IT WAS AS I was spreading some sweet pickle on a cheese sandwich that I got a sudden jolt of memory, back to some moment in childhood relating to food, which evoked mixed emotions of poignancy and delight. It was like walking down a familiar corridor of the present and somebody opens a door to reveal a glimpse of the whole of the past, colourful, noisy, joyous and still going on, then shuts it straight away. In fact, the door closed so swiftly I couldn’t make out what bit of childhood I had just glimpsed. That familiar emotional state found itself oddly unanchored to anything identifiable.
I found myself immediately engaged in a kind of internal investigation. I was aware of the moment as it happened, and the fact that I was examining the moment even as it was vanishing. I hadn’t even finished spreading the pickle and I was already struggling to remember what part of my childhood had been hinted at – at what part it could have hinted at.
Perhaps it was the smell of the pickle, or the sound of the knife on the side plate. I knew one of those sensations had sparked it. Unfortunately, this wasn’t the full Proust. The whole of the past didn’t unlock itself for my rediscovery. There was going to be no recherche here.
I thought back to the times I had eaten sweet pickle, but found no clues because I only recall eating the stuff when I was a teenager and older. Had it ever appeared on my plate, beside cold meat or with the rare salads we ate when I was a child? It was a mystery. Sweet pickle sandwiches when I was a student and there was nothing else in the kitchen to eat, I remember that. Sweet pickle sandwiches when I was no longer a student, but unemployed, and there was nothing else in the kitchen to eat, I remember that as well.
Was it the sound of the knife on the edge of the plate? Possibly, but that’s a sound so common throughout my life that the memory to which it would attach itself would have to be of such singularity that I couldn’t possibly not remember it.
THE MORE I thought about it the more I began to think my mind had been busy doing whatever the mind does when you’re spreading pickle on cheese, then wondered about some image from my childhood but just as quickly decided it wasn’t worth pursuing and dropped it, before realising that I had been listening in, as it were. So by now my own mind had forgotten what it had been thinking about and had no intention – possibly no ability – to hand over the goods. We were both in the dark.
This particular incident happened only one day after another concerning memory. I was talking to a student about school and how things had changed since I was a pupil when without warning a complete picture popped into my mind (and “popped” almost in the same way as a piece of bread in a toaster). It was such a clear image and so comical that I started laughing. It was the beginning of a Geography lesson and we were just going into the classroom. The master, who was one of those quietly terrifying types you probably don’t get these days, had not yet arrived. “Eddy” as he was known amongst us, had a scar across his chin, said to have resulted from a car accident. He spoke and moved very slowly and deliberately and always had the air of a man barely in control of an immense rage that we feared could be triggered by the most minor of infractions – dropping a book on the floor, perhaps, or suggesting some geographical idiocy – locating terminal moraines in the Sahara Desert, for instance.
What confronted us as we entered the room was the sight of a waste paper basket on top of the teacher’s desk at the front. The class who had just vacated had obviously put it there. This was a bad enough display of insolence, but it was enhanced by the fact that a tiny first-year (whose name I have forgotten, so I shall call him Collins) was stuffed into it so that his legs dangled over the front, his arms at the side and his head at the back. His arse was well and truly jammed right in there and he couldn’t get himself out though he flapped his arms and squawked like a little bird. A little bird with a ginger head. He really was that small.
Such creative insolence and disregard for human rights, dignity and waste paper bins amused us greatly, so we did nothing to help Collins out of his predicament and merely laughed. Until Eddy walked into the room, at which point silence fell and fear pervaded the room. Eddy walked up to the desk. Slowly, wrapping his gown around him (it was an old-fashioned grammar school).
“Who put you in there, Collins?” Eddy asked.
“Form 5B, sir” said Collins, who, being as terrified as the rest of us, had stopped flapping. Eddy turned to the front row of the class.
“Hill,” he said, “get Collins out of there.”
Which Hill managed to do, although this procedure itself required dragging Collins (half boy, half bin) by the upper torso onto the floor with a great clang, then upending the bin and yanking it away from its contents.
Eddy dismissed Collins who, released from one terrifying incident, would now have to face another one when, arriving late at his next class, he would have to explain his unpunctuality as down to the fact that he had been jammed in a waste paper bin in the Geography room.
The class continued as if nothing had happened.
NOW IF THE sweet pickle memory had been as clear and precise as this, I would have been happy. It’s the quixotic inconsistency of my own remembrance that annoys me. I wanted to know what this fugitive memory was. It may have been some little treasure of a moment that had not seen the light of consciousness before. It may possibly have been my ramshackle memory going off at half-cock, like an aged librarian in an ageing library that’s accumulated so much material there’s no way either organise it or sift through it any more.
I suppose I’ll have to get used to it. It’s just that I’ll never be able to have a cheese and pickle sandwich again without feeling I’ve forgotten something important.