The greatest tragedy of my childhood, or so it felt, was when I dropped my number-one car down the back of the skirting board. It was a Lamborghini Countach, a burning tartrazine yellow with crimson-tinted windows, and I loved it as much as if it lived and loved me back.
It went faster than my other cars — meaning that if you shoved it along the carpet it travelled smoother, straighter, further. And if you got a fingernail under the flap at the back you could lift it to reveal a chrome-coloured engine block, the V12 pipework laid out for show. I felt about opening that little lid as I imagine a neurosurgeon feels about cutting through the skin and skull and exposing the brain beneath: it was a thing of great wonder — but the real power, I knew, was not on the surface.
Underneath my parents’ fitted wardrobes there was an excellent hiding place. It was there I sat and copied my mother on the phone one day, nodding my head so violently in mimicked agreement that I fractured my skull. I remember the blood on the white radiator and the ceiling lights of the hospital speeding past. The scar is still visible sometimes, when it turns a hot or excitable red.
And it was in that secret place that I liked to rally my Matchbox cars. The skirting at the back stood proud of the wall and short of the wardrobe above, leaving something like a low false wall. This offered a kind of elevated trackway along which my cars could race.
I can feel in my fingers, now, the moment I lost my grip. I tried to correct my slip, I scrabbled — but the car tumbled into the little void behind the skirting.
I discovered in the succeeding days that the gap between the board and the wardrobe was exactly too small and too large: if your hand was tiny enough to squeeze through the gap between skirting and wardrobe then your forearm would be too short to reach down to the floor behind.
Perhaps I did not play with toy cars for long afterwards, in any case. I graduated to playing war, birdwatching, and reading ever more books. I went to secondary school, university, became a writer. In all that time I never forgot my beloved car — yet somehow, simultaneously, I started to disbelieve my memory of the incident. Even while I knew with complete conviction that the car had fallen and been lost, I doubted it. It was so long ago. I had been so little. I must have gotten things confused. Perhaps someone retrieved it later, in some clever and non-destructive way.
The truth was that I had resurrected the incident so many times in my mind that recalling it began to feel like seeing the copy of a copy of a copy. This is very much how memory works, as neuroscience now understands it — or as I understand the neuroscience. The brain does not store an incident in a cupboard, pulling it out afresh every time you want to examine it. Instead, it recreates the neural connections that applied at the moment the memory was formed and adds a wash of appropriate emotional colour, creating a persuasive illusion of complete sensory recall. When you remember a moment, parts of you are virtually reliving it.
More immediate to me than the memory of the accident was the thought and feel of the car itself: cold in my hand, glowing to the eye, purposeful on its carpet run. If I could bring it to life so vividly in my mind then somehow it could not have been lost. Perhaps I had not misremembered but concocted the memory entirely. Such errors were possible: researching a book about conspiracy theories, I discovered how easily eye-witnesses – of a crime or an accident, say – overlay their own impressions with what they discover about it afterwards. They come to believe that they themselves saw what was only reported to them as having been seen by somebody else. False memories, it turns out, are distressingly easy to induce, even in yourself.
I began to feel as if I’d lost the car twice over.
Lost objects and unreliable memories, I realise, are everywhere in my writing. For some reason, they give rise to mixed feelings of disquiet and delight that I find compelling. My book about conspiracy theories, inevitably, was full of missing planes, destroyed documents and contended versions of history. My travels, while writing and updating guidebooks, were often driven by the desire to find hidden places — always coloured by the delicious awareness that I was almost certainly rediscovering what had been seen and enjoyed by many travellers before me. I would visit a town, a palace, a painting, then return to it two or three years later when the guidebook was next updated: on return, of course, everything would be quite different even though almost everything was ostensibly the same.
Later, I wrote a ‘biography’ of the Kamasutra, which traced the fortunes of the text from 2nd-century India to the 21st-century West. It was a story full of bizarre and sometimes shocking details, yet the episode that most touched me was relatively dusty. It was the part when, in the 1870s, a clandestine quest for a surviving manuscript was launched by a coterie of erotomaniac Victorian adventurers, notably Richard Burton, along with a dedicated Brahmin scholar or pandit who did most of the hard work. It was a story of remote princely libraries and sackfuls of decaying palm-leaf manuscripts, of secret pockets in overcoats and private circulation lists of gentlemen who were interested in that kind of thing.
The Kamasutra was only barely saved from historical oblivion. Four copies of the original Sanskrit text were obtained by 1876, only one of which was complete. (I tracked down a few more manuscripts — but they are rare.) A scholarly text was prepared, by hand, in the late 1870s, and buried in Oxford’s Bodleian Library, where it festered unread under a ‘restricted’ shelf-mark until I dug it out. When I recently tried to order it up again, I was told it had been lost — perhaps mis-shelved, perhaps under consideration for re-categorisation, perhaps stolen.
In the end, it was print that saved the Kamasutra. An English translation was issued in 1883, in a limited edition luxuriously bound in white vellum with gold tooling. It was a strictly private printing: to publish in a conventional sense would have been to risk disgrace, and imprisonment under the prevailing obscenity laws. Since then, of course, the Kamasutra has become wildly ubiquitous. There must be millions of copies in scores of languages. What was once nearly lost entirely has been recovered — and reproduced beyond any imaginable act of censorship or destruction.
But what became of my irreproducible, irreplaceable Lamborghini Countach? Was it still abandoned in the dust and darkness? Some years ago, my parents sold our family home. I wanted a last look around. As I sat on the radiator in my parents’ bedroom, looking out of the window at the old plane tree outside, with its platelets of peeling bark, I thought again of my lost car. Then it struck me. What was so sacrosanct about that skirting? Or was it my parents’ bedroom that felt sacred? Or perhaps it was the very doubt implicit in my memory that I felt should be respected.
I fetched the hammer from its usual place in the cellar. It wasn’t that I wanted to find the car. I wanted unequivocally to determine the truth of the memory. I failed to lever back the board with the claw end, so I hit it with the hammer instead, very hard. Then a great deal harder. With what my mother would have called a hell of a bang the skirting splintered. A few more blows and I wrenched the pieces aside.
There it was. My beautiful Lamborghini Countach.
It was scarcely dusty. It might have been dropped the day before. Except that it was no longer golden yellow. Not long before I had lost it (and only now did I recall doing this, and remembered it with what felt like complete clarity all the same) I had repainted the whole thing – apart from those deep red windows, of course – a sort of ugly boney white. It sat in my overlarge adult hand, unequivocally spoiled but unequivocally there.