Life affords us plenty of opportunities to reflect upon the wispy and elusive nature of memory. Who among us hasn’t forgotten our on-line passwords, even though all of our passwords are ‘password’? Who hasn’t found themselves standing in a car-park panicking that their car has been stolen, only to remember that they don’t actually own a car? Who hasn’t found themselves jamming a sausage in their eye because they’ve forgotten how to eat?
When two people are asked to recount a shared experience the opportunities for conflict and confusion multiply exponentially. Showtime’s ‘The Affair’ – a show about truth, deception and perception, starring McNulty from The Wire and that crazy chick Alice from Luther – deftly highlights how a person’s emotions, traumas, delusions, neuroses and agendas can disrupt their sense of the linear, mould their memories and in some cases re-write history.
Sometimes ‘The Affair’ will show two versions of the same event through two different character’s eyes, and the only difference will be an emphasis here, a piece of clothing there, an outburst here. Sometimes, the differences will be almost laughably extreme. The wife will remember sitting with her ex-husband in a cafe enduring a tense conversation about alimony as they both sip coffee; the husband will remember the wife charging into the cafe on horseback, slicing off a waitress’s head with a scimitar, and angrily shouting the Swedish national anthem at a frightened old man as the horse shits into a child’s sundae. I’ll often find myself rolling my eyes and scoffing: “This is bloody ridiculous. No two people could arrive at such seismically different interpretations of one reasonably mundane afternoon. Codswallop, I tells you, codswallop.” And yet… a recent experience has given me a renewed appreciation of The Affair’s perspective on perspective.
A few weeks ago, our eldest boy, Jack, staggered through to our bedroom in the early hours of the morning, and clambered in next to me. He felt hot to the touch, especially his forehead. I’d been concerned about him. He’d been coughing, sluggish, glassy-eyed and subdued, and generally not acting like his normal, bright-eyed, bonkers little self.
‘He needs medicine,’ I croaked to my partner, my hand wrapped over Jack’s forehead. ‘He’s got a temperature.’
My partner rolled over to face us, opening a blood-shot eye. ‘He’s hot, he doesn’t have a temperature.’
‘That’s what having a temperature is, being hot! I’m going to get him some medicine.’
‘No you’re not, he’s fine. He’s just warm.’
‘He’s not warm, he’s hot, and it’s not ‘hot hot’, it’s ‘ill hot’. I know ‘hot hot’. This isn’t ‘hot hot’.’
‘He doesn’t need medicine.’
‘I’m going to get him some medicine.’
‘No you’re not.’
‘Yes I am.’
And that was the end of it. There I lay in the room’s murky half-light, nursing both my little boy and a massive grievance against my partner. What a cruel witch. She’d just repealed my son’s health-care for reasons that were at best arbitrary, and at worst directly linked to her crankiness at being woken up. I seem to remember getting Jack a cool drink of water, and then mumbling something suitably melodramatic, probably about him exploding at some point through the night, and THEN HOW WAS SHE GOING TO FEEL?
The next day at work I recounted the story to a work colleague, eliciting the expected response of ‘Oh, you can’t take chances, he should’ve got some medicine if he had a temperature’. Towards the end of the working day, I texted my partner to ask how Jack was doing, making sure to mention the medicine debacle and the furnace his forehead had become the night before. Twisting the knife, you know. My speciality. Here’s a little excerpt from the exchange, in medias res:
CHELS: “We miss you too. Jack is a bit weird this morning, maybe he is ill.”
ME: “I told you, darling. He’d peed himself and he was roasting hot for the whole other hour I was awake next to him. Hope he’s okay.”
CHELS: “I never disputed he was weird I just said he never had a temperature, which he never. He still says he feels great and nothing hurts. He’s just quiet. I told him that we had to come home and get some medicine and he just said okay and went to get his hat, it’s usually a fight.”
And then, a sharpened point of memory whistled its way towards my skull, smashing through bone and embedding itself in the spongy yuck of my brain. I had an unsettling moment of revelation, similar to the one the cop experiences at the end of The Usual Suspects when the whole horrible truth of Kaiser Soze hits him like a shovel. ‘I just said he never had a temperature, which he never…’ I replayed my partner’s words again and again in my thoughts. ‘…which he never…’ But how could she be so sure that he definitely hadn’t had a temperature last night, unless she’d actually taken his temperatu… Oh my. Oh dear. Oh dear, oh dear. Suddenly I remembered. It was like fireworks had been set off in my thoughts. We’d taken his temperature. Not we: me. I’d taken his temperature. A course of action, a compromise, that had actually been suggested by my partner.
‘If you think he’s got a temperature, Jamie, then go downstairs and get the thermometer and test him. If he’s got a temperature, then give him some medicine.’
If you’d given me a lie-detector test earlier that morning and asked me to give a truthful account of my hot-headed son’s entrance into our bedroom, I would have passed it with flying colours. It begs the question: how could I have hidden this crucial piece of information from myself? I hadn’t willfully constructed the version of events I’d carried into work with me that morning. There was no premeditation. No deceit. I’d simply mis-remembered. But why? Does the brain have its own version of predictive text? Has a lifetime of self-righteous anger re-written my neural network, and taught my brain how to process and store real-time events in accordance with my expectations and personality? That’s absolutely bloody terrifying. There’s so much plausible deniability swimming around in my head that my brain’s basically a mob boss. There are so many locked doors that I’m close to becoming Elliott from Mr Robot.
Perhaps our poo-pooing of The Affair’s central conceit is an act of self defence; we shut ourselves off from a truth that’s simply too terrifying to absorb. The linear reality we perceive around us is an artificial construct in a state of permanent flux; the by-product of our sensory organs sending billions of signals to an endlessly intricate yet endlessly fallible organic super-computer. Our memories are inextricably linked to our identities, and so if we can’t trust our memories, then who the hell are we? And who are we once our memories fail altogether?
Stranger still, as you’ll see from the reproduced text-thread above, our little boy had peed his bed prior to arriving in ours, and I’d washed him, changed him and put his sheets in the wash, something I’d ALSO forgotten until I reviewed those texts in the process of writing this very blog-post.
This blog-post is a sequel to this one I wrote a few weeks ago, also on the subject of our son’s physical well-being. My partner wasn’t too happy with it. She said it was funny and well-written (I’ve no trouble remembering things like that), but disputed its veracity. She agreed that the sequence of events was correct, but maintained that an emphasis here and an omission there had rendered her unfairly villainous. Apparently, it was our son’s distress and not her own stern words that had prevented me from taking him for a pee. She also claims that she’d said: ‘I’d rather he went to bed calm and happy and risk a wet bed, than put him through any more distress.’
Am I right? Is she right? Did any of it even happen? Was there a horse and a scimitar involved? I… just don’t know anymore.