My earliest memory is of light like white gold. I am maybe four, maybe five, and I am walking down the stairs in my house. They are unfinished wood, and they glow a pale but warm yellow in the morning sun. Small flecks of wood dust dance in the light. I can smell cooking bacon and timber, and I know that my mother is by the stove. Everything I can smell and see and hear feels like love. Before this, it is all just snapshots, just fleeting moments. If my life were to flash before my eyes, this would be the earliest, brightest, flare.
In the three years after that memory, I had recurring nightmares. Those golden stairs were part of an extension that my father built, and eventually I moved to the back of the house. I woke up every night until then sweating, or screaming. My first bedroom looked down upon a graveyard, the church attached to it all wooden slats and claustrophobic angles. The whole place was dead, but maybe I saw a thing in the cramped yard that I recognised. Each night a titanic shadow would ghost to the foot of my bed, and watch my terror until I woke up. It never did anything but stand there, its nebulous weight crushing everything in its aura.
Later, much later, I left London one winter to visit my mother. All the power went out while I was there, and I took the time to see that small town without lights. It was like suddenly being hundreds of years in the past. Clouds came in to take away what little light was left, and you couldn’t tell that the world had ever built clocks or computers. Nothing but fields stretched out to the horizon. There were no ghosts in that darkness, but there was no future either. Some small error had just switched off all of the history I knew. It was 1999, I think. The faint yellow glow of candles became visible, but they only gave strength to a sense of lost time, of centuries that might have never happened at all.
When the power came back on, it was like an invisible hand sweeping over everything, bringing it all into the present as it went. I thought the lights would all come back at once, but they didn’t. It was like a wave. For a moment you could see two worlds. One with computers, and cities of millions of people, and a future. The other one only had candles, and its buildings were largely empty. I was still for a minute. I was unsure what I had just seen. When I eventually got home there was a film on about the end of the world. We had missed about half of it while the power was out, but it was okay. The world was the way it had always been, and nothing had followed me back out of the dark.
Johnny shows Jane the trick.
Standing in front of her, sleeves rolled up.
He takes the corks from the wine they’ve been drinking, and idly passes one through the other. Hands flowing like water.
She stops. She stares. She asks him how it’s done.
Johnny shrugs, and gives her a mischievous smile.
‘It’s a trick’, he says
Later, on the way home, he admits to himself that he doesn’t know.
That he’s tried to remember how it’s done, where he learnt the knack of it.
But that nothing comes.
Two weeks on Jane shows Johnny the corks.
Awkward, a twist, a sleight of the hand.
Step by stiled step, eyes narrowed with focus, she shows him the knack of it.
He smiles. He nods.
‘That’s it’, he says.
But later, when Jane has gone home, he admits to himself that it isn’t.
Johnny takes the hands he’s been staring at and with a shrug, with a troubled smile, idly passes one through the other.
As if they were water.
Trying to remember where he learnt the trick.
I moved to London when I was 18, out from the empty east of England. I was used to being able to see everywhere I was going. Buildings over three stories high were new and unsettling. I waited and waited for it to get dark, but it never did. I listened and listened for it to get quiet, but in four years, there was always noise. I got lost a lot. I got overwhelmed. I learnt that it took an hour to get anywhere at all. Two years had to go by for me to realize just how close the tube stations were to each other, and that I could just walk most places. Slowly, I pieced together a pretty good idea of how the city was built, and how to get from a to z without the map. Or at least, without a map in my hand.
When I was a child my dad often had maps everywhere. They were big maps of little places. Places that mostly didn’t exist yet. Or would never exist. He was a builder, and by the time I knew what the drawings meant, he couldn’t be a builder any more because we didn’t have any money. So most of the maps I remember never got turned into anything. The lines, though. The way the plans were drawn up and together. They wound up in my head.
Through my teens, after he’d gone, I started to draw maps of places that didn’t exist. They never really went anywhere, and I didn’t become an architect, or an engineer, or anything like that. But when I started to put London together, it was like using those lines to hang photographs from. I slowly realized that I had made an internal copy of a street here, and a street there. They were imperfect, and simplified, but accurate. I started walking streets just to link them together. The more I worked at it, the better my maps became, and after a year or so I could walk anywhere I knew without leaving the comfort of my flat. The structure of my memory shifted entirely from something associative and instinctive to something designed. I had heard of memory palaces, but it took me a long time to realize that I had put myself inside one.
These days I can walk through large tracts of any ghostly city I’ve ever been in. They’re simple, and have become slightly rotten in places that I don’t revisit. But other places… I can see the dust on the banisters. I can see the rust on the pipes.