Image by Christine Renney
It was just beginning to get light when I set out from the City and now it is almost dark. I have walked right through the daylight hours, from dawn to dusk.
The road on my right as I walked was blurred and noisy, like an out of tune radio or an old analogue TV but with no aerial connected, pointlessly searching for a station. But I didn’t look. Scanning the ground in front of my feet I hardly raised my eyes and was barely aware of what was up ahead, simply accepting that it was more of the same. Occasionally though I did stop and, turning from the road, I stared out over the fields, only for a few seconds but it was enough and somehow, almost subconsciously, it feels I have made my way to here.
I am standing on a high bank. I look down at the road and it is big and wide, a motorway. I recognise the names on the signs and I remember visiting some of these cities and I realise then that I must have driven on this road and on others like it.
Suddenly I discover that I want to go back, to re-visit one of these cities and, starting to move again, I choose one at random. There is a spot up ahead where the bank isn’t quite so steep and I will be able to make my way down.
But I realise just as suddenly I won’t be able to follow this road, that I can’t walk alongside it. No, I have to stay up here and I must find another way.
Image by Mark Renney
The Bus Station is no longer a beacon, a light I can head toward at night or a place where I can just fleetingly expose myself to a little daytime bustle or I can step into from out of the cold and warm my hands on a polystyrene cup of weak but scalding hot tea.
The Station’s usefulness for me is fast fading and yet I am here all of the time now. I stalk its environs and it is hardly ever out of my sight and never clear of my mind. I am haunted by it or more accurately I am the one who haunts the Station. I am an ethereal presence, hovering above the ground, a waft of smoke with no reflection in the glass. But if they looked, if the rush hour regulars really, really looked and not just when they arrive but also when they leave, if they looked back from the windows of their buses they would see me standing here, still waiting.
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.
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.
Image by Christine Renney
Even after so long it seems strange that I managed to find my way here. I didn’t suddenly become interested in art and start to visit galleries. Nevertheless, in this small town, the town where I once lived and where I still work, I found myself drawn here.
At first I sat outside and it was weeks, possibly months, before I ventured in. I would sit on a bench and while away my lunch hour. Why, during the course of my not so busy day, did I feel the need to escape? I live alone and only whilst at work am I able to interact with others.
Nevertheless there I sat, day after day, and from the safety of my bench I watched the visitors. They were almost exclusively couples and most middle aged or older.
The young rarely come here. I suspected that the paintings inside would resemble those who came to look, that they would be comfortable and safe. In a word respectable. Despite this, as the days turned to weeks I became more intrigued but I wasn’t ready to enter, not yet.
The visitors were sparse, few and far between, and I had started to linger (nobody at the office seemed to have noticed my continual absences) and, determined, I awaited the arrival of the next couple. They would walk briskly along the path and after I had watched them push through the doors and disappear into the gallery I would feel compelled to wait until they emerged. Blinking in the direct sunlight they would gaze out across the grass, staring directly at my bench, but they couldn’t see me. They weren’t able to find me or at least not at first, not until they were able to take a little time to readjust.
For the most part the gallery remained empty, deserted, apart from a woman who sat behind a counter just inside the front doors, residing over a makeshift shop through which, when I entered, I had no choice but to pass. If the visitors hardly noticed me she was all too aware of my presence. How could she not have noticed me on my bench where I sat so often and for so long?
I hadn’t done anything wrong. It was a public space but I began to feel guilty and under her scrutiny I began to act furtively. When I did enter it was under cover. I dogged the steps of an elderly couple and as one we moved across the foyer.
I had been seen of course and the woman abandoned her counter to follow us in. She studied me from afar and I found this most disconcerting. I was unable to concentrate and couldn’t focus. But slowly a picture, one of the paintings, began to take shape and form. I could see and when I did, when I looked, I realised what was possible. The woman continued to glower but I didn’t care. I could outlast her. The painting was of a garden, wild and labyrinthine and I wanted in, no matter how much effort or how long it took.
And from here, without fear of rebuke and reprisal, I can now watch the art lovers, all of those couples, and occasionally I glimpse a man on his own gazing into the bright sunlight.