With his wife he took their children to see Inside Out, the Disney Pixar animation.
It was a bright and clear spring morning, the streets cool and damp from showers overnight. They took the London Overground service from Sydenham to Surrey Quays, riding the hybrid line in near-silence. Possibly he would have been nursing a hangover. This was not uncommon on Sundays. He reserved his weekend drinking for Fridays and Saturdays, allowing himself to dry out on the last day of the weekend. His wife and eldest son sat together, his son absentmindedly sucking his thumb or running a car up and down the seats, while his youngest remained strapped in his pushchair. He sat by his youngest son, or if the carriage was crowded stand close to him, shield him from the metropolitan crowd. It wasn't busy that morning. He liked the London Overground on quiet weekend mornings, with its continuous carriage and the orange and brown seats that looked like an abstracted autumn landscape. Every journey felt like a cultural expedition.
At Surrey Quays they disembarked and he carried his youngest son, still in his pushchair, up the short flight of stairs to street level. From there, a short walk to the Odeon. They would have bought their tickets and sat, as was customary and most convenient, in the front row. It meant an uncomfortable viewing experience, as the hyperreal animated images scorched his retina while his eardrums were pummeled by the Dolby THX audio system, but it did mean he could stretch his legs, nurse his aching head and wouldn’t run the risk of another family obscuring their view.
Inside Out was the latest formulaic entertaining-yet-sentimental production from the Disney Pixar stable, albeit taking in the complex and multifaceted interdisciplinary debates about nascent selfhood and the mechanics of memory. 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 external stimuli affecting Riley shaped her self-identity and interpersonal relationships.
The film was nearing the close of the crisis-laden second act. Riley’s response to her parents’ relocation from the idyllic Minnesotan backwoods to a less-than-salubrious part of San Francisco proves deleterious to her emotional stability. After she cries in class on the first day at her new school, thus creating an unhappy core memory, a glitch in her otherwise happy persona, Joy, Sadness and Riley’s core memories – the foundation of her personality – are accidentally ejected from Headquarters. Her personality begins to disintegrate and reform itself under the erratic management of Fear, Anger and Disgust. Things fall apart.
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, slowly began to disintegrate, Joy and Bing-Bong realized they were unable to escape and that, in time, they too would be forgotten. The hitherto-ebullient Joy begins to weep, cradling a batch of Riley’s memories which, in her grief, fall from her hands.
He watched as an orb of Riley singing and drawing as an infant fragmented and crumbled 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 occasion but this was the first time he had yielded to sadness, surrendered himself to the emotional manipulations of a story. Here knew he was being manipulated, and by a movie fetishising childhood, yet still he accepted it. And when, in the most pernicious instance of mawkish heart-string tugging he’d witnessed, Bing-Bong sacrificed himself, throwing himself from the rocket he had built with Riley so that Joy could escape the memory dump, tears streamed down his face.
His children were still very small, too small to understand who or what they were, or the words and images represented to them through the cinematic medium, and yet as he wept he recognized he was weeping for them, for the memories that they would be unable to hold onto, their memories of being young and uninhibited; and his 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. He was reminded of the passage in Paul Auster’s ‘The Book of Memory’ where A. 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 given pause 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 close 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 security and protection, but there would soon come a time when they would no longer read Goodnight Moon, 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. He wept then at 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, the fraught bedtimes to follow, the tears and the tantrums, the refusals and the readings of the riot act, the difficulties and the discipline.
After his second son was born they moved to a new address, a small semi-detached house with three bedrooms. They put their youngest son’s cot in the small box room next to his and his wife’s bedroom. Their eldest son had a room of his own. In time the younger sibling would join him but unlike his older brother, he 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, 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 hid 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, patted his back, and felt the boy’s small hand patting him on his shoulder.
There was a strange, fetid 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 son had been breathing in for weeks now, drawing in through his tiny nose and mouth and down into his developing lungs. His son's 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 feeling 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, 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. This was the narrative of his self as he understood it, and he also understood that he was passing on his unhappiness to his children. Man hands on misery to man.
He was 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, as his wife said. It was a failing within him, something in his nature or a product of his upbringing. Every day he felt the struggle against it. He had treated his children terribly to teach them lessons in hardship that they were too young to understand. He hoped they would forget more than they would remember.