Of what was and isn’t there

A time machine of sorts, a teleportation device – the smell is home, the wind is a well-loved car, and the lights are your first real kiss.

When a limb is removed, it takes a while before the brain realises something has gone. Science tells us that although it isn’t there, the mind is under the illusion that it still is; the mind goes through a denial of sorts. When an amputee wakes up, the missing limb tingles—it tingles, it feels!—and the heart stutters for a fraction of a second before it realises nothing is there, except the ghost of arms or legs, the dregs of nerve signals misfiring and rebounding. These signals are painful, and sting with the knowledge that they’re not real.

They are aptly named phantom pains.

The smell is home, but home is far; the wind is a well-loved car but the car is worn and rusty, falling apart in the garage of a far-away home; the lights are your first real kiss, but they’re gone and it’s dark, though still a little warm. They belong to a past longed for, a future doomed to be forever only remembered. It is real but not quite—strands of gossamer dancing in the wind, slipping through fingers—the face of an old former friend—the words of a story told once upon a bed of youth, and bliss—a missed limb.

So many stories have been spun around conception and what happens when man and woman come together and create. There are a multitude of truths, but perhaps most important – and most easily disregarded – is this: that the child that is conceived is not only itself. It is one parent’s strength and the other’s gentleness, one’s quick wit and the other’s careful thought.

It is its father, and its mother, and its own.

A child asks its mother, not for the first time and not for the last, during school Family Day: where is my father? The mother answers with a poignant shake of her head. All around the child are foes and friends and fathers. Fathers! The child marvels at the word, as well as the small knot in its chest that tingles when it looks around and sees clearly what makes it so different from the rest of the other children.

A time machine, a teleportation device, a way to go back in time—most people say these things have yet to be made, or that they can never materialise, at least not in this age. Some think they’re wrong, that they’re real, and that we’re all looking in the wrong places.

Where is my father, it asks again a few years later, not for the first time but perhaps for the last. The mother answers with a smile that does not reach her eyes, and with the child’s sigh of concession the tingling in its chest disappears.

But sometimes the child wakes, and its heart leaps like it missed a step going down the stairs. There is something there, something inside where nothing had ever been. Perhaps it is the ghost of arms, or legs—or knots in chests from family days long thought buried—or homes and cars and lights, or—nothing. Perhaps it is really nothing.

Certain smells and tastes and places and faces and feelings have the power to transport us to the past. Their powers are so strong that sometimes they carry us to an exact place in time where everything is painted with disarming clarity and vividness: you remember the weather and the faces of strangers around you, what you wore then, the lingering taste of coffee in your mouth from your breakfast with a friend in a café round the corner, still there in your peripherals.

Their powers are so strong that sometimes it takes its toll—and it is an expensive, unforgiving one that leaves us reeling from an unseen punch to the gut, leaves us with a hole in our stomach that no-one ever sees but everyone knows exists.

It is real but not quite—strands of gossamer dancing in the wind, slipping through fingers —the words of a story told once upon a bed of youth, and bliss—

A missing limb…

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