Alan Muir: Close encounters of the unreliable memory kind

I've always considered memory unreliable '“ a shifting sand of subjection and blurred vision '“ and a recent visit to the shop Home Bargains confirmed my diagnosis.
Shopping trips made hazardous by meeting a possible acquaintanceShopping trips made hazardous by meeting a possible acquaintance
Shopping trips made hazardous by meeting a possible acquaintance

I was shopping for instant cappuccinos (my tastebuds are aspirational middle class but my wallet cannot back them up) when a woman in her early 60s cried out: “Alan – it’s you!”

She greeted me with utter certainty and gave me a hug. She smelled of mints, nicotine and Britain’s Got Talent.

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I was flummoxed but – against my own will – instantly snapped into autopilot. I smiled disturbingly and asked: “How’s the family?”

While she chuntered away about getting a new ring and switching jobs I tried desperately to place her. She said she almost didn’t recognise me in a suit. I laughed and – dear God – even grasped her hand briefly to suggest that her anecdote was so funny that it had temporarily robbed me of speech.

I was torn between the urge to end the prattle and the crushing fear of making a mistake and hurting someone’s feelings – even a potential stranger’s feelings.

She continued to reminisce – like a grey, permed Terminator she simply wouldn’t be stopped – regaling me with locations, life events and people which seemed distantly familiar but not enough to be sure.

It was like trying to identify someone through opaque glass – I could tell that it was human, but beyond that she was just a shape – could be Kate Middleton, could be Mrs Brown. I rifled through mugshots of relatives, parental friends and distant associates as she talked about going to Asda with Jimmy. “You remember Jimmy, don’t you, Alan?”

I suddenly thought – I am related to this woman – absurdly returning to her repeated use of my name and her utter certainty as proof.

Then she asked: “How is Briony?” We both stood still – staring at each other in a cloud of embarrassment so pungent it was very nearly visible.

Her: “You’re not him.” Me (apologetically): “No, no I’m not.” Her: “I was wondering why you were wearing a suit.” Me (apropos of nothing): “Ha ha ha.”

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She then muttered “It’s been a long day – I’m tired” and we queued up to be served in shame. She continued to apologise – her sorrys eventually petering out into an awkward silence.

For some reason I then shouted: “He must be handsome – this Alan guy.” That was followed by another embarrassing silence that drew out like Last of the Summer Wine on Mogadon. Without even turning round she said: “No comment.”

We then waited an insanely long time to be served – at the end of which her card was declined and I tried desperately to fold my body into itself to escape.

Yes, memory is unreliable, but life can always be relied upon to offer strange encounters, even if they are sometimes at Home Bargains.

Alan Muir lives in Cumbernauld. He tweets as @alanmuir74 and blogs at