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Winter/Spring 2019

Hindsight

 

by Robert Stone

 

Hare stepped from the bus and stood at the foot of the sunny hill he had not climbed for more than ten years. He was too hot, and his jacket was tight. He had not anticipated this weather. He felt he needed the jacket for seriousness, but it was not comfortable. He would carry it folded over his arm until he got to the Agency and put it on again before he went in.

Really, he was surprised and delighted to have got the recall. He had never stopped looking, but he had given up hoping. He was flattered certainly, although he was reluctant to admit that to himself.

The arrangement was that if the Agency wished to see him, they would contact him through his junk mail, often through a loan application. His name would be misspelled on the application, but once only. That was the signal, and then he could go through the rest of the letter to work out the date and time. The place was a given. The use of loan applications of a type aimed at the ill-educated, the hopeless, the permanently poor was, Hare thought, a nice touch; the Agency pay-rate was not enviable. He considered the whole process unnecessarily clandestine, and it meant he had to read all of his junk mail with minute attention. It might have been a prank. For more than ten years he had read every letter, and now it had come: ‘Dear Mr Hate, you have been chosen…’

They had been paying him a retainer. Almost enough to live on. He should not complain.

The houses on the hill were one of the features of this part of West Virginia, unique to it, or almost so. You only saw them in the old parts of town and it was unusual to see a whole row of them together as they were on this sunny hill. They were all brick, built shorter on the uphill side so that they seemed bent at the knees, as though they really were climbing.

Walking up this hill reminded Hare of something which was not any of the several times that he had climbed the hill before. Maybe it was a déjà vu. He stopped for a breather but pretended to look in the window of a shop. He noticed an attractive young woman on the other side of the road. He was able to study her reflection in the shop window. She appeared to be doing nothing, conspicuously nothing at all, which seems impossible and also not that unusual. Hare thought that he might remember this woman for a little while, but her day, or this part of it, would be, for her, lost to memory. Hare didn’t know why he looked. He had not had much use for that for quite some time. She was very dark, that Hispanic-Latino type he liked.

Hare had known Spanish, much of it forgotten now, and had worked in Latin America, for the Agency, off and on, over the years. That had been what another person might call the most glamorous part of his career. This career had been leg-work and bureaucracy. Training for eventualities that had never arisen, his training immediately disregarded, if ever absorbed at all. He wrote reports, conscientiously, that no one read. He delivered things and collected things that other men had delivered. That could have been dangerous, but it never actually had been. There had been his tour of Q8, for sure, real fighting of a sort, but that had overlapped with his army time and he was uncertain that it should really count as Agency work. There were his five days in Caracas and four in Bogotá, or the other way around.

The cities were indistinguishable to him. In one of them, someone had taken a shot at him and then run away, escaping in the indecipherable traffic. They had found the man dead later that week, killed by a car, possibly a genuine accident. And in the other city, Bogotá let’s say, he and Lochhead had gone to the hotel with their guns to talk to somebody, but that man had never arrived. Once he had been asked to go into a basement, and stand in a doorway, where he could be seen by a man who was tied to a chair, a man he had not seen before and whose name he did not know, while three other men stood around the chair, all in silence, and say, ‘Yes, that’s him’, and then leave the room. That had been his career until he got old, which was not very old at all.

All sorts of things had happened after that.

He knew the Agency would not tell him why he had been recalled. Even when it spoke the truth, it did so only to deceive.

Hare was so amazed to see Oleshko on the other side of the desk, the same Oleshko he had last spoken to in this office more than a decade ago, that he forgot to be annoyed that he had not put his jacket back on. It had to be him. That name and that face. Oleshko showed no sign that he had ever seen Hare before, which peeved him a little.

Where did you park your car?

Up my ass.

Ah, yes. Your file said you could be a charmer.

Did it say I have a car?

Oleshko made that gesture which was to become familiar, that of pretending to check the document in front of him, being obviously too contemptuous of Hare to attempt a convincing charade, just lifting the top page and putting it down again.

It says you are no longer legally allowed to drive because of the medication you take. For depression, or whatever.

Hare could see the Russian heritage in Oleshko’s face written as plainly as in his name. That heritage looked ashamed of him right now.

Oleshko explained to Hare that Hare had been selected from a group of agents of his status to take part in a trial of a pharmaceutical to improve agent performance.

What kind of performance?

You will be disappointed to hear that it concerns memory.

I am not disappointed.

Oleshko took a suck of his coffee mug.

Hare, there is no need to be shy. He tapped the papers in front of him with the end of his pencil. I have seen your internet search history.

Why have I been selected?

Do you want the polite answer to that?

Yes, yes, I do. Always give me the polite answer.

Well, we pay you and you do nothing. What else are you good for? Also, we know you, and we want to see what difference the pills make. This trial is confidential, and we can’t just use anyone. Also, we have progressed past the stage where you could give these things to random black men and then step back and see what happens.

All of this is very flattering. Do I get paid?

You already get paid.

Do I get paid extra?

Yes. You would be considered an active agent once more.

Hare reached over Oleshko’s desk and took one of the his cookies, placing the entire ginger disc into his mouth without biting it first.

Tell me more, Hare said.

Oleshko put his cookies in his drawer.

So, this pill, this Memorex…

Memorex is a brand of audio tape.

I call it that because its real name is so difficult to remember, even to say.

What’s its real name?

Oleshko began to look through the document with obvious reluctance.

Let’s call it Memorex, said Hare.

So, this pill, this Memorex, is simply designed to make you more memorious, much more. Like the Memory Man in The 39 Steps, a film included in the Hitchcock box set which we see you bought last August 20.

I haven’t watched it yet, but I’ve seen that one before. He gets shot in the end.

Yes, well it’s not going to make you bulletproof, it makes it easier for you to remember lists.

That sounds pointless. You don’t need to remember things. Just write them down. It was pointless in WWI and it is pointless now. That is a major flaw in that film.

We thought you might say that. You bought WS Maugham’s Collected Stories on April 7. Read them yet, the Ashenden volume?

Yes.

Remind me what Maugham says of the value of intelligence work.

He says it is uncommonly useless. Patchy, pointless, and monotonous.

Your memory is quite good. So, do you want to do this?

Yes.

Oleshko pushed a squat brown bottle of pills over to Hare.

One a day. After your main meal.

Hare had been back to the sunny hill a number of times. He had filled in his forms, done his tests. He had seen Oleshko, in passing, once. He had not been told how he had scored. He had tested himself at home. He thought he was getting better, but you get better at most things if you practice – not everything – whether you take a magic pill or not. He personally felt better. On some days now, he even got dressed.

Whenever he went back, they gave him more pills. Oleshko had said that the effects might be cumulative.

Paul rang him. Paul was more or less the one ‘family’ friend of whom he had gained custody when he and Linda had split up. In all honesty, Paul might not have been the friend Hare would have chosen had he been offered first pick, but he had proven loyal. Not a great conversationalist but he had read one or two books. Very occasionally Paul rang up Hare and invited him out for lunch. This is what he was doing now.

Let’s go to that Italian place we went to once. Years ago. It’s still open, I’ve seen it. You remember the one, next door to that kosher butcher’s?

I don’t remember.

You do, you must remember.

And Hare did remember. He suddenly remembered very well indeed. It was as though he were looking down now at a plate of mixed salad, three kinds of lettuce glistening with oil and the flat acid leaves of rocket, the only part he really cared for, and one, two, seven cherry tomatoes. He was sure that was right. He could remember their taste as if he had one in his mouth now. None too sweet. He did not like cherry tomatoes. The watery paste of them was with him. He only ate them as a duty, to clear his plate.

I remember.

I’ll pick you up. Tuesday. I won’t be late this time.

The last time Paul had collected Hare from his house, Paul having a car, he had been fifteen minutes late and this had annoyed Hare. They were half way through a bottle of wine before Hare had forgiven him.

It’s like it doesn’t matter if you’re late, because I don’t drive anymore, so I should be grateful you come at all.

The doorbell had rung at 1:17. Hare knew that now. So, Paul had been seventeen minutes late. 1:17. He knew that, but he also knew, in this way of knowing things that he now possessed, that he had not looked at a watch or a clock when Paul had arrived. So, if he had not known the time then, how could he know it now? His body was a clock, and it kept the time.

He made his lunch. Pasta. He took his pill. He had a feeling he should contact Oleshko about this. Was this a side-effect? An hallucination? The procedure for contacting Oleshko was long-winded, ridiculously cautious given the circumstances. And Hare thought Oleshko was a prick, and Oleshko would most likely treat Hare like a prick if he contacted him over a nothing like this. Was it urgent? How could it be? It could be too late, but it could not be urgent. And the incident was 100% deniable, so it never happened if Hare said it didn’t.

I am going to read my book, then watch the game, he thought.

He needed a new book and took down Tolstoy for no good reason. The Cossacks and other stories. First story; Family Happiness. Brilliant. He wondered whether Oleshko read the Russians. Some would. Be embarrassed to know less Tolstoy than an American. Others would turn their backs. Hare was soon enough engrossed in the Count’s melancholy parable. It’s a long story and he had read fifteen or twenty pages before it started to be familiar to him and he realized that he had read it before. It was when the girl climbs over the broken wall of the orchard because she is too impatient to wait for her sister to fetch the key to the locked door and so she then finds herself trapped in that place with the man whom she will eventually marry, until she is rescued.

Hare found himself anticipating the story, snatching at the next sentence, the next phrase. He was remembering it very clearly and almost, he felt, remembering what it had been like to read it for the first time. Every sentence felt like a sentence immediately re-read. He remembered the sentence, then he read it. This was like listening to those cheaply recorded gramophone records. You hear each line repeated much more quietly and slightly later and you only realize what is happening as the record ends, ends with its faint echo.

Then he came to that crazy moment when she sees the frog on the path and notices that it casts a shadow and it means something to her about realizing where and who she is at that exact moment in a billion years among a billion stars and then felt himself slipping into it and remembering reading that sentence before and what it felt like to be surprised by it and coming close to feeling as if it were he, Hare, who had looked at the shadow of the frog and seeing Tolstoy himself suddenly arrested on the path and really seeing what he surely had not invented. He read:

It was like a delightful dream, when all that happens seems to have happened already and to be quite familiar, and it will happen all over again, and one knows that it will happen.

Hare had known that he would find this sentence and he knew now why he had taken this book from the shelf. Russian or not, he would not be discussing this with Oleshko.

We have some books we would like you to read. We’ve ordered them on your account. They are history books, about the Q8 conflict.

Hare was back in Oleshko’s office for the first time.

History books? Q8 was yesterday. That’s history already?

History. Current affairs. It’s a thin line.

A grey area.

Quite so.

Why these books? Why Q8?

It’s for the tests. You’ve got your Q8 tour, but you haven’t read about it. Our people can use that combination. You don’t have to bone this up, like for an exam. Just read the books and they will see what you can remember.

Hare looked at Oleshko’s curly mop. It had receded from when he had first known him as some curly heads will. He still wore his hair quite long for an agent, even for a desk jockey. The hair seemed to have been rubbed away as if with excess of fondling. The features of his slightly pudgy face were smoothed out. He was like a much-loved family toy, the nap rubbed off, a bear who had been passed down from child to child.

We know what you read. Memories, Dreams, Reflections. Enjoy that? What about Bolaño, is that about memory too?

Bolaño says memoirs and lies get along swimmingly.

Was he red, Bolaño?

I read him for my Spanish. I like to keep that up.

You read him in English.

Spanish culture.

He’s Chilean.

He thinks the Spanish-speaking world is all one country.

Sounds like a red. Oleshko turned his coffee cup around and picked it up with the other hand.

I know about him. He said no memoirist ever boasted of his own cowardice, Oleshko continued.

There are exceptions.

He said that, too.

I know. Bergman, for instance.

Whatever.

Oleshko began putting papers away and tidying his desk. He looked for something in a drawer for several minutes which turned out to be a bulldog clip. Hare took it that the interview was over, so he got up and left.

Hare sat at the table in his garden, drinking sweet tea. Occasionally he batted away a wasp or crushed a mosquito. He was not readingFamily Happiness which was lying open and face down in front of him, its two black wings curling in the heat. He felt he didn’t need to read it and was afraid to. What he was thinking was that if he stopped taking the pills the Agency would never know. Just throw them away one pill at a time, after every main meal.

He watched the butterflies, which, along with the bees, hover flies, house flies and wasps, were greedily plundering the nectar of the great purple flowers which overhung his table like the fingers of a fat giant’s hand. Pollen stung his nose like sand. He wanted to sneeze. Vines and tendrils furled and unfurled like skeins of smoke. Linda used to cut them back, but Hare cut back nothing. He let things grow to spite her. There were three or four different kinds of butterfly. Four different kinds. He liked these things in principle but had never taken an interest in them.

In a recent test, he had been asked to memorize numerous images of North American butterflies, some resembling one another closely, perhaps only race or gender separated them, while some were as big as birds and others had transparent wings like bees. He had not been given the results of this test. So now, he found he could identify these insects floating and tumbling across the purple flowers. The crisp wafers of lemon yellow and the ragged orange ones like crudely torn paper. They were in his garden and were no doubt common creatures. He had seen them before. He put names to them. He had seen them before.

When he remembered like this, it was as though someone were fine-tuning an image he had been looking at for some time without realizing that it was just a little out of focus. He remembered sitting in a different garden long ago and watching a mostly white butterfly flying along the edge of this veranda-like structure which was keeping the sun off him. He had been reading then, too. He watched it butting into and tiptoeing across the deadly blue spiders’ webs which blurred the wall encrusting the wooden frame. It was a clown and an acrobat flippantly gambling for the highest possible stakes. It was mostly white, but the pointed edge of the forewing was stained black like a flake of paper which sometimes rises from a fire and the hind wings were spotted with two black dots each, one twice the size of the other, splatters of ink which had landed exactly so. The wings of the butterfly were not really solidly white but meshed with a network of fine green veins, symmetrical on each wing, a deliberate arrangement. The leaves of the purple plant were scarred by parasites and predators and he could see those scars in their ugly and painful exactitude. From inside the house, through the French windows, he heard his mother calling him and calling him by that name which only she had ever used and that he thought he had forgotten. Hare knew he would not stop taking those pills.

He remembered indifferent things. He could remember waking in the night and looking at the red numbers of his alarm clock and the next morning he was sure that he could remember exactly what time it had been. Hare thought he could remember every time he had ever done it. He began to write down the times on the pad in front of him and the sheet was soon covered in four-figure numbers. He filled the bath and watched the water flood past the familiar stains and float the unique hairs accidentally left behind. He could remember the day before, different hairs cast adrift on the different murky lines the soap had left on its receding tide. He watched that unaccountable brown stain change and grow as it had done over the years since Linda was there to scour it away.

Hare’s mother had died when he was eight. He had a few photographs and even a short film. She was more than twenty years younger, then, than Hare was now. Permanently, idiotically cheerful as people often are when photographed, and in laughably old-fashioned but highly authentic clothes and hair, as if dressed up for some amateur nostalgia show over which a great deal of trouble had been taken.

He had a memory, a very early one, that was no more than a touch. He remembered standing by a high bed in an atmosphere of terrible smells, anti-septic and biological and a hand tentatively brushing against his face, fluttering over him, anxious not to poke an eye, to hurt. And now he could see that hand, the thick excited threads of vein across its mottled brown skin, its bracelets of institutional plastic and the face high above him, but not looking at him, looking at the ceiling as if blind, but not blind, wanting to identify him by touch, as if that were a better way of being sure. That face was close to death, the paper-thin skin chafing over the bones and the tubes stuck to the face with tape, but it was not his mother’s face, although he could see his mother in that face. His grandmother, then? He had never known her. Seeing things in this way did not allow him to know. Each of these visions was like seeing a fossil pumped full of blood again and arching its back.

He was not tormented by these memories. He could take them down like books from a shelf, but he did not have to do that. The memories, which, so far, he had experienced most lucidly, were not verifiable. There was no one he could ask, nothing against which he could check. Some of the things he remembered were definitely not true, in the ordinary sense that they had not really happened, because they were dreams, or fantasies.

Into this category was his visions of the burning man.

The man was standing in the heat, in his uniform, holding his rifle, but at ease. It was a tour in Q8, or like one. There was no sound, which Hare thought meant that this must be a dream, when a man ran out of a doorway, his hands in the air, but his face and upper body all aflame, a staggering twirl, as though mocking a drunken dancer, his raised hands meaning surrender only. But Hare could not have really seen this and then forgotten it. It could only be a dream.

He remembered his dreams. He remembered all of them every night. At least, he could have. He would be the psychoanalyst’s ideal patient, unless this ability to remember should drive him irretrievably mad.  Hare refused to remember his dreams. He very soon became aware that only the saintly could do so. The most that a man can do is to look at his real self quickly, a glance in a tarnished mirror, then look away. The events in his dreams were terrifying and grotesque beyond re-telling. Concentration camp dramas, every fearful desire disguised as a penetrating torment, which would have convinced him he was evil had he not been certain he was not special, that what was true of him was true of everyone. We are all damned and this was the best test of that proposition.

It seemed that Hare could now remember, almost effortlessly, everything that he had ever sensed. Nothing had been junked. Every word he had ever heard lay in his memory, like a time-bomb, like a booby trap left in an abandoned building by a retreating army. All that was required to set it off was one turn of the key of curiosity.

An early date with Linda in that bar. The look of her face then, this actually verifiable from photographs taken near that time. Every mole, every smallest blemish that even the most literal-minded painter would overlook, those tiny fair hairs at the very corners of her mouth, that one winglet of hair above her ear which would never obey her and stuck out all but unnoticeably until she changed the cut, the crinkle of amusement around her eyes, that flaw, that amber wedge of light in her sky-blue iris. He could see now, it was so much more than remembering, it was a present event to him. Remembering was a species of time travel, he could see the polished metal of the coffee machine over her shoulder and he could see what was reflected in it. The back of her head, her earrings spinning, tiny merry-go-rounds with smaller horses, a little of his own face, talking excitedly, nervously, that army mustache long since shaved off, the couple behind him, the woman really quite attractive with metallic black hair to whom he had firmly turned his back, and the man, a City boor, chatting into his phone and reaching out now and then to squeeze her hand. He could see the polished wood table, its black grain, and the scratches in it, polished again to look ochre. All of the pictures on the wall; cheap Greuze prints, sentimental fat child-women smirking out of frills and flounces. All of the people who came to the bar, what they ordered, what that cost and how they paid. All of the surprisingly little that Linda had said.

These moments, remembered this way, gained perfection. Nothing could be added to them. They were beyond time. They might never end. This was life experienced with a unique fullness. He would surely not live long enough to remember all of the things he could remember.

Hare would have liked to know if the pills had permanently changed him. Had they flipped a switch in his head that could not now be flipped back? Connected to this was a deeper question; did Oleshko, or anyone at the Agency, know that this, or something like this, was happening to him? If they did know, did they care about anything that Hare could remember, or did they just want to see if his teeth fell out and his skin turned grey?

It was conceivable that the Agency required some verbatim, photographic, cinematic account of some private event that Hare had attended without even understanding, without even realizing that it was anything memorable. Technological data that he had absorbed without thinking? How good, really, was this memory? Could he look at a printed circuit now and reproduce it accurately tomorrow? No, that was nonsense. Anything of that nature he had ever encountered would be as out-of-date as his mother’s blouses, by now.

Was it Q8? Was this about Windhoek? He had long known his memories of the conflict were not simple, not uninfluenced by the pressure the Agency had put on him and the pressure he had put on himself, to remember these events a certain way. You could not change the past by remembering it. Did you change it when you mis-remembered it? Could you change yourself by changing your memories? Linda and Hare had lost one another when they forgot what it was to be in love. That hot amber wedge in her cold blue eyes.

Side effects? You been getting itchy palms, Hare?

Hare didn’t say anything, but his face so eloquently projected, ‘Fuck off Oleshko’, that he did not need to.

We need to monitor side effects conscientiously, of course we do, and I assume we have been.

Hare did not respond to this in any way.

You said something in your statement about a kind of hypnagogic memory. Is that how you would put it? Oleshko lifted the first sheet of the document and dropped it down again. Hyper-lucid?

Oleshko sucked on his mug.

I think I did mention before, and of course, these days, you are going to remember this, that Memorex, if we are still calling it that, might improve memories of past events as well as increasing the ability to absorb and regurgitate recently acquired data. Did I say that?

Yes. You did. So close to exactly that as to make me believe you are working from a script.

OK. Whatever. Well, there will be side effects. Whoever heard of a pill that did one thing? Chemical castration maybe. Just kidding. Not that that would bother you.

I had an idea about that, said Hare. Chemical castration.

Do please tell me all about it because I have nothing else to do except talk to you about chemical castration.

It might be important. You could put it in your report. I had an idea.

Tell me your idea. I need to know your idea. No one else in this billion-dollar agency ever has an idea, so we need to know about yours.

Criminal rehabilitation. Like chemical, or indeed actual, castration, but more sophisticated.

Not less sophisticated than actual castration? Good.

You take the criminal back to the critical decision, the point in the forking path where he takes the wrong route and you alter that decision, you make him remember it differently.

Oleshko was showing signs of needing to find another bulldog clip.

He decides not to pull the trigger, not to throw that punch or pick up that bottle. Of course, it would only work with certain types of criminal.

Oh, of course. We wouldn’t want this to get too weirdly ambitious.

But the idea is, that if you change someone’s memories, then you change the person. They never opened that door they could never close again. They did not fire the bullet that changed everything.

But the guy they shot is still dead. Even if they don’t remember killing him.

Is he?

Hare did not really know why he said that. It just came out of him, but Oleshko flinched when he said it, like someone had taken a pinch of hair out of his doughy neck.

You can say the murderer is not a murderer any more, but the victim is still dead.

But we are not talking about that kind of rehabilitation, said Hare, we are talking about totally altering the memory as we now know that it can be altered.

Still dead.

Hare kept quiet. Then he said, Is this all about Windhoek?

General Windhoek?

Oleshko showed Hare the palms of his hands, both relieved and exasperated by this irritating show of stupidity. The gesture meant; Yes. No. I don’t know. Be quiet. You know, don’t you, that there can be no truth value to any answer I might give to that question? Imagine any answer you like. All of these things.

You should run, you know. I run. Do you run? Go to the gym. Get those endorphins pumping. Pump some of that Memorex out of yourself. That would do you good.

Hare realized that Oleshko felt sorry for him. He was kind enough. Hare thought, I could tell him there are days I don’t get dressed. Did I already tell him that?

Hare, Oleshko gestured around him, despite all of this, he was gesturing at nothing, empty space, no pictures on the wall, not even a calendar, despite all of this, believe me, the past does not matter.

Fantasies, Hare realized, were nonsense. So weak. Sexual fantasies were what he chiefly had in mind. He could remember all of his, or as many as he could be bothered to remember. Feeble. People were satisfied with so little. He was no longer an ordinary man. Memory was his super power. The photograph, for instance, preserves and conserves but the artist has a much more dynamic relationship with the past. Hare did not have a photographic memory, although, lazily, it might be called that. He had sexual memories, not fantasies and he had started to look forward to remembering them. He had come to believe that he did not need to lead any more life. He could re-live selected highlights of his life already lived, second-by-second and in the most careful and hyper-lucid detail.

He tried it. He set a scene for seduction in the past. It was the surest thing. It had already happened. It was dreadful. Absolutely humiliating. It was Linda, not necessarily, but almost inevitably. It was a revenge porn movie he had made about himself.   It was a butcher’s shop window with Hare neatly arranged, cellophane-wrapped, over gory trays. Clean, even the blood smelled clean, but horrific.

Remembering like this, how God would remember, was not how it had been intended for a man to experience. Life was not that vivid. He now knew that remembering was not the same as living, no matter how accurate your memory, in fact, the more accurate, the less truthful. The kindly chiaroscuro of forgetfulness was essential. And now he could not return to what he had once had. Reality had been recorded over the human memories. He could not forget it again. He was not willing to believe that that is what it had been really like.

Hare dreamed every night of the burning man. He did not always wake as the man staggered, so why did the dream end there?

Hare’s memoriousness was not proving to be so tightly contained as he had once assumed. Everything now had a kind of echo. He could foresee remembering everything that he did. Even opening a tin, watching the jagged circle curl up towards him had a penumbra of a future memory around it, like a halo around the moon. Everything seemed to be repeated as soon as it happened. Even the perfection of his memories could become boring. He could visit again Linda in the bar and turn around to see what she was looking at and see the people staring out of the bus window as it paused at the lights with the careless, honest arrogance of people who know they will be gone in seconds never to be seen again. But he could not see that with the surprise or delight with which he had initially remembered it. It was changed now. Spoiled by the memory’s immortality.

It was not always like this. Sometimes he felt as though he had been reincarnated as himself. The idea of his own death seemed apocalyptic. So much would be lost. Worlds.

He thought of Oleshko saying that the past did not matter. A lie, certainly, and also obviously the truth. He had actually asked Oleshko if this was all about Windhoek. What an embarrassment. How could it be? The Agency was not interested in the past. It did not matter because it was altogether deniable. He could no longer see what was so different about remembering very vividly and imagining. Time does not pass into the past; it does not go away. The past, present and future are all the same thing and the Agency knows that. It had taken Hare a long time to figure this out. Being memorious did not stop him being stupid.

If the Agency knew what the pill did, could it be aiming to change the present by changing the past? The Agency’s imperative might be to remember the past differently and so change the future. What would change? How much would it change? Hare thought the Agency might kill him if it realized how powerful he could become. He felt he had got the better of the Russian at their last meeting. Oleshko had become too interested, too argumentative. That was dangerous. Hare would be the fat man slumped at the bus stop with the stiletto wound between his ribs.

He saw a rat from fifteen yards and his hair stood on end. A memory as old as the species. There are memories which persist while the past may still be malleable. Even so, he had made a mess of his life, but it was not over yet. Anyone could be happy if he has a mind to.

The burning man dances but he does not scream because all that can scream has been burned away. He crackles. And another man appears in the open doorway behind him. He stops and bends and rests his hands on his thighs. He hangs his head. He is laughing. This is Windhoek.

But there is another door, a door inside. If you can get it right, take the edge off certainty and leave room for hope: turn to Family Happiness again, retrace those steps. He could reascend the steps of his past, of his love for Linda, and walk back down so much more carefully, devoting attention, avoiding those fatal hazards, the deadly stumbles, the indifference, the glances aside. Alive to fragility. Hand in hand.

 

[Check out Robert Stone’s back porch advice]