The stuff of mem­o­ries

A wrong turn on a stroll down me­mory lane leads to a blind corner.

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - T LIFESTYLE - MARY SCHNEIDER

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.

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