My novel, The Unravelling, begins with Karen Rothwell driving home from work on a miserable night. An apple drops from her bag and rolls into a gutter. That is enough to spark memories of a girl she hasn’t thought about for 35 years.
I don’t think I have been blocking out any memories, all these years, but then, of course, if I had, I wouldn’t know. But I do know how random sights, sounds and smells can bring memories back to life with a suddenness that leaves me feeling as if I’m walking in past and present at once.
There’s a smell you get in institutional corridors and when I get a whiff of a specific version of it, I am immediately a child back at my first day at school and I can see a donkey. There was a pen and ink drawing of a donkey on the corridor wall of my infant school, and I am sure it was an excellent piece of artwork, but to a small child it was sinister and unnerving. You didn’t want to turn your back on that donkey.
What was the smell lurking in that school corridor? Paint, disinfectant and polish, I imagine, and, since it was crowded with terrified five-year-olds, probably a ripe mix of bodily fluids, stale milk and boiled sweets. A very precise mix. Leave out one or two of the mysterious ingredients, and you just have a not very pleasant smell equated with hospital corridors and council offices, but get it exactly right, and in a flash, time spins backwards.
Pink custard is another prompt. Not that I see much of it, but when I do…
I suppose pink custard is just a liquid strawberry blancmange mix, but while I will eat strawberry blancmange (if I must), my stomach seizes up at the very thought of pink custard. More especially, the skin that has probably formed on it. Mostly, I enjoyed school meals, especially the rare days when we had cheese salad with chips. None of your wafer thin French Fries, but proper, big, squashy chips, probably done in beef dripping. Forget the green salad bit, just pile the grated cheese on the chips, to let it melt, and pour on salad cream. NOT mayonnaise. Proper salad cream. I don’t think I would dream of producing such a meal now, but I still salivate at the memory, whereas the memory of sultana sponge with pink custard has the reverse effect. It was just a childish fad, based, I suppose, on a distrust of certain colours.
When I taste a sweet syrup, I instantly think of Rich Tea Finger Biscuits. I can’t help it. Sweet stickiness conjures up the rosehip syrup spooned into me as a child, for its questionable vitamin C content, and since it was a health thing, I instantly associate it with the school clinic, a 1930s building with rounded windows that in turn made me think of Rich Tea Fingers.
Parsley. That’s another. The good old English curly variety imitated in plastic on butchers’ trays, not the elegant flat-leaf variety. When I was a child, my father grew two herbs on his vegetable patch. Mint for peas, new potatoes and lamb chops, and parsley for steamed fish. I don’t think it ever occurred to people, in those days, that there might be other herbs, or other uses. When I grew old and sophisticated, I moved onto basil, coriander, oregano, rosemary with juniper, toasted sage on pasta with butter and lemon. I know that parsley is equally gorgeous and I use it too, but the smell still takes me straight back to a childhood when, for me, its only appeal was the way it grew, like a miniature fairy forest amongst tiny miniature flowers – germander speedwell, scarlet pimpernel and heartsease – that my father regarded as irritating weeds.
It might explain why I grew up to make miniature furniture.
I enjoy all sorts of scenery. I can marvel at mountains and ravines and deserts, but the mere sight of white rock, showing through the thin grass on chalk downs, instantly sends a shiver of excitement up my spine.
If, in my childhood, we were driving past Ivinghoe Beacon, with a white gash on its steep side, it meant that either we were starting our holiday, heading off to a caravan by the sea, or we were returning, after a long tetchy journey (everyone out of the car to push on Countisbury Hill, and why didn’t we go via Simonsbath?) and home was just round the corner. Even my first glimpse of Yosemite didn’t quite match that glow of pleasure that a white streak on a grassy hill conjures up.
What I don’t have, in my own life, are triggers that set off memories of moments that I’d rather forget. Unless, of course, there’s an unknown trigger waiting for me round the next corner. At least if there is, I hope it’s nothing quite as ominous and disturbing as the apple rolling into the gutter in The Unravelling, but if it does, I’ll be sure to put it in a book.