Howard Hodgson paused at the entrance to the laneway to enjoy the busker who was belting out a blinding rendition of On Green Dolphin Street on his gleaming saxophone. It was only 9.55am; he had five minutes to spare.
He tried to recall the first time he had heard this song. Was it Miles Davis’ 1960 recording at the University party, or the 1965? First memories fade so fast. He craved their recapture. But that’s what he was here for.
At the end of the piece he tossed a couple of carefully folded banknotes into the open case at the busker’s feet. A brassy opening to Autumn Leaves courted him as he made his way down the lane. Another great standard, he thought. When did I first hear that?
Howard could just make out a patchwork of doors and brick in the gloom of the lane. Towards the back, above a large and overflowing dumpster, hung a clear white sign bearing in a clean black sans serif the logo (Re)Activate. He pressed the electric green dot to the right of the door and entered when it swung open with a harsh mechanical clack.
It locked shut behind him. He found himself in a sparse and softly lit antechamber. It contained only a polished ebony bench occupied at one end by a computer screen with its black back to him. A cone light spread a jaundiced luminescence across the bench. In the periphery an ioniser gurgled unobtrusively; its plume of fragrant steam merging in gentle puffs with the dark.
A face appeared in the cone light. It was a young man, clean shaven, bespectacled, and with a shock of oiled black hair parted sharply on the left side of his scalp.
“Welcome to Reactivate!” he said cheerfully. “Mr Hodgson, yes?”
“Yes,” said Howard. The man wore a powder blue t-shirt bearing the letters ivate in a crisp white font. His black slacks disappeared below the bench.
“Thank you for being so punctual, Mr Hodgson. I’m Bill. And this,” he said, holding, his hands high, “is (Re)Activate.” Bill retrieved a keyboard from the bench and pulled up Howard’s file. “Ah, a music lover, yes? Do you mind if we call you Howard?”
“Yes. Er, no,” said Howard. “Call me Howard, yes.”
“Ben,” called Bill to one side. “Come and meet Mr Howard, he’s in the music category!”
A replica of Bill emerged from the black rear wall. The same t-shirt and black slacks, the same spectacles, the same clean-shaven look and shock of groomed black hair. The only differences were that the Ben’s part was on his right hand side, and his shirt said (Re)Act. When they stood together, their hair swept away from each other’s heads, and their t-shirts said (Re)Activate.
“Music? I love music,” said Ben. ”We had a customer only the other day who wanted to hear Miles Davis for the first time again, specifically Milestones. It meant so much to her, but she felt the pleasure of it had diminished over time, and she wanted to reactivate the buzz she had when she first heard it. That’s what we do, I said, and so we erased her past memories that obscured her first experience of the record. She was so happy.”
“There was a busker at the end of the lane playing a Miles Davis number,” said Howard.
“Ah yes, that’s Danny,’ said Bill.
“You know him?”
“He’s one of ours,” said Ben with a smile. “We usually put a busker on the laneway for our music clients.” He produced a pair of ten dollar bills from beneath the counter.
“Really, Howard, that was most generous of you, but entirely unnecessary,” said Bill.
Howard looked at the money he had given to the busker with astonishment.
“Well, that’s amazing,” he said. “You’ve got me clocked before I even checked in!”
Ben smiled broadly.
“We strive to succeed. Tell me, what song are you wanting to reactivate?”
“Umm, Stairway to Heaven,” said Howard.
“Oh what a glorious piece,” declared Ben, and moved across Bill to reach the computer. “What instrument do you play?”
Howard noticed that their hair now flowed inward, but oddly, their t-shirts still spelled out (Re)Activate. He blinked. He was expecting ivate(Re)Act. Maybe he misread it the first time. The mind can do that, read things you expect to see rather than what’s actually there.
“Howard?” Ben was looking at him expectantly. “Most people who want to reactivate their musical memories want to hear a particular instrument which they play, to re-experience the first joy of a particular musical voice.”
“Oh, er, drums,” said Howard, “though I was never really any good. I stopped playing about twenty years ago.”
“Oh, the drums. Those last four descending flams at the end of the final verse, yes? ‘To be a rock, and not to rooollll’, blam blam blam blam, then the musical end to those immortal final words. Am I right?”
Howard lit up, enthused by Ben’s deep understanding of the song. “Yes, that’s the very moment I fell in love with it. They capped off a perfect bit of playing by John Bonham. I was thirteen, and had been thinking of learning the drums and I when I heard Bonham on Stairway to Heaven and that simple end riff, my mind was made up. I would learn drums. I played it over and over again til my parents went mad.”
“Ah, Bonzo, how we miss him,” said Ben, and lifted his head to the heavens while he held his hands to his heart. “I can understand, the memory of that magic instant has faded over the years and you want to reactivate it, re-experience its fullness and innocence.”
“Precisely,” said Howard.
“It will be a pleasure to do that for you.” Ben beamed a radiant smile and held his hand aloft in broad acclaim.
“Sorry to be a dampener on things, but there are a couple of formalities to go through, before we get started.”
Ben chuckled. “Ah, Bill, a stickler for process. I’m here for the art! Let me get things set up inside while he bores you with the small print.” With that he vanished into the dark recesses of the building.
Bill retrieved a piece of paper from under the counter and turned it to face Howard. “If you could just check your details here, and sign here, and here. There is a waiver too – lawyers’ stuff we were told to have customers sign to get our insurance. Please take your time to cast your eye over it all.”
Howard put on a pair of reading glasses and bent to peruse the document. While he was doing so Bill said,
“Sorry about all the cloak and dagger entry, but this is cutting edge technology we are performing here, and we tend to attract a bit of, curiosity, shall we say.”
Howard looked up. “Really?”
Bill nodded with grim confirmation. “I’m afraid so. It’s all very simple stuff, but people don’t like change. It’s non-invasive, very cheap, and gives people nothing but pleasure – and not of any dubious kind either – but we’ve had some colourful comments on social media.”
“The Alt-right, messing with people’s brains to make them all lefties,” said Ben, who had popped back to the counter.
“A student communist rag called us crypto-fascist,” said Bill. “Can you imagine? We’re just giving our customers a small lease on life again.”
“The best,” said Ben, “was that conspiracy mob who said we were shape shifting aliens engaged by the Deep State to create tribes of neo-conservative drones to support the new world order!”
The two men laughed and high fived each other, then Ben disappeared again.
“Conspiracy theorists say some crazy things,” said Howard. He looked straight at Bill and shook his head despondently. “Why are we so scared of simply enjoying ourselves?”
“Precisely,” said Bill. “We are of one mind.”
Howard signed where Bill had indicated and gave the document to Bill who looked at it briefly.
“Thank you, Howard, that’s all in order,” he said. “Come with me while my identical cousin finishes the establishment procedures.”
“Sorry,” said Howard. “Did you – ?”
“Yes,” said Bill. “It’s odd isn’t it, but we aren’t twins. Anyway, Ben does most of the reactivated arts stuff, you know, the first time you heard a song, or saw a picture, or read a book. I do more of the sporting events – we had a client recently who wanted to reactivate seeing Usain Bolt’s third Olympics for example. I also do the personal interactions – early girlfriends, that sort of thing. Spouses and long term relationships are a bit trickier, given their long history, but often someone wants to eradicate the bad after a divorce and leave only the fond memories. Let me take your coat.”
He led Howard through a door in the rear wall into a cavernous and brightly lit laboratory. Banks of computers, screens, folders, files and workbooks proliferated on tiered white shelves or aluminium trolleys, surrounded – where room permitted – by an eerie mélange of metallic instruments, sharp implements and devices of weird and uncertain purpose. It was all starkly lit by torrid fluorescent lighting which cast a severe and clinical unease about the chamber.
In the centre of it all stood a white chair with blue vinyl cushioning. A bit like a dentist’s chair, it was surrounded by multiple trays on movable arms beneath a bank of harsh and hot lights, like a monstrous and many eyed spider eyeing its prey.
Bill motioned for Howard to sit in in it.
“Forgive the mess,” he said. “Ben’s been experimenting with new subje- techniques.” He smiled at Howard, who carefully manoeuvred himself into the chair. He shut his eyes but the light from the array above him still burnt his eyelids, turning his vison a sandy pink. He felt Bill fix a pair of dark sunglasses over his eyes, which obscured the light, but did nothing to alleviate its heat which had begun to draw perspiration from his forehead. He could see nothing, but felt hot and uncomfortable. Bill prattled on.
“The procedure is fairly simple, although it can take a while, so we’ll put some headphones on in a moment to help you stay calm. But rest assured, there are no needles or penetration of the skin and no nasty irradiation entering your body or brain. In layman’s terms, it’s all done by what we call SEDR – safe electronic distance reading. It’s a bit like an EEG, but gives us a more detailed and site specific analysis of your brain and its memory banks. We start by placing a latex cap on your head -”
Howard felt his head being squeezed into a stretched piece of rubber like material, akin to a swimming cap.
“-and we connect the electrodes on the cap to a set of wires which are linked to the computers.” Howard felt his head being pushed this way and that as the electrodes were pressed into his scalp. All the while Bill continued his explanation.
“The science is pretty straight forward. We’ve known for years that parts of the brain do different things. Our breakthrough utilises the link between memory and emotion. We trace a neural pathway of emotional responses to where they are strongest – that’s the core of the memory you want to reactivate. We simply reveal that again to your consciousness by relieving it of all the later emotional overburden. Think of it as plaque on an otherwise healthy tooth. Apologies for any discomfort, but there a number of wires, so we’ll ask you to be patient.”
The head bobbing stopped for a moment, and Howard felt a cool towel being passed over his forehead. “It gets a bit warm too, sorry. It happens to most people.” The head bobbing resumed.
After a while he heard a click and the heat ceased. Bill said, “We’ll give you a look at it all now. I’ve turned off the lamps. Close your eyes and I’ll remove the glasses. Then open your eyes at your own pace to adjust to the light in the room here.”
Howard shut his eyes and felt the glasses being removed. He slowly opened them, and saw in the glimmer of the room the pair of men looking down at him. The word (Re)Activate was in order, but he was not sure who had which haircut. His mouth was dry.
Ben smiled and said, “All okay?”
“It can be a bit unnerving,” said Bill. “Have a drink from the cup here if you’d like.”
Howard reached to one of the trays and picked up a small paper cup filled with a greenish liquid.
“It’s a bit like an energy drink,” said Ben. “It’s can be a longish procedure, so it’s good to keep up your energy.” Howard drank. It was both sweet and salty, just like an energy drink as Ben had said. He felt a touch light-headed after drinking it, as if his spirits had been quickly elevated.
“Have a look at yourself,” said Bill and placed a mirror in front of Howard. He saw his head engulfed in the tight latex cap and a mass of coloured wires emerging from its surface. They were quite weighty and restricted the amount he could move. The constraint on his movement affected his vision a little and the room tossed when he tried. He chuckled and said, “It’s pretty sci-fi.”
“Sci-real,” said Bill. “Are you comfortable?”
Howard nodded. “I think so.”
“Righto,” said Ben. Or was it Bill? “Here’s what will happen. We’ll give you some headphones with relaxing music and put the glasses back on to block out the lamps. Then you sit back and relax and we’ll do our thing. Okay?”
“Okay,” said Howard.
One of the men – after focusing a little harder Howard guessed maybe Bill – squatted down beside Howard.
“There is one final bit though which some people find slightly scary and it’s this. Some clients start to thrash around a bit as the emotional overlay gets cleared, and it can get in the way of our work. So we have to seatbelt you to the chair and restrain your wrists, for your safety and ours. But it’s okay, we’ll give you this little gadget here to press if you are really worried, and it will release the restraints. And of course you can always call out. Let’s give it a try.”
Bill positioned Howard’s hands on the arm of the chair and flicked a switch; two metal rings snapped firmly about his wrists. Howard felt fear sting in his chest, but when he pressed the button the clasps sprang back, leaving him free to move.
Bill smiled. “All good?”
Howard nodded. The room was swimming now, and he leant back on the head rest for relief.
“So,” said Bill, “let’s find your stairway to heaven.”
Bill repositioned Howard’s hands on the arm of the chair. He flicked the switch, and Howard watched from a bemused distance as the two metal rings closed about his wrists again. He could make out Ben’s form as he leant over and fixed a seatbelt about Howard’s chest which held him tightly in the chair.
“This is very James Bond,” said Howard, looking up at the two men groggily.
“Or alien invasion,” said Ben.
Howard giggled. “What, like you’d rip your faces off and reveal your true identities?” he said.
“Like the conspiracy theory we mentioned before?” said Ben. “Alien shape shifters creating an army of automatons for a new world order!”
Howard looked up at them blinking.
“Got it in one,” laughed Bill.
And Howard watched in horror as they reached under their chins in unison, grasped a fold of skin and dragged it upwards, taking their faces with it. It was like removing a balaclava, but with flesh instead of fabric. Howard screamed and struggled in his bonds, pressing the button frantically, but to no effect. He tried kicking with his legs, but they too had been strapped. His breath became febrile and sweat poured from his face.
“You bastards!” he yelled.
Before him stood two men, of differing heights and body shape. One was tall and balding with a handlebar moustache, the other stocky and sporting a bad haircut and a sneer. Their garb had changed to grey suits and beige shirts with black ties. Howard stared at them, dumbstruck with terror, the button still clicking feebly under his thumb.
“This is the bit I like, don’t you, Mr Wint?’ said one.
“Oh yes, Mr Kidd,” said the other.
“What are you going to do to me?” Howard was in tears. “I never hurt anyone. Let me out please.”
“Oh don’t be a pussy,” said Mr Wint. “We aren’t going to hurt you. We are men of our word. Isn’t that so, Mr Kidd?”
“My word yes, Mr Wint. We’re going to give you what you paid for,” said the one called Mr Kidd.
“That’s right,” said Mr Wint, “we’re going to clean up your memory, the memory of the first time you heard Stairway to Heaven.”
“But, but –” stammered Howard.
“You won’t feel a thing, and when you wake up the whole world will be as it ought to be.”
“Goodbye Mr Hodgson,” said Mr Kidd.
Howard’s world went black.
* * * * *
Howard woke up in a neat operating room, surrounded by the capacious molding of the SEDR Machine. He felt a little groggy, and let his head rest on the crisp linen of the pillow. He coughed a little and the engaging smile of Julia, the assistant, appeared around the corner.
“Oh, you’re awake,” she said. She stepped across to help Howard as he began to rise.
“Sorry,” he said. “I nodded off.”
“Most clients like a rest after the procedure. Take your time. Would you care for a tea, or coffee, or some water?”
Howard observed a large tea pot in a floral caddy on the bench opposite him, with two delicate porcelain cups alongside it.
“Tea would be nice, thank you,” he said.
“Milk, no sugar,” said Julia.
He watched her in her blue slacks and work top as she poured the steaming tea into one of the cups, and added a dollop of milk from a decorated jug. Her auburn hair was pinned back in a single pony tail which swayed as she turned towards him.
“Doctor Ethan, Mr Hodgson is up and about,” she said as she gave Howard his tea.
A tall gentleman in a white medical coat entered the room. He had a shock of silver hair, and wore a pair of heavily rimmed spectacles which struggled to obscure his bushy grey eyebrows. He peered over his glasses and said,
“Good afternoon, Mr Hodgson, how are you feeling?”
“Fine, thank you, Doctor,” said Howard. “Julia has revived me with tea.” And he held up the cup.
“Jolly good,” said Doctor Ethan. Julia picked up a black leather satchel from beside the tea pot. She handed it to Howard. It was embossed with his name, and on the lower right corner, the logo (Re)Activate. It felt very soft to the touch.
“And now the important part,” she said. She leaned over Howard’s shoulder and opened the satchel with a manicured hand. “We’ve put the song on both a CD and a USB for you. Jerusalem, by William Blake, the soprano opening when you heard it in Durham Cathedral in 1992.”
“Yes,” said Howard. “Those magnificent Romanesque columns, I remember them so clearly.”
“And did those feet in ancient times. It’s a wonderfully patriotic song. We’ve taken the liberty of adding a selection of other rousing anthems on the CD and USB as well.” She looked at the satchel. “Let’s see, there’s Giovinezza – that’s a classic from World War 2, God Bless the USA – freedom and the flag, and of course our own Advance Australia Fair. Plus, to bring you up to date, we’ve included a couple of current Fashwave hits and a Charlottesville Ballad.”
“Sounds great, thank you,” said Howard.
“We’ve been a bit cheeky and not included any listening devices, as we always suggest that clients go home and savour the moment properly. Lie on the bed, or couch, or the floor or whatever takes your fancy, and hear your piece for the first time again, and reactivate the moment of pleasure.”
Ethan said, “We took the liberty of including our brochure and cards inside too. If it is as good as you had hoped for, please let your friends know. It helps our brand and business.”
Howard ran his hand over the smooth leather interior of the satchel and pressed his fingers on the spot containing the disc and memory stick.
“I’m very grateful to you both. I can’t believe it was this simple, that this machine -” and he tapped the vaulted beige interior of the bedchamber he had slept in – “can give you access to our memories and let you create these wonderful new moments for people. No electrodes, no wires, nothing.”
“Technology is a wonderful thing,” said Ethan, “when in the right hands. You might find there are more first time memories you want to reactivate. Just let us know, we are here to assist.”
He held his hand out in the direction of the door. “Julia will take your payment and show you out. Enjoy the reactivated experience.”
Howard repeated his thanks and shook Ethan’s hand enthusiastically, then followed Julia to the reception room with the bench and computer opposite the front door.
“That’ll be $445.00 plus $20 for the satchel,” she said.
“Money well spent,” said Howard as he waited for her cash machine to register his card.
She stepped out from the bench and went to hold the door open for him.
“I’m sure you’ll enjoy it,” she said, “but remember, don’t rush it, and make yourself comfortable to really enjoy the rediscovery.”
Howard skipped jauntily down the concrete steps and headed down the lane towards the main street. At the end of the lane a middle aged woman stood listening to a busker playing jazz standards on a shining saxophone.
Howard stopped next to the woman to listen for a moment, then said, in a voice loud enough for both the woman and the busker to hear,
“Jazz isn’t music. Play some real music for a change, and get yourself a real job like any right thinking person. Stop sponging off others. Appalling.”
And he shoved the open saxophone case with his foot as he walked out into the street.
The busker stopped mid tune and smiled.