It was a bright and clear spring morning on the day he went to see Inside Out with his wife and children. They caught the London Overground service from Sydenham to Surrey Quays, riding the hybrid line with its continuous carriage and orange and brown seats that resembling an abstracted landscape by Anni Albers. The Sunday morning streets of south east London were cool, wet and woozy. He enjoyed the quirks of the line on weekend mornings, though the journey at times felt like returning to the scene of a crime.
His wife and eldest son usually sat together, his eldest absentmindedly sucking his thumb and running a car up and down the patterned seats, while his youngest gawped at the other travellers from his pushchair. He often sat by his youngest son, or if the carriage was more crowded stood by his chair to shield him from the obtrusive tendencies of the metropolitan crowd. He delighted in driving the pushchairs directly towards the assisted seating area, deliberately dislodging anyone who had the temerity to sit there.
That morning it wasn’t busy, and they were able to make the journey together. He watched his children in their nascent individuality. Patted his wife’s knee for reassurance, to check she was still there. Perhaps he was nursing a hangover. A not uncommon condition on the weekends. Three days on, four days off. Not that his drinking was a problem. He was always careful about that. No, his problems lay elsewhere.
At Surrey Quays they disembarked, and he carried his youngest son, still in his pushchair, up the short flight of stairs to street level. His wife followed with their eldest son and his scooter. From there, it was a short walk to the cinema complex on the nearby retail park. Once they arrived they bought their tickets, ushered their bipedal eldest son into the screen and sat in the front row. It meant for an uncomfortable viewing experience, being bombarded by the hyperreal animated images and the Dolby THX audio system demonstrated at unnecessarily high volume, but it was a routine they slipped into as easily as the wheels on a set of rails. He handed his children the lunch he had made for them before they left home, and sat back to watch the film.
He had suggested going to watch Inside Out to his wife that morning. He wanted to see how Disney Pixar had managed to distil and compress the complex and multifaceted interdisciplinary debates about nascent selfhood and the mechanics of memory - the so-called ‘hard question’ which continued to cause conjecture between contemporary philosophers and neuroscience practitioners - into an animated child’s movie.
Much of the action took place within the psychic realm of an eleven year old girl named Riley, with consciousness styled as a control-booth named Headquarters and staffed by the personification of five competing and complementary basic emotions – joy, sadness, disgust, fear and anger – whose interactions and responses to physical and emotional stimuli determined Riley’s self-identity and the forging of interpersonal relationships.
As the film neared the close of its tumultuous second act, Riley’s relocation from the idyllic Minnesotan backwoods with her parents, to a run-down neighbourhood in San Francisco, had been deleterious to her emotional stability. On the first day at her new school, Riley cried in front of her new classmates, creating an unhappy core memory, a glitch in her overridingly joyous persona. Joy, Sadness and Riley’s core memories – the foundation of her personality – were accidentally ejected from Headquarters. Her old personality began to disintegrate and a new one established under the erratic management of Fear, Anger and Disgust. Riley hardened against San Francisco and her parents, and decided to run away from home.
By the close of the act, the ever-optimistic sprite Joy, the central character and Riley’s principal emotion, and an elephantine biped named Bing-Bong, Riley’s imaginary friend from infanthood, had fallen into the girl's memory dump: a deep chasm within her psychic realm where her long term memories disappear. Surrounded by orbs of memory which, having already turned to grey as Riley’s recollection of them faded, crumbled like balls of ash, Joy and Bing-Bong realised they were unable to escape and that, in time, they too would be forgotten. The previously ebullient Joy began to weep, cradling a batch of Riley’s memories which, in her grief, tumbled from her hands like an armful of bowling balls.
He watched an orb of Riley singing and drawing in infancy fragment into nothing. A lump rose in his throat, and he began to weep. He stayed incredibly still, so his wife wouldn’t notice. He had never wept openly in a cinema before. He’d been close on several occasions, but this was the first time he had yielded to sadness, surrendered himself to the emotional manipulations of a story. He knew he was being manipulated, and by a schmaltzy Disney movie fetishising childhood, of all things, yet he accepted it. And when, in the most pernicious instance of mawkish heart-string tugging he’d witnessed for some time, Riley’s imaginary friend Bing-Bong confined himself to the memory dump throwing himself from the rocket she built with him so that Joy could escape, tears streamed down his gullible face.
His children were still very small, too small to understand who or what they were yet, or the words and images being presented to them on the screen, and yet as he wept he recognised he was weeping for them, for the memories that they would be unable to hold onto, their memories of being young and uninhibited; and he was weeping for himself, self-indulgent tears for the memories he had of them that would fade and diminish and disappear, the memories he had of them now and his experiences with them that had already left his consciousness, and would inevitably leave theirs.
As he watched Joy cradling the orbs of memory, he was reminded of the passage in Paul Auster’s ‘The Book of Memory’ where the author described caring for his three year old son Daniel.
All the thousands of hours that A. has spent with him during the first three years of his life, all the millions of words he has spoken to him, the books he has read to him, the meals he has made for him, the tears he has wiped for him – all these things will vanish from the boy’s memory forever.
Some time after his first son was born, they were reading Goodnight Moon together at bedtime, his son as he sat in his lap, bathed and dried and dressed in a babygro. Reading the book, he was distracted by the fact that his son would never again be as young as he was then, and that every day he would be a little older, and a little changed, until he was no longer a baby but a boy, and no longer a boy but a young man, and if he didn’t pay attention it would happen without him noticing.
His son was then a small, helpless being needing constant care, utterly dependent upon him and his wife for affection and protection, but there would soon come a time when they would no longer read Goodnight Moon together, sat in that precise position on the bed, reading and listening in symbiosis.
He made a conscious decision to remember this moment. He would never allow himself to forget it. As he read the book to his son he wept, bewildered by this strange confluence of joy and sadness, at his good fortune at becoming a father and his unpreparedness at the responsibility.
After he finished reading he took his son in his arms and laid him in his bed, wide-eyed and excited, arms and legs flailing under the blanket, tiny bubbles extruding from his mouth. He could not picture the boy the infant would become then, the second son who would follow, the calm moments and the joyful, the fearful and the fraught, the bedtime routines, the tears and the tantrums, the refusals and the discipline.
After his second son was born, he moved with his family to a new house, a small semi with three bedrooms. They put their youngest son’s cot in the small box room next to their bedroom. Their eldest son now had a room of his own. In time, the younger sibling would join him but for now he and his decided to to keep them apart. Unlike his older brother, their youngest son slept poorly, frequently waking to be fed. At six months old he also took a long time to settle and had to be patted to sleep at length, a laborious process that was akin to massaging a prop-forward after a hard-fought rugby match.
After a few nights in his new room, his youngest son developed a cough and cold, and would presage his waking with a series of protracted cries, bringing his mother or father to his bedside to comfort him. One particular night, after almost a week of broken sleep, he was woken at four in the morning by his son coughing and crying. He went through to calm his son and in his fatigue and frustration roughly lifted him from his cot, and found himself a hair’s breadth from shaking him. As his son wailed out in the dark, he pulled him close and held him tight, lightly patted his back, and felt the boy’s small hand patting his shoulder in response.
There was a sweet, fusty odour in the room, which he put down to his son’s cold, but after he laid his son back in his cot he traced the smell to a part of the wall which was concealed by their packing boxes from the house move. As he pulled them boxes away from the wall he discovered a web of black mould had formed behind them, mould which his youngest son had been breathing in for weeks, drawing in through his tiny nose and mouth and down into his developing lungs. His sheets were streaked with snot and catarrh. He put his son in bed with his wife and dragged the cot across the small landing into the room where his other son was sleeping. The next day, he removed the mould and bleached the wall.
After watching Inside Out, he was overtaken by a profound and overwhelming sense of sorrow. Much of his life seemed to have been unhappy, or at the very least, at times unhappiness was all he seemed to be capable of feeling. He knew that this wasn’t true, that he had been loved and had loved in return, as he loved his wife and children now, the dearest things to him, but so many incidental moments of happiness, of unadulterated joy, had been lost and forgotten or subsumed by a narrative of unhappiness that he couldn’t control or master, a chronicle of failings that emerged from the vaults of his long-term memory to torment him.
It was Kierkegaard who wrote, in his late work The Sickness Unto Death, with every increase in the degree of consciousness, and in proportion to that increase, the intensity of despair increases: the more consciousness the more intense the despair. This was the narrative of his self as he understood it. He also understood that he was passing on his unhappiness to his children.
He had been a bad father. At times like Joy in Inside Out: clinging on to his children to preserve his own inclination for happiness; and at others, too many to mention, like Anger: hot-headed, severe, quick to rage. Inconsistent, his wife said. It was a failing within him, something in his nature or a product of his upbringing. Every day he struggled against it. He hoped his children would forget more than they would remember. He hoped they might forgive him, in time.