The Memory Bank

This is the opening chapter of a children’s novel which I wrote for my Writing For Children class, and which is being ‘workshopped’ this Friday. I think the target audience would be around 10-12 years old. My favourite authors when I was that age were Jacqueline Wilson and Roald Dahl, and I was thinking of both of them a lot as I was writing this piece, particularly in terms of character.

‘The Memory Bank’ is a working title and I’m open to suggestions for a better one (for the novel itself and for this particular kind of charity). Also, if you know anything about hospitals or neuroscience and are offended by the scene in the hospital, I’m sorry and please help me.

Emily x

Starfish on the beach, Ho Tram. 2014 (The tenuous link between picture and writing = star).
Starfish on the beach, Ho Tram. 2014 (The tenuous link between picture and writing = star).

The Memory Bank

I was eleven years old when they first came to steal my memories.

On the day that they took the first one, I’d just won first place in a national gymnastics competition, which was hosted at my school. I remember that my normally wild hair was tied tightly in a bun. I remember that my leotard was purple crushed velvet, edged with glittering diamante. I remember that I was given a medal, and that my grin was a mile wide as I stood on the winners’ podium to have my picture taken for the local newspaper. Except I don’t really remember any of this at all. The only reason I can describe these things is because of the framed photo that my mum hung up in the living room. Really, I don’t remember any of it, because as soon as I stepped down from the podium they found me and, for the first time, they took my memory away. And that part I remember very well.

“You did a great job there today, Esther. I’m very impressed!” Those were the first words ever spoken to me by Mr Silk. He had a voice to match the name: smooth and luxurious. Mum was helping me to put my coat on before we headed out to the bus stop. We both turned and looked at this peculiar man – long beige coat and big toady smile – who was staring at me expectantly. I said nothing. I’m not very good at talking to strangers and I was even worse at it when I was eleven. My mum normally did all the talking for us, but she was looking a bit confused too.

“I’ll bet it feels fantastic doesn’t it, standing up there having won that first place medal, everyone so impressed and wanting to take your photo? I’m very jealous, I was never any good at gymnastics. Here, I’ve brought you a hot chocolate, I thought you might need warming up. Stood out here in that leotard all morning!” Mum suddenly got a bit suspicious then and snatched the hot chocolate out of Mr Silk’s hand. She was a bit too hasty and some of it spilled out of the top and scalded her skin. She must have been worked up, because she didn’t even seem to notice.

“She’s fine, thank you very much!” Mum was holding my tracksuit bottoms out at me and glowering. “Come on Esther, or we’ll have to run for the bus.”

I shoved them on as quickly as I could and we turned to walk away. I could see that mum wanted to get out of there double quick – she only ever calls me Esther when she’s angry or wants to make someone think we’re posher than we are. To anyone that knows me, my name is Star.

“Mrs Stephenson! Perhaps before you go you could just take my card. I work for a children’s charity you see.” Mum stopped in her tracks as though she’d seen a lion. She turned around slowly and I could see in her face that Mr Silk was about to get one of her special dressing downs; one of the ones where her voice goes really low and you can tell you’re on your final warning before she pops.

“It’s Ms Stephenson. And I don’t know what exactly might make you think that we need your charity but my daughter and I are doing perfectly well on our own, thank you very much.” She held the hot chocolate out to him and, when he didn’t take it, placed it down by his feet. Then she whirled me back around and began to march me out of the gym, while I tried not to care about leaving the hot chocolate behind even though I was a little bit cold and hot chocolate is a really special treat in our house.

We were almost out of the door when he caught up with us.

“No Ms Stephenson, please! Please, I didn’t mean to offend you. You’ve misunderstood me. It’s your daughter that could help us. I mean we’d pay you both, of course, if you were to agree. We have funding for that. But the children at the charity could really benefit from the help of a little girl as – as well brought up as Esther.”

I’m not sure which part of what he said got to my mum, but the truth is we do always need more money. My mum is obsessed with me being brought up well too, so maybe it was that. Whatever it was, she turned around. She still had her ‘don’t mess with me’ face on but her voice was calmer now.

“What kind of charity is this, exactly?”

Mr Silk’s big toady grin got bigger and for a moment, I thought a huge tongue might come springing out of his mouth and swallow us up like flies. But instead he just laughed. “Why don’t we go and get that hot chocolate and we can sit down and have a chat about everything?”

So he explained it all. That his name was Mr Silk and that he was in charge of recruitment at a charity called the ‘Memory Bank’. His job was to find happy children with lots of great things going on in their lives and to pay them to donate some of their happy memories. The memories would be given to children who’d had difficult or unhappy childhoods, or were overcoming specific bad things that had happened to them. Mum didn’t seem to really believe him and was asking lots of questions about science and research and safety. I got a little bored and zoned out, trying to really savour every mouthful of the hot chocolate. I’d stopped listening completely and was pretending that my tongue was a big hot chocolate waterfall when I suddenly realised that both of them were staring at me and waiting for me to answer a question.

“Well Esther, what do you think? £500 to help someone less fortunate than you? And your mum says you like science – how do you fancy seeing some exciting lab equipment?”

The answer seemed obvious to me. Everyone was always saying how important it was to support charities and to help people less fortunate than you. And £500 was a lot of money.

“Yeah ok, I don’t mind.”

Mr Silk’s smile was getting so big that I thought it might climb off of his face and strangle me. Mum was smiling too, although hers was a little more anxious.

“Well come along then ladies,” Mr Silk was standing up and gesturing towards the door. “What are we waiting for?”

I know what you’re thinking. My mum sold me out for £500. But the thing is, we really did need the money. Since dad left, we’d really struggled. Mum was trying to get her qualifications sorted so that she could get a better job. She said if she worked hard enough, she could be a Geologist, and we’d never have to worry about cash anymore. She said we could get a car and go on a nice holiday every year and we could even redecorate my bedroom in any colour I liked. But in the meantime, she had to count every penny. I have to hand it to my mum, she was great at counting pennies. I never saw her buy clothes brand new, and she always knew which supermarket had the best deals on. She was always thinking about how to make our money go as far as possible. With all that in mind, I understood why she wanted to get us the £500. Plus, mum liked doing stuff for charity too. It seemed like a win-win situation.

When we got outside Mr Silk hailed us a black cab. I’d never got in a taxi before. I could tell mum was quite excited by it too, eyes darting around everywhere, taking everything in. She was trying to hide it from Mr Silk though, so I tried to hide it too. I just sat quietly and watched the meter tick up and up, counting the price in multiples of bus tickets. After five minutes we’d already spent £4.57, which would have been enough to get all three of us all the way back to Erdington on the 903 AND have 7p change. I went to tell mum that – she loves how good I am at Maths – but decided to keep it to myself because Mr Silk didn’t seem like the kind of man who ever got buses at all.

Instead I sat and thought about how I could redecorate my room maybe, once we’d got the £500. I’d already picked out the colours I wanted from the paint chart at the shop: ‘Moroccan Flame’ and ‘Volcanic Red’. I wanted it to feel like the room was on fire, like I was sleeping in the middle of a star. Not the silly pointy ones little kids draw on birthday cards and stuff, but real stars, like you see in the night sky. Close up, a star looks like a huge ball of flames, although really it’s made of gas. Hydrogen, mostly. The coolest thing about stars though is that they look tiny but really they’re enormous, even bigger than our planet, they’re just really far away. In fact, sometimes they’re so far away that  by the time the light reaches us and we can see them, they’ve already burned up and aren’t even there anymore. When we look at stars, we’re looking into the past. How cool is that?

“Don’t go letting your mind wander too much Esther, we want to keep that memory nice and fresh!” My mind had wandered and I hadn’t even realised that the taxi had stopped. Mr Silk was holding the car door open for me, the Queen Elizabeth Hospital looming behind him.

“Come on, Star!” My mum was forgetting to pretend we were posh. She looked anxious, digging her hands into her pockets and shifting her weight from one foot to the other. So as we walked towards the hospital I looped my arm through hers so that she know we were in this together. That’s what she always does for me when I’m nervous. It was hard trying to be the relaxed one, when I was feeling a bit frightened myself, and the hospital was HUGE. So I just stared at my feet and tried to ignore all the hurried nurses and the sad looking visitors with flowers and the shuffling patients in ugly blue nighties. We paced through corridors and up staircases, the sound of bleeping and whirring everywhere. Eventually, we stopped and Mr Silk’s voice went all sing-song cheerful. “Here we are!” He pressed an intercom button, flashed an ID badge and we walked in. Ward 411: Neurology.

After that, my memory gets a bit blurry. Everything was so new that it was hard to take it in. Mr Silk talked to a doctor who introduced herself as Dr Green, a cognitive neuroscientist, and told me she’d be performing the operation to extract my memory and not to worry, it wouldn’t even hurt. Then another doctor came in and didn’t even tell me his name, only that he was an anaesthetist, and that he’d be putting me to sleep for the whole procedure then waking me back up again. Mum panicked a bit then and asked lots of questions but I was actually excited to be anaesthetised. It happened to Poppy in my class and she said she couldn’t even count backwards from 10 before falling asleep. I wanted to see if I could beat her and that was all I could really think about until they lay me down and inserted the cannula, which hurt a tiny bit but not as much as Poppy had made out. Then the anaesthetist was smiling down at me and saying “count back from 10” and I was really concentrating, doing my best to not let go and saying: “10! 9! 8…”

And the next thing I remember is waking up.

“Welcome back, Esther.” Dr Green and the anaesthetist were still smiling down at me and it was like they’d not moved, but the clock on the wall behind them said 3:25pm which meant at least an hour had passed. Mum and Mr Silk were sat in chairs next to the bed and I suddenly realised that everyone was waiting for me to say something, but I felt so sleepy that all I wanted to do was close my eyes and go back to sleep. Dr Green said it was important that I answered a few questions, and she propped me up with some cushions and gave me a glass of water. The questions were easy enough to answer at first: yes I’m fine, yes I remember why I’m here, no, nothing hurts. But then things got strange.

“And what do you remember about this morning, Esther? Can you tell me about your day? Start from the beginning – what did you have for your breakfast?” I opened my mouth to answer but suddenly realised I had nothing to say. The whole day before me was a fuzzy blank. The first thing I could remember happening all day was meeting Mr Silk in the school gym, just as I’d climbed down from the podium. I told Dr Green, a little embarrassed, and she beamed as though I’d just recited my 72 times tables backwards. In French.

“Perfect!” Mr Silk was standing up and clapping his hands together enthusiastically. “Well done Ms Green, a perfectly clean cut again. Exactly what we wanted!”

“It’s Dr Green,” I heard myself saying, but Mr Silk wasn’t listening. “Show her” he said, gesturing at a glass bottle on a metal trolley behind Dr Green. With care, she picked it up and held it up to the light for me to see: a purple liquid which glinted pink and black as she turned it in her palm. “This is your memory from this morning.” Dr Green was staring at the liquid as she spoke, spellbound. “We can give this to another little girl or boy and all of the joy and excitement that you felt this morning, they’ll remember it as though it happened to them. We know it seems a little strange, but we think that giving” – she paused to choose her words carefully – “less fortunate boys and girls the chance to remember happy childhoods like yours… could really help them to build happier futures of their own.”

“Do you like it, Star?” My mum was stepping towards me, looking a little nervous. It was strange: it was exactly the voice that I used when she was cross at me, except I didn’t know what I was supposed to be cross about. “It looks a little bit like outer space, doesn’t it? I thought you’d like that.” She turned to Dr Green and smiled proudly. “Esther loves outer space. She’s brilliant at science. And maths.”

Dr Green smiled back. “Ah well, if that’s true Esther then I’m sure you’ll want to do some investigation of your own.” Carefully, she placed the glass jar in my hands for me to inspect. It really did look like outer space, dark and deep, a glittering universe of its own.

“Do they all look like this?” For a moment, I thought about asking to keep it. Suddenly, £500 didn’t seem so special. I couldn’t imagine what I could buy that could be as beautiful as the galaxy that was shimmering in my hands. But Dr Green was already lifting it away from me.

“No. They’re kind of like mood rings. They change from donor to donor, and depending on the kind of memory. We label them in detail of course, but the colours help us to categorise them, which makes them easier to assign later. Greens are happy family memories, for example. Pinks are to do with academic achievements. I’ve never seen one quite like this before. Whenever we get a new shade, we let the donor come up with a name for it. Just for fun, you know. Would you like to choose one, Esther?”

I only saw the jar for a second more, before Dr Green placed it carefully into a tray and locked it away for good.

“Yes,” I said, feeling confident for the first time that day. “Call it ‘Starlight’.”

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