It’s like that with my brain: I have to build a player in my mind before I can access my oldest memories


If you dial back your memories, beware – for beyond a certain point, the trail becomes rough and uncertain. Weeds and bushes push apart the yellow brick road and, like Manderley, run wild and all that was civilised and orderly is eventually left behind. Though this is your own life, you’re off the map and you’re on your own.

What is your earliest memory? If we’re talking tech, it could be a three-second video clip entombed within a long-dead mobile at the bottom of the junk drawer. It could be the sound of your voice or this week’s number 17 from the Top 40 on a C90 audiotape in a cardboard box in the loft. Or maybe the gatefold image inside a double vinyl LP you haven’t played since you last shared a house. In any case, you haven’t owned a record player for decades.

It’s like that with my brain: I have to build a player in my mind before I can access my oldest memories. There is a grainy sequence somewhere of me and my siblings playing aeroplanes on holiday outside a static caravan, one blazing hot summer in the 70s. But to re-experience the moment, I must reconstruct the world around it that was my world at the time. It’s really more like building a stage or film set, but close enough: the caravan with the deck of cards in a drawer; the smelly tidal inlets; the pale green Ford Classic with the vinyl seats burning our bare legs. Are we there yet?

Earlier still and moving pictures haven’t been invented yet. We are forced back on static images or sounds, or the sounds of sounds. There was a child’s picture book with an image of a robin nesting in a green wooden bus with broken wheels. Then there are the mahogany silences of my grandparents’ house, which signalled an alien concept known as “behaviour” to three small children. 

Their garden: a domesticated descent of stone steps and shrubs down a hill with a wild landscape beyond. I walked down the garden of James Henry Trotter from James And The Giant Peach long before I read about it. The man-eating carp in the pond halfway down and, at the very end, granddad’s mossy old greenhouse – so old indeed its heating system predated Victoria. Inside, deadly to unwary children, was a cluster of cacti on a bench: the Crab Plants. Beware, beware.

The search for the origins of my trans identity is equally uncertain. Try as I might, I cannot identify a crossroads – a bump from one set of rails to another. Personality and identity are fused, however far back you look. There was no change other than the slow variety, as the tides of time and experience shaped my being.

I was a boy, but I was also an observer, an absorber, of sounds and silences; textures and smoothness; colours and carpets and clothes. There was my mum’s suede jacket and her white faux fur coat with the jaguar spots and the coolest of linings. 

Our oldest memories aren’t stored neatly with the leather-bound and embossed volumes of one’s authorised autobiography in the grown-ups’ wing. No, they follow mazy sensory pathways to strange corners of the brain and, to stand any hope of reaching them, you must put aside your older self and think again like a child, like an animal, for here be dragons. 

There is a room in a big house. Big as a castle and, like a castle, full of echoing chambers and murmuring noises, far and near. It is deserted, sunlit and dusty: this wing of the castle is little visited at this hour.

There is a little boy. Old enough to be curious, but not old enough to process. He pads quietly across the room to a little low chest on legs with a furry orange cover. If he had words, he would call it his mother’s sewing box, but words won’t come till later.  He pushes up the hinged lid on tiptoe, revealing a cream wooden tray divided into many compartments full of wonders: knitting needles, real needles, skeins of brightly coloured embroidery thread, and drifts of buttons like shells heaped up by the tide. 

He manages to pull the lid up and carefully lays it down on the floor. Below are the secrets he has long sought. If he had words, he would know he was looking at sewing patterns of strange boxy women, totally unlike his own mother. He would recognise patterns from some of his siblings’ clothes in the ragbag of scraps and patches: deliriously intense hothouse paisleys from his big sister’s dresses; blue for a boy. 

Deeper, and he no longer recognises the patterns he pulls out. They are older and coarser and smell funny. Then his fat little fingertips brush against something soft and yielding. It stirs a feeling within him for which he has no name. He pulls carefully and out comes a white brushed cotton sheet, such as you might place over a baby in a cot. There is a friendly white rabbit in the centre and it is edged with a fringe of soft cotton. For the very first time, he wraps the fringe around his knuckles and sucks his thumb, as he will do until the blanket has almost completely disintegrated. He feels safe.

Lisa Bond is a writer and person living in 21st century London. Identifying mainly as a carbon-based, bipedal life form, her hobbies include being a lesbian and transgender woman. To keep her off the streets and usefully distracted, she recently became a student nurse and hopes eventually to meet Alex Kingston. In 2018, she took part in her band Brunk’s legendary world tour of Dunkirk, where her punk and ska trumpeting skills were much admired in French.  

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