The Memory Makers (Short Story Sunday)

Steampunk story

“If there could be one perfectly happy person in the world, if society could support them so that they had every opportunity to be carefree, and were never forced to do anything they didn’t want to do in order to be accepted as a member of that society… would you support the scheme, even if you knew it wouldn’t be you who was chosen?”

“Of course not! I would want everyone to have the chance to be the happiest.”

“Everyone would have a chance. The one would be chosen by random lot.”

“So it could be me.”

“It could, be, but let’s say you weren’t chosen. Would you still support the scheme?”

“No, it’s the function of society to ensure that all its members are as happy as possible, not just a single one. That’s why we work and pay taxes.”

“Ah, but it’s precisely that work, and those taxes that make so many people miserable. And if you work and you do your duty by the whole community, why not just one individual?”

“Are you trying to gauge my level of altruism, or are you trying to justify the monarchy?”

“I’m trying, Miss Starwick, to judge whether you’re the right fit for this position.”

“In that case I would recommend a more direct approach. Yes, I always put the happiness of my pupils first, and no, I do not support the monarchy.”

Mr. Oliver sighed, crossed his arms and leaned back in his chair, his dark eyes weighing me.

“Your record is impeccable,” he said.

“Thank you.”

There was a pause.

“I would like to know what drives you, Miss Starwick. What is your motivation? It clearly isn’t money, and it isn’t renown, since you haven’t published your method as far as I’m aware. So what is it?”

“That is a better question. I do what I do because I want everyone to grow up in such a family as I had.”

“Poor, do you mean? And… ostracised?”

“I mean generous and kind, loving, and free. Money is no guarantee of happiness, nor position.”

That seemed to make up his mind. He uncrossed his arms and stood up in one fluid movement, ready to shake my hand.

“Thank you for your time, Miss Starwick. We’ll be in touch.”

I stood up too, trying to look unruffled by this abrupt dismissal. Work was hard to come by these days. It looked like I would have to find some other means of supporting myself. Perhaps I would have to get married after all. I took the hand that Mr. Oliver held out to me.

“Good day, Mr. Oliver.”

“No, wait.”

The voice wasn’t mine, but it was a woman’s voice, gentle and urgent, and it had come from behind a curtain on one side of the room that I had imagined concealed nothing more than a cupboard. Now I realised it must be a cubicle set up so as to allow the parent a chance to assess me discreetly. I had never encountered something like this before. The corner was dark, and the brass frame that held the heavy velvet drapery reminded me of one half of a confessional. I waited for the woman to reveal herself, but there was no movement.

“But your… your son might not like her,” said Mr. Oliver to the curtain.

“Why should he not?” asked the woman.

“Well, perhaps you cannot see clearly from your position, but Miss Starwick’s glove has a hole in it…”

I clutched my reticule instinctively to hide the tear. It was true, there was a hole. I had noticed it too late on my way out. The gloves had been beautiful when new, soft kid, a gift from my previous employer, but her hands were smaller than mine, and excessive stretching had weakened the seams.

“And why should that worry my son?” asked the woman.

“It worries me,” admitted Mr. Oliver. “If Miss Starwick is indeed as talented as her letters of recommendation imply, she should have been handsomely recompensed, and consequently handsomely attired.”

“The gloves have sentimental value,” I said. “I would not have worn them had I noticed the hole in time.” I could offer no further explanation.

“Perhaps you cannot see clearly from your position, Mr. Oliver,” said the woman, “but to me it is plain that Miss Starwick wishes to protect her former employer from any hint of blame that they contributed to her current state of poverty.”

Mr. Oliver looked at me to see my reaction, but I averted my gaze. “The war has been difficult on everyone,” was all I could find to say.

“Very well, madam, as you wish,” he said. “Miss Starwick, when can you start?”

“Immediately, if you like. My cases are downstairs.”

“That was precipitate. Or should I say prophetic? You were so certain you would secure this position?”

“No, it is simply habit. I have few possessions, and I like to be prepared, especially with the blackouts.”

“Then I suppose we should call it ‘prudent’.” Mr. Oliver pressed a button on his desk, and the automaton that had ushered me in presented himself. “Take Miss Starwick’s cases to the governess’s room, and ensure she is comfortable,” he said.

“Yes, sir.” The autofootman bowed and held the door for me.

I bobbed a curtsey to Mr. Oliver, and then to the curtain, before leaving.

The sum of my earthly possessions stood at the foot of the stairs. Over the years I had pared my equipment down to the merest essentials: a head-cap, a small burner, a recording box, and a padded container of Starwick cylinders. Everything fit in a wooden case, along with the wires necessary to connect all of the pieces. To this was added a modest trunk for my clothes and personal items. The automaton carried them easily up the stairs for me, and set the cases down in my room.

*

In the schoolroom, Mr. Oliver was waiting for me to make the introduction. There was no sign of the woman from behind the curtain, and when I inquired, Mr. Oliver informed me only that the boy’s mother couldn’t be with us.

“Miss Starwick, this is young Sol. Sol, this is your new governess, Miss Starwick.”

I was confronted by a tall, sweet boy of about seven, with sad blue eyes and a slightly defiant tilt to his chin which I liked very much. He gave me a polite bow, but there was something about the scene that suggested it had been repeated too many times. There was no novelty in the mechanical way that Sol brought out his books for me to inspect, and not even the tension of a new acquaintance or a new teacher in his bored manner. I was just another in a long line of governesses.

Nevertheless, I managed to draw him out a little when I suggested a trip to the museum the next day.

“May we?” he asked, directing sparkling eyes to Mr. Oliver rather than to me.

“We may,” said Mr. Oliver, smiling for the first time since I had met him. The smile changed him in an instant. The dark eyes warmed and sparkled with emotion, and the large hand he laid on the boy’s shoulder promised protection rather than punishment. Any worries I had over Mr. Oliver’s position as guardian vanished.

*

Later that evening we ate dinner in a small, windowless room at the back of the house. Sol sat at the head of the table, with Mr. Oliver on his right and me on his left. I was surprised to see the boy  shown so much consequence, but I was aware that, like all unhappy families, this one had its fair share of secrets.

For a while the only sounds were the gentle clatter of serving spoons against crockery, and the occasional squeak of a smooth metal joint as the automata ladled the soup into our dishes. The scent of herbs and potatoes filled the room and I was just lifting the first delicious sip to my mouth when Mr. Oliver brought forth that most dreaded prompt:

“So, Miss Starwick, tell us a bit about yourself.”

“What would you like to know? You read my letters of recommendation.”

“Yes, but Sol hasn’t, and I’m sure he is curious about you.”

Sol showed no signs of curiosity. He was engaged in cranking the lever on his chair, trying to raise himself a little higher, but every time he rose up to a level with his soup, he slowly sank back once more.

“It is loose again?” asked Mr. Oliver. He put his napkin back on the table, rose and went to the sideboard. From one of the drawers he took out a spanner, then kneeling by his young charge, he lifted the chair cover a little and tightened something. “Try that.”

Sol cranked the lever again. The chair rose… and stuck. Mr. Oliver returned to his seat, depositing the spanner with a clatter on the table.

“So, Miss Starwick, you were saying?”

I stifled a sigh as I lowered my spoon. “I don’t know what to tell you,” I said.

“Why don’t you tell us about your happy family?” he suggested.

“Very well. My mother and father were inventors, as you know. We lived in a small house in Clerkenwell, my parents and my brothers and sisters and I, before we moved to the rooms above the factory. We didn’t have much, but we always felt safe, and loved, and as if we could have anything we wanted to have, and be anyone we wanted to be.”

“Some might call that delusional,” interrupted Mr. Oliver.

“Some might,” I agreed, “and some might call it inspirational.” I noticed Sol listening. “My parents could make toys out of anything,” I told him.

“Anything?”
“Anything. A broken spoon, a pencil stub, a bent nail… anything. Sometimes they would each create a piece, and they would fit them together perfectly, as if they knew one other so well that they didn’t even need to measure.”

“What did they make?” asked Sol.

“Well, once they made us a little clockwork butterfly with paper wings that could float far away, but always came back to you. Except it was so realistic that one day a bird caught it and tried to eat it.” I laughed. “So next time my parents made us a bird instead, and it was our job to sew hundreds of feathers onto the skeleton. It took a month with five of us working, and we had to scour London high and low for the right kinds of feathers, because we didn’t want to kill a bird for it, that would be cruel. And birds have lots of different kinds of feathers, like tail feathers and wing feathers and tummy feathers, so it wasn’t just a matter of finding any old feather. But we finished it in the end and it was beautiful. It pecked and sang, and it could even fly up and land on a branch.”

“Can I see it? ” asked Sol, eagerly. “Where is it now?”

“I… I can’t remember.”

“Can you make a new one?”

I smiled, but there was lump in my throat. “I don’t have their skill, Sol, but perhaps together we can make a model.”

He was disappointed and stirred his soup disconsolately. Mr. Oliver regarded him in silence.

When the dinner was over, Sol said goodnight, and one of the maid-automatons took him up to his bedroom, leaving me alone with Mr. Oliver.

“It must have been hard losing them,” said Mr. Oliver, “and everything else.”

He had been toying with me before, but now I thought I heard a note of genuine sympathy in his voice.

“It was hard. It was hardest because we failed. We were so happy, and we wanted so much to share our happiness, to use our fortune to help the unfortunate. But it all backfired, as you know. From being the givers of peace and ease, we became the scapegoats of all the misery in the world.”

“At least you could always erase it all from your memory.”

“No!” I stood up so quickly that my chair toppled over. I heard one of the automatons move to right it. “No,” I said, quieter. “The erasure process was made illegal, and I abide by that decision.”

“I’m happy to hear it,” said Mr. Oliver, pouring himself another glass of wine. “But if that is not your intended treatment, then what is?”

“My method doesn’t work by erasing memories, but by creating new ones.”

“Creating new memories? How is that accomplished? I hope it isn’t painful.”

I smiled. “No, no, it is merely a process of suggestion. The child does the rest. I have found that children’s brains are very resilient – they work hard to keep the child safe. The difficulty is in discovering which memories will make a marked improvement in the child’s happiness. In fact, that is what I hoped to consult you about. What is Sol’s situation? He seems to be a healthy boy, if a little quiet and melancholy for a child his age.”

Mr. Oliver swirled the wine in his glass, deciding what to tell me without revealing the whole secret.

“Sol… is perfectly healthy physically, and until a year ago he was also perfectly well mentally. Then he witnessed something – a tragic event which touched him to the core, and which has changed the course of his life. Even more than he is yet aware. It haunts him.”

“I see.”

“You’ve dealt with similar cases before?” he asked, a note of hope creeping in through a crack in his hard realism.

“I have.”

“And?”

I began pacing the room to ease the tension I felt. “I admit that my instinct is to erase their suffering by any means I can. But I know now that isn’t the best way. So I focus on helping them create memories that make them feel safe, loved, and brave, powerful, in control? As much as a child can be in control, of course. I just want to negate the feeling of helplessness that such a traumatic event brings to one’s life. It is always compounded by parents, and that is what I try to avoid at all costs.”

“I admire your resolve,” said Mr. Oliver, “and I look forward to seeing its results.” He drained his glass, and rose. “But for now, if you don’t mind, I will retire to look over some business. Good night.”

*

I was still awake when the screaming began, and as my room was quite close to Sol’s, I was the first to arrive. The child was sitting up in bed, his arms thrown across his eyes and his mouth working to form words, while all that emanated from his throat was a high-pitched ululation.

“Sol!” I cried, rushing to his side. I placed the lamp on the nightstand and sat on the edge of the bed. I tried to pull his arms away, to get him to look at me and not at the left-over visions of his nightmare, but he was wound so tightly that I was afraid of hurting him. Instead, I bundled him into my arms and began rocking him and mumbling soothing words in his ear. Mr. Oliver came in then. He was fully-dressed too, and he showed no surprise at the scene before him, so that I assumed it must be a nightly occurrence. After assuring himself that I was taking care of Sol, he strode to the dresser and began mixing a tonic – from what I could tell, it consisted of laudanum, whiskey, honey, and a sweet-smelling herbal extract. He sat down on the bed next to us, holding the small glass in readiness. Sol had begun to quieten, his piercing shrieks dissolving into rhythmic hiccups. I exchanged a look with Mr. Oliver, and he motioned for me to release my hold. As I did so, Sol’s arms fell away from his face like the hands of a broken clock, and he looked up at us through red and swollen eyes.

“It’s all right, darling. Just a dream,” I said lightly, stroking his tousled hair before I stood up to let Mr. Oliver administer his potion.

“It wasn’t a dream,” Sol said, and hiccuped.

“Mr. Oliver sat down in the spot I had vacated and held the glass while the boy drank.

“Good boy,” he said, as the last dregs disappeared, and Sol made a grimace of disgust.

I poured out some water from the jug on the nightstand, wet a cloth, and began to wash the tears from Sol’s face.

“Of course it was a dream, darling,” I said. “You don’t see anything to frighten you here, do you?” I glanced around the room. It was strangely furnished to be a little boy’s bedroom. It looked more like a drawing room, and Sol’s bed was really more like a sofa.

Sol pushed the cloth away. “It wasn’t a dream,” he insisted. “I saw my mother.”

“But your mother wasn’t actually here, was she? You just saw her when you fell asleep.”

“She was here. Right there.” He pointed to the middle of the room.

I had a moment of doubt. Could it be that his mother really had come to see him while he slept?

“But if your mother was here, what were you afraid of?” I asked, stroking his hair.

He pushed me away. His face was once again hot with the effort of keeping back tears. I didn’t want to agitate him, but I also wanted to know what frightened him, so that I could help defend against it.

“I saw her die,” said Sol, his voice getting caught in tears. “I saw my father shoot her.”

I froze, not only because the horror of this vision appalled me, but because I now knew who my charge was, and why everything about his life was shrouded in mystery.

“Sol,” I said, “please don’t cry. Your mother isn’t dead, my darling. I talked to her only yesterday. She said she loves you very much, and she wanted me to look after you.”

But Sol was inconsolable. “She’s dead. I saw her die,” he wailed, and he looked much younger as he gave vent to his grief.

Mr. Oliver cast me a frustrated glance and began to soothe the boy.

“I’m sorry,” I said. I made one last attempt to wipe Sol’s face, then I wrung the cloth and folded it away.

I stood by as Sol was tucked back into bed. The child was looking sleepy now, as the laudanum took effect. I hoped his guardian was keeping a close eye on the dosage.

Mr. Oliver bent down to kiss the boy, and I heard him whisper something with the word, “sun”.

*

“So now you know,” said Mr. Oliver, closing the door softly behind us.

“Yes.” The story had been the most shocking scandal in the nation’s history. It had inflamed, if not actually kindled the war. “But is that… forgive my stupidity, but surely that isn’t the room in which the event took place? I thought the shot was fired in the palace.”

“The room is an exact replica. The last ‘expert’ we tried recommended it. He thought that it would induce more nightmares, and the more nightmares the boy had, the quicker he would expel the episode from his mind.”

“That is barbaric,” I said, drawing my shawl tighter around me.

Mr. Oliver smiled at my expression. “He explained that the process worked much like blood-letting, allowing the brain to release the pressure caused by the memory.”

“It is nonsense,” I said firmly. “As well as being cruel and unscientific.”

“Well, you are welcome to level any criticism at him after your own treatments have taken effect, but until then we must try everything within our power to help the boy.”

“So you don’t believe that my treatments will be beneficial?”

“Forgive me, Miss Starwick, but I don’t believe you even have a treatment. At least nothing methodical, nothing beyond what a tender mother could provide a child.”

“And isn’t that the best treatment of all? Love?”

He scoffed. “That is a bitter medicine to swallow for those who do not have it.” We had been walking as we spoke, and now we stopped at the door to my room. “I do not refer to myself,” he assured me hastily. “I’m a grown man. I don’t need mollycoddling. But the boy…” He let the sentence trail off, not meeting my eyes.

“Doesn’t his mother love him? Why doesn’t she stay here with him?”

“You must know she can’t do that. The Prince wouldn’t allow it. And she has many calls upon her time.”

“It doesn’t matter. She gave birth to him and it should be her first concern that he feels safe, and happy, and loved.”

“Who are you to tell Her Majesty what she should and shouldn’t do?” he demanded, his voice rising.

I had unwittingly struck a nerve, but I didn’t know why it stung him. Was it patriotism, loyalty, or something else? Something stronger?

“Forgive me,” he said. “I’m tired. I can’t remember when I last had a night of unbroken sleep. I didn’t wish to be uncivil; I only wish to remind you that it is wrong of you to criticise when you know nothing either of being royal, or of being a parent.”

I disagreed with this, but let it pass.

“But I’m forgetting,” he added, forcing a tired smile. “You do not support the monarchy. Do you wish to resign, now that you know the true identity of your employer? I would not blame you if you did, although I would be sorry. The boy has taken to you, almost as if he knew you already.”

“No,” I said. “Whatever my feelings, I can’t abandon Sol when he needs my help. And I believe I can help him. I have to believe.”

*

The Continental Museum wasn’t crowded. Ever since the war had broken out, people had little interest in learning about other countries. As Mr. Oliver and I were handing our coats in the cloakroom, Sol ran in ahead and stood transfixed before the skeleton of a woolly mammoth. I saw the boy’s eyes and mouth open wide simultaneously and knew this would be a good anchoring point.

“Do you remember visiting the museum before, Sol?” I asked, coming up behind him and lifting him up.

He reached out and ran a hand along the beast’s pitted tusk.

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“Have I been here before, when I was little?”

“Yes, you have, with your mother. Don’t you remember?”

He pondered a while, still stroking the ancient bones. I could feel Mr. Oliver’s scrutiny, though I didn’t take my eyes off Sol.

“I remember,” he said at last, his gaze shifting. “We stood up there and mummy gave me a toffee to chew.” He pointed to the landing at the top of the main staircase.

“Did she? Shall we go up there?”

Sol nodded. I put him down and he ran ahead. Mr. Oliver and I both called for him to be careful on the stairs as we followed after.

“Is this your method?” asked Mr. Oliver quietly. “Lying to him about what happened? Letting him believe things that aren’t true?”

“Who’s to say that they aren’t true? You heard him – he remembers.”

“He does not remember because it never happened. His mother never brought him here.”

“Sol seems to think she did.”

We had reached the landing where Sol was already standing on tip-toe to get a better view of the mammoth from above.

“This is where we were standing,” he announced, hopping. “This is it. And mummy gave me a sticky toffee, and told me that… she told me once upon a time she met a politician who was also her relation, and he reminded her of a … of one of those.”

“A woolly mammoth,” I supplied.

“A woolly mammoth,” he affirmed.

Mr. Oliver looked thoughtful. “That does sound a lot like Lord Mundy,” he admitted. “The old man had just two teeth left that jutted out from either side of his enormous mouth.”

“Mundy the mund,” sang Sol, distracted by a case of ornate Renaissance swords.

“I can’t imagine where he heard that,” said Mr. Oliver. “Not from me.”

I left Mr. Oliver to search his memories – or his conscience – and joined Sol. The main purpose of this trip may have been remedial, but I still had duties as his governess that I didn’t wish to neglect, so as we moved from exhibit to exhibit, I fed him the most enticing morsels of information I could conjure about science, geography, and history. To my delight, he listened attentively and with a natural curiosity. Whatever distress witnessing the attempted assassination of his mother had caused him, he still seemed to have every inclination to be happy.

We had almost reached the end of our visit when Mr. Oliver suddenly excused himself.

“I must attend to something,” he said, and strode quickly and purposefully towards the ticket desk.

I waited. Sol was busy sketching a raven with clumsy pencil strokes. From the main hall there issued a metallic hammering, as two men worked to dismantle an old engine that was required on the front.

I saw a servile-looking man join Mr. Oliver and approach a case in which were displayed some military artefacts, as well as a letter from Her Majesty to the Bavarian King. Sol had delighted in seeing this letter, which he claimed, with increasing confidence, his mother had read aloud to him as she composed it. That the letter predated him by two years did not enter into the logic of his invention.

Now I watched as the manager, with infinite courtesy unlocked the glass case, with infinite care abstracted the letter, and with infinite apology handed it to Mr. Oliver. Mr. Oliver took the thick sheet, folded it in his handkerchief, and tucked it into his breast pocket. He thanked the manager haughtily, and strode back to join us. We exchanged a look, but neither of us commented on the incident.

*

“Can we come again tomorrow? Please?” begged Sol, as we walked down the steps of the Museum towards the waiting carriage.

“We’ll see,” I said.

One of the liveried automatons was holding the carriage door open for us. I picked Sol up to hand him in, but then I paused. An instinct, or a memory, something was tugging at me. I looked at the footman, trying to recall his face.

“Miss Starwick? Is everything all right?” asked Mr. Oliver.

I suddenly realised what was missing. There was no tell-tale cylinder at the nape of the footman’s neck. He wasn’t an automaton at all. I gathered the child against me, just as the man realised that I had seen through his disguise and reached out to seize me. He was too slow. Hugging Sol tightly, I began to run away as fast as I could, not even stopping to see what Mr. Oliver was doing, or whether we were being pursued. I heard sounds of a fight break out, and the echoing retort of a gun which brought cries from up and down the street. I ran faster. My only thought was to get Sol to safety, and my legs instinctively took me to the one place I knew better than anywhere, the one place where I had always felt safe, and loved: my home.

But as soon as I turned into the side-street and saw the shell of what was once the Starwick Factory, I questioned my choice of hiding place. The factory floor that was once kept so clean and orderly, was strewn with broken glass and rubble, and at one time someone had built a fire in one corner to keep warm, for there was a black circle on the floor, ringed with half-charred bits of paper. I didn’t read anything that had been scrawled on the walls, but still holding Sol tightly, and breathing hard, made my way upstairs.

“Was anyone following us?” I whispered. If they had, Sol would have been able to see them over my shoulder.

He shook his head, then cupped a hand around his mouth and whispered into my ear: “But I saw Mr. Oliver fighting the automatons. He hit them with his stick. And then he took a gun out of his stick and he shot one.”

“I’m glad to hear it. They weren’t automatons though, they were real men.”

“How do you know?”

“They didn’t have Starwick cylinders. All automatons need them, or else they wouldn’t have any memories.”

“You have a cylinder,” he whispered, touching the knot of hair at my neck. “Are you an automaton?”

I smiled. “No, I’m not.”

“Then why do you have a cylinder?”

“Because I sometimes need help remembering things.”

“My mummy had one too,” he said. “Where are we?”

“Your mother wears a cylinder? Are you sure?” After all of the blame that had been laid on my family, and the monarchy’s open campaign against us, it was remarkable that the Queen should act with such blatant hypocrisy.

Sol nodded, then yawned.

“We’re in my family’s old home,” I told him. “Here, this was always my favourite hiding place. We can wait here until the bad men have gone away.”

We were in the room that had served as the archives. The only traces that remained of the home I used to know were the marks on the floor where the cabinets had stood, and the marks on the wall where the picture-frames had hung. The nail on one of these pictures had been the key to the secret entrance. I wasn’t sure this would work. Even after the factory closed, the boilers had been kept going to power nearby houses. The walls had been warm, and we could draw power from the main line shaft. Would the door open if there was no steam to power it?

I pulled out a hairpin, inserted it into the tiny hole in the wall, and waited. After what felt like an eternity, the familiar clatter rose in the wall, accompanied by the sound of rusty hinges as the control panel slid into view. I put Sol down, and he watched with intense curiosity as I carefully removed the Starwick cylinder from behind my hair, and inserted it into the slot in the control panel. A little light flashed, and then with a hiss of escaping air, the door swung inward.

“They must have built in a failsafe,” I said. “In you go.” Sol stepped cautiously over the threshold as I retrieved my cylinder and shut the control panel away. This had been where we hid when the mob came looking for us. We would be safe in here. I lit a lamp, and heaved the door closed.

There were a few cylinders on the table – old models that still had erase-capabilities. The looters had never found this hideaway. In one cupboard I discovered a head-cap and wires, and a recording box, just like the one I had brought to use on Sol.

“Sol, shall we record some of your memories from today?” It seemed like a good use of our time, and it would keep his mind off the danger.

“How do we do that?” he asked.

I set up the machine. There was enough oil in the lamp to power the recording box, and the wires were still sound. My siblings and I had probably been the last to use them. I dusted off the head-cap and placed it on Sol’s head.

“Now, won’t you tell me about what we did together?”

I sat, slowly cranking the recording box as Sol recounted the events of the day. The sounds of his voice and the vibrations of his emotions travelled down the wires and were recorded in the daedal coils of the Starwick cylinder. Those tiny coils whose secrets resonated in my own memory, and which could be unlocked only by my words.

Sol had enjoyed the chase almost as much as the museum. I smiled. “You’re a brave boy, Sol. Will you tell me about the day you saw your mother die?”

There was a pause, and Sol bit his lip.

“You don’t have to, if you don’t want to.”

But he had already begun speaking, mechanically, as though he had told the story so many times that he had memorised the words:

“I was hiding behind a chair because I was hiding from Mr. Oliver. And then my father came in and started shouting at my mother, and she was sad, and she started crying. And then Mr. Oliver forgot about finding me, and he went to my mother and said it would all be all right. But my father was still angry. He walked about the room, but he didn’t see me. And then… he took out a gun and pointed it at Mr. Oliver, and he said something, but my mother saw, and she ran up to stop my father. BANG. Everyone was still and quiet. Then my mother fainted, only Mr. Oliver held her up, and my father kept shouting, ‘Oh, God, oh God, oh God,’ like a cuckoo clock. And then someone picked me up and took me away so I didn’t see.”

I didn’t know what to say. The cylinder spun on, recording nothing, as my brain tried to make sense of what it had heard.

“Miss Starwick? Can I take this off now?”

I helped Sol take the cap off, and found him a blanket to keep warm. In a few moments he was asleep, but I stayed awake, unable to turn off the memories that rolled across my mind’s eye. I saw the scene as the boy had seen it, but with an adult’s understanding. The secret lovers, the jealous husband, the shot to the heart. Sol was right: his mother was dead. But his father was still with him, caring for him night and day.

*

I woke suddenly, certain that I had heard a sound, but deafened by the pounding of my heart. For a moment I was back in the terrible days after the war first broke out. In the dim light of the argand lamp, I thought I saw the outline of my brother, huddled under a blanket. But then the memories travelled back, and I realised that it was Sol, and that I had no idea how long we had been asleep, nor how I was to get him back to Mr. Oliver. I held my breath. The crunch of a footstep on the floor outside. I listened, afraid that at any moment Sol might murmur in his sleep and give away our position. Or had the lamp already done that? Had the sun set, and was the light of the lamp visible outside?

“Miss Starwick?” The voice wasn’t loud, but it carried clearly in the silence.

The tension drained from me. I pushed the button to open the door, and without thinking threw my arms around the figure that stood before me. The sun had indeed set, but the warm light slicing through the open door of the hideaway illuminated Mr. Oliver’s surprised features as I relinquished my hold.

“I’ve been looking for you for hours,” he said wearily. Now I saw how tired and dishevelled he looked. There was a tear in his coat.

“Are you hurt?” I asked.

“No, a scratch. Is the boy all right?”

He peered into the room to see Sol curled tightly in his blanket, still sleeping despite the noise.

“No nightmares?”

“Not yet.”

He leaned wearily against the doorframe. “I’m afraid we’ll have to find a cab. I took care of two of the ruffians, but the third escaped with the carriage.”

“What did they want? Were they trying to kidnap him?”

“That is the conclusion I reached.”

“But why? Why Sol? Why not kidnap one of the legitimate heirs?”

He sighed, and massaged the bridge of his nose. “I don’t know. But you did well to run. I knew you must have come here, but I had to talk to the police first, and then I couldn’t find you in this accursed building. Excuse me.” He waved a vague apology. “This is where you hid, when the war broke out?”

“Yes.”

“No doubt you’ve erased all of that from your memory.”

“No, I remember it all.”

“What, the great Starwicks didn’t use their own methods on themselves?”

“We never had anything we felt the need to forget.”

“No? What about the airships? What about mobs breaking everything that your parents had worked so hard to build? What about the–”

“Like I told you, Mr. Oliver, a happy family is the best panacea. We were frightened, yes, and sad, and appalled, but we were able to make new memories, together.”

“Until those memories were wiped. Until you were given the cure that you had given to others.” He was standing close, and he tilted my chin up to better see my expression. For a man so hell-bent on sounding out the truth, he looked very tender.

“After the last war, all people wanted to do was to forget,” I said. “We couldn’t begrudge them that.”

“Perhaps if people had remembered the last war better, they wouldn’t have been so eager to support this one.”

“And what were you doing in the museum, if not erasing the past?”

He scowled, and stepped back. “That was different. The empire’s in a precarious position. That letter was written at a time when we weren’t at war with Bavaria.”

“Perhaps if people remembered the peace better, they wouldn’t be so eager to relinquish it,” I said. “What you’re doing is no different to what I’m doing.”

“You may console yourself with that belief if you wish, Miss Starwick, but when the truth comes out, what then? What happens when Sol realises that his mother is dead; that he is the bastard son of a monarch in a country that doesn’t care about the monarchy; that his real father is no more than a penniless civil servant; and that his memories of a happy childhood are all lies? You cannot hide the truth forever.”

“There are many truths.”

“Yes, like the ones you keep locked away in your little cylinders. What were you doing in here?” He indicated the recording box and the head-cap on the table.

“I was recording Sol’s memories of our outing. I think he really enjoyed himself.”

“Why do you need recordings of his memories?” He picked up one of the cylinders between thumb and forefinger and inspected it.

“So that we can share it with his mother and father. Then they will all have a record of the memory and they can embellish it in their own way and create their own version of events. That is how memories work, after all. No one can establish exactly what happened in the past.”

He looked at me with something like growing respect. “I see,” he said. “So a fiction shared becomes fact.”

I nodded. “Except… Sol’s mother is dead.”

He swallowed, and placed the cylinder he was holding back on the table. “Yes, she is.”

“But the newspapers said she was only injured, that it was her lover who had been killed.”

He looked at me steadily. “You now know that to have been a lie.”

“If she’s dead, then who was the woman who spoke to me from behind the curtain? Who is the ruler? A decoy?”

“An automaton.”

“My God.”

“Think about it, Miss Starwick. It was your family’s methods that made the switch possible. It was a simple matter of taking the memory cylinders of the dying queen and slotting them into her lady-in-waiting.”

“Of course. There were always rumours, but I thought them mad. How can an automaton run an empire?”

“Quite well, apparently. The Prince could not hold power on his own, and their eldest son is still too young, so this was the only option.”

“And you were banished to that house, with your son.”

Mr. Oliver glanced down at Sol, and I could see his eyes soften with tenderness.

In that moment, I remembered that first question from my interview… if there could be one perfectly happy person in the world… would you support the scheme? Yes, yes I would. Just one happy child, just one happy family. If I could achieve that, I would have done my duty.

“Can we go home now?” Sol blinked, and began rubbing the sleep from his eyes.

“Yes, we should go,” said Mr. Oliver. “It’s almost dawn.” As if one cue, the bells of StPaul’s rang the end of curfew. “Are you all right? Were you frightened?” he asked, sitting down beside the boy.

“Yes!” said Sol, but his face showed more excitement than fear. “I saw you shoot that man. Is he dead? Did you kill him like my father killed my mother?”

Mr. Oliver didn’t try to contradict the boy. “No, he isn’t dead. Only wounded. They took him to the hospital.”

“Are you sure it’s safe for us to go back home?” I asked. “Won’t the men know where Sol lives?”

“Yes, but I don’t think they’ll try anything again. You asked me why anyone would try to kidnap Sol. Well, the footmen had royal liveries. I think it probable that it was an attempt by the Prince to gain leverage on the Queen. I sent word to Her Majesty about what had occurred. I trust she will ensure that any men found to be disloyal will be dealt with.”

“But my mother is Queen, and she’s dead,” said Sol, hugging Mr. Oliver’s arm.

Mr. Oliver looked at me.

“The truth?” I asked. He knew what I meant.

*

Back in my room I spent the day preparing the cylinders. One each for the Queen, the Prince, the automatons, and Mr. Oliver. I had felt the tell-tale protrusion under his neckcloth when I embraced him. Only Sol had never been fitted with a memory carrier. I could erase everyone else’s memories, but not his, at least not yet.

Mr. Oliver knocked on my door at tea time.

“Miss Starwick, I wonder if I might have a word?” The cut on his arm had been bandaged, but he looked as tired as ever.

“Please,” I motioned him in.

“Are those the cylinders with the new memories?” He pointed at the disarray on my desk.

“Yes, I was just writing instructions for Her Majesty, and the Prince. And you, if you wish.”

“Ah, so my secret is out. Yes, I would appreciate a copy. But as for the Queen and the Prince… I don’t think Sol’s happiness is currently their first concern.”

“Of course,” I said. An automaton and her jealous political consort would have little interest in Sol, but I couldn’t tell Mr. Oliver my real purpose. “You still love her, don’t you?” I asked.

“I know how foolish it is. After all, she’s gone, but…”

“No, I understand,” I said. “But you must see that she will never care for Sol as you do. As I do.”

“He is the centre of my universe,” he said, the familiar warmth lighting his eyes whenever he spoke of his son. “But I believe you’re mistaken. After all, she was the one who hired you.”

I smiled. “I hope she won’t regret her decision.”

“She won’t. Miss Starwick, I want you to erase me from her memory.”

“What?” For a moment I thought I had heard what I wanted to hear, instead of whatever Mr. Oliver was telling me.

“I want her to forget me,” he repeated. “I don’t know if she feels… if she feels anything for me anymore, but I would like her to be free. I want her to believe the same lie that everyone else does. That the Prince shot and killed her lover.”

“And you?”

“I want her to think of me only as a guardian for her son.”

“No, I mean, don’t you wish to forget her?”

A few tears rolled down his cheeks in rapid succession. “I? Forget her? Never! No, you must promise me, Miss Starwick, never to touch my memories.”

I put my hand over his, reassuring him. If only he had made the break himself… But no matter. It would all soon be forgotten.

THE END


Notes

I hope you enjoyed the first of my Sunday Short Stories!

The Memory Makers was inspired by this TED Talk by Elizabeth Loftus, this Wikipedia article, and Tolstoy’s famous assertion at the beginning of Anna Karenina.

I also combined some elements from other stories: a flippant remark from The Steampunk Club, and the Starwick family from an unfinished NaNoWriMo series I started in 2016.

WORD COUNT: 7454


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