P.S.O Jules Stewart
‘A pen drive, yes I can open that,’ says Dorace and in her excitement moves almost speedily across the cube to fetch an old laptop computer. She opens the lid and a jingle of music peels from the small machine and swirling colours play on a screen. Fat Peter can’t hold back and strokes the device, wondering at the little magic box. Dorace permits this, pleased that someone else loves this tech. Expertly she takes the storage unit from me and inserts an end of it into the side of her computer. A light flashes on it.
‘It’s reading it,’ she says. We wait and eventually a square appears with another small square inside it.
‘It’s a text file. Is that what you were expecting? She asks.
‘To be honest I didn’t know what to expect. Can you open it?’ I ask.
‘Yes of course,’ says Dorace and presses on the device. The file becomes text on the screen.
‘Like a letter,’ says Dorace, ‘can you read it?’
I read it out aloud.
'My name is Estelle Fischer. Adopted daughter of Jet Wong. I don’t know how or why you’ve found this text but I’m writing this down because this is my true memory of real events – memories buried in the back of my mind that other people tried to overwrite but now I know the truth. I’m too cowardly to stand up and make people pay for their crimes instead I’m using this to buy my freedom from them and to punish the corporate wrong doers in a way they’ll understand and not be able to wriggle out of. I’m buying my escape with this text and accompanying photographs as payment to my liberator and their tormentor who can use them to extract whatever he likes from them. I no longer care what happens to them, so long as it doesn’t involve me.
Like everyone I'd heard the rumours and tall tales of what happened in the days before most people moved to the strata, the trade blockade, people starving, disease and crime. But I'd never believed any of it, now I don't know what to think. I've met people who live at ground level and their horrific stories seem genuine enough. And it wasn’t that I didn’t believe Ruth Johnson, who she said she was, what she said had happened. I do kind of remember her or something about her. I can’t say exactly what. She’s familiar, that’s all. But I needed something more concrete before I could do anything. I had the photographs that she gave me and they seemed pretty conclusive – probably good enough as some kind of evidence but I was there and I wanted to remember what I saw for myself. No more constructing a memory from what I’d been told. I knew what happened, I was there, but I was only six years old. If I could remember for myself then I knew I’d be able to take action. If what Ruth said was what I also remembered then it was true and Jet had to pay.
Roberto told me about the memory retriever. It didn’t look like a clinic. There was nothing about the place that looked remotely legit, medical, hygienic But then it was strata 2 after all and was recommended by Roberto. No tech involved and non-invasive procedure he’d said, sounded harmless enough.
It wasn't hard to find. A yellow door with a sign of a lamp above it, just like Roberto said. The door creaked open and an elderly lady reached out to me arms open and inviting.
‘Come on in, you must be Estelle. Don’t be afraid. I was expecting you.’ She took my arm and guided me in. ‘Roberto told me all about you.’ Her cube was tiny, I guess they all are on strata 2. She has her hair pinned back tightly in a bun and this arrangement has pulled her skin taut. She's wearing a white coat like you might see in an old netfiction.
‘I was expecting a clinic,’ I said. I wasn’t sure if I wanted to stay but I didn’t want to offend her.
She laughed, ‘a clinic yes. I should have a clinic. I used to, long ago. When people valued their memories and they wanted to remember. Now everyone has a memory store, they think they don’t need to remember anything. And then they realise and they come to see me, like you, to help them search for their own memories. Not stored in a machine but in themselves.’
An old fashioned couch was along one wall and a chair right up next to it. She must sleep on the couch too as there was no cot anywhere in sight. On the wall a faded certificate was proudly framed. I guess to her that made her a professional. She sat in the chair and gestured for me to take the couch.
‘It’s best if you lie down,’ she said.
As I lay back she arranged a cushion behind my head, I caught a smell that I couldn’t quite place. She smiled, ‘washing detergent,’ she says I still have a supply from the street. ‘Does it remind you of lying in your bed, a sleepy child, the smell of a clean pillow, a soft duvet washing from a washing line. What colour is your bedding? …’
I didn’t notice at what point it happened but as she asked me questions about my childhood I found I could answer them. And then - I’m six years old and I live in Aigburth. It’s a Saturday and I’ve been to the park with Ruth. We always go on a Saturday but to a different park now because they’re building the ugly blocks. I’m holding her hand and we’re nearly at our street when there’s a loud crash and lots of shouting someone is screaming and Ruth is hurting my hand. She’s really squeezing my fingers and I use my other hand to try and break her grip. Then she picks me up and tries to run with me sat on her hip. I push against her to get down. I’m too big to be carried. So she puts me down and drags me after her. She’s running too fast and I trip and graze my knee. Ruth barely notices and is pulling me up and onwards. As we turn into our road everything looks different, the air is thick with dust and it makes us cough. And my house is half gone. Where my bedroom window was and the front door below, that half of the house is gone. It’s like a giant mouth has taken a bite out of my home and the curtains of the downstairs windows are flapping out of the gaping hole and the banisters are tipping down the stairs. Then suddenly a chunk of upper floor comes loose and falls. In that split second I glimpse the sleeve of my mothers jacket, her red jacket that she’d been wearing when we left for the park. I run to the rubble that was my house and I’m shouting but no one answers back and then from behind me someone picks me up and says don’t climb, its not stable more could fall at any moment.
I don’t hear a car pull up but when I turn a large black car is blocking the road and men are moving my neighbours away. The few who were left most of them had moved on already, their houses had been standing empty.
A man is shouting at a woman ‘you did that – you did it’ she has just got out of the car. She is wearing a yellow shiny plastic hat. Two men grab the shouting man and push him into the back of a black van. Like the car I didn’t notice it arrive but now it’s here everyone starts to move away
‘What’s your name?’ The lady in the shiny hat asks me.
‘Marion’ I say
I can hear Ruth shouting but I can’t work out what she’s saying, her voice muffled by the men holding her back. The lady takes my hand and says that my mum and dad are very poorly and they asked her to look after me until they were better. We turn away from the house and I see Ruth being put in the van. The woman in the yellow hat is very calm and while everyone else is shouting she’s quiet.
‘What happened to my house?’ I ask.
‘It has a disease,’ she says, ‘all of these houses, they make people ill.’
When we reach her car I don’t want to get in I hold the door frame and dig my heels in but her hands are very strong and she laughs as she lifts me onto the back seat, ‘now come on silly you can’t stay here.’
In the car there is another man sat next to me. I’m in the middle. He didn’t get out on the street. He smells and I don’t want to sit too close to him. Beads of sweat wait to drip from his brow and when he speaks his tongue sounds dry, his voice is hoarse, strained, ‘You didn’t wait,’ he says, ‘why didn’t you wait?’
‘Not in front of the child Morgan,’ she says.
He bends and puts his head in his hands. The car moves off and I can’t see out. I’m strapped in and I can’t see out. A terrible panic grips my throat. I can’t make a sound. I struggle. A strong hand gently holds me down. I push to sit up further trying to see more and as I open my eyes I find myself in the cube with the therapist. She is nodding slowly, a hand on my shoulder, ‘Just lie back dear. Don’t rush to get up.’
I reach the end of the text. Dorace and Fat Peter are both open mouthed in horror at what they’ve heard.
‘Do you think that’s what really happened?’ Fat Peter asks.
‘It corroborates the photographs, gives them a context,’ I say, ‘but it’s not really evidence. What it does do though is explain what happened to Estelle, how she paid Roberto to help her escape and why. It’s only really by Jet’s reaction that we might learn if there’s any truth in it.’
‘Poor kiddy,’ says Dorace, tears welling in her eyes. Her joy at the ancient tech now wiped out with a shared grief for missing loved ones. Painful memories unlocked.
I take both her hands, ‘We need to go now Dorace, we have to find Estelle before Jet does. She knows now that Estelle knows the truth and she’s looking for this evidence that she knows Roberto had. I’ll get Monica to come and sit with you. Won’t be long now to the end of this case and then strata 20 will be our new home together.
As we leave Dorace, Peter asks, ‘Where will we find Estelle then? We still don’t know where she went.’
‘No but Peta might,’ I say, ‘She’ll perhaps recognise the street in the picture and this lady, Ruth Johnson, she might at least know where we can find her.’