I am young. Two, maybe Three years old. I am sitting in a car, looking out of the window. It isn’t a memory, as such, but an awareness. We are on a highway, and the road has been dug through a hill. Big slabs of concrete hold back the dirt on either side of the road. This memory is unreliable. It tries to tell me this happened in France, on a family holiday, but it also has me looking out the left side window, straight into the wall. The French drive on the right. The two are mutually exclusive, impossible to reconcile, but they are there. The memory is unreliable.
I have other memories of the trip, but these are not my own. I see these others through the lens of a camera, an old home video. Here I am, throwing a ball at a tent wall and laughing as the curves send it rolling back down toward me. Here I am at Disneyland. Here I am, in old grainy footage of a video camera.
Now I’m four, maybe. Another camping trip. This time in the UK, the New Forest. It is at this campsite I learn how to swim. There were two trips here in my extreme youth. They blur together. I’m unsure which memories are from which trip. I was very young. The memories are few, and hazy. I owned a little action figure – an Action Man. You wound him up and he’d swim along water. Outstretched arms, unbending and strong. My mother used this toy as my example. Move your arms like Action Man. You can do it. My father splits it up into challenges, sets a reward at each one. Swim this far, and you can have that reward. Bribery? It works.
I see evening dew on the ground. I ask what it is, why the grass is wet when it hasn’t rained in days. My father answers me as best he can. Later I am still looking in wonder at the drops clinging to the grass. My father is still around, somewhere. He is wearing flip-flops, and the noise cuts through the happy chatter of a campsite in Summer.
In the mornings, we eat breakfast. Eggs cooked on a camping stove, eaten on a little blue table that folds into a briefcase. A table that is stolen 15 years later when my mother is camping in North Norfolk. I am eating a soft-boiled egg from a plastic plate with a built-in eggcup. It has humpty dumpty on it. I have toast soldiers. A bee lands on my hand, and stings me. It is the only time I have been stung by a bee.
At home, this time – my old house. We moved when I was six. I am much younger than that here. I want to say this memory is after school, but it could have been earlier – nursery, pre-school. I am playing dead on the floor in front of the TV, trying to hold my breath. I want to know what my cat would do if I were to die, how she’d react. She does nothing, continuing to wash herself on the other side of the room. I convince myself this is because she can hear my stifled breathing, my heartbeat. I want to believe that if I really were dead, there would be some reaction. I hear a noise from further in the house. I react quickly, almost guiltily. I don’t want my mother to think I’m being silly.
I am upstairs in my bedroom. I have been sent to sleep, but I cannot. I never could. I am sitting on my windowsill in my pajamas, looking down at older children playing in the street. I think I am invisible to them. Of course, I am not. They eventually realise they are being watched, and start jeering up at me. I can hear them through the glass. I am completely unfazed. I don’t move from the spot. I watch them until they get bored, and then I return to bed.
My Father is reading a book to me. It is The Hobbit. He is trying to record himself reading it, and although – as far as I’m aware – he succeeds, I never learn what becomes of the tapes. I want to remember this recording being made on a small toy tape player/recorder that was bought for me as a child, second-hand, an audio book of ‘SuperTed’ left over from the previous owner. I cry my eyes out as my Father recounts the death of a beloved character. This shocks him, I think. He had not expected my reaction to be this violent.
I have starting learning to read. They start off giving us picture books, with no words – we are supposed to tell the stories ourselves. I wonder how this is supposed to help. Later Biff, Chip and Kipper. Then further still. I advance quickly. I remember lying on the floor of the front room, singing out the words as I read them. Why I thought singing was a sensible thing to do is beyond me. One night, when I can’t sleep, I pull myself into the centre of my room and sit on the floor, reading a child’s encyclopaedia. This starts a lifelong trend of reading instead of sleeping.
My father writes me a poem as part of a birthday gift. The gift the poem refers too is a piece of Star Wars Episode One merchandise. It might be my last birthday in the old house, but I could be mistaken. At the time the poem was ancillary, read and then discarded. Now, the poem itself is what I remember. I kept it, although whether this was my idea I cannot remember. I doubt it was. I think I still have it, collected in a shoebox at the bottom of an old wardrobe. I have never known my Father to write poetry. It is an echo, evidence of a person separate to myself. A man beyond his relation to me. A creative endeavour made entirely by him and given to me.
It is Christmas morning. I am up early, excited. I am downstairs, in front of the fire, surrounded by wrapping paper. I am playing with a Spiderman toy set. It is a house, or maybe just a wall, with points for Spiderman and all the other figures to climb. There are traps to avoid, people to rescue. I am dragged away from it to eat breakfast. Christmas fry up. A tradition. This is the first I can remember. This is the first Christmas I have memories of. Later, in the evening, my grandparents come visiting. I believe this is a different Christmas – maybe later, or maybe earlier. The memory is not as concrete as the Spiderman morning. Less sure of itself. I unwrap Batman action figures. This is probably the year the awful Batman and Robin came out, 1997. The Batman figures are frost themed. There is a motor-bike vehicular thing, in the shape of a wolf. When I press a hidden button, the nose shoots out. It takes me maybe a fortnight to lose the nose.
A less happy memory: I am in my first school. Reception, maybe, or else my first year: Year One. There are tiny little rubber dinosaurs that the boys like to play with when we can. They are maybe 5 cm tall, and probably less. I have been stealing them and taking them home. I am hiding them under the sofa in the living room, with other toys that seem to live there. Why I am stealing them, I don’t know. My memory wants to tell me I was peer pressured into it by another boy, but I think my memory is trying to soften the shame. I think it’s possible it was all me. I was going through my dinosaur phase, and I had several plastic dinosaurs of my own. I think my father once mentioned, off-hand, as part of the game, that an imagine T-rex/ triceratops fight would be fun. I had a T-rex figure, but not a triceratops. I remember thinking that if I took a triceratops, I could make it happen. Eventually I told my mother, but I didn’t tell her I’d stolen them. I said somebody else had, that he’d then buried them around the playground and the field, and I was simply reclaiming them. My mother let me believe I’d fooled her, let me embellish on my story day after day, make it more fantastical, more ridiculous. Eventually I reach an event horizon, of sorts. I’ve made my story so ridiculous that I know she can’t believe it. I think at this point I’ve got myself tunnelling through the concrete surface of the playground, and then fixing the patterns so nobody could notice. I break. On the way home from school, when she asks me if there is anything else I can say about the dinosaurs, I tell her everything. I cry. There is no shouting, but I feel terrible. I am told I have to return them all the next day, as soon as I get into school. I tell my parents that I can’t, what if the teacher sees me, what if I get in trouble. What if, what if. I am told that if nobody sees me, that’s that, but if I’m caught, I have to explain everything. The rubber dinosaurs are in a small Happy Shopper paper bag. The kind penny sweets used to come in. It weighs on me for the entire evening, and night. I am not caught.
It is a memory I return to often. Only in hindsight am I thankful for the way it was handled. Instead of being called on my obvious lies, I was allowed to work it through until my own guilt and shame (for both the theft and the lies) won out. It was a lesson I earned, one I learned rather than was told.