THE FOLLOWING

Chris R-1-194 Image by Christine Renney

Ella wouldn’t give in. She had plagued Stephen with questions, forcing him to answer. But he was the boy who didn’t know, who supposed. He was the boy who wouldn’t say, who couldn’t commit and he answered mostly in shrugs.
When Michael joined them and decided to make an effort, she knew it was for her or at least that it was because of her. If he hadn’t, would she have persevered? Persisted in her pursuit of Stephen? Ella asked herself this constantly but found no answer. She was now the one who didn’t know, wouldn’t say, couldn’t say. She was the one now plagued with questions.
She wanted desperately to remember what he had been like before his brother died. But that Stephen was lost to her. All she had now was a post-tragedy version of Stephen, the one she had followed. Was it possible that he had once been like Michael? Full to brimming with questions of his own and a wanting for answers?
She remembered often and easily being back there in that little room. Music coming from the stereo and Stephen laying on his bed. Barely breathing or so it had seemed but managing somehow to draw in all of the air.
Michael had stepped outside. She had hoped at first it was to use the bathroom but he had been gone for almost an hour. He must have gone downstairs to the kitchen for a drink or something to eat or most probably both.
Ella listened to the music, a voice and a guitar ringing out despite the dull echo and the crackle and hiss. Despite the years and all that had happened since, the singer was making himself heard.
When it stopped, Stephen moved at last in order to turn the record.
‘Who is it?’ she asked.
‘What?’
‘The singer, who is it?’
Stephen was holding the record with both hands like a piece of delicate china. He looked down at the label.
‘Robert Johnson’, he said.
‘It’s old’, Ella said and blushed.
‘Yeah?’
‘But you like it?’ Ella asked clumsily.
‘Yeah’.
‘Why’, she pressed, ‘why do you like it?’
‘I don’t know, I just do.’
Ella had wanted to say more but the music was old and unfamiliar and she found it oppressive. She had wanted to force this, make it into something, a conversation in which they said things that were both clever and profound. But Robert Johnson had begun again and Stephen didn’t want to talk, he wanted to listen. Ella understood now that it was because for as long as the music was there he didn’t have to be.
How much longer did she sit and wait? She was sure she could hear Michael above the music crashing around down in the kitchen. Stephen had turned, was laying on his side, face to the wall. Carefully, and very quietly, she left him, stood in the doorway and glanced back.
She would return with Michael who would noisily interrupt, talk over the music, disregard and break any kind of spell that it might be capable of casting.

Michael had been following her. He was all too aware now of just how far he would go, to what levels he would push and climb so that he could get close to her. Back then he hadn’t given it a second thought and like a mangy dog he had trailed behind her and of course Stephen. Stephen was the key, he was Michael’s way to her.
Ella had become an obsession and over the course of that summer in Stephen’s room both it and Michael had been able to fester until it had reached a decidedly unhealthy pitch. He couldn’t have been more excessive or elaborate in his efforts to impress her and Stephen’s room had proved the perfect platform where he could perform unhindered.
Ella laughed at his jokes. She listened to him and he to her. Each day they would begin afresh sparring together and really getting to know each other. But she was forever glancing a little beyond wherever he happened to be sitting or standing. She was talking with him but looking at Stephen, who lay immobile on the bed or was at his records, sifting through them, searching for something and back then Michael had been perplexed as to what it could be.
The collection depressed him, it was too big. It didn’t seem feasible to him that a fifteen year old boy could own so many records. He realised now that they must have belonged to his brother. Had been handed down, an unwanted inheritance, unwieldy and hard to fathom.
He had watched the girls at school pining for Stephen, yearning from afar. He had wondered now if Stephen’s grief had been part of the attraction, if it had helped to fuel their desire. A few, the bravest and most stunning, had ventured close and they tried to draw him but it couldn’t be done. And humiliated, they had to turn and walk away. They resented him then, those elite and beautiful few whilst the others wanted him all the more and yearned a little harder.
Increasingly, Michael had begun to feel trapped in that little room with Stephen and Ella the girl who yearned the hardest, the one who refused to turn and walk away.

At regular intervals, Michael started to escape. He would make himself a mug of coffee and sit at the pine table, stretch out his legs and relax. He enjoyed the sunshine streaming through the patio windows and each time he absconded he lingered for a little longer. Making himself comfortable in that unfamiliar kitchen, he helped himself to a biscuit or two and before long he was rifling through the cupboards, eating cakes and crisps, cheese and crackers, and guzzling down glass after glass of fresh orange juice and emptying giant plastic bottles of cola.
Ella was easily read. She had a face like an open book and each time Michael returned she was relieved. She tried to hide it, was annoyed with him. She turned quickly and started to sulk but just fleetingly it was there and he didn’t miss it.
Michael felt guilty and resented her a little for making him feel like that. He hadn’t done anything wrong; well, he had helped himself uninvited to food and drink but he had been a guest, Stephen’s friend or at least he had tried to be.
Ella didn’t interrogate him, didn’t ask what he had been doing or why it has taken so long? And although for a few minutes it was awkward between them he would manage to win her over and eventually they would pick up from where they had left off, their voices once again becoming a part of that little room.

Ella had caught him red-handed and he turned red in the face as she leaned over the table and peered down at the mess he had made; the strewn wrappers, the crumbs and the coffee stains.
‘Hope you’re going to clean up after yourself,’ she said.
‘Of course,’ he said, ‘I always do.’
‘You’ve made yourself at home down here,’ she stated.
‘Yeah,’ Michael looked up at her, defiant. ‘I suppose. Do you want a drink?’ he asked.
‘Yeah.’
‘What do you want? Juice, coffee, coke?’
‘A diet Coke,’ Ella laughed. She sat in the chair opposite him and settling she sighed.
‘I think I can manage that.’
Michael stood and as he did they heard Stephen moving on the landing above. Neither of them moved until they could hear him clattering about in the bathroom, rummaging for something.
Michael pushed the glass of coke across the table. He refilled the kettle and switched it on. They watched it boil as they listened to Stephen walking back to his room. He seemed to be taking an eternity and his every footfall was far too heavy and leaden for such a skinny boy. They heard him collapse on the bed and at last he was still, with Ella and Michael sipping at their drinks, making them last, putting it off.
The music had stopped and from where she sat, closest to the door, Ella could hear the record, the Robert Johnson record still turning, the needle caught in the run-out groove and looping unattended.

THE DISCARDED

Chris R-1-136 Image by Christine Renney

I won’t claim that this will be a complete and definitive history of the Mind Wipes because that would be impossible. But I am almost seventy years of age and I have been drained only once. In order to achieve this, to survive with my memories intact, my mind unaltered by that particular cocktail of drugs, I have of course been forced to live off the grid, leading the life of an itinerant. I am a man of no fixed abode and with no gainful employment, at least not that the Authority would recognise.
I am not alone, I haven’t ever been alone. There have always been those who choose to drop out, as it were. Turning their backs on the Authority and existing below the radar, residing in grubby squats and temporary encampments. Working when they are able for a little cash in hand, but mostly scavenging. This is the price they must pay, that we must pay, in order to re-claim our memories or at least have the chance to manufacture some new ones.
There are many who didn’t choose to be here, these are the ones who haven’t abandoned the Authority but have been abandoned by it. They have been discarded for myriad reasons but mostly it is because they are too fragile. Even if they are drained of their past it won’t alter or influence how they behave in the future and to constantly keep wiping their memories would be a pointless task.

Growing up I didn’t pay much attention to the Memory Wipes. The brain drains were a part of the adult world and not something I needed to concern myself with.
The Authority men were a constant in our neighbourhood, patrolling the pavements and disappearing into the houses, re-emerging in their dark suits and with their little black suitcases. I was also aware that, occasionally, the men came to our house. I realise now of course that they visited twice a year. Once in order to administer the drug to mother and again when it was my father’s turn.
I remember vividly bursting into our tiny sitting room early one morning. Dad was sitting in his armchair and mum was standing beside him. As I entered she started talking.
‘Here he is,’ she said. ‘Here’s our boy. Come in and give your dad a hug. He’s feeling a bit worse for wear, give him a hug, son, come over here and give him a hug.’
Mum didn’t ever talk like this and we weren’t the kind of family that hugged. Reaching out, she grabbed my hand and tried to pull me into the room but I resisted and started to back away and I looked down at my dad’s face and I could see quite clearly that he didn’t know where he was and he didn’t know who I was.
It was at that moment I understood. I realised then that the Authority man had only just left, that it must have been merely minutes since he had pushed through our front door and out onto the street beyond, the empty hypodermic in his suitcase that had contained the drug now circulating through my dad’s veins, stealing from him all that he knew and limiting all that he would ever know.
I stared down at him slumped in his chair, a man who would have to re-learn everything and quickly. He would have to re-learn how to be a husband and a father, how to rise in the mornings and make his way. He would have to re-learn not how to be but how to be useful.

GHOST LETTER 44

Chris R-1-116 Image by Christine Renney

It isn’t as deserted here on the outskirts as I had at first believed. This tract of wasteland circles the City and I have been walking it for almost a week. Gradually I have become aware of the life here, that despite the degradation there are pockets of industry. And despite the broken and boarded windows and the cracked pavements that people are clinging on here and are determined not to leave, not to abandon this place.
This shop at the centre of the parade up ahead for instance; it is the only one still open, flourishing amidst the flotsam and the debris. When it is dark and I spot its windows alight from a distance I know where I am and it has become an important marker on my route.
Each time I pass I glance across at the shop. Sometimes there are children hanging around with sweets or old men with their cigarettes. But today there is no-one, it is deserted and there is an air of abandonment. But the lights are on and the door is wedged open. I realise I have stopped and suddenly I find myself contemplating going in and buying something, anything. A chocolate bar perhaps or a newspaper. But what would I do then? What might I learn?
Looking down I realise that I am walking again and that I won’t be going into the shop or sitting and reading a newspaper. At least, not this time around.

GHOST LETTER 33

Chris R-0314-2 Image by Christine Renney

I try to convince myself it is sudden, this want, this need. It has been growing inside of me, unbidden, a well without water.
How can I talk again after so long? Each time it surfaces I suppress it and resist. I could so easily run, abandon the City, and make again for the road, find that other place, the one in between here and there, where I could stand off to one side and, unheard, shout at the sky and down into the earth.
I look up, not because I must, or because I might stumble or have gotten too close to the edge and could fall into the abyss, I look up to see what is happening right here and now. But it is too bright and, squinting into the harsh light, I am hardly able to see. Everyone is moving so quickly and everything is blurred. At last someone slows a little and I focus on him.
I watch him moving in closer and he bends and drops a handful of coins onto the pavement in front of where I am sitting.
‘Thank you,‘ I say, staring down at them but when I raise my head he is gone.