One of the nice things about fantasy and SF is that one can put human nature into an unfamiliar environment – perhaps a fantastic world, or, as in this case, a futuristic technology. The following is an extract from my as yet unpublished third novel. The devices mentioned are designed to bring back old memories – not necessarily ones that the participant would want brought back.
“No, I don’t want compensation, I just want to warn other people!”
“Can we then go over what happened?”
“Yes, if you must. Come in, then.”
Belzic was ushered across a soft carpet into a luxurious lounge. His host, who was lean to the point of emaciation, gestured to an enormous armchair, into which Belzic, after some hesitation, subsided. The host however continued to pace up and down. “You see, I hadn’t fully taken in what had happened, not until my daughter … you see, she’s an adult really, but a bit innocent, so I wanted to try out one of these … er … devices, just to feel comfortable about what she was doing.”
“Mr Haan,” said Belzic presently, “the company will be most grateful for any information you can give. It will all be kept in the strictest confidence, of course.”
“Well, yes, you might as well know – of course I had no idea, no idea at all.”
“The devices were tested by six hundred people, but there is always more to learn. If you could just …”
“Yes, yes, I know. So, ten days ago I joined this group – a colleague of mine from work and six others I did not know, all men. One was the leader. He said, ‘think back to when you were a carefree youngster. Think of something really exciting you did. It may have been a birthday party, or an outing. Perhaps you went camping with a group of friends’. So we all put on these things that go right over the head, and cut you off from everything. You’re just looking at a white screen. I could soon hear that the others were getting results; there were lots of ‘oohs’ and ‘aahs’ going on. I however just had this blank screen.” Mr Haan sat for a moment facing Belzic, but then stood up again.
“I’ll manage better if I have a drink. Would you – ?”
“Why, thank you.”
“It’s a strong brew. We make it here.”
Belzic sat back with his drink while Haan continued.
“My family was running a farm in Perigaan, which is the most remote of our country’s islands. I think things went well to start. We raised animals for wool and also produced garments out of flax – we had a small factory as well as the farm – and there were six men and a couple of women who worked for us. There was no radio at that time, but the boat came every week with mail, or things we’d ordered, and we often had things to send away. Then the war began. Our staff left first. A boat was coming to collect us, and I remember waiting at the wharf, each of us with a big bag of belongings. I had desperately wanted to take our cat, but that wasn’t allowed. Anyway, the boat never arrived. When daylight came there were three ships of the enemy on the horizon, and a fourth heading straight towards us.
We took everything back to the house. “We carry on as normal,” said my father. “Listen, everyone, be polite, but tell them nothing. Don’t talk unless you have to – leave the talking to me.” He hid his rifle, two swords and a couple of knives we used on the flax underneath the house.
We were all tired, I guess, but we made an effort to do all the usual chores – gathering fresh vegetables, cooking a meal, feeding the animals. The soldiers came. I think they were very surprised to see a family living on the island. They just stared at us, and I thought at first they were going to leave us alone – I think they did for a day or two, but I don’t remember. I was eight years old – in fact I had my eighth birthday on that first day we were occupied.
Now this is what happened when the soldiers came into our house; and this is what I lived through again when I put on that terrible machine.
The family: my father, mother, older brother (fifteen), and young sister (six), and myself, sitting at our round dining room table. We all had drinks, and I had a little cake in front of me. The others were singing my birthday wishes. There was a banging on the door. My father opened it and four men, armed and in uniform, marched straight past him. They did not speak our language but when they gathered round they knew exactly what was happening. One of them slapped me on the back, the other three lining up to shake my hand. They seemed to think the whole event was a huge joke. They spoke to me, and of course I didn’t understand a word, but I smiled and nodded.
My mother offered them drink, food. Only then, just like the ending of a film clip, my screen went blank. There I was, looking at myself, my siblings, my parents, and those soldiers, all so close I felt I could reach out and touch them; and there was this feeling of intense familiarity about a scene I had long forgotten. And then another image: me hiding in the wood behind our little house, watching the soldiers.
One soldier in particular seemed to take a shine to me. He came to visit me every day. He showed me photographs of his family, and a drawing which I guessed represented his son, a young chap like me. He even helped wash the dishes on occasion, since the soldiers would sometimes share our meals. They began to seem like part of our family, going away for a day or two but always coming back. They had a camp set up just past our garden, and I would sometimes walk a little way towards it, just to watch them.
Once we watched a sea battle. It was hard to make out the details, since the soldiers had confiscated our telescope. Nonetheless, there were, far off, clusters of ships, puffs of smoke, and distant reverberations. The whole war seemed like that really, all around us, and yet remote, dreamlike.
Our enemy soldiers, when on the island, seemed to spend a lot of their time lying about, or entertaining themselves with songs.
We seemed to know when they were finally leaving. The whole atmosphere changed, and for the first time I began to feel anxious. I was sitting outdoors in the late afternoon sun, a book in my hand, but not reading. I kept looking towards the beach, and our little landing jetty. My favourite soldier came and sat beside me. He had the drawing of his son with him, which he pointed to, and then he shook my hand, and laughed. Quite suddenly I wanted to impress him in some way. I ran to the back of our house, crawled under it, and came back with my father’s rifle. As soon as I showed it to the soldier I knew it was a mistake. He stared at it, his eyes growing big, then he took it away. He was no longer my friend; he was an enemy soldier. I had just wanted to show him that I knew about rifles, and my father was going to teach me how to use this one. It wasn’t for war of course, just for shooting birds.
Anyway, my soldier friend went off with it, and then the other three came running, and orders were shouted. In the confusion I ran and hid behind a tree. I watched my mother coming out of the house, and being driven back in, along with the rest of the family. The soldiers searched everywhere. They found the rapiers, and the flax knives. Then I heard strange voices; more soldiers had arrived. I slunk away and hid under sacks in the room we used to store harvested flax. I lay there for a long, long time. I dimly remember that night, and the light from a lantern moving about in the store room, but I was not discovered. When I woke up again it was daylight. All the soldiers had gone, but my father had been shot.
A little later in the day our own soldiers arrived and took us away.
I never told my family what I had done.
Jey Haan paused, and then, since Belzic had made no sound, added: “Your infernal machine brought it all vividly back to me, scene by scene. In particular, I watched my childhood self crawl under the house, and run back, triumphantly, carrying my father’s gun. I guess that was when I lost my innocence.” He gave a dry laugh.
“So what happened to your life after that?”
“I worked very hard. I wasn’t especially bright, but I did well at school. I slogged. I grew up. I started a business. It failed. I started another and was brilliantly successful. I got married. I have a daughter who still lives with me, but my wife and both my sons have nothing to do with me.”
“Why is that?”
“I have periods of deep depression – if that’s what it is. When I come out of it I go out of my way to annoy people, or I scream, I throw things around. Belzic, I have trouble living with myself – I feel … tormented. I watched your device through to the bitter end – I couldn’t stop myself. And then I wrote to your company.”
“In your letter you said you were going to kill yourself, and you hoped we all burned in hell.”
Belzic looked thoughtfully at his client, who was now shaking, and huddled down in his armchair. For a moment a vision came to him of a little boy buried under sacking, on the floor of an empty shed, lying still while soldiers with lanterns searched. It was very quiet in the house, but occasionally there were sounds. A woman went by the window. The daughter? More probably a servant. He caught sight of a man who was probably a gardener. He eased himself out of his own chair and sat on the arm of the one occupied by Haan. He put his hand on Haan’s shoulder. “Let it all come out,” he said. “Let it all come out.”
For a long time Haan shook and sobbed. Then he said, “My poor father.”
“Why did he have rapiers in the house?”
“I found them up in a tree. I think they were old fashioned duelling weapons. My father cleaned them up. He said he was going to sell them, or give them to the army. It’s funny, you know. He hated war, wanted nothing to do with it; but the army declared him a hero, awarding him a medal which my mother received at a special ceremony. And the rest of the family went along with it. My mother got a state pension.”
“And what finally did you get out of it?”
“I was eight years old, for God’s sake!”
“That’s not what I asked.”
Haan said nothing, and presently Belzic continued, speaking very gently. “You are still fighting in that war, did you know? It’s time to let go, forgive yourself, surrender.”
“I’m not sure I know how.”
“Yes you do. Reach out to that little boy. Tell him you love him. Tell him you forgive him. Tell him you understand.”
Haan gave a long sigh. He closed his eyes and was still for so long Belzic wondered if he was asleep, but then he said, “Thank you, thank you. I think I want to be alone right now.”
Belzic tiptoed out of the room.