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24 December 2021

The things you remember

At what point does mishearing turn into a false memory? Do we hear and recall what we want to?

By Rebecca White

All the leaves are brown
And the sky is grey   

I turn the car stereo up and sing along loudly. Another south London traffic jam, but I could be anywhere. Mum’s having a CT scan this week. They’ve found “something suspicious” (that old chestnut) in her bowel and they need to investigate.

Well I got down on my knees
And I pretend to pray

My partner, M, chuckles in the passenger seat. “Did you say ‘pretend’? It’s began to pray!”

We laugh. I tell him I’m right. He asks why you’d pretend to pray in a church. “If you’re only in there to get warm,” I say.

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The song takes me back two decades to my second year of university. I’d taken a few of Mum’s old CDs up to Sheffield, including The Very Best of the Mamas and Papas. That wasn’t long before Dad told me about his cancer diagnosis. This should have been an eye-contact, hand-holding conversation, not an over-the-phone conversation. But there we were. I was sitting cross-legged on my bed, eyes fixed on the bedroom door that I’d painted. It was the colour of raw egg yolk. It’s funny the things you remember, and the things you don’t.

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I was on my knees that year, but I couldn’t pray. Praying without faith is just wishing, right? So I wished and wished, and hoped against hope. Many months later, when he was very sick, Dad asked me if I believed in anything else, after all this earthly stuff is over. I nodded emphatically. “Of course. Don’t you?”

You know the preacher likes the cold
He knows I’m gonna stay

I’m convinced M has got the lyrics wrong again. He thinks the preacher “lights the coals”, much to my amusement.

“Since when are churches heated by coal?!” I joke. He reminds me it’s a cold winter’s day and that it’s the least the preacher can do. We’re laughing again. 

There’s a word for this. There has been since 1954, but somehow I only came across it a few weeks ago. “Mondegreen: A misunderstood or misinterpreted word or phrase resulting from a mishearing of song lyrics.”

At what point does mishearing turn into a false memory? Like when I “remember” being somewhere I can only possibly know from family photos. Do we hear and recall what we want to? What we’re able to? It’s true that some of my memories from that year at university are distorted, and I’m thankful for that. Though I definitely painted my bedroom door with my new housemates. And Dad definitely died.

I crawl through the hilly streets of Lewisham, and I think about the steeper ones I climbed in Sheffield all those years ago, longing to be somewhere else, somewhere safe and warm. Next time I see Mum I’ll return her CD and ask about the lyrics. I’m pretty sure she’ll get them right.

The song ends in time with the tick, tick, tick of my indicator, as I wait at the traffic lights.

All the leaves are brown
And the sky is grey.

Rebecca White is supported by A Writing Chance, a UK-wide project from New Writing North designed to discover new writers from underrepresented backgrounds whose voices have historically not been heard in publishing and the media. You can read work by other writers in this initiative here.

A Writing Chance is co-funded by Michael Sheen and the Joseph Rowntree Foundation and supported by the New Statesman and the Daily Mirror. The project is delivered by New Writing North and literature organisations nationally, with research from Northumbria University.