Fragmentation


The hand-held recorder slotted into the table socket with a delicate click followed by a perky electronic beep.

Francis, with his eyes half closed to obscure the real world, felt his memories of his wife floating around the room.  She drifted in front of him, picking up phantom objects while ghosting through real ones.   Occasionally she would flash from one place to another, as his memories were interwoven by the recorder.

One moment she would be sipping a cup of tea as she walked in from the kitchen and he’d feel the warm arms of contentment spread about him. Then, without warning, she’d be sitting on the sofa laughing at him returning from work soaked by a sudden downpour and he’d feel his cheeks warming with annoyance while despite himself his mouth twitched.

His memory jumped again.  She was still on the sofa, but now she was just lying there watching television.  It was evening time, two weeks before their first Christmas together, and he was still getting used to her living with him.  Not so much the fact that she was there, but the fact that she wanted to be.  The light of the screen flickered on her face, like moonlight reflecting off water, making her skin appear even paler than normal and her features even more delicate.  As he watched, another memory twitched at the back of his mind.  It was a memory within a memory.  Francis blinked as the recorder cross referenced the sensations and dragged up the original from its hard drive.

She was sitting there with the same look she’d had when he’d first met her.  The same look with which he had fallen in love.  She didn’t move, but the translucent world around her morphed into somewhere else, another time and another place.   This memory became stronger as he watched, he could almost feel his own thoughts from back then talking to him in his head.  Memories aren’t meant to be this sharp, not this physical.

The moment continued to play around him, the emotions and ideas of the time tickling his mind as much as the images.  He’d gone to see Richard III to watch the great Christen Carmichael play the king. He’d been so excited to see the best Shakespearean actor of his generation and had barely thought about anything else for a month beforehand. Yet, from the moment she sat down next to him, he hadn’t looked at the stage once.

He  sat there in the theatre, watching her snow white cheeks and innocent eyes soak up the tragedy before them; her lips twitching with a chaste smile at Christen’s dry quips; and her chest floating on the tide of her breath with increasing intensity as the tension mounted.

Francis could hear Carmichael’s deep voice taking control of the theatre, generating an audible awed hush over the audience, but all he could think about was her.  His mind raced: who was she? How could he talk to her?  Would she talk to him?  Francis, without thinking, shook his head and the world around him collapsed.  The sofa in front of him looked stark and bare, like an untouched bed in a country manor.  Reality, with all its hurtful sparsity soaked back into his consciousness.

Francis pulled himself out of the armchair like an Olympic skier launching himself on the final run and staggered into the kitchen. The clutter that filled the small room emphasised its emptiness.  The piles of dirty plates and cups sat staring at him, a physical reminder that there was no one around for whom he should clean them.  He felt the recorder trying to push something into his consciousness, but he immediately tried to fight it, shaking his head and pushing his mind onto something else.

“Computer,”  He asked to the room, “Cross-reference today’s appointments with my activities and news stories of the last month, and then give me my appointments with any relevant data.”  The speakers lodged in the ceiling beeped in compliance while he leafed through the jungle of plates and cutlery in the sink for a teaspoon.

“Compiling. This process may take a few moments” came a bland woman’s voice, followed by another electronic pip. Francis squeezed his hand under a plate into the murky brown soup of dishwater and tugged out a spoon. He rinsed it under the cold tap for a second and then shovelled a couple of heaps of pre-sweetened tea into an almost clean cup.  The granules dissolved instantly as he poured warm water over them and a strong aroma of freshly brewed tea seeped into the room.

Francis slunk back into the lounge and slumped onto his armchair. He stared at the blank television screen inset into the opposite wall, arguing with himself whether he could be bothered to turn it on or not.  He had to do something to keep himself occupied,  otherwise his mind would once again start to dwell on her, he would remember that perfect smile.

She was back.  That first time again, sitting in the theatre, her hair hanging delicately over her shoulder.  She turned.  Embarrassment swept over him as she caught him staring at her, but he couldn’t move his eyes, they locked on to hers and she smiled.  Then she turned back to the stage, and once again her features melted back into an innocent blankness.

The memory went fuzzy for a moment. Slowly, his mind’s eye reordered the images and sensations he was feeling into the memory of the last time he had seen that same expression.  Her eyes hadn’t changed, her cheeks were still pale white but her hair was now matted by a seeping black spring.  He could hear the sirens, too, and the shouts of panicking passers-by.  The fear built up inside him.  A fear and pounding dread that burned throughout his body.  He could feel his throat closing as he knelt down beside her and swept an invisible hair from her soft cheek.  Life, with all its complex moments, had not left a mark on her face, neither while it inhabited it nor once it had departed. She was eternally pristine and perfect.

“Compilation complete” piped up the computer, pulling Francis back into the present.  He shook his head and the images soaked away into the background.  “You have one Appointment for today: Appointment one, phone call, your sister will call you at ten past ten.  Elizabeth Roberts was born in nineteen ninety-eight to a Mr Joseph Roberts and a Mrs…”

“Pause.” Interrupted Francis, still trying to rouse himself fully back into his lounge.  His memories were getting worse, they were getting stronger.  It was like she was trying to make her way  back to him, trying to force herself from his mind back into the world.   He tried to focus on the present, staring at the back of his hand as he spoke to the computer.  “Condense vocal information to that of a relevance factor nine and store any data of a factor six or higher into memory slot C for later recollection absorbtion”

“Data condensed and re-allocated.”

“Continue.” Francis  lifted the still untouched cup of tea to his lips as the device told him it had no further information on the phone call.  He lowered the cup again, without taking a sip, and sighed like a slowly deflating balloon.  He dropped his un-tasted tea onto the small plastic table by his chair.  The cup landed on the edge of last night’s dinner plate and immediately crashed onto its side, spreading the sweet liquid across the table.

“New Appointment” he said to the empty television and the speakers beeped at him. “Today. All day event. Status: Busy.  Title: Out.  Save.”

“Appointment cannot be saved,” said the woman promptly.  “You have a conflicting Appointment which has been locked as high importance and cannot be deleted.  Please contact the creator of the event, would you like to call them now?”

“No,” growled Francis and tried to push his back deeper into the armchair like a sulking teenager.

At ten past ten on the dot, the speakers started to chirp and the television screen flashed on, informing him that his Sister was calling.

“Pick up, audio only” he said quietly and the ringing stopped and was followed by a moment’s confused silence.

“Hello?  Are you there?” Came the lilting voice of his sister, gilded with concern.

“Hi.”

“How are you feeling?”

“Over the moon.”

“Sorry, stupid question,” his sister replied hurriedly.

Francis felt something nagging at him from the back of his mind, memories of his childhood and the times he and his sister had played together. The time she had pulled him back when he had absent-mindedly stepped out onto the road.   The weeks he’d stayed with her and her fiancé when he’d had nowhere else to go.  The day she’d got married and how happy she had looked, and how proud he had felt.  She had been so happy.   She was still happy, she was still married.  Why did it happen to him? Why should he be the only one suffering?  The only one hurting?  The whole world should be crying with him.  “It’s been almost two weeks now though, your short term memory will be fading soon, helping you get some distance.” continued his sister pragmatically, although her  quivering voice betrayed her authority.

“Yeah, you’re probably right. Maybe I should just move further away, speed up the process.  How far away is Siberia? Is that distance enough to stop me caring about my wife, you think?”

“Francis, please, you know that’s not what I meant.  Look, I’ve booked you into a session with a psycho-mechanic.  They might be able to help you get through this difficult time.”

“Right, good idea. Let’s just wipe my mind.  Delete my wife and then it’ll all be fine, won’t it?  I’ll be happy again and won’t know that my shit life used to have one good, perfect thing in it which made it worth living. Great idea.”

“You know that’s not what they do.  She’ll just look over your recorder and check it’s working fine.  You won’t have to do anything, just let her take a look.”

“They won’t be able to help.  There’ll be nothing they can do.  It’s not like they can bring her back,” Francis replied, a pleading tone infusing his voice.

“Just go, listen to them and then decide what you want to do.  I’ll call you tomorrow to see how it’s gone, and if you haven’t been I’ll be coming round and dragging you there myself.”

“Fine.”

“You’ll be OK Francis.  I’ll put the appointment details into your calendar.  Just go, OK?  Bye, Love you.”

“Bye”

The speakers let out a simulated clatter of a phone being dropped into its cradle and Francis’ shoulders drooped.  He glanced around the litter of dirty plates, discarded clothes and unopened letters that paved the floor. He couldn’t let his sister come round and see this.  She’d never leave if she saw the state he’d got into.  She’d stay here, looking after him, making him feel guilty.  He had no choice.  He was going to have to go to the appointment.

Nearly everybody had their eyes closed, and those who didn’t had headphones on, hooked into their phones.  They were the only ones speaking, everyone else just sat there, their feet tapping with the memories of the latest pop songs and their lips moving to the perfectly recalled lyrics. Francis had picked the least full carriage and only a scattering of people accompanied him as the Rail glided its way out of the station and soared along the skyline, clinging to its lone rail like a sheet clings to a washing line.   A memory filtered into his consciousness from the recorder, first his mind dwelt on the history of the tallest skyscraper of the city and then he apparently remembered the names of all the retail outlets that occupied its first few floors, their logo’s flashing through his mind’s eye as the carriage’s database synced the pseudo-memories to his recorder.  He shook his head and the memories slowly faded as they were nudged to one side. His mind was empty for the briefest of heartbeats and then she was there, sitting next to him.

She had her eyes closed too and was tapping her finger on his knee in time to whatever she was remembering.  But he couldn’t feel her touch.  Her hair fluttered in the breeze of an open window and her lips glistened in the sunlight.  This wasn’t a memory, he was sure of it.  It was so vivid an impression, so sharp and clear.  He shook his head but she stayed there, nodding her own head slightly to the silent beat.  She looked completely untroubled, she had always looked like that.  The world always seemed to glide past without even so much as brushing up against her.  She opened her eyes, caught his, and smiled, that soft delicate smile that used to cause butterflies no matter how many times he saw it.  He could feel them now, the sweet nausea of contentment. Or was he just remembering the feeling?  It was so strong, it couldn’t just be memory. Could it?  He stroked his fingers subconsciously against his recorder as if checking if it were sleeping, but the cool, polished finish gave no hint as to what was going on inside.

Her eyebrows pulled slightly closer together, the only sign of concern that she ever made, but her smile stayed immaculately painted upon her lips.

“I miss you,” he said weakly, feeling the butterflies’ wings slowly turn to lead.  Her smile broadened while she tugged at her necklace with her finger tips.  She leant over and kissed his cheek softly.  He couldn’t feel it, but nevertheless, his mouth went dry and his throat started to fill with sand.

“I miss you too, honey.” she said softly and then let out one of her girlish giggles that he’d never quite understood.  “You’ll be fine though, I know you will.”

“Our bed feels so empty.  I keep rolling over, expecting you to be lying next to me.  I keep expecting to feel your breath tickle my neck as you sleep or your cold feet rubbing up against mine and waking me.  Why can’t you be there?”

“At least I was there for awhile.  I used to wake you with my feet on purpose, you know? You always sounded so cute when you were grumpy.”

“You should have never let me sleep,  I wasted so much time sleeping next to you.”

“At least you could sleep then honey, you look so tired.”

“Please come back.”

“I can’t.”

“I don’t care, come back anyway.  I’m not ready for you to be gone.”

“You never will be.”

The Rail carriage started to drift in a downward curve as it approached its station and she began to fade away as if she were simply part of the clouds.  Her eyes were the last to go.  He tried to focus on them, to ensnare them in the carriage forever, but they slipped from his consciousness as the walls of the station erupted around him.

Not one of his fellow passengers seemed to have noticed his dead wife appearing next to him, but nor had they realised he had been talking to an empty seat. They just stood up and slowly filed out of the carriage like cattle on their way to market.  Francis followed them a few paces behind, his steps unsteady while images of local maps flashed in his disinterested mind.

“So Mr Roberts, your sister told me that you have suffered a traumatic event and that the high-fidelity memory recall from your recorder is causing you a little trouble?  If you’d just like to plug your recorder into the socket on the table, I’ll take a look and see what’s going on.” The psycho-mechanic smiled  in what she had probably been taught was a disarming way, but her voice was cold and her face colder.

She was attractive, but in a stern librarian sort of way, and clung to a large tablet as if it were displaying the secrets of the universe which she wanted to keep all to herself.  The light from its screen glowed against the underside of her chin, making her skin more colourless than that of her face and completing the image of a woman without warmth.

Francis leaned forward, as nervously as if he had been asked to drop his trousers, and tucked his recorder into the slot she had indicated.  A familiar electronic beep sprang into the room, but instead of coming from the ceiling speakers it emanated from the psycho-mechanic’s tightly held reader.  She glanced down at the screen and ran her finger across it a few times, frowning and pursing her lips peculiarly, as if she were sucking on an extremely sour sweet.

“You’ve turned off a lot of your syncing options Mr Roberts, was that intentional?” Francis was about to answer but the psycho-mechanic’s eyes never left her reader as her fingers flicked incessantly through the reams of data that were his life.  Francis let himself sink back into the uncomfortable chair in which he was sitting and tried to blank out his mind.  His wife lingered behind his eyes a little, but, while his recorder’s processor was purring for the psycho-mechanic, she was only a faint idea that flickered harmlessly in the background.  A faint memory of someone who he may have known once, years ago.

“I see, well this is quite a common problem after someone has gone through a traumatic event,” said the Psycho-mechanic eventually, turning her eyes back from the reader to look at Francis.  “As you know, your recorder stores your memories in a digital format to stop their degradation over time, but it it also categorises them depending on the original impression’s potency, dividing them into short and long term memory storage.  This enables you to recall the important or more vivid impressions permanently, while not cluttering your recollections with uninteresting details.” The psycho-mechanic flicked a smile at him that could have sunk the Titanic and took a small delicate sip from a glass of water.  “Unfortunately this means that unpleasant events get recalled with as much precision as ones that cause elation. Traditionally people used to slowly lose their strong perception of trauma, but, as this no longer happens naturally, we need to manually direct the recorder in how to deal with these memories to help you get beyond this moment.”

Francis watched the psycho-mechanic’s mouth moving, only half taking in the words which her lips were forming.  Her tone and language felt unreal.  It just didn’t seem right to invoke such bland words to describe what he was feeling.  It made them feel hollow; it made her seem hollow.

“So what do you want to do?” he mumbled, pulling his eyes from the psycho-mechanic’s lips as he spoke and dropping them down to his recorder sitting innocently in its docking port. “Just wipe my recorder and start again as a blank slate?” He spoke like a school boy who had been caught skipping class, there was no reproach in his voice, just a simple resignation to being spoken to.

“Mr Roberts,” said the psycho-mechanic in a gentle but defensive tone, “deleting the memories would be as barbaric and dangerous as blood-letting.  If we started removing parts of your life from your memory, you would become confused, your mind would lose its coherence, and there is no telling what damage would be done.  No, we won’t damage any of your memories.  The cure for this is a simple procedure.   We will isolate the offending memories around the traumatic event and anaesthetise them.”

“Anaesthetise? What do you mean?”

“We simply remove the feeling from them.  Remove the passions which have been associated with those events but leave the raw data from your sensory perceptions.  You’ll be able to remember what happened, but you will no longer have the recollection of how bad it made you feel and all the pain and suffering will be gone.”

“What about the hallucinations?  I keep seeing her.”  Francis asked,with a general unfocused nervousness.  The psycho-mechanic gave a non-committal shrug.

“The hallucinations are feedback echoes from the recorder caused by the redundant memory centres of your biological brain rather than the recorder itself. They are not related to this issue and they might well continue for a while, but will probably fade as the passions of your memories are dulled. Trust me Mr Robert’s, we will only anaesthetise your memories of the traumatic events, the rest of your memories of your wife will remain intact.  We just want to help you, to stop you suffering. Your sister is worried about you, she just wants you to feel well again.”

Francis stared blankly at the psycho-mechanic in silence for a brief moment.  His mind was surfing on a wave of emptiness, cruising in a bland world with no point on which to cling.  The plastic expression of the psycho-mechanic was erasing everything around him.  Her reader was still flickering in her lap, her index finger sliding backwards and forwards over the screen as she watched him.

The world was spinning and swirling.  He just wanted to go back to normal.  He was sick of feeling like this.  He wanted to go back to normal, to have his wife with him and the pain to go away.

“Mr Roberts,” came the psycho-mechanic’s voice from the void, “think of it like this: if you broke your arm so badly that after it healed you got a twinge of pain every time you tried to straighten it, would you not seek medical attention to have that pain removed?  Do you not take paracetamol when your head aches? Do you not run cold water over a burn to quell the sensation? ”

Francis gripped the arms of his chair as he tried to focus on the words.   It made sense, he was ill.  He needed to be made better. It made so much sense, and yet, there was something nagging at him  Something trying to scream but he couldn’t hear it, he couldn’t recollect it.  The Psycho-mechanics finger still traced backwards and forwards on her tablet, flicking through his countless memories on the recorder.

“You’ll still remember your wife, you’ll still remember the love you had for her. You’ll even remember coming here and going through the procedure. You’ll know why, when you reflect on your wife’s death, you feel no suffering and pain.  You’ll know you did, but you won’t remember the feeling.  You just won’t feel the pain any more.”

“I don’t want to lose her.” said Francis weakly, a lone tear sliding down his cheek and dropping onto his trouser leg.  It was all he had left.  He felt completely lost.  He wasn’t even sure why he was fighting any more, he was sick, he needed to be made better.

“You won’t, she’ll still be there, in your memory. She’d understand.  I’m sure she wouldn’t want you to suffer, she would understand.   You’re just fixing a problem caused by the recorder, you’re not denying her. There is no need to feel this pain, we can help you.  We can take all the hurt away.”

Francis’ eyes had dropped to the floor.  His head felt empty but his skull felt like it was made of stone,and it hung on his shoulders as if cradled in a noose.  It would be just like taking a paracetamol.  Only making the pain go away.  He nodded in resignation and the psycho-mechanic smiled like an air hostess.

“Very good, Mr Roberts, we just need you to sign here, then we can begin.”

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