It’s a job like any other.
I get tired, and I get bored, but mostly I like coming to work.
When I was a young man, working my way through college, I worked at a shop that sold lottery tickets. I loved that job; the owner was a dick, but the job was great. People who buy lottery tickets are optimists, and they are my favourite people to be around; not always the brightest, but definitely the most fun. They believe that their time will come.
Which, by contrast, is the exact opposite of the people who come to my place of work.
When my customers come through that door, the one with the antique bell hanging off the inside, they come because they want to recapture something of their past.
I know that sounds mundane; everyone goes back into their memories looking for a happier time. All very well if you can actually remember those times, but if you can’t, that’s where I come in.
Not everyone walks around with a head full of brightly coloured memories. Some people blank their memories out and with good reason.
Some people, and I’m talking quite a lot of people, do not remember specifics about their childhood. They remember their childhood, of course, but only in a general way. Happy, sad, bored, excited, mad, elated, lonely, that sort of thing.
These days we have the technology to do all kinds of amazing things, and still, we are not happy.
People come to me because they want to reconnect with that happiness that they once knew. They want to experience it one more time, and in many cases, over and over again.
There are side effects, of course, but I can see their eyes glaze over as I read the list of things that might happen to them if they go through this procedure. The government makes me tell them, but I told them even before the small fat bloke from the Ministry paid me a call.
“I’m not sure how you slipped through the net Mr Williams [he pronounced my name as though he had just stepped in something nasty], but it seems that you don’t come under any of our regular categories. We’ll put you under ‘miscellaneous’ [that’s the catch-all category that makes sure that you have to fill in a form and pay a fee, even if they have no idea what you do].”
“What do you do with all the fees we pay Mr………?”
“Johnson, William Johnson, chief collector of fees for the eastern and southeastern region. I used to have the north-eastern region, but they said it was too much for me, and they gave it to Jenkins, the swine.”
“That’s a riveting story Mr Johnston, but where does the money go?”
“General revenue, of course.” He looked at me as though I’d just dropped in from another planet.
“Yes, but what does the money do?”
“It doesn’t do anything, it just is —— revenue.”
I could have kept this conversation going, but there was a serious danger of my head exploding so I just nodded and bit my lip — really hard.
William Johnson was not born a revenue collector. When he was young, he dreamed of being a train driver, back when trains had drivers. He loved the sound of trains, and the drivers were his heroes. His house backed onto the tracks of the Belgrave line. During the school holidays, he would scale the back fence and sit on the embankment and wait for the trains to pass. He’d wave at the drivers, and some of them would wave back. William longed to be the driver who waved back, but his father was convinced that working for the Public Service was the only life for his disappointing son who liked trains and talked of nothing else. ‘In the absence of a war, the Public Service will toughen him up.’
When you go into business, every bugger has got his hand in your pocket.
This bugger was only one of many.
When I wasn’t paying fees, I was dealing with customers.
They come in all shapes and sizes.
I had a bloke in here recently who had lost a lot of his long-term memory in a car accident. Naturally, he wanted to remember the accident in detail so he could work out what had happened.
Therein lay a problem.
If you are driving along and another car comes out of nowhere, all you are going to remember is that you were driving along and ‘bang’, the memory stops.
He was disappointed but not surprised. I helped him with a few other names and dates, but it didn’t seem to help his mood. He was frustrated and a bit sad.
This was an unusual day because I don’t get a lot of this kind of business.
People don’t usually come digging around in a forgotten past.
It does happen, and it usually ends in tears. The mind blocks out certain things — nasty things, and I can’t help thinking that the mind knows what it is doing — leave that stuff alone.
Of course, none of that is up to me. My job is to pinpoint the memory as accurately as possible.
They give me an approximate time and place and I ‘recollect’ it for them. Occasionally, it takes me a bit longer than I’d like, but that usually happens when people are not too sure about specifics.
You are probably wondering how I got into this business.
I just fell into it.
I was young, and my dad insisted that I work during the summer before I started college. My dad was like that. He felt that there were things that I needed to learn and more importantly, things I needed to experience.
We had money, as the saying goes, and my dad did not want me to grow up thinking that the world owed me anything.
I’d known I had this ability since childhood, and my grandfather made sure that I worked at it and got it better. This was back in the day when you had to be careful of who you spoke to about such things. It could cause you some problems, and I lost a few friends because of it, mostly because my friends’ parents were frightened to let their child play with someone who could access their memories. I didn’t understand it at the time, and I took it personally — I was hurt.
I understand now that, most likely, these adults were worried that their child would reveal some secret memory. As we have learned in recent times, some strange things went on behind closed doors in those days.
I went to work for old Doc Preston. My dad knew him [dad knew a lot of people], and he got me the job.
Doc Preston wasn’t a medical doctor; he was a doctor of psychology, and his credential came in handy in this work. All Doc Preston ever wanted to do was help people. It was amazing being around this man, even for an oblivious young eighteen-year-old like me. He lost the love of his life when they were both quite young, and he never married again. He had ‘friends’, but never anything heavy. ‘I’m married boy, [he always called me boy, even when I was in my forties], and I always will be. She may not be here with me in person, but I know we will be together again, and I’m going to remain faithful to her. It’s the only thing I can give her now, my loyalty.’ As I got to know him, I gave him the ‘she would want you to be happy’ speech, but he alway smiled and shook his head, ‘you will understand one day, boy.’
Doc Preston taught me heaps about the recollectionist business.
I jumped out of bed every morning.
When my mates urged me to take a day off and hang out, I told them that I had better things to do with my time. They thought I was nuts, and maybe I was, but it was in a good way.
I went to college, but I worked for Doc Preston on Saturdays and during the holidays.
I ended up with an honours degree, but I never put it to use because I had found my calling.
When Doc got too old to carry on, he sold the business to me.
I didn’t want him to retire. I loved being around him.
“How much do you want for the business Doc? I’m pretty sure I can raise the money.”
“Ten dollars and packet of Juicy Fruits.”
“Be serious Doc.”
He was, and he wasn’t kidding about the Juicy Fruits; Doc never joked about sweets.
You’ve probably guessed that Doc was not well. He knew, but as usual, I was totally oblivious.
A week before he died, he came into the shop, when he knew it would be quiet, and asked me for a favour.
“Can you take me back to the summer of ’88? That was our last summer together, and I’d like to remember it one last time.”
“Sure thing Doc, but none of this ‘one last time’ stuff.” Doc just smiled and gave me that look.
By the time the session was over the tears were rolling down my cheeks.
That was not like me.
I experience some very emotional stuff when I facilitate the ‘recollections’, but I usually keep a professional distance [Doc taught me that — ‘you’ll go batty if you don’t learn how to stand back and watch’].
The trouble was, this was personal. I’d heard him talk about her hundreds of times, but now, there she was and they were so much in love. I could smell her perfume, and I could see the look in their eyes and it broke my heart.