Memory won't be weighed or measured
Fiftysomething:I recently accompanied my octogenarian mother to a medical assessment, where she was asked to perform a memory test. She scored eight out of 10. Counting backwards from 20, she only disregarded the number 11, and she opted for 1914 as the year of the Easter Rising. I could have told the nurse that my mother’s flimsy grasp of Irish history had nothing to do with her age and was probably because she was looking out the convent window humming My Heart Belongs to Daddy when that particular chapter was being covered.
Eight out of 10 is fair enough.
The mind is a mysterious planet. Why do some minds endure and some shred? Why does memory ebb and flow like a coarse sea?
Driving home from the clinic, I was thinking about a friend of mine who is now quite elderly, although age and time no longer matter to her. She spent her life working in television and theatre, and, before her memory splintered and her words began to riot, before conversation with her felt like butterfly-catching without a net, she often spoke about her working life.
She told me of the industrial grind of English repertory, the haunted, cheerless and freezing digs, her break into television in the 1960s; the vagaries of an actor’s life that soared and dipped, from limousine rides in London, to praying for a vegetarian option in Mullingar.
I met her after she had moved back to Ireland more than 20 years ago. We were in a play together in the Peacock Theatre. She had to cry every night on stage and I would watch her, and on the same word, the same incline of her head, the tears would come, night after night.
“Is that a trick?” I asked her.
“No,” she replied. “It’s practice.”
She was the most diligent actor I ever met: the script was her bible, her dedication to her craft religious, and the work endured, right up to the first frost of her disease.
Fifteen years ago or so, we were rehearsing a different play, one that I had written. It was autobiographical, unrefined, still rough around the edges, despite a previous London production. My friend was playing the grandmother; her character was an irascible old bag, who wore man-sized slippers and carried a rifle.
We were rehearsing in a disused section of an old psychiatric hospital. The room we worked in was just about bright and airy enough to keep the company’s spirits up. Beyond our small republic, though, the damp corridors and disused rooms – some haunted by metal bed frames or hard-backed chairs – felt weighted with something like fear.