Waters of Memory


Ian Banks


The sea was green and flat, but resistant to the eye as though it had too much depth to be perceived clearly. Yet the boatmanís pole passed through it and struck bottom no deeper than my waist.

We had left land only a short time past, but it was no longer visible. The boatman was not concerned so I aped his complacency. He had rebuffed my efforts at conversation and was intent upon his task. It looked to be a long journey.

It was not long before we came across the first shade: he stood on the surface of the water, gazing at the emerald waters that surrounded him as though it were a prime piece of land. I leaned over to call to him. The boatman frowned at me but made no sound and pushed the punt to a stop.

"Hey! Hey, you, sir!" I called, my voice sinking flatly into the waterscape. I did not notice until after, such was my relief at seeing another soul.

He whirled suddenly, not causing the water to ripple, and a grin lit up his face. "Am I pleased to see you!" he returned jauntily. He was tall and beginning to run to fat. His lightly jowled face was topped with a pair of brown eyes and a shock of blond hair. He was clothed in a rumpled suit, shiny at the knees and elbows.

"How did you get here?" I asked. I would enquire later how he came to standing atop the water: for now it was a relief to speak to another soul.

"I don't know," he replied, a slight frown creasing his forehead. "I was sick in bed, my wife holding me, when my vision swam before me and I found myself in that boat, being paddled here by our talkative friend at the helm, wearing the suit that my wife made me throw out three years ago. My last clear memory is of her beginning to weep."

A chill clenched its grip around my vitals: was this the afterlife? Did that explain the quality of the water, the absence of land in these shallows? If it was true, was this reward or punishment?

"Damned strange place, this, wouldnít you say?" the stranger was saying. I blinked back to the moment and remembered where I was. Or wasnít. "Yes," my mouth said. "Have you any idea where we are?"

"None at all. By the way, the nameís Lambert, Martin Lambert." The name meant nothing to me, but I extended my hand and we shook. I gave my name and made to make more conversation, but was interrupted by the jerk of the punt as it moved again. Evidently the boatman was weary of the conversation and eager to continue his slow passage. I waved to Lambert and smiled ruefully. He grinned back and waved enthusiastically. "See you later, I hope!" he called, his voice falling flatly to the water.

We had traveled only a few moments more when we came across the second personage. He was beginning to wallow in the thigh-deep water. Even as we watched he sank even further. It occurred to me that he had reached a point where the land fell away into the sea. I wondered briefly if that would put a stop to our punting. I leaned over again, hoping that the boatman would stop as he had before, but he kept poling, as inexorable as the tide. As we passed only the shoulders of the man were above water, his neck straining to keep his head above. He reached for my outstretched hand, but as we were almost about to make contact, his shoulders were jerked under, leaving his mouth gasping for air. I could see that the water was not even ruffled by his exertions, and I made one last effort to save him. I lurched my upper body over the edge of the boat to make a grab for him, but as my forearm brushed against the water there was surge of energy and I was pushed back into the boat so roughly that my head was struck against the opposite side of the punt. Shaking my head groggily I sat up, looking behind me.

All that was to be seen was a gaunt hand, frantically gripping at the water, as though to pull itself up.

My gaze was locked on that space, when I remembered the boatman. I lumbered to the front of the punt and grabbed his shoulder. "Hey!" I shouted, "You could have stopped! You stopped for Lambert, why not for him, you unfeeling bastard?"

There was a thrill of energy pulsing through my arm up from the hand that was holding his collar. For a second I thought I was going to be thrown back again, but I did not release my grip. Without pausing in his work, without turning or looking at me, the boatman simply said, "Aught to do for him. Aught to do with you. He didnít live up to his promise. "

My hand left his shoulder and I returned numbly to my seat at the rear of the boat. My thoughts were rambling and confused. What did he mean? Was the drowned man a murderer or some other villain? What was this place?

We passed more folk, in varying degrees of submersion. Some waved jauntily, their feet neatly above the surface. Others were sinking, their hands and eyes beseeching us to stop. When this happened, I turned my gaze from them.

"Boatman," I finally called. "What is this place?"

He continued poling as he spoke to me, his face not turning, but keeping on with its steady progress. "This is where people go for remembering."

"What about those poor people who are sinking?"

His face was invisible to me, but I could tell that he was smiling. "Their memories have been forgotten."

In spite of the horrors I had seen, I was intrigued. "How so?"

"Lambert was unsuccessful at his chosen work, yet he will be remembered. That fellow we saw next, he was wealthier than Lambert, but he will not. His potential was stunted."

I shuddered, for the brutality of his... passing... was still fresh in my mind.

"His name was not important. Nor his life. He accumulated treasures greedily, he bought houses and property in all corners of the world."

Envy was beginning to creep into me.

"He was not an only child. His life was one of privilege. His parents cared for him, gave him all that was in their not-inconsiderable power to give him. It was a life that anyone might envy."

I blushed.

"His story ends when he is twenty-two. He was, as was the fashion of his time, studying at a modest university, in preparation for entering the family business, a firm no more or less noteworthy than another. He was of sound mind, generous, well-liked according to the standards of his time. The world, it was said of him, was at his feet."

He spoke in an even voice, as though the story was commonplace. It was, I supposed, but not in my experience.

"There was a girl he loved. She was studying at the same university. They met through friends in common and became involved with each other. For several months they were happy as anyone in their place might be.

"One night, they were returning to his student residence. It had been raining. They had been drinking. They were walking in the gutter, splashing each other with rainwater. They were both of them drenched, but did not care.

"Around the corner came a car. The driver was not under any influence, his vehicle was mechanically sound, he was driving responsibly. The fault lay with nobody, as was determined later. However, there was an obstruction in the road, which caused the driver to lose control for an instant. The car swerved and hit the girl. She was thrown several lengths of her body. The impact killed her instantly."

I blinked. "What about...?"

"He lived. He had minor injuries."

"You said that his story ended there."

"It did. He stopped feeling for his fellow men on that night. His beliefs died with that girl. From that day forth he lived only for his own gratification. He continued his studies, entered the family business, and lived solely for himself. He was not greedy and calculating. He merely stopped thinking of other people as himself. Soon his family drifted from him. They attempted to keep him in their thoughts, but he did not wish to be there. In time they forgot him. When he retired from his work, he travelled the world, never staying more than a month in any place, never forming attachments that would last. In time, members of his family died, the people who knew him numbered fewer and fewer. He was the last of his generation to die. His acquaintances from his youth remembered him only vaguely if at all.

"In his world, there is no trace of him, save as a name on a birth record."

I was appalled by the measured tone that the boatman used to relay the central tragedy of this manís life. "What happens to him after he drowns in these waters?"

"I donít know," said the boatman. "I work only these waters."

"What of Lambert?" I asked, more to get away from the memory of the man who had sunk beneath those waters. It was later that I realised that I, too, wanted only to forget him.

"As I said, Martin Lambert was an unsuccessful man.

"He was of the middling classes, from a line of clerks. Something of an entrepreneur, he wanted to break away from his work. He set up business for himself. He had the support of his wife, his family, his friends. His first venture was successful. Due to his success he attached his name to charities, as was the custom of his time. Lambert found, however, that he drew more joy from the work he did for those less comfortable than he than for those as comfortable. His life had more purpose, and with the support of those around him, he scaled down his business interests in order for him to do more for his charity work, trusting his partners to care for his interests, while he devoted himself more and more to the unfortunate.

"Unfortunately, he did not pay as much attention to his associates. One of his partners was not as honest and driven as he was. He swindled Lambert out of a yearís profits, citing expenses, falling currencies, lack of interest in the market, whatever it took to convince Lambert.

"And he was convinced. He sold some assets, stripped some funds he had set aside for his dotage and for his children. But he did not touch the money set aside for his charities.

"In time he was swindled again. And again. Soon, he began to distrust his instincts and sold almost all his accumulated businesses. He had secured his future and that of his family. Regretfully, he stepped back from much of his philanthropic work. Many of them ended their relationships with him. He became more wary, but remained honest in his own dealings, a lesson he passed on to his children who were, by the customs of the day, a credit to him.

"Then there was a depression, a collapse of the local economy. It caused several of the financial institutions in which he held his funds to close down. Much of his money was lost to him. His family was able to scrape by on some of the money left to them, but one day, he found that he had to approach the charities which he had supported in his glory days

"Of course, they were happy to aid him who had aided them before. He worked with them, to fill his days and to prove that he was working for the food and resources they were giving him. For he was humble, but not without pride, and he did not wish to have something for nothing.

"The time was not easy, but he had food to eat, and a roof over his head. Things could be much worse, he told his wife.

"And it became worse. He became ill with a strain of influenza doing the rounds of his city and died. His family remembered him as a hard-working provider who loved them. His associates remembered him as a kind and generous employer and partner. And his city remembered him as a philanthropist who continued to care regardless of the straits he found himself in."

I blinked, lulled by the rhythm of the tale. The boatman fell silent, continuing to pole the barge.

There were more people as we passed. The boatman told me of some of them: here was a man who loved his family and was abandoned by them through his contraction of a disease. He stood ankle-deep in the water, his family remembering him guiltily, some inspired to work harder to care for others; there a man floundered, submerged to his neck and sinking fast. He had left his wife and children for another woman, then abandoned her in turn when she became older and more dependant on him; there was a woman who had murdered her husband because he was abusing their children. She had died in prison, her children fostered unhappily out to relatives, but reclaiming their lives eventually. She stood stomach-deep; here was a man standing in water up to his calves. A writer, the boatman told me, whose family line continued, but largely unaware of him, some even holding his books on their shelves without knowing their connection to him for he had published under a pseudonym. His clothing was drenched, where all the others I had seen wore dry garments.

As we had progressed through the water the people were dispersed thinly: the interval between Lambert and the second man we saw could have been measured in minutes, but now the folk were only seconds apart from one another. I asked the boatman why this was so.

"People are not born as often as before," he said simply.

"What of me?" I asked suddenly, for the thought had only just occurred to me. "Am I one of these souls you are ferrying to their final resting place? Surely I should be near the front, with Lambert and, and that other fellow?"

The boatman would say nothing and I sat back against the stern of the boat, trying to remember any who would remember me when I was gone. There were none who sprang to mind. Thinking further back, to schoolmates, teachers, I found that I could remember none of the details of my childhood, the house I lived in, my parentís names, or even what they looked like. There were no details of my life that I could put a likeness or name to. All of it was gone. I could not even remember my last meal.

"Boatman," I finally called, fear scraping the edge of my voice. "Why am I here? What reason is there for me to be in this place? Boatman?"

The boatman kept poling, ignoring my voice.

"Boatman? Please."

Finally, he stopped poling and the barge creaked to a stop. He laid the pole down along the base of the craft then turned to me.

"They all realise where they are when it is time for them to get out," he said.

I looked at the emerald waters, then at him, his face just as unrevealing. There was to be no quarter, it occurred to me, no feverish waking as I woke and realised that it was all a horrible dream: just myself, on the waters alone.

Stepping out of the boat with a nonchalance I most certainly did not feel, I glanced at my feet: they were clad in a pair of boots that I recalled from my youth, purchased with the commission that I earned for my first sale. My gaze travelled up my body and I recognised the jacket and trousers purchased in a small shop in Bangkok ten years before, during a business trip. My shirt, open-necked as I had always worn it, was of raw silk, bought for me by my wife for a birthday only three years ago. I remembered shuddering at the thought of its cost.

My wife? I could see her in my mind, as clearly as I could see the boatman nod a farewell to me and pole away from me. We had been married when we were both in our twenties, near the start of hers, near the end of mine, drawn together by a love that had kept us together over the years... the decades that we were together. We had not had any children, a thought that chilled me now.

A further thought struck me: what of my life? Was it noteworthy enough to keep me above the waters? Realtors are not noted for moral superiority. Surely my colleagues had looked on me fondly? I had been honest in my dealings with people, had always tried to strike a bargain for those purchasing and selling off me. My career was not as spectacular as some of my colleagues, though I did have many more returned customers than the others in my branch. Had my potential been realised? I had not led a terribly well-examined life, so I did not know.

I looked down: the water was currently lapping around the soles of my shoes.

The course of my life had been interesting, but not remarkable. I had not cheated anyone of something that was not rightly mine; I had never been unfaithful to my wife; my schooling had not been exceptional (though neither had it been unexceptional); my career had been of steady progress. I had not stood out in any significant way that I could think of. Nothing wrong with that.

The water was still under my feet.

I had given to charities, I had taken part in activities undertaken by our community organisations, our office had even sponsored a child in a third-world country. Yes, I had contributed, though not in any exceptional manner.

Was I remembered by the living? Were they mourning me?

The water, slowly and relentlessly as, well, as relentlessly as the tide, began to creep up above the bottoms of my feet. Horror swelled at my heart. My promise, it seemed, had not been enough. My complacent, unexamined life was now being rewarded.

I could no longer see the holes that the laces were threaded through. Staring with a fascination that appalled me, I watch the victory of this sea over my body. I remembered my high school science teacher telling me that in the battle between land and sea, the land would always succumb. Surprisingly, I could almost accept the axiom from that long-past lesson. Curiously, I tried to remember the teacherís name. The distraction of the search took some of the panic from me. A boring, commonplace name. Jones? Johnson? No! Mr Johnston! I almost cheered at this small victory of my intellect over my emotions. I briefly wondered, as the water closed over the tops of my ankles, what had become of him. Would he appreciate his old geology lesson coming true in this unimaginable way? The thought of the tall, lanky teacher, looking ridiculous in his white lab coat, calmed me some. Was he still here, or had he been drowned by these waters?

Almost at the same time, I looked down to measure my own erosion. Still around my ankles. I wiggled my toes: I could still feel them. Well, of course I could. These were well-made boots, the salesman had told me so. Built to last. Stitches that were so tiny as to resist the petty intrusion of water. He had relished the sale as much as I. He was the proprietor of the store, a medium-sized place, just outside the boundary of the central business district, where he could turn a modest profit. On the other side of the street his rent would have been higher and his returns lower. He would have had more customers, but also higher prices. Here, on the outskirts, he could be more reasonably priced, and enjoy his business more. If the salesman is happy, the customer is happy, he had told me. Our occupations dictated our lifestyles, but not our lives, he had said. Business had been good for him, but not so good that he couldnít enjoy time with his customers, providing them with a memory as well as a decent pair of shoes. Most people returned to places that they liked, after all.

It had been a conversation that I reflected on for days, before deciding that I, too, would provide my customers with a memory to cherish afterwards. The salesman, I recalled, had provided me with more than a well-made pair of shoes. It was a chance encounter that had changed my philosophy.

The thoughts warmed me and I, somehow, managed to blank my mind from my impending immersion in these waters. Part of me raised the argument that I was dead already, what else could hurt me?

I remembered all the anonymous people who had contributed to my growth through their actions: uncles and aunts who had taught me about fair play during endless backyard cricket games; teachers who had taught me to read and count as well as the more esoteric points of geology; friends who had given me love and support through their actions. Countless people who had illuminated my life briefly, shown me a way of living through their own actions.

The water lapped silently at my feet.

I glanced at my watch, aware of how ludicrous I must look. The hands had moved some eleven hours since I had found myself on the barge, but there were no sensations of hunger in my belly, nor did I feel a need to urinate.

Time was passing but did not appear to be going anywhere.

I glanced down absently at my feet again. It was then that I realised something that I had noticed earlier.

The water lapped silently at my feet.

My ankles were dry.

The mystery that this was intrigued me. I pondered it for some time (several hours according to my watch). There was little else to do in this place. Then there was an interruption.

The boatman was returning!

I could see his punt growing as he approached. There was another passenger with him. A wave of compassion for this deceased soul washed over me. They passed within several lengths of the punt of me then stopped further along in the water from my location. I turned, ignoring the 360-degree water views that I would have been enraptured over in my previous life (For some reason I was unable to move from this place, but I was able to manoeuvre on it) and watched him: he was an immaculately dressed man, of a similar age to me, and he stepped reluctantly from the punt to the water. Almost immediately, he began to sink. The boatman turned his craft and poled away, ignoring the screams of terror from his most recent passenger. He passed by me, ignoring me as well. I watched, forcing myself to remember the details of this death, for it might yet happen to me.

"Help!" came the screams across the water. They were deadened, made flat by the absorptive qualities of this ocean, but I could still hear him, even at the distance he was from me. "Please! For the love of Christ! Help me! I donít want this! I want to go back! I havenít finished yet! Help me! Iím not finished!"

I turned back when his shoulders disappeared beneath the water, unable to go on watching. I concentrated on the retreating shape of the barge. I lost sight of it long after the man behind me had vanished. It vanished into the distance like a memory.

That was when it occurred to me what this place was: the boatman had called it the place "where people go for remembering". Now I knew what this remembering was.

We were to remember the others who had shaped us into what we were. Our lives had finished but we were the sums of our interactions with the others of our race. The man who had just been left by the boatman had been thinking only of what he had left undone. I had stopped sinking when I had been thinking about the shoe salesman and Mr Johnston. Lambert had been affected by all that happened around him and tried his hardest to alter that state of affairs. The first person I had seen sinking had stopped being affected by those about him when his lover had died. I wasnít here to be commemorated by those I had left behind, I was here as a testimony to the people who had shaped me into what I was.

None of us were here to remember what we had left of ourselves.

We were here to remember the influence of others on ourselves.

As soon as this thought crossed into my conscious mind I felt the sea below me give way. Below me the waters had shed their emerald sheen and become totally transparent. I could see as far as the eye could perceive in all directions below the waters. Vertigo made me shudder for a brief time, but I was able to master it in short order. I had assumed, from the depth that the boatmanís pole had plunged, the waters to be no more than waist deep. Although this did not explain the supposed drowning of the people that I had seen.

But beneath me lay a stunning vista of stars and galaxies. Swirling clusters moved through the vastness of the cosmos like dancers in a ballet. My science lessons sprang back to me and I recalled that the stars moved at a pace difficult to see with the naked eye over a period of seconds. Checked against my watch they were crossing the sky at a speed that could be measured against the second hand.

I stared above me: there was still the featureless sky.

Below me the galaxies swam by like so many fish.

My head swam with the impossibility of the scene.

Without any seeming awareness of it, I dived headlong into that glittering array. I struck gracelessly past millennia of years, arrowing unerringly for the pod of darkness that lay at the core of this vista. Past dying stars whose light had never reached my birthplace, past birthing stars whose light was so new that it never would.

Finally, it passed into view: a glimmerless sphere of darkness. As I watched, it grew larger. Light was falling into it, absorbed and swallowed whole. The ball of darkness was swallowing up the emitted light of the universe as it was cast inward to the core. Light would still be shone outward into infinity, but as this sphere grew, infinity would become smaller, until there was only this gathering darkness.

My consciousness was drawn to it. There was no fear in me, for that had passed when I had known I had died. I fell toward the surface, felt a numbness crawl up me as I was absorbed by the growing ball of compressed matter, then found myself at its core, dazzled by the imprisoned light as it crept inward toward the very heart of the universe. I followed it, then overtook it as I came to master this new environment which appeared to have no effect on my incorporeal form.

Eventually I came to the dark cavern at the centre of the cosmos. No light had yet reached it in all the age of the universe. It was hard to accept that I should be first to see the blackness of the universeís birth, but I could feel no other presence, hear no sounds in this place. There was nothing else here save me.

I waited for the light to reach me.



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Author Bio

Ian Banks was born in 1970 in Tasmania, Australia where he also grew up. He has had an interest in reading and writing for almost his whole life. "Waters of Memory" is his first published story. His other interests also include the theatre (his first play, "No Pets Involved," was written and produced in 1996) and music.

Ian has worked as a cleaner, an actor, an administrative clerk and most recently as a primary school teacher in the Pilbara region of Western Australia. At the moment he is studying for a diploma in Librarianship at Edith Cowan University. He lives in Perth, Western Australia with his wife, three children and the obligatory cat and two dogs.

Visit Ian's website.






"Waters of Memory" Copyright © 2002 Ian Banks. All rights reserved. Published by permission of the author.


This page last updated 4-24-02.

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