Out of memory
The column D, e, s, u, f, n, o, c ... Howard Jacobson's mother-in- law can't remember where she's been, or where she's going, but she can still spell backwards
Celebrated novelist Howard Jacobson's most recent novel is Man Booker-nominated 'J'. He has also written 'The Finkler Question', published to great acclaim in 2010. An acerbic critic and broadcaster with a passion for literature and art, he is known for his ebullient wit.
Saturday 12 September 1998
Since she was still alive there was no question - no serious question - of scattering her on to the waters of the Indian Ocean. She had never loved the sea in the way her husband had, anyway. And we were in no hurry to be rid of her. She'd been a good mother-in-law to me, uncensorious, more than ready to see my point of view, keen for a drink and a laugh and, most important of all, for an appearance-snob such as I was, still, at 80-something, worth being seen with. Not just beautiful but poignantly beautiful, as though her beauty had never been rewarded, never found its reason, never got to the bottom of itself. I didn't mind being the one who would understand it for her. She was beautiful in order to give me pleasure.
But she was no longer herself. That was why we had gone into conference to decide what to do with her. She seemed to have lost the last of her short-term memory along with her husband's ashes. She'd been carrying him around with her for more than 18 months, talking to him, arguing with him, reproaching him, not wanting finally to part with him, and not being able to summon the strength to fly him from Melbourne to Perth to disperse him according to his wishes. Well, she had finally done it. But now that he was emptied, so was she.
Could it really happen as quickly as that? A gradual drip, drip, drip, isn't that how memory goes? You can hear your own slowly emptying. First you are unable to remember which clubs you are a member of. Then the reason for belonging to a club at all. Then names begin to desert you. Names of colleagues, friends, close members of your own family. Soon the only names you will have in your head will be those of people who have done you harm, lifetime enemies, rivals, reviewers. Those, of course, you will remember when your bones have turned to dust. The names of your enemies are the only eternities in the universe, of an odour and a taste so disgusting that even the worms won't go near them. But at least the drip, drip, drip principle gives you warning. You have time. Not in my mother-in-law's case, though. She stood at the end of that little wooden jetty, shook out the ashes, and shook out her memory. Whoosh! and it was gone.
"What we should do," my wife said, "is take her camping."
"Camping. We'll hire a big van, fill it with bottles of Chardonnay" - my mother-in-law still remembered her fondness for Chardonnay - "and go."
"It doesn't matter. She won't remember where she's been so it doesn't matter where we take her. North. Let's go north again. Let's go to Monkey Mia to see the dolphins. She's always wanted to go to Monkey Mia to see the dolphins."
On our first night north, we camped under the stars by a swollen river and talked about this longtime ambition of hers. "We'll be there about this time tomorrow," I calculated.
"Oh lovely," she said. "And will there be monkeys there?"
"There are no monkeys in Monkey Mia," we told her. "Only dolphins. And dugongs."
"So why is it called Monkey Mia?"
We didn't know. An Aboriginal name. Nothing to do with monkeys. There were no monkeys in Australia.
"And when will we be there?"
"About this time tomorrow."
"Oh lovely," she said. "And tell me, will there be monkeys there?"
It was while we were watching the moon behaving strangely, seeming to invert itself like a silver cup and go down in the sky instead of up, that my wife suddenly recalled her mother's genius for spelling words backwards and at speed. An old party trick with which she used to amaze her own parents' friends. Could she still do it?
"Spell dolphin backwards, Joy."
"n, i, h, p, l, o, d." Not a second's hesitation.
"So what are we going to Monkey Mia to see?"
"s, n, i, h, p, l, o, d."
"And what won't there be at Monkey Mia?"
This was the real test. No party games now. This was reason itself we were probing. But she came through magnificently. "s, y, e, k, n, o, m," she said scornfully, as though any old fool knew that you didn't get syeknom where we were going.
Was this to be the way we did it, then, from now on? Backwards?
Fine. Enif. A small price to pay.
Monkey Mia was wonderful. A blessed place. The water as limpid and benign as it must have been at creation. The wild dolphins at play, the humans lining the beach to watch them, silent, breathless, like the chosen waiting to be transformed into dolphins themselves, before being led across the eternal river to an unimaginable serenity.
"So what do you think, Joy?"
We wanted to be certain she knew what she had seen. "What was lovely, Joy?"
Good girl! So it had worked. Camping had done the trick. She was recovering her mind. But a little later, trailing along the white-shelled beach, she reverted to an earlier question. "Tell me, will there be monkeys there?"
"What now, Ros?" I asked my wife.
"Back in the van."
"Further north. Let's just keep driving. She's enjoying it."
"But if she doesn't know where we're taking her and she doesn't know where she's been, is there any sense in which she's going anywhere at all?"
I didn't expect an answer to that. Not all at once. And not right away. First it was back into the campervan, our galley charged with forgetfulness - that's s, s, e, n, l, u, f, t, e, g, r, o, f
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