The newspapers tell me all of this.
Charges were dropped provided I sought psychiatric help, though a restraining order was put in place. I’m not allowed within a thousand feet of Mr McVey or his family due to a history of violence and the broken nose to prove it.
The papers can only speculate as to my motives, but they’re more than happy to do so. Theirs is a feasible story. I don’t know for sure because I sold the kidnap (like I said, you’d be surprised what people will buy), but considering James McVey is Jo’s new husband, it seems likely I wanted at least a few of his memories.
He sees my son more than I do.
I’m a newsagent now, selling papers that printed me on their front pages once upon a time. That’s how I saw Danny this morning; he came in for sweets. I watched him walk slowly up the rows of confectionary, choosing carefully just like I do with books. He took so long deciding that his mother had to come in and hurry him up. She looked good, dressed smart in a skirt and jacket. I wonder if she still carries a tangle of hearts beneath it all.
‘Come on, Danny boy, your father’s waiting.’
For a foolish moment I’d thought she meant me. All my breath escaped in a rush and I smiled a ridiculously thankful smile. ‘There’s no hurry,’ I almost said, then realised she hadn’t seen me. She was talking about someone else, waiting outside. My heart clenched and forced a deep noise from me, a guttural groan that was primal in its depth of grief. That was when she saw me in my stupid uniform, waiting to serve them.
She handled it well.
I only nodded. It was all I trusted myself with.
‘I want this one,’ Danny said. He was only talking about a Mars bar.
Jo’s eyes were still on me. She wiped at them before tears could fall. I’ve no idea why she might have wanted to cry.
‘We can get it somewhere else,’ she told him, ‘Come on.’
I wanted to tell her I’m okay now. I wanted to tell her the things I remember and see if she remembered them too. I wanted to tell her I’ve read Sense and Sensibility for the hundredth first time and that I liked it, except for the ending. Most of all I wanted to ask if we could try again, or try something different, wipe the slate clean, but she was ushering Danny out the door. The bell above it tinkled and he looked back. He smiled and then he was urged outside.
She needn’t have rushed him away, though.
He doesn’t remember me at all.