Thursday 1 January 2015

Remembering the New Year: in which our author crashes his bicycle, loses his memory, and gets it back again

It was a splendid way to see the New Year in, a day not to be remembered.

I spent New Year’s Eve on a yacht on Sydney Harbour. There was food and wine. There was music. We saw the fireworks and a stunt plane flying loops over the harbour and a parade of boats lined with yellow lights that glittered on the water. Someone went below and produced Christmas lights and we strung them up along the bow rails. I recall children playing checkers and photos of a wedding and a woman from Shanghai.

From the dock I walked to Kings Cross station, past hungry faces and the din of nightclubs and a woman in high heels, who might have been a man, asking people as they passed if they were looking for a good time. Call me old fashioned, but at that hour of the night I am never looking for anything except whisky and sleep.

At first light I pulled on cycling clothes and left to meet my friend. We carried the mountain bikes on to the train and took the train to the Blue Mountains. There is a fire trail that brings you down to the little village at the bottom of the mountains. I love the village because of the pie shop there and the park where I took my children when they were young. We left the train and rode our bikes down the trail. It is good to start a year like this, with a friend and a bicycle. I am told the ride was very beautiful.

Not far from the end of the trail, my friend sat me up on the ground and asked me who I was. Because I did not know the answer, I joked that I was the King of France and that my subjects would be along presently to help me up. For the past few days I had been reading Huckleberry Finn and I was up to the part where Jim and Huck meet the two hobos who pretend to be an English duke and the King of France. Though I couldn’t have told you my name, not if my life depended on it, I remembered enough of Huckleberry Finn to impersonate one of its characters and to find it very funny.

“Yes, my friend, it is too true – your eyes is lookin’ at this very moment on the pore disappeared Dauphin. Looy the Seventeen, son of Looy the Sixteen and Marry Antonette. Yes, gentlemen, you see before you, in blue jeans and misery, the wanderin’, exiled, trampled-on, and sufferin’ rightful King of France.”

The neck brace was uncomfortably hot. But I was glad to study the painted green vines, with leaves and flowers, on the ceiling. When the nurse came back, the one who looked like Frank Sinatra, I asked if it would be too much trouble for him to write the 86th chapter of Moby-Dick on the ceiling above my bed. It is the chapter where Ishmael expounds the unique advantages of the whale’s tail. “Other poets have warbled the praises of the soft eye of the antelope, and the lovely plumage of the bird that never alights; less celestial, I celebrate a tail.”

I told my friend that St Augustine had once lain in a bed like this with the penitential psalms written on the ceiling so that he would arrive in the next world with a face still wet with tears. The psalms are an excellent choice for a dying man. But I was not dying, only knocked about the head and raving mad, so a ceiling scrawled with Moby-Dick would serve my purposes just fine.

Ninety-nine times I asked about my children.

Then I worried that I would not be able to read the ceiling if my glasses were broken. For those who live by reading, nothing in the world is so alarming as the thought of broken glasses. And yet – I cannot explain the miracle but only report it – although my head was bruised and my face was scratched and my helmet had seen better days, the glasses were as good as new. Eagerly I put them on and looked up to read the ceiling. But there was nothing written there after all, and the nurse had gone away.

I have been writing a paper for a theology conference and I was worried that I would not be able to remember what it was about. I wondered if I would have to start the damn thing all over again. I wondered if I would have it ready in time. I wondered if I would recognise my name when they called on me to get up and speak. Then I thought, everything will be all right: my friend Oliver will be there: I’ll ask him to kick my shins under the table when they say my name. And I’ll just have to hope I can remember enough about Shakespeare to say all the right things.

Then slowly, as if waking after long sleep, my life’s deep hurts came creeping back into my mind. Memory laid its bitterness upon my heart, so that when I waked I cried to sleep again.

“A woman had a lost coin. She searched for it with a lamp, and unless she had some memory of it she would not have found it. For when it was found, how could she have known that this was it, if she did not remember it? You have dwelt in my memory ever since I learned to know You, and it is there that I find You when I remember and delight in You” (Augustine, Confessions).

What struck me – apart from a rock on the head – is the things that still come vividly to mind when all the essentials are gone. Name, age, date of birth, place of residence: all vanished. What I remembered was American fiction. St Augustine. My friends. The need to read and write. Also the words to Bob Dylan songs. Forgetting who you are is not so bad when you can lie there singing “It Ain’t Me Babe” over and over in your head.

But never fear, reader: the bicycle is fine! And after a square meal and a good night’s sleep, my brains are working pretty good again too. I tried them out by writing this. It’s not exactly Mark Twain, but then neither am I. I know that much now.

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