The stuff of memories
A wrong turn on a stroll down memory lane leads to a blind corner.
WHEN I was 13, I moved from a small school in rural Scotland to a large secondary school in the country’s capital, Edinburgh.
A year later, when I had barely settled into my new surroundings, my parents decided to move again, back to the heart of the Scottish countryside. I guess the bright lights and big city life were not for them.
Almost 40 years later, when I think about that school, I am transported back to the cold greyness of that old building, the lingering smell of boiled cabbage inside, and, the stench of a nearby brewery outside. I could never escape either of those smells.
And on those days when the wind was blowing in the wrong direction, the smell from the brewery during break time was so overpowering that I was forced to breathe through my mouth to minimise the assault on my nostrils.
I can only remember two of my teachers. One was a red-haired stocky man who taught History, wore a kilt every day and drove to school in a red sports car. His classes were boring and I often fought to stay awake as he droned on and on about World War II battle strategies.
Indeed, the only interest he generated was when he was trying to get out of his low slung car in the staff car park. Students often gathered at his parking bay just to watch his futile attempts to keep his kilt down and his tartan underpants concealed as he struggled out of his vehicle.
Then there was my English teacher, a new graduate who suffered from acne – angry red spots that marred an otherwise attractive face. Her lessons were also boring, with much of my time in her class spent analysing the state of her skin and wondering if she’d ever had a boyfriend.
And that’s it. My entire time at that school summed up in a couple of paragraphs. Or at least, that’s what my memories tell me. But now I’m not so sure of their accuracy.
I only recently began doubting my memories in a big way when I was carrying out some research for a book I’m writing and wanted to find out the name of the brewery responsible for the stench that greeted me almost every day. So I looked up my old school on Google Maps.
I had no problem locating the school, but there was no brewery next door to it. There was, however, a stretch of undeveloped land nearby.
Further searches on Google didn’t throw any light on this piece of land, but I was convinced that it had once hosted the culprit brewery. So I wrote to my old school. They responded immediately, giving a short history of the school. It seems there was never a brewery next to it. The smell came from two breweries, both of which were located about half a mile away – in different directions.
But what about the walls of the brewery that feature so clearly in my memory, I asked myself. Where did they come from?
I can still see the dark, foreboding building towering over the playground like something out of a Dickens novel. How could I make something like that up? Perhaps there was another building there, another building that has since been demolished. Like a factory, or an orphanage, or a centre for juvenile delinquents, or a home for unwed mothers ...
Maybe I just associated the smell with such an adjacent building and came to the conclusion that it was a brewery.
This is not the first time I have had to question my childhood memories, but it’s the first time I’ve had to acknowledge that such memories can be wrong.
On another occasion, I was not so convinced.
About 15 years ago, one of my sisters and I decided to revisit a couple of the houses we’d lived in as children. As I stood in front of one particular house, many long-forgotten memories came rushing back to me. I mentioned a couple of them to my sister. She looked at me incredulously.
“That didn’t happen to you; that happened to me!” she said in an adamant voice.
“Maybe you heard me talking about it or saw it happening to me, and it just stuck in your young memory as something that happened to you,” I said defensively. “No, you’ve got it all wrong!” For the sake of harmony, we agreed to disagree that day.
I’m now wondering if I ever had a History teacher with a kilt. Maybe he only ever wore one to school once. It makes me wonder exactly how much of my past really did unfold the way I thought it did.
One thing’s for sure though: his underpants were tartan.