As the ability to summon memory fades, random events conjure up sharp recollections of things that happened long ago.
This morning, as my eyes opened, I saw a flight of geese in the space above the branches of my red cedar, before the window frame cut them off. Suddenly, I am no longer at Potato Point but in the Siwa oasis. After a day in the Libyan desert in a beat up ute, I encounter my daughter who had been off having other adventures. She says “Let’s go up to Shali.” So we walk up the narrow lanes between the mud-brick walls of crumbling houses under the light of a full moon. We crawl through door spaces into roofless rooms and rest on piles of rubble . The full moon rides above the roof gap and a flight of geese fly across its face, silhouetted black on brightness.
The first whiff of autumn took me back to Broken Hill, that year I walked five kilometres to school every day through the early morning and the chilly air. I’m approaching a quiet cross road. A lad on roller skates steams across the intersection, carrying his own mist with him, and wearing a streaming scarf.
That black (or was it navy?) shirt resurfaced and with it a whole afternoon in Eastwood. Driving from my grandfather’s house to Macquarie University for a concert, I wear that shirt and have the same debate – black? or navy? – anxious about colour coordination and colour perception. I enjoy a soprano for the first time and buy her CD. The lecture hall is full, and my eyes scan, in a time warp, looking for people I knew when I taught there 30 years before, seeing resemblances that could not possibly exist. I return through late Sydney light to the house of my greatest childhood pleasures, which is waiting to be sold.
The cooing of a dove has a potent time travel effect. Suddenly I am walking to the station, The Rime of The Ancient Mariner held in front of me as I commit it to memory. (Slabs of it still lurk, waiting for a prompt, although such memorising is no longer possible.) Cars whizz past; the main road fifty years ago is easy to cross, and I’m walking the same route my mother walked as a young woman.
But All bran is even more powerful than a dove. I bought a packet last week and I am seven again, staying overnight with my beloved aunts, who give me many treats. I sleep in a saggy bed which rolls me into its cosy centre. I sift through the chook’s shell grit with eager fingers, looking for tiny unbroken conical shells. I collect warm eggs from the hen nests, making my way with bare feet through little black and white squiggles of shit. And for breakfast, treat of treats, I have a bowl of all bran.
Postscript: Eliot Perlman begins The street sweeper with an account of memory:
Memory is a wilful dog. It won’t be summoned or dismissed, but it can’t survive without you. It can sustain you, or feed on you. It visits when it is hungry, not when you are.