At 18:33 sharp, a siren, that sounded much like the shrill cries of seagulls, announced the beginning of a twelve-hour shift. Memo knew that the management had to choose that particular sound because of the strict eco-regulations. All the same, it made him feel uncomfortable every single time. Besides, he was fed up of hearing those damn birds anyway. They would constantly circle above his head like sea vultures, ignoring the other team members. The cacophony gave him shivers like a choir of deviating voices.
Memo sat up on the top deck of a bunk bed and drew the small chequered curtain. For a moment the neon light blinded him. He jumped to the floor, slowly putting on the orange boiler suit, and pulled the zipper up. Still feeling mildly nauseated, he reluctantly dropped the pill into his mouth, crushed it with his teeth and drank a glass of water.
Hope it won’t make me sleepy.
He had flown in a helicopter so many times, but still could not get used to it. Unfailingly, he counted the minutes, twenty seven precisely. And so, after the grey and restless ocean, a small helipad on the metal platform whitened below. It reminded him of a giant spider. For the last three months it had been his home.
Is there any point in all of this?
Every time he returned from the mainland, he would begin his new seventeen days of duty with that sentence. Initial wondering would disappear after he would surrender to the mesmerising lights of the computers that controlled the drilling.
When he was invited to join the group of experts who were working on The Big Encyclopaedia of Forgotten Memories, he accepted without thinking. For some time now he had not been teaching at the university. His wife left him and their two sons went their ways. None of them could understand his obsession with the pieces of other people’s lives. Maybe something would be different if he had told them about his strong belief that making memories was the only thing worth living for. Memo thought they would pick that up just by observing him. There was never enough time for that.
After eleven years of work, the doubt was still eating him up. Would he ever find what he had been looking for? He had entrusted his associates with the research and, if they should succeed, the task of finishing the memory detector prototype. His hypothesis was based on the premise that the suppressed memories were piling up in the troposphere. The longer they were forgotten, they lighter they were on their way to the exosphere. If nobody would reach for them even then, they would irrevocably drift off into outer space.
How on earth could something so stupid come to my mind?
If he had only been a bit more patient, he would have realised where he had gone wrong. The specific weight of memories was pulling them down too strongly; only the lightest part of the human being could actually leave the Earth. That unique piece, almost immeasurable.
The first time he had landed on the platform, he was accompanied by a psychologist. His employer reckoned it would be easier for him to face the fact he was looking for answers in all the wrong places if he was on neutral ground. Memo answered briefly, almost disinterested: “OK. So be it. Yes, I understand.” Battered by the wind he stood for a while, gazing at the water and then went to his cabin. He slept for thirty seven hours straight.
Memo turned on the radio and changed the station with suitable sermons to the one with sounds of nature. He flopped into a leather chair and let himself be soothed by the song of whales.
Soon he got used to the working conditions. Solitude suited him, despite the cramped space and canned food. He also learned to put up with his colleagues.
The work was easy. He was receiving, interpreting and recording drilling data. After classifying them, he would assign a special code to each case. It indicated the way in which that event could be revived under monitored conditions. Usually, it was a certain sound, smell or picture. All discovered memories were recorded on silver discs.
Reports were coming through every thirteen seconds. Machines had been drilling a nine hundred and sixty seven kilometres deep hole in search of a new subterranean basin. The last one had been drained. Reminiscences found there originated from the last two decades of the twentieth century. They mainly belonged to common plebeians. Of course, a few hidden memories of celebrities scraped through as well. They were discarded as worthless, considering that almost everything was known about the lives of those people anyway.
Time on the oil rig, wrapped in tediousness, passed unnoticeably. Memo sometimes wondered what his employers were going to do with the forgotten recollections. If they fell into the wrong hands, they could become a lethal weapon.
And what can I do to change that? Everything will resolve itself in any case.
He took a silver disc from the shelf and put it in the computer. He didn’t know anybody from the list of memories discovered the previous week.
Good God, how unimaginative those people were. Everything revolves around unrequited love and suppressed fear. Look, some of them are still alive! They should be ashamed of themselves.
He warmed up the remaining coffee in the percolator. Even though his stomach rebelled, he gulped it down. Black, no sugar. Again, he focused on the endless series of numbers that danced across the monitor. Many times he imagined the moment when he would recognise the memory of his own death amongst them. Would he be terrified? Curious, perhaps? In any case, he would not want to be indecisive. This time he wanted to make a good first impression. He had learned that people were put in the same situations over and over, until they would learn something. If not, they would be degraded when entering the next permanent circle of existence. Tired of the new beginnings, he only wanted to stop this uneasiness from pervading his body and mind.
From the back pocket Memo took out a crumpled notebook and went through it. All daily entries had a small cross next to them. He scribbled down a new date in illegible handwriting.
At that moment, a new entry appeared on the screen. Code number: three three three. He shivered…
The infirmary was situated in a large, well-maintained park on the seashore. It was a quiet morning in the hospital circle. Even the seagulls tottered on the pebbled pathway that led up to the main building. The night before had been arduous and the young doctor was totally exhausted by triage. He was smoking, leaning against the fence of a small dock where they received the wounded. Empty bowels were restless from hunger and the usual headache was growing stronger. It was squeezing him like a tight helmet, sneakily crouching behind the eyeballs.
He had not imagined the beginning of his career as a physician would be like this. Right after graduation he received a draft notice. The war was escalating and the homeland needed every able young man. During the ceremonious dinner at the golf club, his father, in a friendly conversation with influential acquaintances, secured for his son a position in the rear Military Medical Centre. He protested because of his privileged placement at first, but calmed down after he heard horrific stories that accompanied the first wounded who had arrived.
He immersed himself in his work. Pressed by the circumstances, he was learning faster than ever under peaceful conditions. He advanced very fast. Older colleagues noticed his talent and let him deal with serious cases.
He enthusiastically accepted every chore. This was an opportunity that was not to be missed. After the war, he would easily cash in on the experience. Maybe even open a private practice. And then get married. Or so he thought.
Hours of leisure between the shifts were filled with daydreaming about a better future. Nevertheless, despite the effort to dispel bad thoughts, his body was suffused with mysterious restlessness more and more each day.
His friends disapproved of him being a loner. They suggested he should be more sociable with the nurses who observed his every move with unconcealed affection. But he never cared much for that. Although he had many acquaintances and enjoyed light-hearted banter with them, he never felt he could get close to any of these people. His mind was elsewhere, now more than ever. With the world on the edge of reason, loneliness was the price he was willing to pay.
He preferred to spend time watching seagulls.
They floated, surrendering themselves to the wind that swayed them. When they got hungry, they would swoop down on the fish shoals, glistening beneath the surface. They were not disturbing one another. Each one of them, respecting hierarchy, had its own special descent. Others would carefully observe, encouraging it with shrill cries that sounded gentler than usual.
On the land they rested, strolling down the pathways around the hospital. Usually they gathered beneath the window of the Intensive Care Unit. They greeted the dawn there with their heads submerged under the fluffy wings, resembling sleeping guards.
The young doctor often fed them. He was secretly taking leftover bread from the kitchen. At first, he would scatter crumbled slices around and wait. The seagulls would gather without paying attention to him, preoccupied with the unexpected feast. After a while they ate out of his hand.
Days were passing and the three most daring birds separated from the flock. They followed his every step whenever he went out for a walk. He would differentiate them not just by the position of the black feathers in their tails, but also by the way they squawked. The most daring and loudest one had a black tail. The doctor seemed to succeed in finding some meaning in those fine nuances of tone, which to a common ear would sound inarticulate.
He crushed the cigarette butt and threw it away. Dull streaks of headache pain converged into a spot on his nape. To divert attention, he gazed at the calm surface of the sea. He recognised the blurred silhouette of a ship approaching the docks. It resembled those grotesque reflections in the hall of mirrors at the local funfair. The three feathery companions, who stood by and curiously observed him, seemed quite distorted, too. And then suddenly, it was as if a magician’s cape was thrown over him and everything went black. Before he fell on the wet pebbles, stricken with pain, the young doctor heard familiar screeching...
Memo stood up. Standing on his toes, he stretched and touched the ceiling. His muscles were still tingling with excitement. Walking insecurely, he approached the door. The air was cold and refreshing. Droplets of salty water were sprinkling his face. He sauntered around the oil rig in a circle, firmly grasping the metal fence with his right hand.
Then, unexpectedly, he stopped. It seemed to him that he could hear seagulls screeching. This time he did not mind. The flock was led by the black-tailed rascal. Memo pricked up his ears and greeted them with a faint smile.
For the first time in ages, he could finally let go.