Sunday, 28 August 2011

When a good memory is bad news

An excellent memory is a real blessing. A memory that's merely good, on the other hand, can turn into a curse.

My memory is good enough for me not to have to write down quite a few things. Dates of appointments, for instance. Or of course PINs. And most of the time that’s fine, but the difference beetween a good memory and an excellent one, is that every now and then a good memory lets you down.

Because it’s good, I rely on it, so when it fails, I’m in trouble.

The first time was in a supermarket a couple of years ago. I’d picked a bad time to go. All the checkouts were packed. I queued for ages and it was with a real sense of relief that I got to the front. As the woman on the till was ringing up my purchases, I was doing the good shopper thing and packing them neatly into bags, and moving them into my trolley.

‘How will you be paying?’ she asked me.

‘By card,’ I said, proud that I’d already got the plastic out ready to stuff into the reader.  I’m not one of those people who leave it to the last moment to get ready to pay and then have to spend minutes searching for a card they can no longer remember where they put. I’m ready in plenty of time.

And then came the moment of ghastly truth. I keyed in my PIN with complete confidence: ‘Code Incorrect’ the machine rudely and inexplicably told me.

Of course, I’d reversed two numbers. I tried again with them the other way around. Same result.

Behind me the queue was getting longer and longer. Everyone was wearing the expression of people who are making a major effort not to let their expressions reveal their irritation, but I could read their minds. ‘Come on, you moron,’ they were thinking, ‘get it right and get out of the way.’

I tried a third combination of numbers and my card was blocked.

Fortunately, the supermarkets are used to this kind of incident and a well-oiled machine went straight into operation. The trolley was wheeled to one side and I was allowed to go outside and kick my heels in the car park until, as inexplicably as it had vanished, the PIN returned to me. I seized the moment to draw some cash so that I could settle up without relying any further on my card. Or my memory.

Last week the same thing happened to me. I was introducing a colleague to the delights of Indian cooking in Luton. My favourite restaurant serves food which is extraordinarily good and stupidly cheap. Unfortunately, crazy technological gimmicks like card readers have passed them by. I stopped at an ATM to get some cash.

A potentially daunting sight

And the blasted PIN gap opened up in my memory again.

This time it took a very particular form. I couldn’t remember the position of one particular digit out of the four. I was convinced it was the last, but that didn’t work.

‘Of course,’ I remarked to my colleague, lightly, ‘just got the figures out of order.’ I tried again with the renegade digit in second place but with no better luck.

‘That’s funny,’ I commented, sounding less confident, ‘I can’t imagine what’s happening.’

I tried with it in third position.

That was it. Card blocked.

‘Why don’t I pay?’ my colleague asked. She was being polite and generous, not at all suggesting that I was cutting a pitiful figure. But I felt pitiful. However, given that I had little choice, I just nodded glumly and she paid. Which made it hard for me to play to the role I was rather relishing, that of the welcoming host.

The PIN, as usual, came back to me a couple of hours later. And in a new humiliation for my fallible memory, I had to recognise that I could have searched for ever for the position of that awkward digit. It doesn’t actually appear anywhere in the code.

No comments: