My first actual memory is quite literally a pile of shit. If I remember correctly, it involves toddling contentedly around the grottyish suburban South London driveway outside my house, clasping a bone-dry cake of unconfirmed animal poo in my hands, until my mum runs over and slaps it out of my crusty little hands. The first recorded moments of an actual human consciousness, just a chubby handful of dusty shit and a halfarsed telling off flecked with exasperated laughter.
The only real competition to the driveway shite is a brief flash of smugly reclining in a buggy while mum pulls down the plastic cover as rain beats down from a dull grey sky. Quite nice, that one. Securely lodged in a cocoon of cheap plastic and vaguely conscious of the world in the way that only the dribbling young and dribbling old can ever pull off acceptably.
First memories, as a concept, have one gigantic shitty flaw: you can't choose them. You simply have to put up with what your prematurely decaying brain gives you and be happy that the slop in your skull can even give you that much after the interim years of teenage drinking, the Somme-Upon-Somerset music festivals, the brain/finance emaciating years of uni, and then the slowly unfurling yawn of the life of admin and terminal insecurity to come. Only an ungrateful shit could ask for any more. Only an ungrateful shit would ask to choose their first memory.
I am an ungrateful shit. It's not that either of those brief, hazy flashes are bad or even remotely traumatic. Just boring, bog-standard Kingsmill loaf memories of a suburban toddlerdom. The thing is, I've never shaken the feeling that they're fake. Not exactly big steaming lies: I mean, I'm pretty sure they actually happened – I was exactly the sort of child that would indiscriminately pick up turds – but fake in the way that they bear absolutely no relationship to the confused, primary-coloured mess of childhood as a whole. It's mum's hair that gives them the unreal tinge: it's too long, too shiny, too L'Oreal-healthy by half. Memory is rubbish like that – it's so chronically unreliable that it takes the safest, most mundane of 5/10 happiness' and makes you second-, third- and fourth-guess them into a thin grey paste. Urgh memory, memory is shit.
I have no idea when mum was diagnosed, but it must have been after the driveway and after the buggy in the rain. You look at photos from before I was born and her hair drapes down past her shoulders, thick and sun-lightened brown: an objectively cracking barnet by any measurement. In her twenties it was, my aunts tell me, "down past her arse", evidence of a wild Gypsy stage in her life that no-one seems to know very much about. After the diagnosis and the first batch of chemo it did what hair generally tends to do under the circumstances, i.e promptly fucked off. After the chemo came the creative hats. Mum was good like that: everything seemed a bit of an adventure, even cancer-enforced hair loss. I was gifted a matching one just for me, a screech loud multicoloured tea cosy number straight out of Lewisham market to match her purple velvet bonnet. Hats are stitched into the memory: hats are to remember, especially luminous faux-Rasta bunnets. But after the hats came the tiredness, the deep perpetual weighed-down-by-20-shopping bags weariness of terminal illness.
That's the first time I started to sniff that whatever was eating mum was really bad. Children are typically selfish little sociopaths, and six-year-old me was no exception. I just couldn't understand why mum was too tired to watch my Action Man operatic masterpieces, or take me out to the park to sprint at the birds and pick up massive sticks. Most children's actions are very straightforward – an unbroken chain of, 'Oi, look at me, I'm doing something, recognise it now', and then looking at them and recognising them – but once that chain sustains a fracture, then the kid starts to really notice something amiss. It didn't take many answers of "show me in 20 minutes, darling, Mummy's too tired" for that to get through.
She had this intuitive talent for seamlessly entering into the hyper-surrealism of children's self-directed games. If the defeated-looking cushion on the sofa was an enemy citadel to be stormed by a collection of battered plastic toys then it was, "OK, tell me the strategy". If my stuffed Gorilla was giving me shit, she'd give him an absolute bollocking. She could suspend disbelief in these endeavours with the same intensity as a child scaring itself with PS1-era Resident Evil, so when she couldn't because of cancer, then what was I meant to do? All I could muster was to lash out with a "Mum, you're meant to be good at games!"
Football was the big exception. When it came to ADHD spurts of the imagination mum was the word, but football was a struggle even for her almost limitless imaginative generosity. It probably didn't help matters that I'd decided to support Chelsea on the back of one of those intense primary school best-friendships that are inexplicably forged on the cast iron basis of a mutual appreciation of the colour blue. Chelsea aren't a club for football-apathetic mums, especially dying ones. Then, as now, Chelsea were almost universally disliked, although less for their oil baron-bought athletes (they didn't have them then, they had Ed de Goey. And I challenge any human alive to legitimately hate Gianfranco Zola) and instead for their, uh, 'robust' (i.e racist with a propensity to extreme violence) element to their support. Mum couldn't back it. Football just wasn't her bag. Everyone has their limits.
The big exception to the exception was France 98. Fuck, France 98 was great. France 98 is a pretty decent first choice for the first memory of an ungrateful shit. World Cups are essentially just a cluster of freeze-frame memories, by turns euphoric, tragic and hilarious. I was only two during USA 94, so Diana Ross's firework-igniting toe-punt and Baggio's tragic, Mars-bound penalty are just distant, YouTube-able history to me. The same goes for Euro 96, which ran parallel to an incredibly intense JCB and tractor obsession. But France 98 is a big fat blob of incomprehensible vividness. It was the tournament of Zidane bullet-headers, a kebabed-up Gazza roofing Glen Hoddle's office after being cut from the England squad and the mystery of Ronaldo's conspiracy spawning pre-final illness. It was the tournament that saw a pre-national treasure/Unicef saint David Beckham score a sublime group stage free-kick against Columbia before erupting into a national hate figure after brushing Diego Simone's calf with the outline of his pinky toe. The tournament in which a teenaged Michael Owen emerged in a blur of spindly limbs, charging at the dark heart of Argentina's defence with nothing but a Year 5 buzz-cut helmet for protection, before scoring that goal. David Batty was there, for fuck's sake: David Batty! Fuck, France 98 was great.
Mum thought so too. I like to imagine she enjoyed the immense, multi-coloured absurdity of it all. The ridiculous mock solemnity of the national anthems, the invasive McDonalds ads and close-up shots of weeping lager louts after dubiously disallowed goals. All that fun stuff. Sitting in the dark living room of our basement flat, she found it all hilarious. After cranking up the contrast on the telly, we'd lie curled up on the sofa laughing through dishwater-dull 0-0 group stage games between exotic nations unknown to my six-year-old self. Afterwards I'd take the flyaway football out to the garden and smash endless last minute winners against the fence, glancing up every couple of minutes through the receding light to see her through the glass of the living room window, smile on her face, with one arm raised in a silent salute at the appropriate moments. She'd sit there patiently watching and smiling silent encouragement until darkness fell, and I'd come back in and explain in the whole rambling mythology of my tournament-winning exploits. Christ's arse, what a little narcissist. I, I, I; me, me, me. But she'd listen: eyebrows arched tolerantly until I rambled myself to sleep.
I have no idea when the tournament ended and even less when it had begun. It's Google-able of course, but it doesn't really matter. I don't remember the final, or any of the big set piece knock-out stage matches apart from England-Argentina in the last 16. 'Real' footballing memories came later in 2002, when I sat with Gran and assorted family friends in the same basement flat living room watching Becks roll in his big redemption penalty against the Argentinians, again. But I'll still remember those twice-weekly toddles to the newsagent for a stack of Panini stickers, always returning with three horrifying Craig Burleys.
I don't remember much at all about what happened after the end of France 98, but there are progressively fewer flashes of mum apart from dim, gut-sore visits to Guys Hospital. Things declined and her eyes got heavier, the smiles weaker, the arms thinner. There's the memory of all the adults looking different shades of grey, ashen with the inevitability. My childish life went on as life – childish or not – has the tendency to do. I still played football and used sticks as machine guns went for potato-smile teas. Games were still concocted and I'm sure I must have filled mum in at visiting time, but I don't remember: not really. Ugh, memory. Memory is shit.
You kid yourself you've got a choice over what you remember, because it's comforting to think that when it comes to the crunch of recalling that you won't forget the really big, significant moments. The truth is you might, or you might not. I remember when the end came better than I remember France 98: the inevitable thud of impact from a bullet fired a mile away. And the first thing I did with the news was pick up a Snickers and the flyaway football, march into the garden and punt it against the garden fence, again and again and again.
Memory deserves at a bit of fidelity, though it doesn't really matter if you treat it nicely or not: one day it's going to go. You can delude yourself and wish it different but memory is an obdurate prick when it suits itself to be. You can't predict what it's going to shed or what's going to stick. Occasionally though, just occasionally, there are bits that make you scrunch your brain that bit harder. There are bits that don't wilt and don't dilute with time because – fuck you brain – you force it otherwise.
Looking back on the summer of France 98, the overriding emotion is guilt – standing large as a wardrobe at the forefront of all those happy, laughter filled evenings in front of instantly forgotten matches and never-completed sticker albums. They are all about me, really. The happiness is about mum's recognition of my whims, my passionate noisy enjoyment. It was all just an elaborate continuation of all the elaborate games. Just brilliant, unreal, hyper-vivid fun. For her, those evenings must have brought unimaginable pain. The bald realisation of time running out, life running down and body gradually giving in to the death sentence in your breasts. Staring while your only child waves demented arms at the TV and acts out every action of a game you've never been fussed about, watching him mope when you're too tired to join in. Sitting – even though you're desperate for bed – by the window as the light dies around you, watching him punt the ball about the garden and grinning up for your approval, and your approval alone.
It must have been hard to grin back, or maybe it wasn't. Maybe I really was that cute and delightful. But I just can't imagine what that would feel like, to smile back every single time. I can't imagine the pain she had to bear to watch be try to dribble past an invisible Colin Hendry. And I can't imagine how it is to feel your body failing as the vivid screams and colours of Coupe du Monde pass by, and you wonder how more times you'll watch the light fade through the window. Ah, memory is shit. But at least I can remember that. At least I can remember France 98.
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