Every year they take more. It started with small things. The memory of a laugh, a meal, a kiss. Last year I traded away a birthday party. It was nothing special, really. A few friends. And a few work colleagues masquerading as friends. A decent meal—Korean barbecue—and some bad karaoke—“Mr. Brightside.” I knew that I could have traded away less, but, like I said, my twenty-sixth birthday was barely worth remembering anyway. Plus, my father had just been diagnosed with dementia so I was paying the Tax for both of us. Baba can’t afford to trade away any more memories, he’s barely holding on to the ones he has.
When you go out, Baba’s propped up on the sofa wearing his favourite grey cardigan. The one Mama knitted for him with the big pockets. You can hear the nurse in the kitchen humming under her breath whilst she makes him his morning coffee. Baba lights up one of his horrible black-and-gold-tipped cigarettes and gestures at the flickering television. The news. The London skyline, or what’s left of it. The space elevator up to the mothership.
“You know this science fiction is going to rot your brain, Ahmed,” he tells you in Egyptian-flavoured Arabic. “Anyway, shouldn’t you be revising? How can you expect to get into a good Uni if you don’t revise, ya ibni?”
You—twenty-eight years old, long-haired and scraggly bearded—look at him and wonder, What does he see when he looks at me? You think, Yes, he was right, I wish I had revised more. I wish I had listened.
“Keep moving!” the steward shouts at us as we shuffle along in the queue towards the Tax Office. I avoid his eye—a policeman’s roving eye. The sky is grey above us, a British sky, on the verge of raining or sunshine or both. Beside me, snug in his favourite red puffer jacket, Johann gives the copper the evils and huffs, “Filth!” Because the Crablegs might have disbanded the government and set up the Conservatorship, but the police are still the police even in the post-apocalypse.
I wish I could say that there was some great human resistance. That we put aside our racism and sexism and all our other isms to unite as brothers and sisters and fight off the alien invaders. But that’s not what happened. After it was made clear, abundantly clear, that our guns and tanks, our fighter jets and nukes, might as well have been sticks and stones, we rolled over. Not as individuals or cities, governments or countries, but as a species. The Crablegs had us outgunned. And they didn’t want to wipe us out and terraform our planet. They weren’t trying to steal our natural resources, or implant us with their embryos, or turn humanity into slave labour.
They just wanted our memories.
So, last year it was a birthday party. Or, more specifically, a shitty mug that my library colleagues got me for that birthday which said, “Kiss the Librarian.” That’s how it works in the Conservatorship. The Crablegs can’t just reach into your mind and pluck out what they want. They need a conduit, an item to latch onto. You have to offer them something physical—a memento that they can take and keep.
Those huge mounds they’ve created in the heart of every city? The Anthills? They’re underground caverns full of billions of worthless trinkets. Mementos from old jobs, old trips, old relationships.
It’s strange how memories work. You can’t just take one out without affecting the rest. No, memories are like those out-of-date power cables in the top drawer of your kitchen cabinet, all tangled up together.
Hand over one crappy novelty mug that is too small to even contain a decent cuppa and who knows what else you’ll lose? Give up memories of one uneventful birthday party and who knows what else disappears with it? In my case, it was a band—Pixies. Because Johann was there that night and we sang “Velouria.”
So, three weeks after the Tax and you’re driving down to Bethnal Green to grab a bite to eat and he puts on “Where is my mind?” expecting a good old singsong and you say, “Whoa, is this new? This band is nice.” And then you see the pitying look in his eye and realise, “Oh, shit. This is a memory lost.”
Johann and I shuffle along in the queue, grumbling about how long it’s taking. Each year it feels like the queue gets longer. I look up and up at Lunar House, this concrete homage to 1970s brutalism. It used to be the headquarters for the UK’s Immigration Authority before the Memory Tax Office took it over. My father used to have to come here once a year to renew his Leave to Remain. Now, it’s my turn. Baba’s watch is a familiar weight on my wrist. I do my best not to wonder what I’m going to lose when I give it up. But I have no choice. It’s the only way to get us both back to Cairo in time. International travel permits are expensive when you’re living in the end of the world.
Baba toots the horn of his car and you rush out to greet him, your little bare feet slapping on the driveway. He calls you Amir—Prince—and Habibi—Beloved—and ruffles your hair. He lets you take his work bag from him and you huff and puff as you carry it inside. He kisses Mama hello and then takes out his wallet and car keys and places them in the teal ceramic bowl that Mama bought from Ridley Road Market that time. Then he takes off his watch and places it safe and snug under the flat of his wallet. The watch that belonged to his father. The watch that will one day belong to you. Big friendly white numbers against a black background. An ancient brown leather strap and a cheerful tick tick tick.
Still, there are upsides to all those memories lost. I got to experience the Pixies for the first time again. Johann and I went to see them live at Leeds earlier this year. I bought a tour T-shirt to memorialise the occasion. In the post-apocalypse, mementos are big business.
“Achmed!” A smartly-dressed guy walking out of the Tax Office stops and scrutinises me. “Is that you?”
Ugh, I hate that.
It’s pronounced Ah-med. Yeah, it’s Arabic, but there’s not a single syllable in there that doesn’t exist in the English language. There’s no reason for you to clear your throat in the middle of my name, thank you very much.
“Do I know you, bruv?” I ask.
After five years of an annual memory tax, that question is not as rude as it once might have been. Once upon a time, that question would have been a prelude to a scrap. Now, it’s just standard procedure. This guy’s about my age, or maybe a little younger. White guy. Blonde hair. Brown eyes. He looks like anybody. I glance at Johann who gives me a baffled look back.
“It’s me, Oliver. We worked together at Avalon a few years ago?” He’s gazing at me hopefully now.
Oh, Avalon. Yeah, I remember that. Or at least, I remember why I don’t remember it. Avalon was one of a series of dead-end office jobs I worked right after Uni. Was it any wonder I chose to pay it out in the Tax? I’m just lucky that I worked there long enough to accrue a memento to pay out.
I hold up a finger, telling Oliver to wait, and then take out my notebook from my satchel and skip to the work section. Ah, here it is:
Avalon. August 2032 to February 2033. Big building behind Euston. Commute is a bitch. Boss is John Mulvaney. SOB. Team leader is Krisztina Kovac. Hot. You mostly hang out with Tito Mendes and Rahul Singh. Work is a drudge. Data entry. Leaving card.
I give a silent thanks to the innate politeness of the British office. Six months gets me a leaving card saying, “Good luck at your next job, Achmed,” which I can subsequently trade in for tax credits and all I lose are a few memories that I didn’t need anyway. It’s lucky that I kept that card, really. Being a pack rat has its benefits. I think of all the memories I have that are not connected to any memento. The good news? You can’t lose those memories. The bad news? You can’t lose those memories.
“Sorry, bruv,” I tell Oliver, “Paid it out.”
He gives me an understanding little nod of the head.
“Are you still there?” I ask him. “Avalon?”
“Yep. Just got promoted,” he tells me smugly.
“Congratulations. What about Tito Mendes and Rahul Singh?”
Yeah, I ask after my work friends even when I don’t remember them. That’s just the kind of guy I am.
“Tito left a few months after you. Rahul is still there, but they moved him over to Accounts.”
“Well, say hello to him from me,” I say.
We stand there awkwardly for a few moments before Oliver kind of shrugs and holds out his hand. “Take care of yourself Achmed.”
I shake his hand and manage not to roll my eyes. “You too, Oliver.”
After Oliver leaves, Johann bumps me with his shoulder and makes a snorting noise in the back of his throat. “Achhhhmed.”
“Ugh, stop that,” I warn him. “Or I’m going to start calling you Joe-han.”
Johann promptly stops because in the mispronouncing of names game, he and I are in the same boat.
When Louisa finally turns up, we’re shuffling along in the queue and I’m expounding on my theory that Arsenal’s new striker has obviously paid out some football-related memories resulting in him forgetting how to pass the ball properly. While she’s kissing Johann hello like he’s a soldier who’s returned from the front instead of someone she saw a few hours ago, I surreptitiously take out a silver signet ring from my pocket and place it on my little finger. It’s got an Aqiq stone, very traditional, which I turn to face my inside palm. I bought it from an Asian jeweller in Leyton a month after Johann and Louisa started dating. When they inevitably break up, I’ll use it to pay that year’s tax. After Louisa is finished sucking on Johann’s bottom lip, she turns to me, flicking her hair out with both hands, and gives me the stink eye.
“Sarah says you stood her up last night!”
“I didn’t stand her up,” I correct, officiously, “I cancelled on her.”
“Same difference,” she scoffs.
“I cancelled last week. If she actually went to the restaurant to get stood up, that’s hardly my fault, is it?”
The Memory Tax is not the only thing that’s changed under the Conservatorship. When the Crablegs came, they wrecked all our satellites in orbit. So, no more mass communication. No mobile phones. No text messages. No Facebook. No Twitter. Alright, actually, in some ways, it’s an improvement.
Whatever I have going on with Sarah is not going to work out anyway. If everything goes according to plan, I’ll be out of here by next week. And I can’t be sure when I’ll be back. Long-distance relationships are not a thing under the Conservatorship. You need mass communication for that.
Johann glances down at the ring on my little finger and frowns. It’s a visible reminder that I don’t think his relationship with Louisa will last.
“So,” Louisa holds out a pair of spangly earrings, “I’m getting rid of an ex. What about you guys?”
Johann pulls out a cheerful-yellow cardboard origami crane from his pocket. I’ve got its twin on a shelf at home, but red. Like I said, mementos are big business in the new world. You can’t go out to dinner these days without the restaurant handing you some trinket to memorialise the occasion. “Skydiving last summer,” he tells her.
Johann and I did it explicitly to stock up on new memories. Johann hated every second of it. He thought he was going to die. Hence him paying out those memories now. I quite liked it, so I’m keeping mine. Actually, there’s another reason I’m keeping those memories. Johann and I have an unofficial agreement never to trade away the same memory. That way we can act as control for each other.
Louisa turns to me and I shake out my wrist and grandly present my father’s watch. It’s actually my grandfather’s watch. I’ve worn it every day since Baba could no longer be trusted with it. And before that, he wore it every day since Gedo gave it to him. Like both of them, I’m left-handed so I wear it on my right wrist. I haven’t quite gotten used to the weight of it. And now, I never will.
Gedo died when you were just a boy. A big man in an impossibly white gallabiyah with sad eyes and a scratchy moustache. A booming laugh. The taste of Eid sweets in your mouth and the sound of the pigeons that lived on the roof of his apartment block. You visited him in Cairo when you were five but your memories of that time are fragments.
“Wow,” Louisa says, puffing out her cheeks in an exaggerated, impressed face. “Do you think that will buy you enough credit to get your travel permits?”
Of course, Johann has told her everything.
“Yes,” I say, confident because this is not just some cheap trinket, some fly-by-night memento to memorialise a work leaving do or a one-night stand. This watch is an honest-to-goodness family heirloom.
• • •
Inside, the stewards direct me out of the queue and towards the lifts. Normally, it’s just lines and tellers like the post office. But I’m about to receive the personal touch. Before I go, Johann and I awkwardly regard each other in the Tax Office lobby. I hold out a hand for a shake. He takes it and pulls me into a bro hug.
“Catch you outside?”
“See you there,” I promise.
Upstairs, they put me in an inconspicuous private room. A desk. Two chairs. A potted plant. I pull a little Moon Knight Funko Pop out of my bag and place it on the desk in front of me. For the past three years, I’ve brought this little guy with me every time I’ve paid the memory tax. One day, I will pay him out too.
A senior steward with a forgettable face comes in. Middle-aged. He’s got greying hair and a hangdog expression.
“You can call me Mr. Jones,” he says.
Of course, Mr. Smith would be too obvious.
“Tea? Coffee?” Mr. Jones offers.
“Tea with milk,” I tell him because who in their right mind is going to pass up the chance to have a cuppa in the Tax Office? I’m going to dine out on this one. I don’t know what I’m going to do with myself if they bring biscuits!
Mr. Jones murmurs, “Two teas,” into the phone and then switches on the computer in front of him. There’s an ethernet cable plugged into the back and I feel a moment of deep envy as he scrolls through my file. The internet. Just another thing we’ve lost. It’s crazy to think that just a few years ago, you could go online with a few clicks and find out anything, communicate with anyone. I think of all my Reddit karma points with a sigh.
“Ahmed Allam?” he confirms. And, of course, Mr. Jones pronounces my name perfectly. He even pronounces the “ayn” in Allam correctly, vomiting up that pharyngeal vocoid from the back of his throat like last night’s dinner. I peg him immediately as some ex-Foreign Office apparatchik. He probably speaks better Arabic than me.
“That’s my name. Don’t wear it out.”
Mr. Jones frowns at me. He must not be a Grease fan. He squints at the screen in front of him. “Last year you paid out a birthday. Your twenty-sixth. Hmm, you paid for both you and your father? Oh, diagnosed with dementia. My condolences.”
“It says here you have some credit left over?”
That’s right, I had been planning on moving into a bigger place. Of course, then Baba was diagnosed and I moved back home.
Some anonymous underling comes in with the tea. No bikkies? What a shame. For a moment, I’m busy, stirring in milk and sugar and then taking that careful first sip.
“So … this time it’s an heirloom?” he says eventually.
I hold out my right hand, flashing Gedo’s watch.
“How many times do I have to tell you?” Baba asks angrily.
He snatches the watch from you and buckles it back on his own wrist. Your face stings where he smacked you.
“I was just trying it on.” Your voice comes out sulky.
“It’s not a toy!”
You angrily wipe the tears from your face with the heel of your hand. You knew this would happen. You did it anyway. Honestly, what is wrong with you?
“One day this watch will be yours,” Baba tells you with finality. “But not today.”
“A watch?” Mr. Jones exclaims. “May I appraise it?”
Mr. Jones pushes a see-through plastic box across the table. I pick up Moon Knight—it’s Mr. Knight if you want to get technical, the suit and the batons are a dead giveaway—and hold him as I undo the watch for the last time and place it carefully in the box. It’s the same reassuring clock face I’ve been looking down at for the past few months, but I’ve replaced the brown leather strap with a new metal one. Mr. Jones doesn’t blink as I pass the watch in one hand, Funko Pop in the other. Everyone does this nowadays.
Mr. Jones scans the watch with his mem-reader, careful not to touch it himself. He makes an impressed face when he sees the reading. He passes the box back to me and I take and hold the watch, but don’t put it back on.
He adjusts the little camera on his desk to get me in shot. “So, tell me a story?”
I don’t know if they actually need the stories we give up. Surely, the mementos themselves and the memories they hold are more potent than these rambled rememberings? But maybe those memories are just for the Crablegs. For the lowly humans who work for them, well, you need a classification system. I’m a librarian, I know these things.
I grip Mr. Knight as I tell my story.
“My grandfather’s name was Ali Allam. In 1967, at twenty years old, he was conscripted into the Egyptian army as a private. Right when Nasser made the genius decision to launch the Six-Day War.” In Arabic, that war is called Al-Neksa–The Setback. No wonder. Instead of reclaiming Arab land in Israel, it was a straight defeat resulting in Israel claiming even more land. “His battalion was captured by the IDF and he was held for about a week as a POW. The conditions were horrible. Out in the open desert. Not enough food. Morale low. On the last day, right before the Israelis let them go, one of the IDF sergeants swapped watches with him.”
I tap the watch with a fingernail. Mr. Jones is eyeing me with interest and I do my best to look at him, not at the camera recording me.
“My grandfather didn’t know why. His watch was some Egyptian make. Did this IDF sergeant want a trophy? If so, he didn’t need to give him his watch in trade. My grandfather was in no position to refuse. Anyway, Gedo gets this watch on the same day that he’s released. He takes that as a good omen, views this watch as a good luck charm and starts wearing it every day. He was wearing this watch six years later when he, a sergeant himself now, led his infantry company over the red line to reclaim the Sinai Peninsula.”
That one’s called the Yom Kippur War, although Egyptians call it Harb October–the October War. Our apartment in Egypt is in Setta Oktobar—Sixth of October—a city built to memorialise the commencement of that war. A national memento.
“When my father emigrated to Britain in the noughties, Gedo gave him this watch as a going-away present. My father wore this watch every day since then. He worked. He married. He built a life, had a kid.” I point two thumbs at myself. “Last year, when my father was diagnosed with dementia, he gave it to me. And that’s the story of Gedo’s watch.”
“Three generations?” Mr. Jones says. “Very nice. Very nice indeed.” And then he hits me with the serious face and asks, “Do you know what happens when you pay out an heirloom?”
“I’m losing my memory,” Baba tells you in a tremulous voice.
It’s been a bad day. The worst day you can think of since Mama died. The stewards finally found him, wandering the streets, lost. The corner shop is less than five minutes away. It’s the same place it has always been. How could he get lost going to the corner shop?
“We’re all losing our memories, Baba,” you tell him. It’s been four years of the Conservatorship. Isn’t it strange what you can get used to?
“No!” he tells you, voice sharp. “We’ve both been pretending that this isn’t happening. But it is. Sometimes I’m alright, but sometimes I forget things.”
“So, while I remember, here take this.” He hands you Gedo’s watch. “Look after it. I’m proud of you, ya ibni.”
You take the watch and put it on, ignoring the tears on your face.
“Paying out an heirloom is different than paying out a memento,” Mr. Jones warns. “I know,” I assure him.
I’ve done my research. Paying out an heirloom will mean losing more memories—deeper memories, older ones. The types of memories that aren’t just things that happened, but reasons why you are the way you are. The bedrock of you. Paying out this watch could mean changing who I am forever.
“Why do you need so many tax credits?” Mr. Jones finally asks. “What are you planning to spend all this on?”
“Two international travel permits.”
He winces at that. Now he gets it.
“How long has your father got?”
“Months, not years.”
“I understand,” he nods. And I feel like he does. It’s strange. I’m sitting in a faceless government office dealing with an anonymous government bureaucrat—Mr. Jones, really?—but there is a human being hiding behind all that red tape.
“Are you sure about this?” he asks in a low voice.
The answer: No, not really. But what choice do I have? Baba wants to go home. He wants to see Egypt again before he dies. And when he dies, he wants to be buried in Egypt’s soil. Our family has a tomb in Cairo’s City of the Dead. Gedo is there. Amo Abbas. All the Allams. Now, I can get him there, I know that. But the only thing that I have that can pay for it is Gedo’s watch. Paying it out means losing a mess of memories associated with it. Will I, minus those memories, understand the decision I, plus those memories, am making here and now?
Well, only one way to find out. But before I head down to the basement, I write a little note to myself.
• • •
You take the lift ride down and down and down. You are alone and the lift shudders and groans as it makes its descent. You said basement, but this is far too deep for that. This part is the same as last year, and the years before that. You hold Gedo’s watch, now labelled and locked away in a perspex box, in both hands. You’ve left your satchel upstairs, your diary, Mr. Knight, anything and everything of worth. What happens next?
You can’t know. Nobody can.
We call them Crablegs because—well, I’m not entirely sure why. There’s some kind of belief that the Conservators look like crabs. Big alien crabs. We can’t make memories in their presence so nobody is really sure who they are, what they look like. We can see their ships, their war machines, their Anthills, and their space elevators. But nobody knows what they are. The only thing we do know is that everybody makes this journey, this descent, clutching their memories to them. And when we come back up, those memories are gone.
The lift doors open.
• • •
• • •
The lift doors close.
“Am I still me?”
The perennial question on the long ride up. I look at my reflection in the mirrored back-wall of the lift. My reflection looks back, nonplussed.
Back in the office, I grab my stuff and prepare to head out. The steward, some old boy dressed all in grey, hands me my paperwork and holds out a hand. Nonplussed, I shake his hand and he tells me, “Take as much time as you like to reorient yourself, Mr. Allam,” before leaving. He even pronounced my name correctly. I sit down and take out my notebook. A timeline of my life. Jobs. Girlfriends. Little notes to myself. I flip to the last page. Ah, here it is, just where I thought it would be:
Gedo’s watch? I don’t remember Gedo’s watch, obviously. Actually, I don’t remember Gedo at all. Did I even meet him? I’ve visited Cairo dozens of times but Gedo died long before then. Or are those memories I’ve sacrificed to get Baba and me to Egypt? Yes, I’ve been fretting on that one. Well, apparently Past Ahmed has solved that problem for me.
Johann and Louisa are leaning on a wall together outside the Tax Office, passing a cigarette back and forth. The grey skies have broken and the sun is peeking through. I angle my walk so that I’ll pass in front of them, but don’t look directly at them.
“Ahmed,” Johann says as I near.
“Do I know you, bruv?” I ask him in a belligerent tone of voice.
His face is a picture. Beside him, Louisa gasps.
“That’s not fucking funny,” he tells me.
“That’s because you can’t see your face, mate.”
“You arsehole!” Johann mock punches me in the shoulder, but it’s harder than it needs to be. I think I actually scared him. “Are you alright?” he asks.
And how do I answer that question? How can I even begin to answer it?
“I feel fine,” I say. Which is true. “You guys?”
Johann and Louisa feel fine, too. Whatever they do to us, it doesn’t hurt. I almost wish that it would. Whatever memories I traded away are gone. It might be nice if there was some memory of those memories. A blank spot so I could estimate the size and weight of what I gave up. A scar I can measure and appraise that screams, “Oof, looks like I paid out some primo memories this year!” But that’s not how it works.
I walk Johann and Louisa to the entrance of the tube. Johann and I make plans for the weekend. There’s an awkwardness in the air, not just between me and Johann but between him and Louisa, between everybody and everybody. The post-tax hangover, the papers call it. Everybody looks at everybody else out of unsure eyes. Do I still feel the same way about them? Do they still feel the same way about me? And if I don’t, have I changed or have they? It’s exhausting, honestly. I’m glad when I can say goodbye.
In some ways, the Memory Tax is more merciful. Dementia is a far crueller mistress. Baba can sense what he is missing. On his bad days, the days when he is lost in time, even on those days I am not a complete stranger to him. Some part of him knows that he should know me. On his good days—well, his good days are even worse. On those days, Baba knows what is happening to him, he is aware that his mind is betraying him. On days like that, I stay with him as he pours out his memories. He speaks of his childhood in Cairo, of moving to a foreign country, meeting Mama. He offers up his own memories for me to remember and I sit and listen, making sure that I’m not wearing the same clothes as last time, not wearing or holding anything that could be traded away. When Baba dies, it will be just me. And I will be the only thing left to prove that he and Mama were here—a living memento.
When I finally reach home, I stand outside our front door for a minute, plucking up the courage to go in. I turn the key in the lock and hear the familiar creak as the door opens. I need to oil the hinges. I remember that. And I remember remembering it.
“Baba,” I say from the hallway, “I’m home.”