Treat you better
Updated: 2 days ago
Q: What if memories were commodified?
A collaboration with Matt Jukes, artist (www.mattjukes.ink)
Chapter one - Deprint
The pale pink blush at the top right corner of his cheek, bathed in the evening light. The ombre effect of various intensities of crimson fading to white on his lips. I remember feeling pure happiness as the sun made its descent into the shimmering sea, no cares in the world, just endless pockets of pleasure ahead of us. Yup, that’s the one. That’s the one I was giving away today.
Welcome Sisu. Take a deep breath. Relax. Look into the screen. Think about your memory. How did you feel? Focus on those emotions. Feel them again. Let those emotions roll across your face.
A display of colour, undulating hues, weaving pink then crimson, a touch of midnight blue as the screen captures my memory. It pauses as the AI calculates its worth, whether it’s worth anything at all. It meant the world to me at the time. Let it be worth something now.
The screen flashes a credit of £18.21. Too little to turn the air fryer on long enough to make dinner. I would have to find another solution. Find another memory. Someone paid a ridiculous amount for my first time, the fumble and tumble in the long grass, a memory that I used to cringe over, now complete indifference.
The Deprint, a patented process of transferring memories from one brain to another, started off as a therapeutic discipline after The Promised War. It provided relief to trauma survivors, helping them rebuild their memories after the dark times. Many, like me, stepped forward to donate at memory banks, having felt helpless watching from the sidelines. Little did we know that we would continue to give away what made us who we were in order to survive the years of austerity awaiting us post-war. Soon enough, Deprint became purely transactional with the ruling elite profiteering from the rabble that I belonged to, by pilfering all that we had. They had stripped us of our material possessions since the 2010s, now they were after our immaterial ones.
As I walked out of the Deprint booth, a sudden flash of memory hit me. An aquamarine glint in his eyes, deep yet reassuring, reflecting the vast ocean ahead of us. The single, pink rose he gave me. Perfectly formed, starting to unfurl. How I wish I could touch him again. Feel his hand gently push my wind-blown hair behind my ear. That electrifying brush. That promise of what was to come. That feeling of joy.
Yet it’s gone. The next part no longer mine. Swept away with the warmth of my contentment, the pale blush petals fluttering away in the wind. I thought I was doing so well protecting my memories of him but some days I wasn’t so sure. My brain was increasingly hazy, wisps of emotions and thoughts tangled up, slowly being pulled towards the abyss in the recesses of my mind. I was half the person I used to be. Not as vibrant as he would remember. I had given too much of myself away. Strangers owned more of me than I did.
Penny for your thoughts, a voice disturbed my reverie. Arthur. My patron of sorts. Here again. I still owed him one of my paintings, yet to be created. I was an artist, a figurative painter who sold more memories than paintings to survive. My work used to be rich in colour, dots of my cheerful demeanour shining through the thick layers of paint, slowly darkening to reveal the raw mantle underneath.
What did you upload, he asked through his handsome, youthful smile. Like an automaton, I turned on my coquettish one. You know I can’t tell you that, I smiled knowingly, lowering my eyes like I had read in those Victorian novels. It’s illegal, I pronounced primly. He nodded, satisfied with my answer then offered me a single, pink rose. My heart tightened. A feeling of unease, a strange form of déjà vu. Did he know? Was I going mad? Perhaps. I no longer had control of my memories. A rose for my rose, he declared. I wanted to throw it in his face, watch the thorns tear into his flesh, the pink turning decisively red but all I did was accept it with thanks.
We had walked to the edge of the tented village where I had left a couple of my most prized possessions the night before. I didn’t want to go in. He sensed my hesitation and looked at his extravagant watch. Would you like to have dinner with me, he asked? I wavered. I was hungry and hadn’t washed for days. The thought of hot food, perhaps a warm bed was beyond tempting. Perhaps you could tell me about your adventures on the seas, he continued. A sharp intake of breath. This couldn’t all be a coincidence, a figment of my crumbling mind. Something was definitely going on.
How do you know about that, I hissed defensively. One of the rose petals fluttered to the ground. Arthur looked up at me, wounded. You mentioned it last time we met, he replied. Come on Sisu, he said, I’m not a predator. I just want to be your friend. I also happen to love your art. What’s so wrong with that? You don’t seem to realise it but you are super talented. I want to help. I just want to treat you better.
I just want to treat you better. That’s what he had said too but I was slowly tearing him out of my mind. I didn’t want to lose him. Ever. I had to stop selling off my memories any way that I could.
I looked up at Arthur. He had a gentle smile. He seemed like a nice, kind guy. It was just dinner after all. All I want is to get to know you, he said. What was the harm? I should just go. Right?
Chapter two - a mirror to mock me
I remember that ache in the hollow of my stomach, the hungry rumble that drills into my being, the feeling of hopelessness. Somehow those sensations became intertwined in my past, blended together so I couldn’t tell where one ended and the other began. Just as it was doing now as I accepted Arthur’s dinner invitation.
Throughout the meal, I pretended not to notice his casual touch…of my hand, my shoulder, my waist, as if it were an accidental brush, random, like two atoms bumping into each other in the ether. But I knew. Nothing happens by chance. Nothing is ever unintentional.
He knew too much about me. Not just my art but my personal life. My past. Every time I pulled him up on it, he would sweep away my doubts and convince me that I had told him about it before. Was he right? Was my mind fragmenting from too many memory trades?
I tried to pretend I was with him, staring into his aquamarine eyes, his touch, his embrace…his embrace? I pulled away, slapping Arthur’s hands off me, sharply returning to the now. A reality of standing half-dressed in his apartment, noticing that every piece of art on the wall…was mine.
Some weren’t painted by me but they were all a part of me. A depiction of a memory, a secret that only I knew about…the long grass. How? That was all I could utter as I picked up my clothes off the floor and headed for the door. Stay, he urged. It’s not as creepy as it looks. How, I repeated? He shook his head in exasperation. A flash of irritation came over him, as if I had spoken out of turn, reacted incorrectly. I told you that I loved your work, he said firmly, that I wanted to support you. This is me doing just that. This is me helping you, he proclaimed. I stared at him in disbelief. He actually seemed to believe the shit coming out of his mouth. I took a deep breath, calming my rising choler. Arthur, I said, these aren’t all my work. He looked at me, suddenly understanding my discomfort. I called on a friend, he explained, at Deprint…we used to dorm together…I…I just wanted to be like him, he said, for you. All this is for you Sisu. I just want to treat you better. Better than him, he continued.
Him. In the far corner of the room, my eye caught a flash of pink, the pale pink blush at the top right corner of his cheek, bathed in the evening light. I gasped. He was everywhere. Every moment with him that I had painfully sold, forced to give up, held up like a mirror to mock me. I couldn’t breathe. I had to get out of there. Get away. Away from my memories. Away from him.
I ran. Ran as fast as I could. I felt violated. Naked. Out of control. How dare he? While the rest of us were playing by the rules, Arthur was creating his own. He believed he had the right, born privilege to do whatever he liked, to whomever he liked. Treat my life with contempt if he so wished, a simple play thing to serve his whims of chivalry. Who asked for his help anyway? I didn’t need him. I was doing just fine…just fine.
But I wasn’t. At a safe distance, I stopped and gained my breath. I felt a sadness creep over me. A moment of realisation dawned. Arthur and I were both simply products of the system. A system where the elite ruled by keeping down the ‘other’. A system akin to a virus that continually adapts, evades and takes over for their own benefit. A system as old as time.
On the surface it appeared that we were finally in charge of our lives. We decided what memories to sell and what we were prepared to accept for them. We had free will. We were in control, weren’t we? An illusion. We were far from it. We may have won the war of independence but we were still shackled. The laws of demand and supply bear testament. The mechanics of it always in their favour. They had the ability to play the system, had the choice to buy and sell at certain points on the Keynesian curve. We never did. It was a necessity for us, never a choice. As they grew in influence, entitlement developed. The virus growing in power. A belief that the rules didn’t apply to them. The playing fields weren’t even. They never were.
It was then that I knew what I had to do. My heart pounded. He said that he loved my work. My best was yet to come.
There had been whisperings of false memories, of gaming the system. Hugely illegal of course but you just had to make sure that they didn’t trace it back to you. Hence the dark web. Anything was possible there. You just had to know where to look, who to ask. The Sourcerer, the ‘source’ of all knowledge, knew how to plant false memories in minds, so real that they were indistinguishable from reality. She knew how to control them, how to manipulate and bend them to one’s will. With her help, I could create ‘memories’ for Arthur, ones he wouldn’t think twice about purchasing. Interwoven within them would be moments of the harsher realities of life. So tough that it would break his psyche. He wasn’t playing fair, so why should I?
The Sourcerer could see the determination in my eyes and cautioned me. An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind, she said. You could lose the ability to decipher what’s real and unreal, she reminded me. I knew what this meant. I could lose him.
But sacrifices exist to test us. I had to do it. If I wanted to change the system, the power dynamics had to change. But what if it didn’t work? I could be risking it all for something that wasn’t guaranteed. Or asking to be transformed. No one was calling out for this. People were complacent, getting on with their lives.
I took a deep breath. What should I do? I recalled the violation I had felt in that room. I remembered the love I had felt whenever he smiled. I was torn. Do I punish Arthur and risk losing myself or let him carry on with impunity, just like they all do? What do I do?
Chapter three - the deadly seven
You can create reality. If you try hard enough. If you tell yourself something over and over again, you can convince yourself that it’s true. It just becomes. Some call it manifesting, others call it cosmic ordering. I call it self-belief. That’s what the Sourcerer told me to tell myself and that’s what I did.
I sat in a dark room, a bit like the Deprint booth. All my senses numbed, my eyes prized open à la Clockwork Orange and I watched. Watched my happy memories spliced between fictional moments of heartache, loss, disappointment, jealousy, rage, hatred and apathy. The deadly seven. The most potent ingredients in my concoction of Project Revenge. I told myself that I could do this, I could bring him down and all that he represented. I may be nothing in their eyes, but they shouldn’t have underestimated me. I had my own power. I just needed to use it. I could hear Arthur say, I just want to treat you better and it made my blood boil more. Bullshit. He was all about treating himself better. They all were.
A spectrum of light, refracted into the seven colours shone into my eyes. The glare burned into my retina and codified the memory. It was done. I was ready. Next stop Deprint.
I bristled with excitement wondering how long it would be before his friend alerted him to my latest memory, how long it would take for him to see it, if he would try at all to resist. I enjoyed imagining him unable to do so, that my pull was so magnetic that he wouldn’t be able to stop himself.
Welcome Sisu. Take a deep breath. Relax. Look into the screen. Think about your memory. How did you feel? Focus on those emotions. Feel them again. Let those emotions roll across your face. I smiled to myself. Finally they were going to know what it felt like to suffer, feel pain, humility. They were going to get their just deserts.
A yellow, warm light cocooned him as he slept. Peaceful, content, special. I loved this memory. I had crept in and watched him as the morning sun rose high above the mountains and beyond. He hadn’t known I was there and by the time he woke, I was gone.
I stared longingly at the image, yearning to be by his side again. His smile, his soft hair, his almond-shaped eyes…suddenly snapped open…blinked…then rolled left, then right, searching round the room for something before resting on me. What was happening? I didn’t remember this. He had never woken up in the actual memory.
Sisu, he said pulling himself up and turning to face me, don’t do this. Don’t give up on yourself, he said, just because you’re angry with the system. For a moment I was dumbfounded, how could he be here talking to me? This couldn’t be real. What was going on? He continued. You’re angry, you’re mad at me for letting you down, for giving up on you. Don’t give up on yourself, he repeated. I should’ve treated you better. Forgive me. I now see what I did to you, to us…
I felt tears well up in my eyes and tried to blink them away, attempting to conjure happy thoughts to pull me out of this emotional well. But I kept circling back, back to him, for he was my happy place, wasn’t he? My bank of joyful memories. My safe haven. Then why was I feeling this wave of pain, this hollow ache?
Sisu, remember me as you have, in this favourable light, he said. I may not deserve it but it will help keep these dark feelings at bay. It’s how you wished it to be. Let your illusions become your reality.
He lay back down again, settling himself back to where he was supposed to be. I turned away and sobbed. His words somehow liberated me. No longer restrained, my tears flowed free. I relived the angst, the jealousy, the disappointment…the deadly seven.
I’m sorry, I heard him say. I should’ve been…he hesitated. You should’ve treated me better, I cried. Why didn’t you? He paused, looked away, the morning’s yellow light bathing him in a post-apocalyptic haze. I saw his face softening, his features yielding. Because I’m not as strong as you, he whispered sadly.
I sensed the atmosphere changing around me. We were about to go into the second part of my memory, the contaminated section, the sting in the tail. Don’t give up on yourself. His words whirled round my mind as I watched him close his eyes and return to his rightful place in my memory. A single pink rose lay in my lap. You can create your own reality. I gently picked it up and drank in its perfume. Let your illusions become your reality. A maelstrom of words in my heart and mind.
I remembered what the Sourcerer had taught me; to let the breath flow in, then out, creating the silence within so that my intuition could speak. Within the calm I finally heard it and I listened, then nodded. We were in agreement. We knew what we had to do.
Everything came to a halt as I pressed the red stop button. The lights came up and I sat there in the spotlight, wondering what next. Is everything ok, a small voice called out? Shading my eyes, I stood up, collecting my belongings, leaving behind the pink rose on my seat. I’m fine thanks, I yelled back, opening the door and coming face-to-face with a Deprint employee. Giggling, we weaved left and right, mirroring each other’s move as I tried to leave. Finally having got past him I smiled. Tell your mate Arthur that he won’t know what’s hit him with the amount of memories I’m about to sell him, I said. Tell him to give me a minute though, I have to go out and make them first.
I stepped out into the sun and felt the warmth on my face, the breeze in my hair, the smell of spring in the air. I felt happiness around me, melting away any hold the deadly seven may have had over me. Of course they would visit again, but it wouldn’t be for long. I didn’t care. I was about to change the power dynamic through joy, embracing every opportunity, every interaction, every possibility with my arms wide open, creating endless blessed memories, so many that I wouldn’t miss some when I sold them. Arthur and his crew were going to be begging me for content, to give their lives colour through my creations. In no time, I would be Deprinting my way up the societal ladder. Most importantly, I was going to be treating myself better.