In the year three thousand, nine hundred and sixty one, the man with no memory found himself stood naked on a beach. Of course he knew it was a beach and he knew he was naked, for he had full capacity of language, in this case a complete vocabulary of English as it was spoken in the mid twenty-first century. This means to describe him as ‘a man with no memory’ is, in fact, slightly erroneous. More accurately we could say he was a man with ‘memory-impairment’. This is because, as anybody worth their salt knows, to understand language properly one must remember what words mean. Our man, who didn’t know his name was Peter, did know that remembering words included some recollection of the history of words. For example he knew, very well, that the etymology of the word ‘etymology’ was that it was derived from the Greek ‘etumos’ meaning ‘true’. But then again he knew, as he stood there pondering with wet sand between his toes, that what was ‘true’ was a difficult concept. It was ‘true’ that he was stood on a lovely warm beach and it was ‘true’ that the sand felt good between his toes. But what he didn’t know the truth of was how he came to be there and, more importantly, who he was. Peter also didn’t know it was the year three thousand, nine hundred and sixty one.
He would never know that.
It felt strange to be naked, for he knew about clothes and the shame of nakedness. The only part of him that felt right was his feet. It felt perfectly natural to have bare feet and that was because one crucial part of his ‘memory-impairment’ was that he had forgotten about shoes. Why this was crucial comes later in our tale.
Why does our story begin on a beach? Well this was where his memory, apart from all the words he knew, started once again. Or did it? It was, if you will, the start of his story. Or was it the end? I’ll let you decide.
“Hello,” said a voice,
Peter turned to see an old woman sitting on a sand dune. She, unlike him, was dressed. He was unable to stem the sensation of embarrassment filling his cheeks and awkwardly he tried to cover himself with the flimsy protection of his fingers. She giggled; the sound of her voice like someone much younger.
“Don’t be embarrassed,” she said, “come sit with me,”
He stumbled in the deep sand and plonked his bottom down; careful to keep his legs together.
“Embarrassment is a funny thing,” she said, “you don’t have it when you are very young or when you are very old, like me. Babies have no fear of running around naked. It’s a thing we learn to feel and keep with us in the middle part of our lives, only to discard it when we learn it’s a useless feeling. You, for example, must be wondering how you come to have all those words in your head when you can’t remember much else; you learnt them is the answer, just like you learnt to be embarrassed. But please don’t worry, I am old and I’ve seen plenty of naked men in my time and you look particularly fine naked if you don’t mind me saying,”
She giggled again.
Peter had the distinct feeling that this old woman was flirting with him which only served to heighten his embarrassment.
“Who are you?” he said, surprised at the sound of his own voice, for he had no recollection of hearing it before. He also wondered why he was asking first about her identity and not his own. Did that signal what kind of person he was?
“You can call me ‘Adrasteia’,” she said, “it’s Greek,”
“I know,” he said, “it means ‘survivor’ doesn’t it?”
“Yes,” she said, “well remembered. I’m one of the last ones, the ones who survived,”
“Oh, well now, that’s something you needn’t worry your pretty head about. Something from a future you fortunately will never know,”
“What do you mean?” he said,
She stared out to sea as if she could see something beautiful that he couldn’t.
“Look,” said Peter, “I’m a bit confused. I don’t even seem to know who I am,”
“Yes I know…” she said, “…sorry, I was distracted…maybe it’s because you’re so handsome. I didn’t expect that. I haven’t seen anyone so handsome in such a long time you see. But anyway, I digress, and we don’t have much time. I should get to the point and explain,”
“You, my elegant friend, are dead,”
“What? I don’t feel dead,”
“Well, one never ‘feels’ dead,”
“How can that be true?”
“Please don’t be alarmed,” she said, “you won’t be dead for long. I’m here to give you a second chance. Everyone should have a second chance don’t you think?”
“I don’t understand,” he said, “a second chance at what?”
“A second chance at life,”
“I don’t know what you mean,”
“It’s complicated…but you died a very long time ago and us survivors won’t last much longer without your help. We’re counting on you. You see we have spent centuries studying the history of humankind and it all comes down to one word. Specifically the word ‘shoes’. Ridiculous when you think of it,”
“I don’t know that word,” he said,
“Yes,” she said, “and that’s the problem. If you had remembered the word ‘shoes’ all those centuries ago then humanity would have survived and prospered but now there are only a few of us left. We are dying out as a species I’m afraid. Maybe that’s our destiny…who knows,”
“What’s that got to do with me?” said Peter,
“We are very clever, and have been working on the problem for over five hundred years. I won’t go into the ins and outs of it, I’m afraid you wouldn’t understand, but we have worked out that you are the crux of the matter. It’s why we’ve brought you here. If you had remembered about shoes then your life would have been longer and history would have taken a much more optimistic turn. It’s like a game of snakes and ladders, the random throw of the dice can send you up or down. You forgetting about shoes unfortunately sent the whole of humanity downwards,”
“How can that be?”
“You forgetting about shoes meant you didn’t have children. And your children didn’t have children, and so on. No progeny for you. You forgetting about shoes meant your descendants didn’t exist. And if they had existed they would have saved mankind. But they didn’t. All because you forgot about shoes…”
“I see,” he said, not quite seeing at all, “So what are shoes?”
And so it was that the old woman told Peter about ‘shoes’. She told him the definition, she showed him her shoes and she described many examples. She explained how the very best example of shoes was a fine pair of brown suede brogues, size ten; she showed him a photograph of them she took from her pocket. She told him of the etymology of the word shoe; of how it was a mixture of old English, Dutch and Germanic. She told him how he should be very particular about shoes because the kind of shoes one chooses can say a lot about a man. Particularly if one chose a fine pair of brown suede brogues, size ten. All of these things she repeated, carefully and slowly, so as to imbed them in his memory.
“I’m still not sure I understand,” he said,
“Don’t worry,” she said, placing her hand on his cheek and smiling,
“But I still don’t know who I am,” he said,
“You will,” she said, “now, all you have to do is swim out to sea and your second chance will begin,”
“Do I know how to swim?” he said,
“Of course,” she said, “go now, there isn’t much time,”
He stood and walked down the beach, into the gentle surf and turned to take one last look at the kind old woman. He wasn’t sure why he trusted her, but somehow he did. She had a nice smile. And so he dived into the water and began to swim out to sea.
“Don’t forget the shoes!” she called,
The alarm went at five, and then again at six but Peter didn’t hear it. Somehow he must have turned it off and gone back to sleep although he couldn’t remember doing that. Slowly Peter began to wake and realise he had a bit of a hangover, which was the last thing he wanted but he didn’t quite realise why yet. He shouldn’t have had that last whisky with Henry. That had been a mistake but he still couldn’t remember why. He rubbed his eyes and turned over. It was a full two minutes before his befuddled mind thought to look at the clock. He blinked at it, struggling to take it in. Green blurry numbers on its little screen. Ten forty-two on the Twenty Fourth of July, twenty-sixteen. Sunday the Twenty-Fourth…
He swore. Very loudly. He sat up quickly and put palm to forehead.
Her birthday. Their wedding day.
And he was late. Very late.
He had promised Henry he would be there at ten, without fail. Henry, his best man. Naomi would be at the hairdressers by now. Naomi; her name meant beautiful, agreeable. It was what she was. He knew she would laugh it off if he was late, but that wasn’t the point. He wanted to make her proud; today of all days.
He took a moment to think it through. If he rushed he could be at Henry’s by half-eleven, enough time to check that Henry had organised the button holes and wrapped her present like he promised. Enough time for them to dress in their tail-coats and tie each other’s ties. Henry must have overslept too.
He called Henry to wake him and they both swore. Henry apologised profusely for the night before and they both laughed, realising this would be a memory they both wouldn’t forget. Henry laughed because Peter always went on about how is name meant ‘reliable’. It would be part of their folklore as they grew old; Peter’s wedding day, the day he forgot.
And so it was that Peter rushed to get ready. He didn’t bother with a shower, he just dressed quickly and grabbed the bag he had reliably packed.
He ran across the busy street fumbling with his car keys, dumped the bag in the back seat but before he got in he remembered. He remembered the thing he had forgotten.
His fine pair of brown suede brogues, size ten.
Peter loved those shoes and had chosen them carefully because he knew they would go with his suit and that Naomi would love them. But he had forgotten them; they were still pristine and never worn in their box on the kitchen table. His mother had always told him it was unlucky to put shoes on the table, especially new ones.
This was the thought that was crossing his mind as he ran back across the street. The thought in his mind the exact moment the bus hit him…
In the year three thousand, nine hundred and sixty one the man with no memory found himself stood naked on a beach.
“Hey handsome,” called the old woman, “you forgot the shoes didn’t you?”
© 2016 Simon Poore