Did I ever tell you about how I lost my name for seven years?
The year was 1994, and I was fifteen years old. It was late August, and the long Summer break from high school was finally over. I was glad.
Back into the old routine. I’d get up around 7AM, have a shower, and eat some breakfast in the kitchen while reading the newspaper or a magazine, or maybe watching the morning news with the sound turned down low. I’d wash the cereal bowl, spoon, and mug, then go and brush my teeth. I’d put on my blazer and overcoat, grab my bag (and school scarf if it was cold), then slip out the front doors - both sets - and leave. From waking to leaving, I usually didn’t see anyone. The house remained silent around me.
I’d walk for the five minutes or so it took me to reach the train station, and catch the train into the city. It took about half an hour in total. I’d listen to music the whole way. I alighted at the opposite side of Glasgow, then walked for another ten minutes to school. I’d arrive in plenty of time for Form, or registration. When school finished at 3:45PM - or later, if I had rugby or cricket - I’d repeat the whole process in reverse, arriving home just before five in the evening.
Star Trek: The Next Generation was on TV at five each weeknight, and I’d take my dinner to the living room to watch the episode for an hour. I was usually alone for that too. My mother taught dancing classes in the evenings, and she had her dinner hours later. Afterwards I’d change, and begin my homework in my room. And so on.
I went to a private (fee-paying; independent) high school. Uniform was mandatory at all times. Everything was in school colours, and/or prescribed, right down to the coats, homework diaries, scarves and jumpers. The uniform simplified things. It was a shield of either anonymising conformity or shared identity, depending on the wearer. I had my share of both.
This particular August, on the first day of school, my bag was light. I’d yet to receive the batch of new textbooks I’d end the day with. My pencils were sharp, my notepads were pristine. And I had lost my name.
I was discreetly taken aside by my new Form master, who carefully confirmed with me that I’d no longer be known as Matthew Gemmell. This awkward but mercifully brief conversation was repeated the first time I attended each class that week. None of the staff ever asked why, nor would I have expected them to.
My classmates were a different matter, particularly once roll calls were taken, but their enquiries were frank, curious, and tactful. There was never any teasing. It wasn’t that sort of school.
I was surprised how quickly my new name began to feel normal. How long do you suppose it’d take? If you’re a married woman, you might even be able to offer your own experience on that. Or indeed a married man, these days, as is only right and proper.
A couple of weeks, more or less. There were still occasional slip-ups afterwards, but for the most part, my internal identity changed in just a couple of weeks. Our minds have such astonishing plasticity.
My parents had an acrimonious divorce, of which I’ve written previously. The separation had happened two years before, and in that August of 1994, the latest of many salvos was fired: the surnames of myself and brother were changed to my mother’s maiden name. I would be Matt, or Matthew, Ridley for the next seven years.
You’ll even find some references online, probably. I’m of course not Matt Ridley the 5th Viscount Ridley, author of The Red Queen, Genome, et al - though we did have occasion to converse a few times, since I tended to get email meant for him. I was quicker off the mark to register eponymous domain-names, you see.
None of those online traces existed yet in 1994. As August wore on into September and October, my brother and I simply adjusted.
We saw our father reasonably often: for a few hours, one evening per week on most weeks. He’d pick us up in the car, and we’d go somewhere, depending on the time of year. In Winter, it’d be ten-pin bowling, or very occasionally the cinema. In Summer and Autumn, though, we’d mostly go to the loch.
We’d walk a path around the body of water, again and again, until the light started to fade, and we’d just talk. I say “we” meaning my brother and I; my father mostly listened. I presume he wanted to feel connected.
My general impression is that I prattled on about any old thing, talking eagerly. Desperately, even. In truth, I had very little idea of what to say to him. I think that’s still true today. I don’t know either of my parents very well, as people.
What TV shows do they watch? What newspapers do they read? What music do they listen to?
What time do they each go to bed, in their separate homes? Do they eat breakfast before showering, or afterwards?
What were their dreams, and which ones have embers that still glow?
I have no idea.
Inevitably, it was me who accidentally let it slip about the names. It was inevitable because I was enormously anxious about my father discovering the change. We - my brother and I - had been turned into the delivery system for a weapon of petty vengeance, in a long battle that later cost me three years on medication for depression. It’s a tawdry business.
I later realised that it had to be either myself or my younger brother who would bear the guilt of disclosing that we no longer had my father’s surname, and I’m very, very glad that it was me. And guilt fades, eventually. That particular evening at the loch took place twenty years ago - so perhaps just a few more years now.
I was prattling on again.
It was during one of my recurrent periods of fantasy about the future, naturally fuelled by the escapist optimism of my nightly Star Trek episode. I needed that fictional universe. I spent a large chunk of my high school years dealing with my home life by quietly half-believing that it was all just a program on the holodeck.
The Enterprise loomed large in my mind each night, and on the evening in question, I was talking about its size in a physical sense.
As I recall, I’d been reading the Next Generation Technical Manual (then, as now, I was proud to be a sci-fi nerd), and I’d been struck by the sheer scale of this fictional starship. All due credit to my father: he listened patiently, and my recollection is that he never seemed less than at least passingly interested.
I directed his attention to the cloudless evening sky above the water, describing the spectacle of the vessel if it were hanging there above us at that moment. How incredible it would be to command such a magnificent flagship, with its mission of peace and exploration. How dearly I wished I’d been born at a later stage of our technological evolution, so that I might have that possible destiny.
“Captain Ridley, of the Starship Enterprise.”
With the passing of twenty years, that phrase now has a whimsical but sad beauty to it. What an absurd conclusion to a particularly unpleasant sequence of events. But still effective.
There was a moment of awkward silence. My brother beside me, who was eleven years old, knew exactly what had just taken place. He averted his eyes. I changed the subject quickly, drowning in embarrassment and guilt, and my father allowed me to talk about whatever else I’d come up with - at least for a few minutes.
But then, of course, he had to ask. I like to think he did so because it got everything out in the open, and at least dissolved the awkwardness between himself and us. So the story came out, and on we walked. I don’t recall the rest of the evening, and that Autumn fades into the fog of memory.
Years passed. I finished high school, went abortively to university, left university and worked for Adobe for a while, then decided I wanted to return and get my degree. In the Spring of 2001, I came back to my old haunts, and reapplied to the University of Glasgow - but under a new, old, name.
I told my father that I’d changed it back. I remember being disappointed that he didn’t seem more pleased about it. It took me another year or two to understand that he didn’t want to push either of us to make the change, and that quiet acceptance was the consequence. My brother, after all, kept our mother’s maiden name, and he has it to this day. He was married last month, and his wife now holds that name too.
And so my brother and I don’t share a surname, even though we used to, many years ago. But my father and I - both Matt Gemmell - once again do.
I haven’t asked if it hurt him. Of course it did.
I didn’t pull the trigger, because I suppose that I was the trigger in this analogy, but the guilt - and the shame, on that bright evening at the loch and many afterwards - was and is mine. It’s collateral damage, still echoing down the years, from a war long since buried under the creeping ice floe of the past.
It has a way of disturbing your sense of identity. Like a long-term advanced interrogation technique; the dissolution of the self. Bent one way and then the other, again and again, until steel becomes rubber and then eventually shears off. Two broken ends, with a gap between.
The depersonalisation, and the sense of a completely lost connection to the people around me at that time, is the most troubling aspect. It’s a blank place inside, where other people have bonds and shared experiences instead.
The only thing I can do with it is… well, this. I can tell you, which of course is actually just telling myself. I can write about it, and I can also write about people who don’t exist, as a way to deal with it.
When we fall asleep, our minds create worlds because they can’t bear to be alone in the dark - and that’s what writing is, too. People with a hole inside them find that stories start to form around the edges, piece by piece and layer by layer, in an effort to close it. It doesn’t really work, but we’re powerless to stop trying: it’s an immune response.
We always write in the dark.
Who was Matthew Ridley, for those seven absent years? For that matter, who was the Matthew Gemmell from the distant time before, where my memories are sparse and don’t entirely ring true?
I could try to give you an answer. I’ve been trying to find one myself, for a long time, and I’ll continue to try. I could even make something up.
But just between the two of us?
I have no idea.