Memory can be like a magician’s trick; part sleight of hand, part smoke and mirrors. It’s real but it’s not real. Sometimes you’ll catch a glimpse but you will never actually catch the trick.
So it is with music. There’s a song that I don’t know the name of, but if I hear even two bars of it – it reduces me to a quivering wreck. It was the song that was playing on the radio when I found the lifeless body of my kitten that had been squashed flat by a gas tank. I was about eleven years old when this happened and despite the resulting trauma, I count myself lucky that that the song playing was an obscure electronica piece. I’d have been fucked if it had been something really popular like Spandau Ballet’s ‘True,’ which still gets a lot of airplay even now.
Music can ignite memory, but it’s scent that really burns you up.
I keep a tiny bottle of worn-out perfume in my secret drawer. I’m nearly twice as old as it is, but its musty smell holds my younger years hostage. It was the first perfume I bought with my own money. The name on the label has worn off but I think it was called something like Rampage or Tigress - whatever it was called, it was $6.95 worth of chic in a bottle.
I have to ration my smelling of it these days. The more air that gets in, the more the magic disappears. I take furtive sniffs of it and it’s like a fragrant time machine. It transports me straight back to 1988. The images flicker past me and in that tiny stolen second, I can actually taste that very first kiss I shared with Adrian Keeling on the school sports field. I can see the grass that is giving up its colour and turning a lazy shade of green, smell the almost bloody tang of the freshly upturned dirt, see his unlined face so very close to mine and inhale the aroma of his freshly laundered shirt as he leans in toward me.
You cannot really capture moments like this. Memory is just not enough to hold them. You can photograph a moment but the image only exists in your eyes, it doesn’t overwhelm your entire body. A photograph can capture an expression but rarely, an essence.
I have such a photo on my wall. It’s of the young man I kissed in that field. The camera has caught him in a half-turn. He is slightly unshaven, his hair is in his face and there’s a faraway look in his eye.
The portrait is a perfect moment in time. In this moment, he has his whole life ahead of him. He’s training to be a pilot. He’s been spending his weekends notching up the flight hours and he’s always careful not to get a speeding ticket when he drives his car, just in case it hurts his chances to get his stripes.
He’s serious about flying but he’s also one of the funniest people I know.
He gets drunk as often as he eats banana splits. He likes to tell the story of how his parents drove past him one night on their way home as he lay passed out in the gutter with just his green trench coat on.
They remarked to each other that the boy in the gutter looked a lot like Adrian. They had to reverse when they realised it was in fact, their only son. Together they lugged him into the car, furtively looking around in case the neighbours happened to be watching. He always laughs at this, no matter how many times he tells it.
Adrian has a particular way of speaking. He won’t call a bruise a bruise if he can get away with calling it a hematoma. He collects phrases like some people collect stamps. He’s mastered the art of the chuckle, showing off his dimples with a glint in his eye that you’re never quite sure of.
But his humour is always kind. He’s never quick to cut you down.
He hates Jethro Tull. He doesn’t liking visiting a good friend of ours because sometimes when she’s maudlin she will play the flute. He’d rather stay at home and watch Quadrophenia and recite all the lines. He wears his green trench coat in homage to the movie. I hate the film but I don’t tell him that.
He has a long standing joke with me. My family home is near the sea and the windows are always salt-crusted and smeary. They’re too high for me to clean. Adrian tells my mother that he will come around and clean the windows for her. He promises this every time we speak.
“Tell your mum, I’ll be round to clean the windows,” he says.
He went to Japan for a skiing holiday. He got homesick and called me up. We talked about the food and the language and at the end of the phone call he told me to tell my mother he’d be round to clean the windows as soon as he got back.
He got home, but the windows remained dirty.
We went to a party one night and he got bored and started doodling on a scrap of paper. He’d just turned twenty-three and was unsure what he might want to do next. He could either go back to flying school or spend the winter living at a local ski-field, working for his parents. He thinks he might like this. When he has finished talking, I take a look at what he’s drawn. It’s a picture of him driving a snow-groomer with an avalanche of snow coming down on him like a wave.
Some weeks after this, I walk downstairs in the early morning to collect the newspaper at the gate. There is a piece of paper lying in my path. It’s been blown in from the street. I pick it up and turn it over to read. It’s a homemade advertisement for a window cleaner.
‘Need your windows cleaned? Call 326 7901′
I think nothing of it.
Later, when the call comes telling me that Adrian has been killed in a freak snow-grooming accident on the ski-field, I think about that piece of junk advertising that somehow made its way onto my path. In all the years I have lived in that house, there’s never been a stray bit of paper that’s found its way past the heavy gates. I think it must have been Adrian, using his now not-needed breath to blow one last joke to me. I force myself to laugh in his honour, but I don’t really feel it.
I don’t want to see him dead, but his parents have taken his broken body and placed him in their sitting room where all his friends have gathered. I say that I want to remember him alive. Remember him soft and nervous, in that field where we first kissed. Or even bored and slightly drunk, at that party where he drew his own death. I don’t want to see him in his coffin.
But they tell me I should. For closure, they say. It will help me in the days ahead to accept that he’s really gone. I feel myself pulled along on a wave of well-meaning arms and I don’t resist until I’m standing over his body.
When I see him, I can’t help myself. I kneel down beside him and stroke his face with my forefinger. My body has stored the memory of how his skin felt and what I touch now – I don’t recognise. I make myself look at his face. It doesn’t look like Adrian. The undertakers have stitched up his skin with coarse black cotton. I think that they could have done a better job. The stitches are ugly and rough and I am angry they haven’t taken more care. He is wearing a baseball cap, which he never would have worn if he were alive. I suppose it’s to hide the injuries. This body that I once wrapped my arms around in the summer heat is now twisted from the impact of the winter snow that fell upon him and claimed him.
As I look at his body, I feel something rising up in me. It’s terror. I’m afraid for him, for what he may have felt in his last moments. I don’t want him to have been scared. I move my eyes from his freshly scarred face and they come to rest on his hands.
And they are perfect.
Icy cold, but perfect. I know these hands like the back of my own and there’s not a scratch or a bruise or a hematoma even, on them. Seeing his hands gives me immediate peace. He didn’t know what was coming. He didn’t have time to raise his arms and shield his beautiful face. He drew his death on a scrap of paper but it spared him having to look right at it when it came calling.
I’m grateful for this. It’s enough.
And I’m grateful for his picture that never ages on my wall. Inside his frame he remains forever twenty-three. I’m now fourteen years older than he’ll ever be and the nearest I can get to him is through a tiny bottle of perfume that belies its cheapness by holding something valuable and precious inside.
It’s the scent of youth. Of stolen kisses in an empty sports field. It’s the scent of a summer that will never give up its secrets to the coming winter chill.