Friday, July 17, 2020

Divergent Memories by Tim Frank

Tim Frank tells a chilling science fiction tale of the Church's capacity to foster self-denial in service of its own ends.

The congregation, consisting mainly of young couples, some accompanied by their children, the rest single men, knelt in prayer as the priest's voice boomed from the altar to the nave.

"Now," he said, placing his hand on the bible that was open at the Book of Proverbs, "I want you to access your memory chips and go to a place you dread the most - the hidden, the traumatic. Remember, we have analysed your chips meticulously and we can assure you there is nothing too disturbing recorded in them. And yet these memories must be confronted, held up to the light, because if we blot out the past we cannot truly live in the present. Well now, let us proceed, shall we?"

Malcolm grabbed hold of his wife's hand and squeezed tight. She responded with a reassuring smile and briefly rested her head on his shoulder. They both closed their eyes and began to sift through memories on their memory chips. The chips were lodged in their skulls just behind their left ears.

Now that he had been prompted, Malcolm knew exactly which memories to focus on. After all, these particular recollections had been haunting him since their inception.

His mind was transported back in time until he arrived at a flashback where he was standing in a deserted toilet. The lavatory had five cubicles, three sinks and a large mirror, reflecting the light from the windows, creating a phosphorescent cube. Staring back at him in the mirror was a youthful Malcolm, maybe aged fifteen years old, wearing a school uniform - his tie twisted out of shape and one side of his shirt untucked. He could smell a cigarette burning from the far cubicle and plumes of smoke played against the ceiling before they were sucked into the air vent. As the smoke spread throughout the room, Malcolm's lungs became constricted and he began to wheeze. He approached the cubicle from where the smoke was emanating and found the door was ajar. He pushed it open gently with his foot. He revealed a young man, roughly Malcolm's age, holding a cigarette with a limp wrist, wearing thickly applied eyeliner and lip gloss.

"Can you put the cigarette out? It's bad for my asthma."

The kid stood and blew smoke in Malcolm's face who then fell into a coughing fit. The kid flushed his cigarette down the loo and then inspected himself in the mirror. He dabbed the edges of his mouth with a tissue. He glowed like a TV screen.

"I'm Fred," he said, and turned to Malcolm resting his hand on Malcolm's shoulder. "I've seen you about," said Fred. "If you don't struggle, we can have some fun."

Suddenly Fred grabbed him by the mouth and squeezed hard, forcing Malcolm's lips wide open. Fred forced himself on Malcolm, sticking his tongue down his throat and then grabbing his crotch. Fred began to unbuckle Malcolm's belt and then unzip his flies.

"Stop!" said Malcolm, his voice reverberating around the church. He coughed and spluttered. He reached for his inhaler and drew on it a couple of times and his breathing eased somewhat. The rest of the people in the church, including his wife, continued to focus on their memories. The priest ushered Malcolm aside and said, "What is the problem, my child, can I help in any way?"

"Father, you said these memories would be bearable and we must face them no matter what, but they are worse than I had imagined. Thinking back, I never realised just how taxing they were. May I could be excused from this process?"

"I'm afraid not, my child, there are no shortcuts. Let me compromise with you, however. Meditate on the unfinished memories for now. But I want you to complete them at home and report back to me next Sunday."

"OK, Father, that sounds fair. I'll try my best. Thank you for your understanding."

Malcolm re-joined his wife just as she was surfacing from her dream-like state. Her eyes fluttered open and she took several soothing breaths. She turned to Malcolm and asked, "How was it for you?"

"Honestly, I don't know where to begin," he replied.

Malcolm looked around at the other people in the church. The gathering as a whole were clearly shaken by the afternoon's events - many were in tears, shuddering in grief.

"Looks like I'm not the only one who has a lot to think about," Malcolm said. "Please can we go home now; I need a drink."

As they were leaving, Malcolm spotted a man at the back of the church, roughly his own age, with an unkempt beard and a hoodie drawn over his head so only a portion of his face could be seen. Malcolm felt he knew the man from somewhere. As the congregation had poured out of the church and milled about on the front steps the man leant against a lamppost across the road analysing his untied shoelaces - waiting.

"Will you stay here for a minute, darling?" Malcolm said to his wife, "I've just seen an old friend. I won't be long."

"Sure, but why don't you bring him over and introduce us?"

"Um, no, he's not that kind of friend."

Malcolm crossed the street and he reached the streetlight just as it began to flicker into life. The stranger's eyes were shielded by shadows and without ceremony he placed a piece of paper in Malcolm's palm and said, "Come when you're ready but don't take too long - you only have so much time."

"Who are you?" asked Malcolm. "And what's with all the mystery?"

The man didn't answer he just walked away into the early autumn evening, his laces swinging loose, dragging across the pavement.

Back by his wife's side, she said, "Everything OK?"

"False alarm. Mistaken identity."

But Elaine wasn't convinced. She stared over Malcolm's shoulder towards where the man had stood. "I hope you're not keeping secrets from me, Malcolm?" she said.

Malcolm clenched the note the stranger had given him in his hand. He still hadn't read the contents.

"I came here, Elaine; because you asked me. I'm trying."

That night Malcolm was in the living room, seated cross-legged in his dressing gown on a leather upholstered armchair, swirling a finger of whisky around in a tumbler. Elaine came to the door and held on to the frame.

"Are you ready to tell me what you saw today? Or are going to keep me in the dark as usual," she said.

"Elaine, I don't even know myself. The truth is I couldn't finish the memory. It was too disturbing."

"Well you must be able to tell me something. For example, that man with the beard. There was something not quite right with him."

"I told you - I thought I knew him but I was wrong."

"Fine, have it your way, get drunk, blast it all away but it's our marriage on the line."

"Look, I'll tell you what I know, OK? The whole thing was just so surreal, as if it was otherworldly. So, there was this boy from school, this disgusting camp thing, a gay boy who came on to me in the school toilet. He did things to me, or he was just about to before I stopped the memory. I couldn't face what was about to happen. Clearly this is an event in my life the church feels I have to face. Now I'm going to finish my drink. I'll be up to bed soon."

"I'm sorry, Malcolm, I don't know what to say. I guess..."

"What?"

"I guess it does explain a few things, about your recent actions."

"Why you took me - forced me - to go to the church in the first place?"

"I didn't force you. Malcolm, but it was necessary. You are the one who cheated on me, remember? I know you want this marriage to work and I know you love me. I really feel this is the best way. I want you to watch the rest of the memories for me, when you're ready, then we'll have an in-depth discussion about it with the priest. This is progress, trust me."

As she went up to bed, Malcolm slumped down inside his chair, lolled his head back and let out a sigh. He placed his reading glasses on his nose and pulled out the piece of paper the man had given him earlier outside the church. It said, 'Don't trust anyone. Watch your memories and meet me at Queens Passage underground station when you can next week. I'll find you.'

Malcolm struck a match, set the note on fire and let it burn out in a waste paper basket.

Over the next few days, Malcolm toyed with the idea of watching the traumatic memories in full, but he decided he couldn't face the prospect. Finally, though, he decided what he had to do: face his past and meet the man who had given him the note. He knew this person had played a major role in his life - he felt it in his bones.

It was a long journey to Queens Passage from Malcolm's House - full of rugged countryside flashing by and as the train thrust through dark tunnels, Malcolm fingered his memory card behind his ear. He looked up and down the train carriage, empty but for one man wearing a peaked cap, balancing a cane on his lap. Further along, in other carriages were a smattering of people he couldn't quite make out.

The train was entering more built-up areas - council estates, high rise buildings, factories - but the stops were few and far between. "Come on," Malcolm said to himself, "you can't hide from this forever. Harden up and watch these memories. Then you can finish with them for good."

He slid the chip into his skull, fished about for the correct memory then closed his eyes, ready to be transported. His body stiffened. The train came to a halt but Malcolm was so spellbound he didn't notice. A mother and her child of about three years old entered and sat opposite Malcolm, paying him no mind. The kid wore dungarees, had long hair, with his fringe dangling over his eyes. Malcolm began to swing his head from side to side in distress. The toddler turned his attention to Malcolm - peering up at his face, then he clambered down from his seat and grabbed hold of the hand rail beside Malcolm.

"Cody!" barked his mum over the tumult of the train, as it entered another tunnel. "Leave that man alone and come sit beside me."

Cody ignored her, drew a sleeve across his runny nose and tugged on Malcolm's trouser leg. By this point, Malcolm was banging his head against the window behind him in distress, sweat forming around his brow. Cody grabbed Malcolm's arm and pushed several times at it but Malcolm remained in his trance. Then, seeing the continuing anguish in Malcolm's face and hearing his strained breathing, he took hold of Malcolm's hand and bit down on it hard. Malcolm winced and his eyes sprung open. He looked around, trying to find his bearings and, with relief, he realised he had woken from his nightmare. Cody looked up at Malcolm with a curious half-smile. Malcolm inspected his hand. There were fresh bite marks lining the flesh above his thumb.

"Sorry, mister," said Cody's mum, "Cody's so naughty, no boundaries."

Malcolm lifted the boy onto his knee.

"It's OK," he said rubbing his temples, "she was doing me a favour."

"She? Oh no mister, Cody's a boy. We get that a lot. It's the hair, I guess, and his pretty eyes. The name doesn't help either," the mother chuckled.

And as if swatting a deadly spider, Malcolm flung Cody aside, sending the boy sliding across the aisle. The boy howled in shock and horror as his mum raced over to tend to him.

"What the hell is wrong with you mister?" said Cody's mum. She carried the boy on her hip and stepped off the train - the boy bawling his eyes out.

Now, as if he was an apparition from an alternate time, sitting in the mother's place was a lean young man in a black tracksuit, clean shaven, hair buzzed close, staring at Malcolm intently. Malcolm knew him, he was sure of that, but he couldn't figure out how.

"Come on now," said the man, wearing a grin. "Tell me you've connected the dots by now. You have watched the memories, haven't you? Otherwise we're all wasting our time."

"It's you, Fred," Malcolm said, "It's you... from my memory. You're to blame. I'll - I'll tear you apart."

"I understand your distress," said Fred. "But I'm here to show you you've been lied to. Your life is a sham and your rage is misplaced. I have my own memory chip that will relay the facts - no games, no schemes."

"How did you find me?"

"I've been following you for a while. I know all about you."

"You're insane."

"Maybe, but I know there's something you're searching for. Maybe I can provide the answer. Regardless, all I'm asking of you is to watch a few memories I've marked on my chip. It's that simple. What have you got to lose?"

Fred held out a chip in the palm of his hand. Malcolm stared at it almost in disgust, as if it was a cockroach, then finally, in resignation, he took the chip and slipped it into the port behind his ear. It didn't take him long to slide into a hypnotic trance. He saw numerous doors lining either side of a cobble stone pathway. Malcolm saw a burgundy coloured door more finely in focus than the others. He manoeuvred his mind so it faced the door and then he stepped through the entrance.

Before him was the toilet with him and Fred inside - it was the disturbing memory he had forced himself to watch just minutes ago. Malcolm wanted to turn and flee out of the door, lift his consciousness from the horrific thoughts, yet he stayed. He had come this far, suffered so much that he knew he had to see this burden through.

Malcolm now experienced the scene through Fred's eyes and yet Malcolm could still vaguely recollect his own perception of the events that had transpired in the toilet. The light was different. Instead of there being an almost fake hyperreal luminosity filling the room, now it was drab and grey. It felt palpably authentic.

As Fred was smoking, he eyed Malcolm up and down. Fred himself was different. No longer was he exhibiting the camp characteristics that Malcolm found so alienating. Instead Fred was slouched on the toilet, legs spread wide, taking long drags on his cigarette and squinting like Clint Eastwood as smoke stung his eyes.

Fred got to his feet and stood face to face with Malcolm. Malcolm swooped in and landed a forceful kiss upon Fred's mouth, leaving his lips red raw. Malcolm slid off his tie, shrugged off his school jacket and began to unbutton his shirt collar. Fred stood and watched for a second or two. Suddenly, he hitched his shirt over his head in one clean movement and stood before Malcolm half naked. He waited for Malcolm to reveal his body. Finally, the two boys collapsed into another clinch.

Malcolm stopped the memory card and he tuned into the present day. At first reality seemed blurred like looking through a kaleidoscope, but then life came into focus - the train, the cityscape blazing by outside in greens and greys. Before him was Fred, lost in his own world, staring just above Malcolm's head.

"Where did you get this memory?" Malcolm said, jolting Fred out of his daze.

"Those are my memories, that I recorded."

"They're clearly forgeries, none of this happened."

"No, Malcolm, what you've just seen is the truth. They're entirely real. The memories you think are genuine are manipulations created by your church."

"What do you know about the church and what do you know about me?"

"I know the most important secrets about you."

"Well, I know who you are," said Malcolm, "and what you want. You raped me in the school toilets and now out of guilt you've doctored these memories to make it look like I wanted you."

"I knew that was what the church would do. Listen to me Malcolm, and listen to me well - the church wants to make out you were raped, so you turn against yourself and suppress your desire for men. You're gay, married to a woman, and you're a member of a church that can't accept that. There has been a slew of whistle-blowers trying to bring light to this very dark situation, but your church is powerful and many victims have suffered. You're one of them."

"Why on earth should I trust you?"

"Malcolm, I did not rape you. I care about you and I'm here to help."

"What do you want from all this? Do you want me to say I harbour feelings for you or something crazy like that?"

"I guess what happened between us left a lasting impression and it's been with me, festering, all this time. I know you feel the same way."

"What do you expect me to do with all of this? I'm married, I believe in God. I have a life."

"Leave your wife and come with me. Let's get to know each other. No more lies, no more hiding."

Malcolm's chest began to heave up and down and he became flush. He grabbed hold of the arm rests and blood seemed to drain from his hands as they whitened under the pressure.

"This is too much," he said, looking around the carriage - anything to avoid Fred's searching glare. Malcolm rushed out of the train at the next stop, the sound of his footsteps throbbed through the tubular station that he shared with commuters and the rats scuttling along tracks.

Malcolm had journeyed far and it was a long way home. But when he did reach home he burst through the front door, desperately searching for his wife, only to locate her perched on their bed, bare feet huddled beneath her, drinking a cup of green tea.

"What is it, Malcolm?" she said, turning to him as she fumbled with her drink, spilling some over the rim. "Say something, you're worrying me."

Malcolm was speechless. He had no memory chip inserted and his mind was left in its natural state - fragile and constantly fluctuating. However, amorphous strands of the two conflicting flashbacks set in the school toilets had left him in a state of utter confusion.

"Elaine," he began, placing one palm on the duvet as if to steady himself. "There are many things racing through my mind and I really have no idea where to start."

"Just speak."

"OK. Is it possible that our church changed my memories when I gave them my chip to examine?"

"What? No. No, and why on earth would you ask that?

"Exactly, there's no reason other than..."

"Other than what, Malcolm? Look, if you've found a memory that's disturbing, the church and I will help you through it."

"I understand that, I do," Malcolm said, standing and then beginning to pace back and forth, picking up and inspecting the odd framed picture as he went. "But I have this one memory, a very disturbing one that just doesn't feel real."

"Maybe it's something you want to believe isn't real because it's very traumatising. Why don't you tell me what it is and we can progress from there?"

"There's no point. You'd have to see the alternative memory to judge which is the real one."

"What other memory? Malcolm, what's going on?"

"I met a man today, the man who confronted me at the church, remember? He gave me a chip that had a different version of events than were on my memory chip."

"That makes no sense at all. Tell me honestly now, what were the differences in memories?"

"I - I don't want to say it out loud," Malcolm said, reaching for his inhaler as his chest tightened.

"You have to," said Elaine, sitting up and placing her drink to one side. "If we keep secrets and lose our faith in each other, in God for that matter, everything we have will be destroyed."

"OK, OK, I'll tell you. I watched my memories this morning on the train. It portrayed me getting raped by another boy at school. It was the most awful, heinous thing. Then the man I met outside the church the other day, linked up with me on the underground. He said that I was given fake memories, implanted to cover up I'm gay."

Elaine contemplated what Malcolm had said, and took a long pause before she replied.

"Are you gay, Malcolm?"

"Of course not, in no way," Malcolm said. "But if what he says is true and the memories he gave me are genuine then it implies something I've never contemplated."

"Come on now, Malcolm, you can do better than that."

"What's that supposed to mean?"

"We said total honesty, didn't we?"

"I don't think I can be any plainer with you."

"Malcolm, I want a family and a god-fearing life in the suburbs. I could have had other men, but I chose you. Maybe because we met young and I didn't want to rock the boat, maybe because I believed you could look after me in a way no one else could. Anyway, it doesn't matter now, my decision has been made. But, I warn you, you can pretend you don't have another side to your nature, but I'm no idiot."

"What does this all mean, Elaine? So, you're saying the church did plant memories and I'm homosexual? Because that's out of the question."

"How can you be so deluded? Do you even know your own mind?"

"I know who I am. Things are just confusing at the moment. I'm feeling lightheaded. I need water, please."

"Ok, fine. That's enough for tonight. We can discuss this more with the priest at church tomorrow. I'm not giving up on us now. Take a throw, you're sleeping on the couch."

The next day Malcolm left his memory chip on the living room table. Elaine wanted him to be a new man and this was the only way he could see himself doing it - separating himself from the chilling memory of being raped, whether it was real or not.

When they reached the church, the priest invited each of the congregation to approach the front and reveal what they'd learnt during the past week while searching their memory chips. When it was Malcolm's turn to speak, he could feel the intense pressure to conform and confess his guilt. Without his memory chip, searching his mind felt like delving into a murky ocean.

"You all seem to know what to say and truthfully, I don't. But I'll try. I love my wife beyond words but I have doubts and over the last few days these doubts have grown stronger because I don't know who I am anymore."

Malcolm began to breath hard and he reached for his inhaler but it wasn't in his usual side pocket. Memories sifted to the surface of his mind. He saw images of wet flesh, blood and pubic hair.

"I'm a good man," he stuttered, "but I can't remember who I used to be. How - how can I know who I am, if - if I can't remember anything?"

He saw Fred by the exit and then Malcolm passed out.

As his eyes opened tentatively, he realised he was prostrate on the ground surrounded by strange faces, whispering. His breathing had settled down into an even rhythm. He searched the circle of people for Fred, but he was gone. All he could see was a mass of bodies arched over him like hunters analysing their prey.

Elaine said, "It's OK you've just had an asthma attack. You did great. I think you've really made a break through. We all do."

"He was here," said Malcolm, breathlessly. "Fred, was here. I didn't invite him. I don't want him here, I promise."

Elaine shushed Malcolm, "It's OK."

The priest approached, handed Elaine a bottle of water to give to Malcolm. Then he laid a comforting hand upon Malcolm's shoulder after he was refreshed. "Are you OK now, Malcolm? Do you think he's ready for the news, Elaine?"

"Yes, this is as good as time as any," said Elaine.

"What news?" Malcolm said.

Elaine's lips began to tremble as a tear fell from her eye and she said, "You're going to be a father."

"What?" Malcolm said.

"I'm pregnant, I'm going to have your baby."

"I - I don't understand. I'm going to be a dad? But are you sure? How long have you known?"

"A while."

"Why didn't you tell me before?"

"You weren't ready. I hope you are now. I hope you will continue with me to make a better marriage, and forget about the past."

His mind was suddenly clear, as if his past was a figment of his imagination, as if it had never existed. He felt he could become whoever he wanted to be - a new man. He would conform, knuckle down and start with a clean slate. And wasn't being a family man what he really wanted anyway? And wasn't it what was most natural? It would certainly be easier. No longer would he be split, bisected by two memories. He would beat a new path.

4 comments:

  1. An absorbing story. Its a bit of a horror tale. The whole subject of memory and its effects on us is a topical one. Who knows what really happened, if memories can be implanted? Good story pace, ending realistic and we feel for the main character's dilemma.

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  2. Very interesting premise. Good dialogue. I thought his transformative change at the end was a bit hard to believe though.

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  3. If we are created by the collection of our past experiences what happens when those memories are lost or changed? Interesting question addressed be this story. Well written and intriguing. Thanks for sharing it with us.

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  4. Interesting premise, very thought-provoking. Ending left me feeling that Malcolm's struggles aren't truly over.

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