“I'm afraid, Mr Zimmer, that Alzheimer's is a progressive disease… these lapses in memory will only get worse.”
The trip to his doctor had been a defining moment for David. On arriving home, he had gazed bleakly at the faded photographs that littered his living room. “It's a crazy idea,” he muttered to himself. He stared, disoriented, at the cracks in the wall and the marks on the carpet. Each seemed to represent little pieces of a portrait that was beginning to slowly peel away. “A crazy idea,” he repeated shakily, as fear began to overwhelm and anchor him to the ground, “I must be losing my mind.”
The simply named Memory Machine had then been hastily designed. That suffocating sense of hopelessness had dissolved with the resolution that David would not let time wear away at him. He would safeguard his memories, record and then play them over as he liked, so that all of him – the life and times of David Zimmer – would not be a mere photograph for someone else to forget about.
Tinkering away with bolts and books and scrap material in the shed of his overgrown yard, David would gaze out at the looming structure of his once tidy and loved home, lost in thought and mumbling to himself all the while. A heavy coat of dust settled on the windows, and rampant weeds crept over its weathered walls. The Zimmer family had long ago grown up and moved away, and he had visitors few. The stillness and silence, isolating and often terrifying in the darker months, were perfect for experimenting.
With a little brilliance and sheer luck, prototype after prototype had inched closer to his goal. He'd see glimpses of smiling old friends, hear snippets of conversation and laughter – "No David, don't you dare!" A young girl giggled, skipping out of his reach. The sky was blindingly bright, and the sun scorching, almost painfully hot against his skin – but they weren't quite right, abruptly collapsing back again into darkness and leaving him alone with a piercing headache. When this happened, David would find himself bewildered, in the shed with no clue as to why he was there or what he was doing. Over time, it began to take longer and longer for him to piece himself back together again.
When the Memory Machine was finally perfected, David immersed himself in the dream-like world of his own unconscious mind. The memories were blurry at first, but with his eagerness and longing came amazing and sudden clarity - "I bet you can't," he grinned, surveying the tree. It towered over the two of them, its branches flittering slightly in the cool autumn wind. The other laughed, already clambering onto a sturdy bough, "Watch me."
Infinitely better than tattered photographs of staged embraces and artificial smiles, he relived those favoured moments over and over and over, until his head was saturated and his body light with euphoria. The Memory Machine became David's escape to a world previously unreachable; a reality of his own choosing.
Only when the electricity fizzled out and the lights were extinguished, sending the machine sputtering and groaning for a much-needed rest, did David emerge from his own mind, head swirling and hazy with glorious content as he was unwillingly plunged back into a mundane existence. However, when he ruefully lumbered into the desolate house to get the power fixed, his attention was caught by the photographs that lined the walls. Formerly the cleanest, most cherished possessions in his care, they now matched the state of everything else he owned – the photos had begun to deteriorate, their frames tarnished and the glass mouldy.
Startled, he saw that the photos, the tangible evidence of his memories, were in fact amiss – the small figures were scowling in a picture of one of his happiest memories, while another featured rain-soaked silhouettes on a day David was sure had been magnificently sunny. “What on earth…?” he rasped feverishly to himself, his voice broken and shaky after such little use. “How... how could this–” He gave a strangled and disjointed cry. Slowly, he gathered each photograph with trembling hands, and discarded each and every one of the false, tainted images. He dragged them down the driveway, each as heavy as sandbags, and cast them off to the gravel road, to be disposed of as rubbish for the local tip.
Eventually, the rest of the world caught up and someone moved into the house with him. He paid for the electricity, the water, mowed the lawn, dusted the shelves and restocked the fridge. David couldn't remember who it was exactly, but he looked familiar –a nephew? He was in no state to protest when the man had dragged him away from the shed and forced him back into the clean but lifeless house. Without the Memory Machine, David plummeted back to Earth, pulled out of his own immeasurably better world and left far below, reeling, grasping at anything to escape again.
Stolen from his own reality, his body was as heavy as lead, slow and sluggish. He felt vulnerable, exposed in a world that had long ago lost all meaning for him, and in a desperate attempt to break free of it, fuelled by reckless need, David threw himself back into his own mind. The cracks in the walls receded and the windows filtered through golden light. The room no longer appeared derelict and abandoned, but instead was brimming with liveliness. Though the frail body and tired, confused eyes were anchored, David Zimmer had drifted away, far above and far beyond a world he wanted no place in.
Very few people came to visit David. To them, he was merely an archetypal senile old man. Their voices would sometimes reverberate around the house, vague and nonsensical. “Father no longer registers his surroundings… but sometimes he mumbles words, incomprehensible, like he's talking to someone only he can see…”
Dinusha Wijesuriya is a runner-up in The Sydney Morning Herald Young Writer of the Year competition.