In response to this week’s writing challenge: truth is stranger than fiction
This is me, out in the garden of the old house in Hong Lok Yuen, Hong Kong, where we lived for some time in the nineties – according to my mum’s archiving, this was 1996 and I was about four or five years old. The problem with memories at that age is that you can never be sure whether certain images or phrases actually belong to you, or if you just saw them in photographs or heard them in your parents’ stories. The smile on my face in this picture is a real one, though. I know, because in the posed pictures my parents tried to take of me and my sister we sit around either distracted by Bambi video tapes, or screwing our faces up in an attempt to laugh at the camera.
People who know me well often say I look more like my four-year old self at 20 than I did at 14. What they really mean is: you look happier. And I was, and am: being happy for me has to do with being to able to feel something of the lack of self-conciousness I had as a kid (and not even thinking about that kilted dress and matching sandals twice: perhaps they were acceptable in the 90’s) and going along with my imagination. This I remember is true:
The humid heat over the garden and the banana tree out front, covered in black bin bags to stop the birds from getting at the fruits. The grass under my feet and the bugs that would sting your knees sometimes and the small bushes along the low wall, trees in my jungle up which my plastic lions climbed. The mossy green herbivore I’m holding was creatively named Brachio, having worked out that it must be a Brachiosaurus from the dinosaur books we had. I used to take it everywhere; to the beach, out at restaurants, up the hills in the New Territories, from where parts of China could be seen. I think i may still have it, living somewhere in the loft in my parents’ house in Holland.
We were too far removed from the equator for a real rainforest, but if I knew I never cared: I loved that garden. It became the backdrop for so many games we played and in a way it made a perfectly good world of my own away from home. We’re so much more flexible as kids, in some ways better able to cope with new situations. Maybe because you don’t think so much, don’t analyze the things you do, are happy to sit in the garden with your dinosaurs and the paths they walk through the grass that no one else can see.
The truth is, of course, that I still create stories on the imprint of a person’s physical surroundings. Places, whether real or imagined, give you a map to organise your memory around. When you mentally explore the place again and run your hands over the rough stone wall of a house you used to live in, the images or words you left there are easily remembered: the names of the friends down the street or the types of trees in the garden or the recipe to a meal you loved.
Sometimes, even a very particular feeling you had can be sitting around patiently for you to pick it up, years later, and it may make you smile all over again.