If you’re reading this, then I have given it away. Perhaps for the best, but we won’t get into that now. If you have it, take caution and, when you get there, follow my grandfather's advice. You’ll have questions, lord knows I did, but I asked them too late.
It had been in the loft all along, once tucked behind a stack of old newspapers, now fallen and wedged between the eaves. My grandfather was a hoarder and the columns of junk, or rather, of memories given form, stretched taller than I. The years had not been kind, columns lay bent or toppled, and spilled their nostalgic guts to the wooden floor. Dust and cobwebs covered everything like snow. Except this snow was more apt to make you sneeze.
I remember I’d wriggled far enough to consider turning back, clothes already dusted and creased from debris. When I was a child it had been a veritable playground of tunnels and caves, walls painted with imagination as we rifled through lost treasures and trinkets. Now a grown man it was considerably more difficult to navigate a space now known only as a crypt for the junk of a dead old man.
This time, however, I was after something specific.
Grandfather’s hidden treasure had been often whispered as a family rumour but when he’d throw a fit, which was often in his waning years, it was all he’d ever shout about.
Now though, I was convinced I would find it. After all, the letter said it would be here. The chest lay wedged under a scattering of newspapers that had most articles removed. It was small but incredibly heavy. The ornate keyhole on the front marked the lid as locked. I had the key, it had been enclosed in the letter addressed to me following my grandfather’s wishes. Outside of confirmation of its existence and its exact location all the letter said was, ‘Use it sparingly and don’t end up like me’.
As I lay horizontal I wrestled free the key from my pocket, rolled in dust and squeezed my arm through a gap of fallen stacks. It clicked with satisfaction.
It was gold, I knew it would be, still shiny and well polished. A thick golden disc wrapped in a velvet sash. I took the treasure from its hiding place, leaving the key in the open chest like a burst oyster robbed of its pearl. I clutched it to myself as I wriggled back, now uncaring for the mounds of dust that spilled and soiled my clothes. I couldn’t wait to see it.
After gathering a few things; a glass of water, a notebook, a pen, I unwrapped it on the dining room table. The house lay empty, grandmother now occupying my own childhood room after grandfather passed. And my house where the footfalls of my own children spelled almost immediate danger just would not do. This place, however, was on pause. Suitably furnished but unlived and unloved. No food in a fridge, nor flowers in a vase.
I unwrapped it diligently. From its velvet bed it looked up at me.
I sat before my knees gave out and set the chunky disc on its edge like an undecided coin. Delicately using both hands I clicked away the two faces from a central piece and laid them flat on each side like a butterfly resting in the sun. The insides of these faces were lidded but once removed revealed concave bowls burnt with soot. These were the braziers. The central piece was as intricate and ornate as any golden timepiece. Cogs of all sizes, both silver and gold, scattered its innards. There were no screws to speak of, no seams or panels and the engravings that littered any free space were in a language I did not recognise.
I set both lids to the side and blew scant ash from both braziers.
With one hand you give, with another you receive.
Excitedly, I tore a page from a notebook then tore that again in two.
Tokens could come in many forms: photographs, diary pages, newspaper clippings, even scribbles if the mind was clear.
I clicked the pen from my pocket and began to scribble animatedly.
The time Mel and I argued and she smashed a vase.
As I wrote it, I remembered it. The poky flat we shared, the leaky tap, that carpet turned up at the edges. A vase by a kitchen sink, her body leant against it, tense and angry.
“If you’re not going to act like an adult then why don’t you just —”
I shook myself loose of the spiral and dropped the paper into the left brazier before sliding the second scrap closer.
It doesn’t matter which side you use but the order remains the same. First you give, then you receive.
It doesn’t matter which side you use but the order remains the same. First you give, then you receive.
I edged a box of matches from my pocket, the first one taking flame immediately. I held the match to the scrap and its edges took. Within thirty seconds it was ash.
I smiled, put the lid back with a magnetic pull and put the pen to paper again.
When I met Evie for the first time.
Again, it sparked some recollection.
The coffee shop. My work apron tassels. The chipped coffee mug, and the spill.
This scrap went in the brazier on the right. I filled it with water, the ink already starting to bleed and run. The lid sealed it inside.
I reset my rolled sleeves as the sweat broke. With both braziers fed I placed a hand under each face and began to close the memoralabe as I had always heard instructed. The cogs ratcheted and clicked. I felt each one through the golden faces. The innards spun at different speeds, louder clunks and clicks escaped. It closed with a firmer click and then began to whir. It seemed to draw power from something even without wires or batteries. Something else inside that turned on or unwound as it performed its archaic, arcane purpose.
Its thick rim bore small windows into the labe which soon began to glow, the gold becoming hot to the touch. Inside something was aflame. It trembled slightly. Clicking and whirring. Small pistons and pins seeming to peek out and recede back into the frame like an engine. For a moment I feared the thing might explode.
It began to whistle. An iris opened on its top. I was hesitant to peek over it but something called me all the same. It was the final stage.
I slid my chair back and stood, both hands on the table supporting me as I lowered my face over the iris. I held my face in a wince, ready to pull myself back at any moment. Steam poured forth as if from a kettle. I held firm.
I inhaled deeply. In through the nose, out through the mouth. Once, twice, a third time. By the end of the third breath the steam ended, the iris closed, the gold already beginning to cool. Silence. Nothing.
I sat and stared at the thing, now no instrument of arcane manipulation but a rather ornate paperweight.
I finished the glass of water and clicked the pen shut.
In the open notebook I had written, Mel.
I still knew what that meant. Not erased entirely, at least. I could see her face, except it felt further away. There was a significant moment but I couldn’t recall. It hurt when I pushed for it, like a needle behind the eyes. No echo, no blur, only absence. I didn’t need a scribble to remind me what to do next, I could still very much remember what I had written on the second note but minutes ago. Evie.
I didn’t have to push, I barely had to think her name at all.
The table fell away, the walls blew out with white light and I jumped up out of the chair before I fell with it. When the light dimmed I was in the coffee shop. I stood behind the counter, apron tied tight, tassels swinging. A nozzle frothed milk. The room was full of indecipherable conversation. My hands worked a hot mug and towel before I noticed I could feel them. Every movement, every sight and every sound already predetermined. A carriage on the rails. Except this was a journey I had travelled before. My body jerked against my better judgement, these were judgments made by a much younger self, seeing through younger eyes. How they flickered hurriedly over details of each customer; eyes, mouth, scarf, shoes.
I was putting the mug down when I became aware of somebody on the other side of the counter. What hit me first was the smell of her perfume. My head jolted upward in a moment of instinct, or maybe reflex, my eyes dancing all the while. These moments were so short but on second viewing seemed to last twice as long. Eyes, mouth, scarf and shoes. She stood in many layers, windswept, steamed-over glasses obscuring her eyes. A huge scarf wrapped around her with one end trailing to a knee.
“Good afternoon. How can I help today?” I heard myself say. It was loud, like listening to music too high.
“Hiya, oh, excuse me, yes. Sorry…”
She removed her glasses and began clearing them on the scarf end.
I couldn’t take my eyes off her. My hands, however, still on autopilot, misjudged the height of the counter and chipped the mug, spilling a shard to the floor.
I could feel my foot first quiet the shard and then slide it toward the bin. Slowly putting the mug down quietly and sliding it away. The whole moment was over in a second, maybe two, and what with the usual noise in the cafe I thought maybe I’d covered my error without her noticing as she fumbled with her things. The way she would later tell it I would know that I was wrong but in this moment, at least, I thought I’d got away with it.
“Just a coffee, thanks. Black,” she said, readjusting her glasses.
I felt myself nod, nauseous in my own skull.
She handed me exact change and moved to a nearby table.
Unlike most memories, this one didn’t speed up or skip the boring bits. I watched my younger hands as they prepped a new mug, turned on the machine, spilled the milk as I filled a small jug. It didn’t skip the setting of the tray or the wiping down the surface, nor the cold clammy feeling of dishwater between fingers. I watched as I took the tray to the table. She sat, in what I remembered before as a beam of sunlight from a perfectly placed window. It was in fact just a spotlight, one of many on overhead runners, nothing unique or especially beautiful about it. No. She held all the beauty in the room already.
Her legs were crossed, the scarf trailed to the floor, her jacket hung from the chair. A leather bag lay agape, a notebook open and a pen scribbled avidly across its page.
“One black coffee,” I felt myself say.
Again, distracted as my eyes lingered too long, the tray understepped its mark, setting down slightly short and in an over-correction moved too far and too swift causing the coffee to slosh and roll like the tides. Errant drops of it fled the mug with only one destination in mind. In my memory this happened in slow motion; trapped inside my skull it was over in a blink. A scatter of coffee drips peppered her page. Blue ink already starting to swirl in the golden smears as they faded into the paper. I felt a stone grow and then start to sink in my stomach.
“Oh my g— I am so sorry. Let me just…” I heard myself say, the limbs of my body moving with urgency as if on puppeteer’s strings.
“It’s fine...no, no...really…” she said behind me,
I grabbed paper towels from the front and returned, handing them to her apologetically.
“Really, it’s no problem — thanks, really though, it’s fine” she said,
“I am so sorry, miss, I hope that’s not ruined anything important…”
“Just a shopping list,” she said with a smile, taking a slow sip of the coffee as she patted the paper dry. Her eyes never left mine the whole time.
“Next coffee is on me, on the house, I mean, really, it’s the least I can do.”
“Thank you. That’s very kind but really it’s no trouble.”
I felt my hands reach out and take the damp towels. I heard customers waiting at the counter cough and clear throats trying to appear anything but impatient. I looked back at her and smiled and then I was right back in the living room. Still standing, hands on the table, breathing incredibly fast. It took a moment to remember where and even when I was. I looked at the memoralabe as I set my rolled sleeves to the elbow. It really fucking works, I thought.
After that I was hooked. Through trial and error I discovered a few stipulations; the time spans of both memories must be similar, an hour for an hour, a day for a day. Most recent memories were more readily available; older memories, though, needed something specific to hone in on. It would have been too easy to trade every grocery shop or toilet trip in my lifetime but while I knew I had done them, they were so inane I could no longer remember them specifically. At first, I was obsessed with saving the best bits, hours here and there from the very best days; the trips we took, holidays, special occasions, even those lazy weekends we never got out of bed. Back then I didn’t worry about the cost, hours spent at work, fixing the car, a shit episode of a tv show. They all went down on paper, burnt in a brazier and merged with another in the memoralabe. Forgotten permanently, a hole punched out in my own mind.
Each memory that came back though, each one that I inhaled through the steam into my own skull, was a waking dream, only one that I would never forget. I could remember them as often as I liked, over and over again, picking up on every minute detail. And the best bit, they took no actual time to experience, hours on the sofa as we watched our favourite films came back to me in the blink of an eye. In the span of a single breath, an afternoon at a Christmas market, cream on our noses from the hot chocolates. In the time it took to button my shirt, the weekend we spent moving in together, debating where to put the mugs and where the tv should go.
It did wonders for my journal writing, I could relive memories over and over, in perfect clarity, never changing or fading, and never forgotten. It was with these journals I began to form a timeline. Starting with that first moment we met, when we never knew exactly how much we would fall in love. Each new memory led me to another, something said, something left on a table, or pinned to a wall. A photo of a holiday, printed out and soaked in the brazier. I could click my fingers and have spent a whole day on the coast, toes between sand and seas. An ice cream upturned in the dunes but we didn’t care for all of the kisses we had instead.
I spent months doing this, one memory to another and so on. In the study journals filled up in secret. A near perfect timeline of our lives, yet, as the gaps began to close and fill there was only one direction to move, forward, and if I kept my course, it would not last long.
I had forgotten which was the first bad day, I had an idea but really it had been sooner than I thought. A memory of a long drive I took the week before was written down and burnt, traded as if it was nothing. Two and a half hours, or thereabouts, I wish it had been less. That’s when I realised this machine was just that — a machine. It traded like for like, time for time. Its purpose was not to recall only happiness, but truth. Two and a half hours, trapped in another hell. We were at her parents’ place overlooking the sea. I was trying to scrape every last best minute I could for the journals, every side smile, every slow blink, every strand of hair tucked behind an ear. I remembered too late this was the first bad day. She sat on the sofa. She looked upset, her cup clinked in the saucer and she stood to move to the kitchen. Her leg gave out then, propped on one knee she coughed so hard she bled and —
Trapped in my own body, a rollercoaster ride of the worst kind. Feeling every panicked cry from my mouth, how cold my own blood ran, and the sweat. Awful cold clouds of it that weren’t from exercise or exhaustion, no, they were from fear. Holding her hand in the back of an ambulance, in the sheer chaos of the moment, perhaps for the best, or maybe the worst, it ended.
There I was, sat in the study, Mel and the kids watching tv in the other room. That same cold cloud of sweat pouring out of me. Tears running tracks down my face and my lips shut tight for fear of spilling the lump in my throat. I looked at the memoralabe, now relocated to the study after I put the locks on. I started to think all at once this had been a terrible idea. I had never wanted to forget Evie, my first and only true love and the memoralabe had answered that call. After all, it was a gift. But now I would never forget. Those memories would not fade and change with time, those bad days would not get lost amongst the cracks. It was absolute, it was perfect, and it was love. All I had to do was blink my eyes, take a breath, button my fucking shirt, and I could be with her all over again.
And while that haunted me for a while, that wasn’t the worst it would get. Remember those holes, punched out in my mind, well, there’s an awful lot missing. Use it sparingly he’d said, but I didn’t listen. You see, the longer I live, the more memories I make, the longer that internal film of memory runs, and the more those holes stretch and merge. I had to be rid of it. Eventually, if I ever lived to be as old as grandfather, I’d end up just like him, a lifetime of traded memories, another lifetime lost amongst the holes. A survivor wandering the wreckage of my own mind, no doubt throwing my own fit when I can’t remember my own name, or where I am, or who I’m with.
To many that image is the last they have of him, however, I could do one better. The very last time I used the memoralabe I remembered him at his best. That spritely old man who still had life in his eyes, who told the most amazing stories, one who could not just remember where we were, or who I was, but also every book he’d ever read.