The Memory Clinic
In writing the date, he felt like part of the past. 29th December. Whatever year is written next is a dead man walking. He typed it anyway, because he had to: 2058. It is already next year, Jack thought. You don’t need to bother us any more. He shut his diary down, nearly dropping it as he did so, startled by the buzz of his doorbell. “Helen Gardner is at the door,” it announced.
Jack tried not to feel tired. Helen was so much more on the ball than him, so many more days than not, that he felt attempting to keep up was doing him more harm than good. I should speak to someone about it, he thought. Or just pick the most confused-looking chess partner. I might feel sharp by comparison.
Helen’s stride had not suffered with age either. “You are five months younger than me,” Jack complained. “Slow down.”
“It must have been a long five months,” Helen said lightly. “Poor old chap.” She slowed to his pace.
The rain had finally stopped, so they walked. Helen talked about her new granddaughter and Jack prepared himself for his first exercise. At the lamppost at the end of the long driveway he spoke the words in his head:
When an old man loses his keys, he thinks: I’m losing my mind.
When a young man loses his keys, he thinks: I’ve lost my keys.
Perfect reassurance: equally comforting to the healthy and
the ailing. As he did each day, Jack measured his thoughts against the plaque by the gate that bore the memory gym’s motto.
He pushed the button above the plaque. It read his fingerprint and spoke: “I remember you,” it said. They smiled at the familiar joke. The gate flicked open and Jack waved into the security camera.
As they stepped through the door Jack stood to one side and let Helen take the “Surprise!” that greeted her. The cake was brought through, one candle on top rather than seventy-five. He applauded with all the others. While Helen thanked everybody and became
involved in conversation, Jack stepped into a side room where the less party-inclined were still playing chess, doing crosswords and arguing over Scrabble, all played on the hand-held consoles available in a bin at the door.
Close to him, Chloe looked up from her game. “Have you remembered?”
“Yes,” Jack said gladly. “I remembered; it came to me in the
Chloe smiled. “Showering is good for the mind,” she said. “Hot
water on the back of the head. And what was it about, anyway?”
“Terrorism during the twenties,” Jack said. “I was going to write about why people gave up peaceful protest for terrorism.” He felt like a child, reciting multiplication tables before an expectant teacher.
“Well done,” Chloe said. She raised an eye and half a smile. “And you didn’t call your university to find out?”
Jack laughed. “If only they could have told me. No, I used the techniques we’ve been learning. It came back, and not just the idea. Half the thesis I had in mind.”
“If you remember the other half you should go back to it. Unless you’re planning on getting someone else pregnant.”
Chloe went back to her chess game, taking the rook of another Jack, who was affecting not to concentrate on his screen. Jack. All of us old bastards are called Jack, his standing counterpart thought. Helen tapped at his shoulder. “You can keep a good secret,” she said.
“I’d forgotten all about it,” Jack said. Through the open door behind her he could see that people had begun to disperse into their usual groups. In the rooms across the hall metal pads were being applied to temples, mental agility being tested through the electronic activity of tiring brains. There were smiles and looks of wincing concern.
Helen and Jack stepped away from the players, to stand by the window together. Outside, across the fields that in summer would be full of tables, chairs and people, the clinic looked down at them like a god, smiling, confident, biding its time.
“What I don’t understand,” Jack said, “is how the inside of the gym is this full all year, but as soon as the sun shines out there fills up too.”
“Some people only want to exercise while the sun shines,” Helen said. “Minds as well as bodies.”
Jack nodded, only half-interested. The whiteboard away to his right had attracted his attention. A bright green amendment dominated the faded colours and old messages scattered across the board, some of them no longer decipherable. Clinician coming at 2pm every day this week!! That’s now, Jack realised. Right on cue, the clinic rolled through the door. Three men with the more expensive, more potent scanners suddenly dominated everything, smiling at the receptionist, being pointed to one of the back rooms.
“Don’t watch,” Helen said. “It’s morbid.” She stepped away quickly; a spot had opened up at a Scrabble table. Old ladies playing Scrabble and doing quizzes, Jack thought, watching her. Whatever happened to bingo? It must have been too easy on the mind. Perhaps they still play it at the clinic.
Jack kept watching. An old man with a blanket across his knees was quickly driven through reception in a wheelchair. A second clinician was carrying a travel bag: he must be a resident, Jack thought. “Bye, Jack,” the receptionist called to the departing tenant. He opened his mouth to speak. “Oh it’s been nice…” he started to say, but got no further. His vexed face passed out of sight, no longer in possession of complete thoughts to express.
The remaining clinician stayed some time with the receptionist. She
passed him a pad to press the relevant buttons on. He did so with the minimum level of attention, taking his time to compliment the receptionist’s new hair and probe gently but obviously around whether she had a boyfriend. Jack felt jealous.
There was nowhere to play, so Jack sat behind Helen and watched the game. All four players were women. Now I have more female company than ever, he thought. Not that it makes much difference. If only all those other guys had died sooner.
Helen was winning. She was too nimble of mind and had too great a vocabulary for Jack to keep up, and had the text on her screen at a font-size he found difficult to read. Even her eyes are better than mine, he thought.
“You didn’t play,” Helen said later, as they were leaving.
“Didn’t feel like it today.” Helen let it pass by. Jack felt her judgement, or maybe his own as hers.
They hurried home; the dusk brought with it an intense cold. “When will they invent a coat thick enough for old bones?” Jack managed as they went, Helen giving only a shudder in response.
As they approached his door Jack began to feel uneasy, and then disturbed. A large blank space was opening in his mind, a presence without definition. What was wrong? At the door he realised and forced a laugh.
“I forgot my keys,” he said, tapping at his empty pockets.
Helen stared at him a moment, not sure if he was joking. She shook her head. “Keys,” she said, and grabbed his palm, placing it against the sensor on his door. “Welcome home, Jack,” the house said, and the door opened.
“Get inside,” Helen said.“It’s freezing. See you tomorrow.”
Jack nodded. He thought to call after her, with an idea of saying something funny to alleviate his embarrassment. He was sure he had something to say, but by the time he opened his mouth it was gone.