When you get bad news - I mean the type of news that feels like a body blow - it has a colour and a shape. For me the colour was white, brilliant white, a lightning arc. The shape was a gloved fist that took my breath; an uppercut to my diaphragm. But the oddest thing was that it had a smell too. Now that I come to think of it, the smell came first, before the colour and the shape. It smelt a little bit fruity, but in a way that suggested something was on-the-turn. And slightly faecal. It made me feel sick.
It was a clear day in June. We’d been sitting in the once-green chairs in our garden, chit-chatting over cups of tepid tea, having the kind of lazy, pointless afternoon that you feel entitled to have when the sun is shining. And then out of this blue sky came the message.
‘She’s had a severe stroke.’
It came with the lightning. And the rotten fruit.
‘Just hang in there, Jess, it’ll be OK,’ my husband Nick said, folding his hand over mine. He sounded distant, or maybe it was me who was distant, drifting inwards. I could smell the lack of conviction leaking from his forehead and upper lip; boiled parsnips, sweet with a bitter edge. I always knew when he was lying. But I lapped it up anyway; drew it in and held on to it. I used to press my nose to his armpit and sniff his sweat; it made me feel heady. Until the time I smelled betrayal; tuberose and spice, with honey and amber notes. Her musky perfume wasn’t my style, but the only way to mask it was to wear it. And I wore it well, until the scent gradually faded, and he smelt true again.
I was in no state to drive, so Nick took the wheel. It felt good to be in motion, it felt calming. I was desperate to get to her in time, to be with Mum. I wanted to hold her, to bury my face in her neck and breathe in her violets; her candied talcum. But at the same time I just wanted to keep moving and never get to that destination. I let my gaze wander and watched the world hurry by, then I started to feel queasy. So I closed my eyes, closed my mouth, and slowly took in air.
It reeked of stale urine and unwashed undies; Mum’s cushion on the sofa - the one that she lounged on to watch TV. It had taken her shape and it had taken her colour; tinged with straw and pungent with asparagus. After Dad died she didn’t wash very often. I guess she didn’t notice too much with a glass of whiskey under her nose from the minute she opened her eyes in the morning until she closed them at night. I don’t blame her. She needed to blot out the day, to numb herself to the prospect of it. If the thought of it stretching out in front of her left a bad smell under her nose, she would have a good cry and toss back the spirits. I wish I’d been there to open the window more often. To let in some fresh air; some fresh hope.
She got so drunk once that she stumbled into the Christmas tree and took it down. Nick and I struggled to keep our faces straight. It was the embarrassment of it; the tragi-comedy. The slaughter with a silent ‘s’. We stopped sniggering when she tried to scramble to her feet, crushing the baubles and crunching over them like a glass-walker. The butt of a sick joke. One that stank of Scotch and stomach acid.
‘Just hang in there, Jess.’
Even two miles can feel like a long way when you’re racing towards the end. Let alone two hundred. Why had I taken myself so far from home? Why hadn’t I kept myself within sniffing distance? I knew why, of course. Because I couldn’t stand the miasma of despair, that heart-sinking odour of decomposing food whenever I opened her fridge. It hummed of helplessness.
She used to be so capable, my mum.
Her kitchen was once brimming with comforting savouries and sweets; syrup and rolled oats, stewing plums, apple and blackberry pie-filling bubbling on the hob, the sunshine tang of lemon custard. Cooking laced with nutmeg and cloves, with cocoa and cinnamon. And the best one of all, the one that made home smell like sweet home, the buttery, vanilla essence of a sponge cake fresh from the oven.
Latterly she’d leave canned soup to boil dry on the stove, or incinerate a potato in the microwave. The ghosts of charred leftovers lingering in the air. The aftertaste of indifference. It wasn’t her fault. The whiskey took her hunger as well as her will, and its woody earthiness must have smelt so wholesome compared to singed toast. Like kicking through damp leaves on an autumnal stroll.
I wondered what I’d find when I reached her, whether the bite of medical bleach and body fluids passing under my nostrils would bring me back to the moment. To the realness of what was to be; the smelling salts of finality.
‘It’ll be OK, Jess.’
I turned around to ask Nick, ‘How long until we get there?’
The sun, streaming through the window, was a brilliant white that made my eyes water and I had to close them. When I opened them again, he wasn’t there. Or rather, I wasn’t. I wasn’t moving anymore. I took a moment to adjust to the light, which was warm and welcoming and filled an entire wall. I was in front of the French windows in my parents’ living room, overlooking the garden, and I tried to fathom why I would be there and not at the hospital. Why would I be wasting precious time?
I checked the carriage clock on the mantelpiece. Its gold, oscillating spheres were busy stealing seconds that should have been spent rushing to her side. Instead the hands on its face were stuck, stuttering. The shine from Mum’s wall calendar caught my eye. I’d made it for her, salvaging pictures from musty family albums that I’d found in the loft. I thought it would help to keep Dad alive, and us too, between visits. She’d hung it next to her TV where she could always see it. I imagined her sitting there nursing memories, rolling them around like brandy in a snifter, drinking in their tawny tones, watching their residues streak her glasses. I moved in closer and sniffed the glossed paper; a whisper of cucumber-melon, like a new page had been turned. This one had two photos. One of Mum flanked by myself and Nick, toasting his fortieth. The other had been taken by Dad on our annual holiday to the Lake District: Mum, with a nine-year-old me, showing off our purchases from the Hawkshead gift shop.
For all the majestic, glacial screes and barren, bracken-strewn fells haunted by the equine ghosts of windswept trees, it was that pokey souvenir shop in Hawkshead that had me in awe. It was a treasure trove of amethyst and amber, of turquoise and Tiger’s Eye. It twinkled and sparkled like glitter in a snow globe. And it tantalised my nose. Lavender and sandalwood, rose and pine, patchouli and tangerine. But there was only one scent that we came for each year. We came for the violets. It was the only place in the world that we could find them. Back then, before browsers, we couldn’t ‘search them up’, we had to seek them out. And there they were, in the gift shop in Hawkshead. Mum would buy a Parma-fragranced boxed set of bubble bath and talcum powder for herself, but for me she would always buy the Eau de Cologne. She knew it made me feel grown up. It came in a squat little orb, and the perfume inside it was a lush, deep purple. It smelt divine. The scent of nuzzling my mother’s neck.
‘Just hang in there, Jess.’
I was so lost in childhood aromas that the picture of Nick’s birthday hadn’t resonated. He was born in August. The calendar was turned to August. Two months on from the lightning strike, from that message out of the blue. It can’t have taken two months to make the journey home. She must have liked that page, flicked ahead to it. On the mantelpiece there were several framed photos of me, more than usual; and some that were loose, just propped up on the Victorian figurines. A few from years ago, many more recent. I squinted at one of the frames, noticing the greasy trace of her lips on the glass and the faintest hint of cherries and wax from her lipstick.
I’d been lingering, reminiscing when I should have been on my way. Turning to leave, I spotted a collection of greetings cards on the alcove window sill. One lay toppled on its back. And a single, swirly, silver word caught the sunlight.
It was years since we had lost Dad. It didn’t make any sense that she would have exhumed the cards and messages, buried in the bureau, from so long ago.
I moved to the sofa, catching a waft of her cushion. Its threadbare velour had taken her impression. It reeked of urine and unwashed undies. I breathed in and I swallowed that stench. It was the stench of shame. Not hers, but mine. The shame of my absence. Next to it, on her occasional table, there was an empty tumbler. When I sampled its nose, I got peat and petroleum. And next to that a single card, open, as if she had been disturbed whilst looking at it. Its message read:
Dearest Irene, no one should have to live through losing their daughter. I’m so sorry.
And there it was - the white bolt; the gloved fist to the diaphragm - ‘She’ was me.
‘She’s had a severe stroke.’
The words that had come with the lightning. And the rotten fruit. And all the other odours of my mother’s grief: the Scotch and the stomach acid, the singed toast and boiled-dry soup, the bleach and body fluids.
‘Just hang in there, Jess, it’ll be OK.’
It’s one of those adages that you can only know is a truth when it happens: your life flashing before you. But it’s not quite like we are lead to believe. It floats back first to the nose, not to the eye. Smells that render in colour and in shape. The apples and blackberries, the lemon zest and buttery-vanilla, the lavender and sandalwood.
It was a kindness, that brilliant, sightless white, because it flared so bright and so hot that it blanched all else and left me with nothing but the sense of scents. And in percolating those last moments, even the sickly-sweet smell of on-the-turn fruit had fermented. I no longer had the stale smell of decay. Instead I had a rich bouquet laced with chocolate and chamomile and vanilla. And violets.
‘It’ll be OK.’