by Jo Withers

After their mother left when the children were toddlers, I erased her from their memories completely and replaced her with Olivia Newton John.

Everything was digital by then and people had crazy busy lives. We downloaded memories from our overworked brains and stored them offsite in virtual clouds just like everything else we had no need to access all the time. Government research suggested that keeping our heads free of constant sentiment and regressive emotional triggers made us more efficient and less prone to mental breakdowns.

The girls were still young though, they loved accessing early childhood footage, just like I loved leafing through old photo albums at their age. They kept microchip sets by their bed so they could pull their files to re-watch at their leisure. Sometimes, I’d go to tuck them in at night and they’d be hugging their tablet under the covers as reruns of their baby days played on screen. Initially, I was just going to tweak them a bit, but Olivia Newton John was so easy to work with and portrayed such a perfect mother, I went a bit overboard.

I bought the basic package with Olivia because it was all I could afford back then, before their mother’s life insurance kicked in and we were comfortable. Olivia wasn’t making movies anymore and the kids had no idea who she was. Due to her super green lifestyle, she still only looked late thirties, so she was a good fit for their mother. I intended to just blur their old mum out a bit and take lots of shots from behind, things she’d been too busy to do with them in real life—baking, making daisy chains—but in the end, I went the whole hog and wiped their mother out completely. They were so young they never knew the difference.

We filmed about fifteen hours of footage over three days. The actual shooting was a hoot. Olivia’s a breeze to work with, she’s just like that candy sweet girl from Grease in real life. She breaks into song unexpectedly too, which I had to reel in a bit, their mother was more Cruella de Vil than Mary Poppins so I had to keep it within the bounds of reality.

We collected enough material to span the twelve years I’d known their mother up until the day she left. We made little montages—me and Olivia meeting for the first time, me and Olivia flirting and getting to know each other, our first date, the day I proposed, little clips I could share with the children later.

My best work was the footage of the day their mother left. When I explained to Olivia how their mother walked out when the children were one and three, she held my hand and sobbed then sang an epic ballad on love and loss—we had to completely redo her makeup before we recorded the scene. She said she’d do anything she could to sugarcoat their memories of that day.

I filmed it perfectly, it’s early evening and the day’s last sun is hitting through the kitchen skylight, shooting champagne streaks through Olivia’s bouncy blonde bob as she warms hot milk for bedtime. Suddenly, the phone rings. Olivia picks it up and seconds later, she’s in tears, milk frothing over in the pot. She puts the phone down and turns to face the camera, all wrinkly nose and soulful eyes—there’s been an earthquake in Tibet, they need her to go and round up orphans and injured animals, she must leave now, while there’s still time. She hugs me, tells me to tell the children she loves them, that she is going to build a better world for us to share.

That was our last scene. We shook hands, Olivia pocketed a wad of cash and I set to work photo-shopping her into all of our memories.

Now, the girls are seven and nine, two beautifully adjusted young women who know that they are loved and want to grow up to be just like their selfless mother who sacrificed her life with them to save their future.

Of course, the new memories of Olivia also helped with my own trauma after their mother left. For years I couldn’t think about her, but now I can happily watch the footage from that day.

I walk in again, find her frantically packing upstairs, saying she’s serious this time, she’s going to take the girls and get as far away as she can. There’s the slightest flicker of colour, a blood splatter of tiny red spots to the left of the screen that I couldn’t edit out smoothly no matter how hard I tried, then Olivia’s there instead, unpacking the case, plumping the pillows on the bed, saying she’ll fetch tea, telling me a nice hot bath will fix everything.

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