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.

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Zara Potts ZARA POTTS is an Associate Non-Fiction editor at The Nervous Breakdown. In a former life, she was a network television journalist, specialising in murder stories and entertainment. She has worked variously as a producer, reporter and publicist as well as contributing to major newspapers and other media outlets in New Zealand. Alongside her television work, Zara has also been involved in radio and film. She also, weirdly, has been a judge for the NZ Music Awards. When she isn't online, she is working on her first novel. She lives in Auckland with a bionic dog.

12 Responses to “‘There’s Rosemary, that’s for Remembrance.’”

  1. Zara Potts says:

    Comment by David S. Wills
    2009-09-10 18:48:21
    Nice post… Very sad and vivid…

    My memory is pretty poor for the most part, but when it comes to smells and sounds, sometimes something can be thrown at me that was lost for years. When I first started teaching I was freaking out for days because every time I smelled a crayon it would take me right back to my own childhood – something that’s sadly almost lost from my head. I cannot recall these memories, and when I smell a crayon I can’t really see what it is I remember… But I’m whipped back through time and set down almost literally in the past and it’s scary and overpowering. Certain weird smells take me back to my grandparents, whom I haven’t seen in the year and a half I’ve been stuck in this awful country.

    Certain songs, too, but not so much… There are songs from the 80s that take me back to a house and a time I really have to push to picture, yet those songs just transplant me so easily. It’s weird. A headfuck.

    Comment by Zara Potts
    2009-09-10 19:05:40
    Thanks David.
    It’s weird isn’t it? Smell has the ability to sometimes knock you off your feet. A perfume can remind you of a person more than an entire photograph album can.
    Yeah, I know what you mean about crayons. Felt tip pens are the same for me – I can relive my entire school career in one sniff of a nib!

    Comment by David S. Wills
    2009-09-10 19:08:47
    Yeah, photos don’t really do it for me, either. Sometimes, if I try really hard I can put myself back into a place and time, but with smell it’s like *snap* I’m there.

    Comment by Debbie
    2009-09-10 20:43:39
    Beautiful Zara. Just beautiful.

    “It’s the scent of youth. Of stolen kisses in an empty sports field. It’s the scent of summer that will never give up its secrets to the coming winter chill.”

    That really sums it up, doesn’t it? For me its orange blossoms….they always make me think of him. I, too, have a framed picture of a boy who will never age, and everytime I smell orange blossoms I can see him so clearly I feel I can reach out and touch him.

    I’m sorry you lost Adrian. I like the idea of him getting in one last joke about the window cleaning. Its sweet.

    Comment by Zara Potts
    2009-09-10 20:55:41
    Thank you for your lovely words, Debbie. I too, am sorry for your loss. Orange blossoms – what a gorgeous scent to have as a reminder. Much better than ‘tigress’!!!
    I like the window cleaning joke too. It was just the sort of thing he would have thought was hilarious.

    Comment by Stacy Bierlein
    2009-09-10 20:54:56
    Zara, this is so beautiful in its intensity, and a lovely tribute to your relationship with Adrian. I am so pleased to have read this, and knew I was in for a truly exquisite read with the line “music can ignite memory, but it’s scent that really burns you up.” I’m stuck by the handmade advertisement blowing in the gate, a detail that I’m sure I will recall for a very long time–the universe providing this subtle if completely inadequate warning of the grief that lies ahead. Again, truly beautiful writing ….

    Comment by Zara Potts
    2009-09-10 20:57:17
    Stacy, thank you. I’m truly grateful for your comments. Thank you for reading.

    Comment by Brigid Brock
    2009-09-10 21:35:02
    Hello Stranger!

    It’s been a long time. 20 years, or maybe even more. I’ve finally read a story of yours and been moved to tears. Beautifully written! I sussed out what was coming early on and found myself holding my breath hoping that I was wrong. Life is very brutal and unfair at times.

    On a happier note, imagining you and ZB in LA together this month puts a big smile on my face. Hope it does to yours too.

    Big hug, BB xx

    PS. I’m going to do a bit of trawling through your earlier work too. Clever girl!

    Comment by Zara Potts
    2009-09-10 21:37:39
    Oh, BB!!
    Thank you so much for reading and commenting, it means a lot to me.
    I’m very excited about seeing your girl in LA…I can’t wait!
    Hopefully I will see you sometime in the near future too..
    Lots of love to you xxx

    Comment by Irene Zion
    2009-09-11 00:26:04

    Your writing about memory is elegant.

    I am sure that the window-cleaning note was a last joke from Adrian.

    The doodling he did is haunting me. Too prescient. If you had all known and the warning had been heeded….

    Comment by Zara Potts
    2009-09-11 00:46:59
    Hi Irene
    Thank you. I’m sure the note was a last joke too. It was too weird to be anything else.
    He was such a funny boy.

    Comment by James D. Irwin
    2009-09-11 03:26:01
    Absolutely beautiful.

    I have no sense of smell and a terrible memory.

    There’s one song I remember from my childhood, a weird prog song my dad played frequently. I haven’t a clue who the band is, what the song is called or anything and I’ve only heard it once since. It was in Amsterdam, walking through residential streets (lost, of course) when I heard it coming from a stereo. I recognised it instantly— so did my friend. He didn’t know what it was called either.

    Stories of people accurately predicting their own demise freak me out. I’ve been watching a lot of Beatles documentaries recently. John Lennon once said ”I’ll probably be popped off by some loony.”

    Comment by Zara Potts
    2009-09-11 09:44:14
    Thanks Jim, you’re a kind soul.
    Do you have no sense of smell at all??

    Comment by James D. Irwin
    2009-09-11 11:34:51
    I can only smell really strong smells— strong curry and vinegar are pretty much the only things.

    Oh, I can smell whiskey too, but it all smells the same.

    I get it from my mum’s side of the family, that and the week chin…

    Comment by Zara Potts
    2009-09-11 13:22:59
    Well at least you can smell some things.. It would be terrible if you couldn’t smell at all. I love the smell of vinegar. And the taste.

    Comment by James D. Irwin
    2009-09-11 15:06:53
    Me too. Especially in the context of fish and chips.

    I’d also like to correct my last comment— it should be ‘weak’ instead of ‘week.’

    Comment by Ducky
    2009-09-11 05:42:53
    Zara – such a poignant piece. Thank you for sharing.

    I wonder sometimes if people aren’t so much predicting their own futures, but rather attracting the energy to complete a subconscious thought. The mind can, after all, be quite dangerous.

    Comment by Zara Potts
    2009-09-11 09:47:35
    Hi Ducky, thanks for reading.
    I don’t think it was a matter of attracting energy, or even predicting his fate really. I think in his case it was just simply a strange coincidence that in retrospect became significant. If he had survived that ski season, the doodle would have been forgotten and never thought of again.
    I guess it’s the same with the window cleaner note. It only became meaningful because of what happened.

    Comment by Don Mitchell
    2009-09-11 06:52:00
    Very nice, Zara, and of course quite sad. The body in the casket versus the person you knew — it’s very hard to reconcile them. The morticians sometimes overstep, I think. I went to an open-casket funeral for an old woman I knew, and there she was with bright lipstick. She never wore lipstick. It was much talked about at the service, and detracted from it. I find ashes more satisfying. You know they’re the remains but they don’t resemble the person in any way and thus — to me — can become a vessel for memories.

    The way sounds and odors infiltrate themselves into memory is as endlessly fascinating as the way they’re recalled. Not long ago I was trying to think carefully about sound memories, and realized that for me they are short — a phrase, a few measures — and always in some physical context such as where I was when the memory was set. A song, let’s say, that was played on the radio constantly during my senior year in high school, so I would have heard it dozens or hundreds of times, is only available to me in the sense of the few moments I heard it driving an open Jeep in a rural area in 1960. That’s it. That’s all it conjures up for me, and the driving was of no particular significance. Also, for me, the music continues through time (however short) as it plays in my head, but the visual/tactile memory of driving is only freeze-frame. Still image with music.

    I wonder if other people have these mismatches — one memory flowing, the one it invokes, not.

    Comment by Zara Potts
    2009-09-11 09:54:24
    Thank you, Don.
    I find memory to be a strange thing. Like you say, music can act as a catalyst to invoking it, but I find if I hear a piece of music that holds memory for me -it will distill it if I hear it too often. The memory will fade, the more familiar the scent or sound.

    Comment by Matt
    2009-09-11 06:58:30
    Wow, I really don’t know what to say about this one. I can only hope someone remembers me with such poignancy when I’ve moved on.

    The scent thing doesn’t really work for me, sadly. I found out a couple of years ago I have a lower-grade eidetic (”photographic” though that’s a misnomer) memory geared mostly towards visual stimuli. Scents just remind me of whatever causes them.

    Comment by Zara Potts
    2009-09-11 09:59:03
    Hey Matt.
    That’s really kind.
    That’s weird about scent with you, huh? I think smell is one of the most under-rated senses. Nothings beats the scent of freshly mown grass or rain on hot concrete for me…
    There’s a company that has started to bottle up kind of memory scent rather than perfume, and they have smells like ‘laundromat’ and ‘grass.’ There’s even one called ‘New Zealand’ but it doesn’t smell right!

    Comment by Matt
    2009-09-11 12:52:34
    I’ve actually got a pretty good sense of smell. Not as good as that dude from Perfume had, but still a pretty good sniffer. But unlike most people mine doesn’t serve as the ignition switch for certain memories. I catch a scent, associate it with whatever causes it, and at most remember where I first encountered it, but that’s all. I can’t say if it’s wierd or not, as it’s the only way my brain has ever worked.

    Imagine your brain was a digtal camera, with your eyes as the lenses, and all day long it snapped off photo after photo, which you could later pull up and sift through with a very high degree of accuracy. That’s how my brain stores the majority of my memories.

    What, if you can describe it, should ‘New Zealand’ smell like?

    Comment by Zara Potts
    2009-09-11 13:25:48
    God, I don’t actually know.
    Probably a bit salty and piney. Everyone says it smells exactly how fresh air should smell but I wouldn’t know because I’m a filthy smoker.

    Comment by Meredith
    2009-09-11 08:39:19
    this is beautiful

    Comment by Zara Potts
    2009-09-11 09:59:43
    Meredith, thank you for reading and commenting – I appreciate it.

    Comment by jmb
    2009-09-11 09:08:46
    There is not time machine like aroma
    Quite the nice piece dear.

    Whenever I smell Exclamation!
    I am taken back to junior high skating rinks.

    Comment by Zara Potts
    2009-09-11 10:01:42
    Thank you ! (an exclamation! for you…)
    Ah, skating rinks. They were the best.

    Comment by D.R. Haney
    2009-09-11 12:36:21
    Captivating, as always.

    How curious that Adrian sketched, essentially, his own death. And interesting that you looked at his hands and drew the conclusions you did. It probably would never have occurred to me to do something like that.

    Comment by Zara Potts
    2009-09-11 13:28:47
    You’re a sweetheart.
    It is curious, but as I said to Ducky above, it’s only because of what happened that makes it eerie. If he had lived, nobody would have given that picture a second thought.
    I don’t know why I looked at his hands but I’m glad I did. I maybe wrong with my conclusions but it made sense to me at the time and even now…

    Comment by Simon Smithson
    2009-09-11 16:10:39
    Oh, Zara. I’m so sorry you lost Adrian. And I love that he preferred calling bruises hematomas.

    That’s so eerie about the flyer…

    Comment by Zara Potts
    2009-09-11 17:34:54
    Thanks Simon. He was a big loss, not only to me but to many other people as well.
    I had a feeling you would appreciate the hematomas!

    Comment by Jude
    2009-09-12 10:59:48
    My lovely Zara
    You honour Adrian’s memory in a beautiful and poignant way. He was such a special boy and you have conveyed this so well in your writing. Noeline would have loved this…

    Mama xxx

    Comment by Zara Potts
    2009-09-12 11:04:38
    Thanks Mama. You’re the best xxx

    Comment by Meghan
    2009-09-13 04:55:26
    Oh, Zara. This is beautifully written – I think you’ve framed it so gracefully. And I like the time you take unfolding the memories in here.

    Do you find that writing has any role in shaping and curating those memories?

    Comment by Zara Potts
    2009-09-13 10:41:31
    Thanks Meghan -you’re very kind.
    Good question about curating the memories… I guess it does in terms of the writing process helping to shape a memory into something almost tangible. Whereas in my head the memory often connects with a whole lot of other things and isn’t so defined. By putting it on paper (so to speak) it pares back the separate memories to their absolute essence. Of course, memory can’t be 100% trusted as hindsight and time gives every memory a different spin. And writers can’t be 100% trusted either as of course, we give special significance to memory with the words we choose to use..
    I hope that makes some sort of sense!!

    Comment by Ronlyn
    2009-09-14 05:04:57
    Touching and beautiful, Zara. May good memories and scents keep you company.

    Comment by Zara Potts
    2009-09-14 10:42:15
    Aw, thanks Ronlyn. You’re a sweetheart.

    Comment by Marni Grossman
    2009-09-14 10:34:31
    The words I’m reaching for- powerful, gorgeous, haunting- seem to be inadequate.

    Comment by Zara Potts
    2009-09-14 10:43:30
    And you Marni, are gorgeous. And so is your writing. When’s the next piece? x

    Comment by Colleen McGrath
    2009-09-15 21:26:22
    Oh Zara, this didn’t go in the direction I expected. Well told, but goodness, I’m so sorry for everyone who lost Adrian. This is a lovely tribute to him.

    Comment by Zara Potts
    2009-09-25 20:59:19
    Thank you darling girl.

  2. D.R. Haney says:

    It’s interesting to see a picture of Adrian; I don’t think one was included initially. Nice-looking kid. So sad that he died as young as he did.

  3. Zara Potts says:

    You’re right, I didn’t include one in the initial post. He was a nice-looking kid wasn’t he? And funny. It is a real shame. I would have liked to have known what kind of man he would have turned into.

    • D.R. Haney says:

      It’s always hard to know, I think. Some people change little; others a great deal.

      Do you think of Adrian often? You mention in the piece (which has a lot of beautiful phrasings that I just rediscovered) that you have his picture on your wall. That would seem to be a constant reminder.

      • Zara Potts says:

        It is hard to know, but I suspect he would have remained much the same. Looking back, it’s clear that he had a very strong sense of self even as a teenager, that I assume wouldn’t have changed through the years. It’s funny that you ask whether I think of him that often, as I have been thinking of him a lot with the recent Guy Fawkes celebrations we’ve had. For some reason, we were always together on Guy Fawkes, usually playing silly buggers with fireworks. He would have been dismayed at my having turned into a grinch, yelling at the kids next door to put the fireworks away.

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