I’m not sure what woke me; it’s too deep in the night for it to be early morning dreams. Perhaps the territorial screeches of battling wildlife. Oh, but then as I shift position, a twinge inside my rib cage – the acid of reflux. It’s snapped me awake. I can tell I’m going to struggle to get back under. An avalanche of images, thoughts and concerns is triggered by the noise of my mind coming to life. Gradually I whittle these away until there remains the essence of an idea; a netsuke that I will set aside time to carve in miniaturist detail, if only I can remember its essence tomorrow. I don’t want to disturb my partner sleeping next to me, so I have only two options; to repeat a concatenation of reminder words mantra-like before I fall asleep in the hope that I’ll remember them tomorrow, or to better ensure I do so by writing blind in pencil on a clean page at the back of the notebook I keep on my bedside table. As you can imagine, this is a hit and miss affair. I restrict myself to those key words that I hope will convey to me the idea as a whole when I look at them the following day. But sometimes I struggle to read notes to myself written in full daylight; written in the dark my letters will loop crazily, while ‘t’s will be missing their cross bars, and ‘i’s their dots. Words and lines will overlap.
The following morning I am improvising or even riffing in the car as my subconscious drives me to work. My mind is trying to find something on which to latch and around which to gather. I am thinking of the infinite variation of repetitive journeys, because early on in this one, someone ran across the dual carriageway between the two petrol stations on either side of the road, hurdling the barrier in the middle. This has never happened before. The man is wearing the kind of fluorescent protective clothing a fire-fighter might; perhaps he’s a petrol tanker driver. Automatically I hit the brakes, because naturally I don’t want this real life game of Frogger to come to a sticky end. The proximity of death shakes me, though admittedly in not quite the same way as when I put my own self in the way of vehicular harm. I could continue on in this vein, noting all the variations from the norm of the drive there and back – the different birds I sight, the endlessly changing landscape and skies, the faces and bodies and clothing of the pedestrians I let cross at the roundabout. In so doing I could show that there is some kind of variety in the rote of routine, if you choose to look for it. But these thoughts are elbowed to one side, by not one but two new netsuke. The first is the resumption of last night’s musing on writing in the dark. The second is an entirely novel idea; as I glimpse it come into being I see also how it may move my writing forward, in a new direction. The essence of the idea is contained in about six to eight words. Now I know I need to get to the car park double quick and write those words down before I lose them forever. Because if that happens, I won’t be as sanguine about it as Yuri is in Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago:
‘So many new thoughts come into your head when your hands are busy with hard physical work, when your mind has set you a task which can be achieved by physical effort and which brings its reward in joy and success, when for six hours on end you dig or hammer, scorched by the life-giving breath of the sky. And it isn’t a loss but a gain that these transient thoughts, intuitions, analogies, are not put down on paper but forgotten. The town hermit, whipping up his nerves and his imagination with strong black coffee and tobacco, doesn’t know the strongest drug of all – good health and real need.’
Inevitably my attention is diverted by the flashing lights of a slow moving vehicle, and by other slightly less slow moving vehicles moving into my lane to overtake them. When I settle back into driving on autopilot and resume my conscious attempts to turn ideas and feelings into words, I find that while I can remember the writing in the dark idea, the novel netsuke is gone. I try to smoke it out as methodically as a private detective might uncover the address or no fixed abode of a missing person. I rewind, scroll back, follow the links that form the chain of my thoughts, handling each one in turn. I jump to the start of the journey, and even beyond that to my shower before setting off (it’s another place where ideas come to me). But the chain is broken and the missing link refuses to be brought back into sight. I turn off the music – Dead in the boot, appropriately enough – in order to let my mind run free, because I know now that I’m straining too hard to remember. If I just let myself drift into the drifting mood I was in before the slow moving vehicle blocked the way, before the anxious seeking took hold, I’ll surely remember.
But the netsuke is gone. It may never now be carved. As in the night-time, I wish I had an inky pipe going out of my brain onto a page which I could look at the next day, or perhaps a chip with something akin to a telepathic recording facility wirelessly connected to a laptop. Maybe there will be such things in twenty or fifty or a hundred years’ time. (You may be thinking, but the technical solution already exists – the note-taking app on your phone! Unfortunately in the dark my eyes can’t cope with the glare from its screen.) I can still feel that it was a novel thought. But perhaps that’s why it didn’t stick, because it was brand new, and not a familiar theme or notion circling overhead, frequently visible in the past but never yet butterfly-netted.
These written in the dark thoughts are of that kind – so much easier to pull into the shape of words than that fleetingly glimpsed hint of new connections which ultimately proved not quite strong enough to live. Still, I am full of frustration, mourning its loss; is this what dementia will be like, only with the connections that connect each item in the ordinary store of memory severed?
At the turning for Rowlands Castle, under my breath and as so many times before, I sing ‘Through the last light on the plain / Roland to the dark tower came’.