Tangible memories

Do you ever get struck by memories that you are sure you can feel, or even taste? Perhaps it’s an age thing, but I find myself experiencing these a lot more these days. The following examples are all real events or moments from my life and they keep returning to my thoughts, often stopping me in my tracks, as if I am going through them all over again.

The heat of a summer pavement through a pair of shorts. I am seven or eight years old, sitting on a kerb in London, and I feel hot. The warmed stone is like perching on the top of an oven; the heat on the back of my legs is bearable, but I feel the need to stand up.

In a class at school, perhaps twelve years old. I know the answers to the questions the teacher is asking, but I am conscious that many of my classmates do not. I hold back, not wanting to appear smart, or to be a know-all. The teacher gives up, and turns to me. “I know you know” she says, “why don’t you answer?” Some of the other kids look at me. My ruse has failed.

In a Wimpy Bar, in a South London shopping street, aged around fourteen. The smell of onions is almost overwhelming, and the rasp of the machine that froths the coffee drowns out conversation. I take a bite from the burger, and I can taste the unfamiliar meat, and the burnt sections at the ends of the onion. The food leaves my lips greasy, in a good way.

Almost eighteen, and had far too much alcohol to drink. I am staying at the house of a friend, and when I go to bed, the room spins, and I keep sitting up, afraid of what might happen. I feel that I have no control over my mind or body, and it is a very disconcerting thing indeed.

Thirty-three years old. I am in a car, asleep in the passenger seat. We are returning from Scotland, and my ex-wife is driving. Something makes her leave the motorway at speed, and the car hits the bank and overturns. I wake up, upside down, and screaming in fear. The car impacts with the road, and turns over again. The noise of the crash, followed by the scraping sound as it slides along the carriageway. Then silence.

Perhaps a year later. I am in an unfamiliar bedroom, working as part of an emergency ambulance crew. The woman on the bed is naked from the waist down, and about to give birth to a baby. Her husband, mother, sister, and another child are also in the room. I have the equipment laid out around me, and my colleague has gone to collect a midwife, as no spare vehicles are available. She starts to bear down, and the baby’s legs come out first. Everyone in the room looks at me. They are certain I will know what to do, and unconcerned about the fact that anything could go wrong. It all worked out OK, but I can still smell that bedroom.

I am alone in my flat in London, it is March 2012. I have not long returned from visiting my Mum in hospital. The flat is full of boxes, as I am moving to Norfolk soon. Sitting up late, the phone rings. It is a nurse, telling me that Mum has died. He asks me if I want to come back and see her. It is past 1.30 in the morning, so I say no. I had a mixture of feelings, hovering between heartbreak, and relief.

These and many other moments can return at will. Sometimes they are accompanied by tastes or smells, usually just the feeling I experienced at the time. They can hit you with some impact, or just make you feel uneasy. I have only noticed them since living here. Maybe I have too much time to think.

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16 thoughts on “Tangible memories

  1. You’ve had some memorable experiences in your life, Pete. I’ve had a few as well. At some point, I intend to write them down. For years now, I’ve foreseen writing an autobiography of sorts in which I recount events that would be of interest to people other than myself. Perhaps you should do the same?

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  2. Pete, that was a beautiful, beautiful text that even made me teary. I don’t know if it has to do with age, or too much time to think, but I believe the memories we remember most, those that obsessively stay with us, are those that are closer to the core of our being, even if they seem random on the surface.

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    1. Thanks, Nandia. Your kind comment means a great deal to me. This was a very personal piece, and when these experiences, and others like them, choose to reappear in my life, I am never sure whether to see it as a good thing, or not.
      Best wishes, Pete.

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      1. I think I was particularly affected by the text because you located the place of memory in taste and smell, and those were precisely the two senses I lost because of my illness (although smell eventually came back after successful chemo treatment, and taste is on its way as well). I could not imagine what a huge part they play in our lives until I actually lost them.

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        1. I am very pleased to hear that those senses are returning to you now, Nandia. Like you, I could not imagine what life would be like without them. I sincerely hope that you continue to a full recovery.
          Best wishes, Pete.

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  3. All sorts of things trigger memories. The smell of school dinners, aviation fuel, I even have a song that reminds me of a frequent journey from Hackney to Stratford in the 80’s. They are nearly always happy memories. Good post Pete.

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    1. Thanks, Jimmy. I know what you mean of course. I was just noticing lately how these were not triggered by proximity to smells, or hearing songs. They just appear in my head/brain/nose, with no relevance or context. Perhaps I’m just losing it a bit…
      Cheers, Pete.

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  4. It’s when you turn a little older that these things are most vivid in your mind. I always dream of places of my childhood sometimes mixed with what is happening now. There was this old house of my maternal grandparents that I keep dreaming about until now even if the house is gone more than three decades ago.

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  5. I don’t know if this relates, but – 10-15 years ago I would have told you that I don’t recall much about elementary school or middle school, etc, bu the older I get – the more and more memories pop (and I mean POP) into my head; sometimes without provocation and other times a smell, song or thing on TV causes it.
    Some of what you’re saying almost sounds like grounds for believing in reincarnation?

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      1. Oh, definitely. I used to have a sister-in-law that suddenly began putting long-long relatives photos up on the wall because she was finally recalling who these people were. (are we both losing it?)

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