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Personal Story: Grief, memory and an old PlayStation game

Our favourite game was a platform adventure called Croc: Legend of the Gobbos. Now that 20-odd years have passed and my friend has died, I dream about Croc

I go to her house after school to play. Sometimes we go to my house, but it's further away, and she has a PlayStation, which I don't yet. The bell rings at four o’clock, and we run to our pegs to collect bags and coats. It’s always summer and her socks are always falling down. Her mum comes to pick us up in a two-door Volkswagen Golf, and as we swing round the Shepherds Bush roundabout we press our palms up against the window and yelp a greeting to the Thames Water Tower, and we don't know why we do it but it's important that we do it every time. We are seven, eight, nine.

We dabble in Theme Park World and Lara Croft: Tomb Raider, but our favourite game is a platform adventure called Croc: Legend of the Gobbos. It’s not a multiplayer game, so we take it in turns. We lie on our stomachs on the floor, close to the screen, and when we get up we’re covered in a film of cat hair. Croc is approximately a crocodile, and his objective is to liberate the Gobbos, orange pom-pom creatures with two eyes and no other facial features, captured by forces of evil. Some parts of the game take place underground in magma chambers, and these are the best bits because the music changes and there are spinning gems to collect. We count out our afternoons in these gems, until her mum chivvies us outside to see the sun for a change. When my own mum comes to collect me, we try to keep her here drinking tea as long as possible, for maximum time hooked to the console. And on the drive home, I look out of the window and imagine Croc bouncing over the garden walls, the shop fronts and bollards alongside our car, and feel furiously jealous that Croc lives in her house, not mine.

Now that 20-odd years have passed and my friend has died, I dream about Croc. In the dreams, I am Croc, scaly and intrepid with my backpack on, and I’m jumping around in the verdant pixelated landscape of Crocland, or wherever it was that Croc lived. I’m collecting the gems, which I have to do because they’re parts of her that have been scattered across the world. If I collect them all, she’ll be complete again.

In the first week after her death, I made a list of all our memories. I sat down in a quiet room and took my time collecting them, while they were as fresh as they would ever be. When I finished the list I cried. It was not enough material from which to rebuild her. I cried because I was afraid of the day I would need this list to remember her by.

This summer, she has been dead for six years. Recently, I had a sudden compulsion to watch a YouTube video called “Croc: Legend of the Gobbos Walkthrough”. I couldn't remember the details of the game, or the villain; time had simplified him into a menacing shape with teeth. I wanted to hear the sounds: the loading music, the glowy ping of a freed Gobbo, a jump’s boing. I think sound is the hardest part of memory to hold on to. One night after she died, I woke up in a rage at the thought that I might forget her honking laugh. The sounds in the video are so familiar: hearing them, I want to have them in my life all the time. But that would take their power away. They wouldn’t remind me of the tangy smell of her jute carpet, the little pots on the mantelpiece or the clunk of her front door.

Here comes the villain. His name is Baron Dante and he looks like a cross between a Viking and a Venus flytrap. I remember that we were actually quite bad at this game. We rarely reached levels high enough to encounter Baron Dante. I’m sad that we never completed Croc: Legend of the Gobbos, because I know that it was once our dream to do so (along with owning every Beanie Baby and seeing the inside of her neighbour’s house). I want to complete it. But I discover that it would cost me £64 to purchase Croc second-hand, not including the price of a vintage PlayStation. Maybe this dream should be laid to rest, too.

Part of the horror of seeing my complete list of our memories was that there were no more memories to be made. Updating situations are the ones that hold our attention with the tightest grip. I feared that now I had the list, I would grow tired of poring over it, and grow apart from her. I realised that Croc held us so rapt because we never completed it. There was always something more to discover, if only we tried hard enough.

So I went looking for her. It’s an old family joke that my dad witnessed our childhoods through a viewfinder. At his flat, there is a trunk of photographs of holidays, birthdays, trips to the park. But his real passion was taking videos. Exhaustive footage exists of my siblings and I putting on our jumpers, brushing our hair, feeding the dog: a faithful record of the every day. A few days before my friend’s funeral, I spent a hot afternoon in the cool of my dad’s flat looking for her in the trunk. There were videotapes (if no longer a machine to play them on), and hordes of photographs. But she wasn’t there. She was, it seems, always dodging around my dad’s camera, just out of frame.

Our shared life came before digital cameras did, before selfies, before social media. When we met as teenagers we met one on one, to catch up and drink sickly Frappuccinos. And so these meetings went un-photographed. Just before Christmas last year I saw a friend for a drink. He was upset because he wished he took more pictures of his friends on a film camera rather than on his phone. He wants to be able to stumble across a box of photographs, in a corner of some unspecified room that’s been given over to storage a decade from now, and remember times, places and people he had forgotten about. You can’t do that with the iPhoto Camera Roll, because they’re there all the time. I teased him for being so sentimental, and said that you can’t manufacture nostalgia. But what I wanted to say was: keep your photographs as close as you can, because that treasure is too precious to bury.

Buried things have a way of working themselves to the surface, though. On Christmas Day I am prone on the sofa eating fudge when my dad comes in with a surprise: he’s had the old videotapes put on DVD, and thought we might like to see them. I pick a disc at random. The machine whirs into life, and there she is. It’s 2001 and we’re dancing to Kylie Minogue’s “Spinning Around”. A month or so later, I get a message from my mum: she’s cleared out some old drawers and found my friend in there, too: some years earlier, sitting on a swing in a fairy dress, toes skimming the woodchip. Her socks are falling down.

The pain of her absence is not so strong these days. Whilst these six years feel like a strangely telescoping length of time, alternately long and short, it’s now the case that she did not die recently. What happens to grief, when it is no longer new? When the dreadful adrenaline dies down and the loss no longer makes your chest burn and tingles panic in the tips of your fingers? Where does all that sadness go? These were questions I felt too afraid to ask, flattened by the first throes of grief at 20. And it does go, in a way. It surprised me that one of the most awful facts of her death wasn’t that I would never be happy again, but the suspicion that I probably would be. That one day, an unimaginable day but an inevitable one, I would wake up and realise that I hadn’t thought of her in weeks. That I would catch myself in the act of dishonouring her memory by getting on with my life as though she was not wrenched from it. Now, six years on, I can see that I predicted rightly. I do not think of her every day. But I know why the Croc dream recurs. We’re not making new memories, but there are traces of her hidden everywhere. I’m still collecting.

The sick fear that I would lose her in her entirety is gone. I wear a ring for her, identical to a ring she used to wear, which I’m told I fiddle with when I’m anxious. I do have some photographs. I have my favourite one of us framed on my bedroom chest of drawers. We are nine, it’s the last day of term and we’ve gone out for a pizza. She’s smiling at the photographer – my dad, it must have been – and I am gurning off to the left, a clutched slice threatening to drop pepperoni down my front. This version of her is part of the furniture of my life, the same version of her who frittered away all those hours in front of the PlayStation with me.  I can still hear her laugh if I try to. And, as it turns out, even watching a teenager in Ohio play a video game on YouTube can bring back all sorts of small details that I hadn’t realised I remembered at all. I think this means that there are more pieces of her, things that aren’t on the list I made, not only in photos and on videos, but stashed away in my memory itself, waiting for some future prompt to reveal them. Maybe the list will never be finished; maybe there is no final completion. And if this is true, then it must also be true that she will never be completely gone.

This article appears in the 21 August 2019 issue of the New Statesman, The great university con