I struggle to determine my earliest memory. My head is swarmed with cloudy scenes and flashing images, that have no timescale, no sense of coherence or purpose. All things considered, it somehow seems apt.
Yet there are several particular scenes that spring to mind when I close my eyes and let my mind drift. My childhood seems a random concoction of 80s bad clothes, wonderful games with my sisters, Lego, Neighbours, my mother’s huge Owl-esque glasses, my Nans, my impersonations of just about anyone, my dad’s random rages over innocuous driving occurrences, and political tensions on television.
But if I concentrate really hard, and I mean really hard now, not like in school - when 90% of my brain switched off and dreamt of fame and fortune, 5% thought of impressions I could do of the comically attired teacher parading in front of me in orange pantaloons, while the remaining 5% concentrated on sleeping with my eyes shut – certain memories begin to stand out, they begin to form and play out again in my head.
One is watching Wales beat Australia on TV in the very first Rugby World Cup in 1987. It was the third place playoff; small red-shirted mullet-wearing men running around on screen colliding into a load of yellow-shirted mullet-wearing men, also scampering around the park. There were possibly some moustaches in there somewhere, but definitely very tight shorts. Arms and legs were everywhere. Absolutely nothing makes any sense, naturally. It seems trite perhaps, yet this was the first stepping-stone towards the brainwashing on my small unaware, developing brain, something that can only be described alike to a cult or religion. It has remained in my life ever since. Rugby: a nerdish and obsessive ritual that has, at times, completely and utterly dominated my life and moods. And probably seriously affected my health too. In fact, there is no ‘probably’ about it. I know it has.
A small memory that springs to life in my head is one of my Nan and I sitting in the front room of her house waiting for mum to pick me up. I do not know how old I am but it was before I started school. I am sat on her lap, her arms wrapped around me tightly but affectionately. Her bony arms and hands look thin and weak but are deceptively strong. There is an overwhelming sense of warmth, her clothes are so very spongy and colourful, and there is a powerful not unpleasant smell of perfume and washing powder. She talks soothingly and rather randomly, while I just listen tiredly sucking my thumb. Her white haired head bobs around as she natters away, her brightly coloured big jewellery clunks at every movement. That warmth is so strong.
The image suddenly leaps to being home, and an overwhelming sense of sadness. Sadness that I have left my Nan, alone, while I return to the mad-house of children’s voices and games and my parents’ political discussions. I just feel so sad. It seems so unfair. I worry my Nan might now be sad and lonely, and it hurts so much but I am not aware of where. But I know the pain is there.
I do not know how old I am in this memory, but I am small, and dressed up as Charlie Chaplin including the little false moustache and bowler hat. It is my cousin’s birthday party. Who decided that I was going to this party in cross-dress, as a dead silent movie star who resembled ever so slightly Hitler, is a minor mystery. The party was certainly not fancy dress…I suspect my parents thought it would be a hilarious idea and I, ever loving the excuse to dress up and perform, be someone else for the evening, was only too glad to play along. It was probably my idea anyway. I am met with plenty of attention and love it, but am terrified at the same time. The torment of wanting to be the centre of attention and thriving on it, yet at the same time also feeling terribly shy is battling away inside my tiny body. But at least, I feel, I am not me. I am pretending. It feels better that way. People can laugh, and it’s nice, an instant approval. And I am not me.
Another recollection is sitting in the back room floor of our family house, eyes glued to the TV (again), sat next to both my sisters who were also riveted to the small colour television on the shelf above the huge box of assorted and multi-coloured Lego. On the screen was the Space Shuttle, flying up into space, huge plumes of smoke bellowing from the rockets majestically. Yet the news had just been broken. Tragedy had struck. The shuttle had ‘exploded’. And now we watched the footage. The shuttle suddenly seemed to break up violently in front of us, smoke expanding everywhere, debris springing off, large balls of fire and the rockets jetting off on their own. But mostly white smoke. So much of it! Thick, white and grey clouds engulfing the image. It seemed to engulf my mind. The camera pans out and there’s no more Shuttle, just a bizarre giant Y shaped smoke stream against an ironically beautiful crystal blue-sky backdrop.
The sense of shock and terror still bites my stomach, even now. I was four years old, an age where everything was big, everything was loud, but everything was also exciting. Yet the security of the world around me had suddenly been thrown into disarray. The TV coverage cut back to the astronauts walking to their shuttle, smiling, waving to the crowd. But now the crew were dead. My lasting memory is of my sister Anna, two years older, and along with our eldest sister, newly obsessed with anything Space and Shuttle related. A teacher was onboard, a civilian, one of us. Anna turned to our mother and asked if the astronauts were dead. She refused to believe they were. Maybe they survived? Maybe they could be rescued? I didn’t understand. One minute the astronauts were walking and smiling and now they weren’t? How was this so, how could this be. It is something I have struggled to comprehend, even to this day.
I guess I could continue reminiscing about random memories forever. But these are the main ones that seem to stick out most vividly and frequently. It intrigues me what I can and cannot remember.
Are we not made up of memories? I have certainly often thought so. They are, essentially, all that we have - a never-ending DVD of our lives, and occasions. A permanent photo album of moments passed. Not much can wipe them from our hard drive brains. Not much can determine, consciously, what we remember and what we don’t. But on our death beds, we will lie back and let the images flood; close our eyes and suddenly the backs of our eyelids become small cinema screens to what we have done, what we haven’t, who we have met, who we have lost. Who we are.