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

Now that we'd disposed of my father-in-law's ashes, we had to decide what to do with my mother-in-law.

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?"

"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."

"Go where?"

"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?"

"Lovely, lovely."

We wanted to be certain she knew what she had seen. "What was lovely, Joy?"

"The dolphins."

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."

"Home?"

"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

Suggested Topics
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
ebooks
ebookPart of The Independent’s new eBook series The Great Composers
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Tradewind Recruitment: SEN Teacher

    Negotiable: Tradewind Recruitment: SEN Teacher We have a fantastic special n...

    Tradewind Recruitment: History Teacher

    Negotiable: Tradewind Recruitment: My client is an 11-18 all ability co-educat...

    Tradewind Recruitment: Year 6 Teacher

    £100 - £150 per day: Tradewind Recruitment: Year 6 Teacher Birmingham Jan 2015...

    Recruitment Genius: Transport Administrator / Planner

    £20000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This fast growing reinforcing s...

    Day In a Page

    Isis hostage crisis: The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power

    Isis hostage crisis

    The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power, says Robert Fisk
    Missing salvage expert who found $50m of sunken treasure before disappearing, tracked down at last

    The runaway buccaneers and the ship full of gold

    Salvage expert Tommy Thompson found sunken treasure worth millions. Then he vanished... until now
    Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

    Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

    Maverick artist Grayson Perry backs our campaign
    Assisted Dying Bill: I want to be able to decide about my own death - I want to have control of my life

    Assisted Dying Bill: 'I want control of my life'

    This week the Assisted Dying Bill is debated in the Lords. Virginia Ironside, who has already made plans for her own self-deliverance, argues that it's time we allowed people a humane, compassionate death
    Move over, kale - cabbage is the new rising star

    Cabbage is king again

    Sophie Morris banishes thoughts of soggy school dinners and turns over a new leaf
    11 best winter skin treats

    Give your moisturiser a helping hand: 11 best winter skin treats

    Get an extra boost of nourishment from one of these hard-working products
    Paul Scholes column: The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him

    Paul Scholes column

    The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him
    Frank Warren column: No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans

    Frank Warren's Ringside

    No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans
    Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

    Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

    The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
    Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

    Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

    Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
    Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
    Larry David, Steve Coogan and other comedians share stories of depression in new documentary

    Comedians share stories of depression

    The director of the new documentary, Kevin Pollak, tells Jessica Barrett how he got them to talk
    Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

    Has The Archers lost the plot?

    A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
    English Heritage adds 14 post-war office buildings to its protected lists

    14 office buildings added to protected lists

    Christopher Beanland explores the underrated appeal of these palaces of pen-pushing
    Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

    Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

    Scientists unearthed the cranial fragments from Manot Cave in West Galilee