The memories keep coming, slipping by the triggers that otherwise keep me in the moment. They come when my guard is down, when things are done and I’m relaxing into the night – sitting watching the TV, or as I lay in bed reading.
Last night two disparate memories returned, one from when I was a child, and the other when I was a grown man travelling the world.
From the time I was a baby until I was about 12-13 my grandparents on either side would mind me, and later my sister, through school holidays and other random occasions. When I was a baby, my mum would leave me with her mother – Nanny, as I would call her – while she went to work. I have no memory of that, though a strong bond developed between me and Nanny. Years later, mum would often tell the story of how I would cry having to leave nanny when mum collected me every night.
We were always close, right up to the day she prematurely died. I was about 16 then, and though I’d held it together through her illness and even at the news of her death, I bawled at the sight of her lying in her coffin at her funeral. It wasn’t her, I thought. It looked like someone different, someone hollowed out without even memory of life in her features. I made a vow on that day that I would never choose to look upon the dead features of a loved one again. It broke me at the time though, until I was wracked with sobs I couldn’t control. I loved her so much, and she, me – I was her favourite, she would tell me, don’t tell anyone.
I recall now how mum disapproved of my tears, though I don’t understand why. Did she think it innapropriate? There was a man there, the husband of one of mum’s best friends. He was always pleasant, very handsome – a runner who’d competed at Stawell – but he’d always had a veneer of the superficial. On that day, though – and I’ve never forgotten – he came up to comfort me. I don’t remember what he said, but he allowed me my grief, and for that I was grateful. From that day forward, I had a soft spot for him, and great respect for those who seek to comfort others in moments of sadness. I’ve tried to be that man, myself.
That was not the memory, though it’s not unusual that one memory triggers others.
The memory was well before that when Nanny and Gramps lived in Reservoir in a small house built in the rear yard of her sister’s home, Auntie Elsie and Uncle Bill. I used to love going over there. Nanny would make pancakes and chips. Gramps would tell me about the war (he was a sapper and fought in New Guinea and Borneo), and we’d share his Parade magazines. On the wall – very seventies – was a print of a galleon under full sail, blue-tinted and dramatic. And Nanny was always great fun to be around.
What I remembered is banal in a way – but sometimes it’s the banal that is most affecting because it is the most commonplace. Nanny used to listen to a program on the radio called the Gong Show. It was a talent quiz and performers would be rated by how many gongs they got. I remember so well how she would avidly listen to this in the mornings before the day had properly started (and in the night, too?). I recall there seemed few talented performers, and it was depressing all round – and not only because I could sense the small hopes of mediocre wannabes being crushed. The whole thing felt deathly to me in some way – this was the radio of another time it felt, a sepia-ed past that seemed small in my childish mind. And it felt like old people’s radio, for people who’s life was nearly past, and I didn’t want to think that.
That memory came to me last night watching the cricket. An hour or so later, in bed, there came to me the distinct memory of an evening spent in Hanoi. This must have been 2006. I was there for business, and would fly onto Bangkok and Delhi. The night before the Hanoi office had taken me out for dinner to some lively restaurant where the food was great, and on the way back I clung to the back of a moped taking me to my hotel.
This memory is the night after and left to my own devices. I wander into the heart of Hanoi, which is situated around a lake. It was lively again, and bright, and I wandered up streets and down laneways. I was looking for somewhere to eat and couldn’t settle on anything. It feels like I wandered for hours – and it was quite some time – but now I can’t recall where I ended up eating. I remember people about and the mopeds scooting by and scooters and lanterns and great trees and the light reflecting off the lake seen in glimpses. It was balmy and I remember the chatter of the locals as they went about their nightly routines. On the way back to the hotel, I stopped at a store and bought a silk tie – mauve, and something for mum. And that was it, a night in a foreign city, the tall, white guy wandering around and no-one sparing him a second look.
Why am I remembering these things? Memories come and go. They return randomly. This feels different, somehow. As if I’m allowed to remember, as if it is a reminder wrapped up in the gift of memory: you did this, this is yours, savour it. But then there’s a twist: you were there, but you’ll never get back there again.
The memory of Hanoi triggered another, a snapshot really, years later in Shanghai, and I’m in a bar on the 60th floor or something of one of the dazzling skyscrapers there overlooking the Bund. It’s a great view, and with me are two Shanghai women having a drink with me.