As the first lightening of the sky separates silhouettes from the blackness, the temperature plummets and cold floods my body. I can feel its bite and the reactive crisping of muscle and sinew as I huddle into my coat and my hands seek the warmth of pockets. Breath clouds the air in front of me, parting to let me pass as I walk and streaming over my shoulders. The smell of wet earth and leaf-litter has an illusory warmth of its own and an early bird lifts its voice in song as I walk round to the village shop in the pre-dawn darkness.
December… and there are fairy lights in the trees, sparkling with a promise of things to come. Gradually the village will fill with them and the night will become a wonderland, for now, the bare branches of one winter tree are decked with pinpricks of blue. Even so, the sight of these few lights in the darkness flood me with a sense of excitement as potent as when I was a child. Although I walk in the silence before dawn, it is the teatime dark of a winter afternoon, with the shop windows of the city reflecting light and colour onto pavements wet with snow-melt. Tall people cast their shadows as they rush by. The noise of traffic and voices and a chestnut seller touting his wares, the pungent smell of charcoal and toasted shells warm the air as I hold tighter to the hand that is both safety and guidance. I am five and we are going to see Santa’s grotto at Lewis’s in town…
I am in Schofield’s, where a young mother works on the haberdashery counter. Grandad has taken me into town and we call in to see her. She is showing me a painting on the wall of the store. She is going to buy it and bring it home. She is not really a Christian, but this portrait of Jesus speaks to her of courage, resolution and serenity. It will remain on the walls of our home for many years and define my image of Jesus.
The lady makes clucking, soothing noises as I cry for my Mam. I am tiny, very tiny and the lady lifts me up easily and stands me on the counter in Woolworth’s. I’ve lost my Mam and I’m scared. Really scared. A man in a uniform comes and they whisper. I just want my Mam. I see her white face coming and cry even harder. She picks me up and hugs me. Then scolds and smacks my legs… not hard… and hugs me again. She’s crying too. The vision that looks out of the child’s eyes sees that she is little more than a child herself.
The five minute walk to the village shop takes the hours of excitement, anticipation, comfort and abandonment that the child once felt and now feels again as memory slips back to incidents long forgotten by the conscious mind, following a chain of associations that the mind can only observe but could not have deliberately constructed.
It is surprising how little it can take to lift our presence out of the present and into a memory so pristine and intense that we feel it with all our senses, even while the senses are busily engaged in the work of the moment. Our presence exists in both the now and the ‘other’ and we have effectively travelled in time to a moment that no longer exists and yet which is filled with sensory and emotional impact. Somehow we experience the moment in exactly the same way that we did once upon a time, yet we also observe it from within with the mind of the now, even while we walk through the now itself.
Where are we when we go back in memory? When are we? The body is doing what it does in what we call ‘now’, operating almost on autopilot as if the thing we call ‘I’ is no longer present, yet perfectly conscious of what we are doing… rather like leaving a foreman in charge, capable of making necessary decisions but not authorised to act on behalf of the boss. Yet we are not ‘back there’, even though we re-experience a moment that was then as if it was now. We observe, even though we can see through those younger eyes. We cannot alter those moments or affect the outcome. We cannot act, only relive.
The only action we can take at such times is to observe and possibly learn more from the reliving by seeing through the eyes and mind of an older, and hopefully wiser, self that has access to a wider knowledge… a ‘bigger picture’… and can therefore look on with more understanding than the child it once was.
Where are ‘we’ at any moment, if time and distance, holds no sway in the realms of mind? Not even death holds meaning in memory as we walk again hand in hand with loved ones long dead and feel their warmth. The body that ages can still be a child, the dead can walk and events long over can be not just replayed but relived. ‘We’ are not the time, the place or the body… we stand within them at will or at the whim of a chain of associations and both live and observe their passage and their mark. Perhaps we are more than we think…