16 Questions

Artwork by Tim Judd.    fb.me/Quillhook

(A smartly appointed office. There is a desk with a computer, assorted pens and notepads, and a Dictaphone style recorder. There is also a framed photograph of a smiling woman against a backdrop of gleaming golden beach.

Behind the desk is a tall, middle aged, kindly looking man with a carefully professional manner in a perfectly crisp suit.

Opposite him, in a more relaxed, cushioned chair sits a small, slightly shrunken old lady wearing a flowery scarf, a rather dishevelled twin set and flat lace up shoes with support soles.  She holds a walking stick, casually, in her right hand, as though preparing to leave at short notice, and her gaze, through her spectacles, is very sharp. She watches the man as though preparing to eat him.)

Dr Clarke: “This is my first consultation with Mrs Finchley at my offices, on the afternoon of 17 July.” He looks a little uncomfortable. “This session is being taped at the request of the client. “

There is a short pause. Dr Clarke leans back a little in his chair, folds his hands and fixes his subject with a professional smile. “Now Mrs Finchley, I understand you’ve been having a little trouble with your memory.”

Mrs Finchley: “I need you to answer some questions.”

Dr Clarke: “You need me to?”

Mrs Finchley, firmly: “Yes please.”

Dr Clarke looks, for a moment, a little concerned. Then he shrugs, smiles benignly and unfolds his hands, placing them on the desk as if bracing himself for interrogation.  “Well, this isn’t usually how this works, but – why not.” He has the air of someone living rather dangerously.

Mrs Finchley: “The photo you have on your desk – who is that, and when and where was it taken?”

If Dr Clarke is taken aback, he is too professional to show it. He glances at the picture, breaks into a grin which, for a split second, betrays his carefully staid demeanour, and replies, “My wife, on our eighth anniversary, in Thailand.” Then he refolds his hands as if getting down to business. “Mrs Finchley, I understand you’ve been having some feelings of…shall we say, anxiety?”

The old lady shifts irritably in her chair, “It’s not anxiety. It’s a national crisis.” She stops, as if considering for a moment, then adds, “Possibly global. I don’t know. I don’t have TV.”

Dr Clarke remains impassive. He speaks very slowly and carefully. “And you believe this, er, crisis, is caused by someone who you think might be,” he consults his notes, and then says, the quotation marks evident in his tone, “interfering with your memories.”

Mrs Finchley: “I have to ask a question. The photo you have on your desk – who is that, and when and where was it taken?”

Dr Clarke, (very gently): “Mrs Finchley, do you realise you have already asked this exact question, only a few moments ago, in this same session?”

Mrs Finchley, (with extreme dignity): “Yes of course I do. I’m not an idiot. Please answer the question.”

Dr Clarke sighs, then replies: “It’s my wife, Claudia, on our eighth wedding anniversary, when we were travelling through South East Asia. It was an amazing trip. We enjoyed it immensely. This was taken in Thailand. So, this person you’ve been so worried about. You’re concerned that he or she is…?”

Mrs Finchley: “Messing with people’s memories, yes.”

Dr Clarke: “Mrs Finchley, are you aware that you have a degenerative disorder, which affects a number of cognitive factors, but which has a particular impact on your memory?”

Mrs Finchley: “Quite aware, yes, thank you.”

Dr Clarke leans forward in his chair, towards Mrs Finchley, and when he speaks his eyes are warm and full of what appears to be quite genuine sympathy. “It’s a difficult diagnosis to process. Many people struggle with it. It’s quite a big thing to absorb and it can be especially difficult,” he consults his notes, “when you’re on your own. It’s quite normal to have feelings of anger, to want to apportion blame. It’s a very human impulse and quite understandable.”

There is a pause.

Mrs Finchley: “The photo you have on your desk – who is that, and when and where was it taken?”

Dr Clarke sighs and seems to struggle with himself for a moment. “I don’t think…” He takes a deep breath. “OK. Mrs Finchley, this is my wife. It was taken on our anniversary, when we were about five months into a trip across South East Asia. This is Koh Lanta in Thailand.” He laughs, softly, “We’d just got off a tuk tuk with a crazy driver who drove like a maniac and nearly tipped us off the road.”

For a moment Dr Clarke simply smiles to himself, as if forgetting Mrs Finchley is still in the room. Then he refocuses, shakes himself a little and reassumes his professional tone. “Perhaps we could try what I call a thought experiment Mrs Finchley, in which we pretend that this person, this villain out there who is stealing your memories, actually exists. How does he operate, exactly?”

“He – “Mrs Finchley pauses, frowns, “It might be a she.”

“They, then,” Dr Clarke is satin smooth, “How do they operate? “

Mrs Finchley: “Well from what I’ve observed,” she leans forward in her chair, as if sharing a confidence, “it seems to be gradual. Like a sort of chipping away, changing little bits here and there. But he…she…is doing it on a massive scale. I see it in neighbours, in friends, in the postman even!” she adds this last with a note of incredulity, as if the postman, of all people, ought to be immune. “Little by little, until they just don’t remember things the same way any more. The photo you have on your desk – who is that, and when and where was it taken?”

Dr Clarke, confidently, rather getting the hang of this. ”Wife. Thailand. South East Asia Trip. Crazy tuk tuk driver. Afterwards we had ice cream. So, supposing this person really is changing memories, how bad can that be?”

Mrs Finchley, aghast: “How bad? You’re asking me this? You’re supposed to be the professional. You must know how bad. You lot are always asking people intrusive questions about their mothers or their childhood. You know how bad.”

There is a silence, too short for Dr Clarke to formulate a professional reply and then Mrs Finchley continues, adopting a patient tone, as if teaching basic life skills to a recalcitrant child. “Everything we do is informed by our memories. It affects our whole attitude. If you change the way somebody thinks something happened, if you alter their personal stock of forumulative moments – “ she frowns, “Is it formulative? No. Something else…formation? No.”

Dr Clarke makes a small movement, clears his throat as if to interject.

“FOMATIVE!” shouts Mrs Finchley triumphantly, “Formative moments. If you change all that then you change the way they think. You can make people hate people. You can create phobias. And if he…or she…continues, there’s going to be a war.”

Dr Clarke: “A war?”

Mrs Finchley: “The photo you have on your desk – who is that, and when and where was it taken?”

Dr Clarke: “You think there is going to be a war?”

Mrs Finchley, stubbornly: “The photo you have on your desk – who is that, and when and where was it taken?”

Dr Clarke: “Mrs Finchley – “

Mrs Finchley: “The photo you have on your desk – who is that, and when and where was it taken?”

There is a very long pause.

Dr Clarke, sighing heavily: “It’s my ex wife in Thailand when we took a trip through South East Asia. We escaped a nasty tuk tuk accident and celebrated with an ice cream.”

Mrs Finchley’s bright eyes narrow. She studies the doctor in silence. Finally she says, “OK. I’ll let that one go.”

Dr Clarke reassembles his patience. “Mrs Finchley, you remember what I was saying earlier about it being OK to be fearful after a diagnosis like yours? About it being natural to try to find a reason for it, to make sense of it to yourself to help you go on? I think perhaps this memory interferer of yours – “

Mrs Finchley: “-they’re not interfering with my memories.”

Dr Clarke: “I’m sorry?”

Mrs Finchley: “No. I’m immune.”

Dr Clarke: “-but-“

Mrs Finchley, sharply: “The photo you have on your desk – who is that, and when and where was it taken?”

Dr Clarke: “Thailand. Ex wife. She was being characteristically melodramatic about a slight near miss we had with a tuk tuk driver.” He rolls his eyes, “You’d have thought it was some kind of near death experience. I calmed her down with an ice cream. Why do you think you’re immune?”

 Mrs Finchley, thoughtfully: “I’m not sure, really. Maybe because my mind’s already corrupted. My memory’s messed up anyway so I don’t look like a threat. Or maybe he just can’t access them. Or she. I mean, I can’t half of the time.” She glances sharply at Dr Clarke, “Or maybe he or she just knows that no one is ever going to listen to an old biddie with brain disease, or take her seriously.”

There is a guilty silence. Dr Clarke shifts slightly in his chair.

Mrs Finchley, sternly: “The photo you have on your desk – who is that, and when and where was it taken?”

 Dr Clarke, with a look of extreme innocence: “That’s funny. Haven’t we had that question before?”

Mrs Finchley narrows her eyes again, “Several times. Do you not remember?”

Dr Clarke: “I do remember. But I wondered if you did. Mrs Finchley, your disease will eat away at your short term recall, it might make you unable to correctly judge the passing of time. There may be days when you don’t remember your name. It’s a brutal truth but much easier if you are able to face it. Then you can begin to make plans for how you might deal with it.”

Mrs Finchley, icily: “The photo you have on your desk – who is that, and when and where was it taken?”

Dr Clarke: “It’s my ex wife. We were in Thailand on a trip across South East Asia. She was making a fuss about a driver. I bought her an ice cream. It was stupidly overpriced.” He bangs the flat of his hand on the desk, “That’s the thing about Thailand. You think it’s all going to be really cheap because of the exchange rate, but the moment they see a tourist they ramp everything up. You pay at least three times the rate the locals do and, quite frankly, the quality’s appalling.”

Dr Clarke pauses for breath.

Mrs Finchley, gently: “I think we’re getting off the subject.”

Dr Clarke, breathing just a little heavily: ”Quite, er…quite.”

Mrs Finchley: “It’s OK. I’m taking notes.”

Dr Clarke, feeling himself unseated somehow but unsure exactly how it might have occurred: “Oh. Well, yes. That’s very helpful. But there’s really no need –“

Mrs Finchley: “Actually I think that might be why. Why it doesn’t affect me. You see, I know I have a disease, I don’t trust my own memories. So I know I have to be careful. I pay attention.” She sits up a little taller, taps her pen against her nose proudly, “I’m very precise.”

Dr Clarke: “Well yes I’m sure you –“

Mrs Finchley: “I write everything down or I tape it. I leave notes for myself all over the house. I keep things around, you know, hard facts. Records.” She glances at the frame on the desk and adds, rather doubtfully, “Photographs.”

There is a pause.

Mrs Finchley: “The photo you have on your desk – “

Dr Clarke: “-It’s a picture of my ex wife screwing me out of my money as always. I don’t know why I keep it.”

There is a very long pause.

Faintly, from outside, we hear the sound of drums and chanting, interspersed every so often with screams and bangs.

Mrs Finchley, watching him carefully: “They’re protesting again.”

Dr Clarke, slowly, as if trying to understand a problem which is continually sliding out of his reach: “There have been a lot of protests recently.”

Mrs Finchley: “Yes there have. People are protesting all the time. They are protesting about everything. They are always angry.” She adds, meaningfully, “And they always have a reason why.”

Dr Clarke: “You think it’s your memory stealer.”

Mrs Finchley: “More of a memory adjuster. And yes. He or she seems to want some kind of war.”

Dr Clarke: “But why?”

Mrs Finchley: “I don’t know.” She looks thoughtful, “I thought for a while he might be working for the government. Or she. But then the politicians all seem to be angry too. So now I’m not sure. But it won’t end well and he needs to be stopped.”

There is a pause.

Mrs Finchley: “Or she.”

For a while the two simply sit in their respective positions, listening to the commotion outside. Gradually the noise dies down, growing fainter as the protest moves on.

Mrs Finchley, a little wearily: “The photo you have on your desk – who is that, and when and where was it taken?”

Dr Clarke: “It’s a photo of my ex wife. I keep it to remind me never to be fooled by a woman again.”

Mrs Finchley sighs: “I don’t know why I thought telling you would help really. I suppose because you’re an expert. An expert in memory. You might be harder for them to mess with. You might even know a cure.”

Dr Clarke, feeling himself momentarily back on familiar territory, “Mrs Finchley, I’m very sorry, but some things simply can’t be cured. You have to accept that. It really will be much easier if you can accept it.”

Mrs Finchley, flatly: “The photo you have on your desk – who is that, and when and where was it taken?”

Dr Clarke: “It’s my wife.” He pauses, with a look of such deep sadness that Mrs Finchley freezes in her chair. She looks at him intently. “She died,” he says, finally, “in a tuk tuk accident in Thailand.”

Silence. Then, Mrs Finchley says, very slowly and clearly: “Dr Clarke? Will you keep this tape, please? Will you listen to it later?”

Dr Clarke presses his hands into his eyes, rubs his forehead as if to clear some pain. “Whatever. So, Mrs Finchley, let’s pretend this story is true, how do you know? How do you know everyone else is affected by this memory thief…adjuster…if you’re not?”

Mrs Finchley: “Because I listen. I listen and I read my notes.” She pauses, then adds, bitterly, “Fat lot  of good it does. It doesn’t matter if I know or if I’m as blind as the rest of them. Nobody listens to old people.”

Dr Clarke, sympathetically: “You feel being old has stolen your voice? That the disease you have makes you unrelatable? How long have you felt this way?”

There is a break in Mrs Finchley’s words when she speaks next. But she remains dogged. “The photo. The one that you have on your desk. Who is that? And when…and when was it taken?”

Dr Clarke, surprised: “That’s an odd question. Why do you want to know about my picture?”

Mrs Finchley sighs, and stands. She reaches for her bag. “I’m sorry,” she says, “I don’t think I can help you.”

Dr Clarke: “Mrs Finchley – “

Mrs Finchley, tearfully, “It’s only me. And maybe a handful of other poor sods.  I assume. I’ve never met anyone else. But even if there were others. If we ganged up together. What can we do against the world?”

Dr Clarke stands up, and starts towards her, urgently, his hand reaching out towards the old lady, gesturing her back into her seat. “Mrs Finchley, I can recommend a lovely respite home. Very quiet and comfortable, and there you can meet many other people who are dealing with just the same issues as you. You needn’t feel so isolated. You are not alone.”

The old lady looks up and meets his gaze. “The photo you have on your desk,” she says deliberately, “who is that, and when and where was it taken?”

Dr Clarke: “It’s my wife. She was killed by a tuk tuk driver. Bloody maniac. These people are irresponsible murderers. Bloody Thai overpriced ice cream journeys,” he is spluttering with rage, reaching out to hold onto the desk to steady himself with one hand, banging his fist on it with the other. “They never apologised. Never. Never took responsibility. Just shrugged. Can you believe it? Shrugged! And they cheat you all the way. It was hell to pay just trying to get her body home.”

There is a very, very long pause.

Mrs Finchley, quietly and soothingly, “Mr Clarke? I’m very sorry for your loss.” She hooks her bag onto her shoulder, takes a grip on her walking stick. Then, with infinite sadness, “I’m afraid I have to go now.  I want you to listen to this tape later and listen very carefully. And then, pass it on to the authorities.”

Dr Clarke: “What authorities?”

Mrs Finchley: “I don’t know. I would have said the police but I’m not sure they can do much.” She hesitates, “We should probably just make sure. “ She draws a deep breath, as if steeling herself for something, “The photo you have on your desk – who is that, and when and where was it taken?”

This time Dr Clarke doesn’t even glance at the picture, “They start small, the people out there,” he says angrily, “in Thailand. Just with simple cons and what have you. Steal something out of your wallet, spin you some line. But then it gets worse, they step up the volume and the next thing you know they’re killing you. Killing you. Murdering bastards! I tell you Mrs Finchley, they’re targeting England. Now I don’t know why and I wouldn’t like to second guess but if I had to – and I don’t – but if I did I’d wager  they want to come over here and take over. Yes. Come to our beaches. Get the hell out of their overpriced country with its overpriced food. And I’ll tell you another thing Mrs Finchley, I’m not having it!”

Mrs Finchley: “Dr Clarke – “

Dr Clarke: “Because THIS, Mrs Finchley, this is ENGLAND. And we are proud people. And we will STAND.”

Mrs Finchley: “Dr Clarke please calm down. I have written something down for you on this paper. It’s to remind you what you need to do with the tape. Please make sure you follow it to the letter. It’s really very important. In the meantime,” she begins to hobble towards the door, “I think it’s going to have to be up to me.”

Dr Clarke, confused, as though aware something has happened but unable to pin down precisely what: “Is the consultation over?”

Mrs Finchley, smiling weakly, “I think so. Unless…. The photo you have on your desk – who is that, and when and where was it taken?”

Dr Clarke: “Oh that, that’s some girl I met on an anti Thailand protest. Actually that reminds me,” he looks stricken, “There was a protest. I was meant to be in it. I’m supposed to be somewhere.”

Mrs Finchley: “I’m sorry Dr Clarke. I’m sorry to inconvenience you and I shouldn’t have wasted so much of your time.”

Dr Clarke, rummaging around in his own bag, and reaching for his coat, “Yes. Thank you. Mrs Um.”

Mrs Finchley: ”Goodbye.”

She opens the door, steps through it, then pauses and looks back. The tape in the player is still running.

Mrs Finchley: “The photo you have on your desk – who is that, and when and where was it taken?”

Dr Clarke, preparing to climb out of the window to join the protesters: “I don’t know. Must have been left over from the last guy.”

Very gently, Mrs Finchley closes the door.

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