Reader’s Story: A Whiff of the Past
by Allan Bolton
The latest reader's story submission.
Based on my diary for 2001.
Sense of smell. There aren’t enough words. English is rich with influences — yet our bulging vocabulary is defeated. We know what’s meant — quite accurately — by the smell of newly cut grass, roasting coffee, and wood smoke. But what does “the smell of exquisite perfume” convey? Perfumes vary too much; personal opinions differ too much. What’s exquisite to me might be over-sweet and sickly to you.
A slight sensation stimulates memory on this quite crowded platform. What is it? It used to be familiar, a daily experience. My ex-wife, she liked it. I was delighted to buy it for her. Charlie! That was it. Maybe they still make it; I’m sure I detect it despite today’s swirling gusts. Where, who, is the origin? Not many working women dress to impress in this town, yet there is one disproving that generalisation, albeit she’s on her way out of here. I’d bet that she, and no one else, is the source.
This isn’t my subject, but Charlie strikes me as simple, fresh . . . compared with the complex fascination exerted by a modern fragrance such as Poême. I remember now, from 30 years ago, the girl who often wore it. I’d sit next to her and prolong conversations for the pleasure of the perfume that uplifted my morale.
I’m observing this lady without being obvious. I’m ten yards away. I half-turn towards her and become bolder; she’s distracted by her phone. She resembles that early girlfriend, Shirley. But after all these years, could that be her? This woman wears no glasses, perhaps contact lenses. I saw her original without her glasses just once: there was a fashion for playing squash. I’d learned to play to a basic standard. She’d said she’d like to try it out. We met on the cold indoor court, which she infused subtly with her scent — a pleasant change from the habitual smell of sweat and the rank pong of the little rubber ball. We hit easy shots onto the front wall to get her accustomed to the height of the bounce and the feel of the racquet. I moved us on to backhands, which are harder to learn. Squash is an odd game — shots played with a supple wrist, sometimes facing away from the direction you aim to send the ball. I may have moved us on too quickly; she missed a straightforward backhand shot and lost control. A sickening thwack echoed around the tightly containing walls of the court as the racquet’s wooden frame smacked straight into her face. Fortunately, the bridge of her glasses took most of the impact. Between us, we gently removed them and found them undamaged, though there was a little blood from the bony part of her nose.
“A PLEASANT CHANGE FROM THE HABITUAL SMELL OF SWEAT AND THE RANK PONG OF THE LITTLE RUBBER BALL”
Feeling responsible and not a little guilty, I helped her off the court so that she could recover and change, then lingered uncomfortably outside the girls’ changing rooms until she emerged looking pale but brave. There’s a definite resemblance to the mature woman I’m observing now. I insisted on taking her to the nearby health centre for advice. No stitches needed; all was well, apart from wounded pride perhaps.
“Honestly, I feel such a pathetic idiot.”
“You’re not. I should have done a much better job of explaining the backhand. Feeling better now?”
“Oh, yeah. I saw stars when it happened, but we’re brought up tough in Halifax.”
That was it. We lost regular contact, I didn’t like to offer more squash games. Two of her girlfriends made me their hero for looking after her; I’d exceeded their low opinion of most young men.
Those memories play back for thirty seconds, no more, between arriving on the platform and checking the departures board for the 15.55 to Manchester Airport, expected 15.59.
The scent lingers, stronger now that I’ve shuffled closer. Should I say something? About the perfume? About whether we met thirty years ago? Decide now, the train’s due in six minutes. For God’s sake, what is there to lose? In all your late-middle-aged life, how often have you acted on impulse? OK, not never — but those occasions make a pitifully small list in the ledger when set against the huge column of all your wise, responsible choices.
I move as close beside her as I dare, away from her main line of sight. Talking as if to myself but audibly, “Oh, this train’s late again. No surprise.” She turns with an expression of rueful sympathy and watchful caution.
I jump right in on impulse: “Oh — I do like your perfume, and it seems familiar somehow.” I’m braced for all kinds of reactions.
A small, sweet smile. “Yes, it’s my favourite. I wear it often whenever there’s an excuse!”
“Could it be called — ?”
“Charlie,” we say simultaneously with mutual smiles.
It would be crass to ask, “Do they still make it after all these years?” She’s unlikely to welcome a reference to her mature though well-presented age.
The train is now expected at 16.03, so I’ve time to prolong this, while uncomfortably aware of a complication: would we sit near each other, even if convenient seats were available? I persist regardless: “I wonder whether we might have met before, many years ago.” She looks taken aback, but I don’t give her time to deny it. “In the early 70s, on the Winterhouse campus near the huge teaching hospital.”
“ALL THE WORK HE HAD PUT IN TO TURN THE SCHOOL AROUND OVER THE PAST FOUR YEARS WAS UNDER THREAT”
Her face brightens, half-smiles; she regards me openly. “Well, yes, I do remember those days. Happy, uncomplicated times.”
“And weren’t you called Shirley?”
“And still am. What a great memory you have!” Her face seems lit with pleasure.
Her attractive looks, clear voice and capacity for enjoyment are increasingly impressing themselves on me.
“My name’s Paul. Do you remember we met sometimes? Even played squash once.”
Her eyes narrow as if fighting to recollect something lost in darkness; the smile fades. Shirley looks at me, sadness clouding her features. With a slow shaking of the head, “Maybe I saw you walking around. My memory’s hopeless. Oh, here’s my train.”
“It’s mine too. Perhaps we could continue our chat?” She looks doubtful, but I’m ashamed to say that I follow close in her footsteps, and before she can will me away, I land in the seat next to hers.
I persist. “It was just one game, soon over and not repeated. We didn’t know each other well.”
With a deep intake of breath, Shirley admits, “Yes, now I do recall it, and recall that I made a complete fool of myself. You must have done because you never asked me again, never spoke to me again.”
That being something new — and huge — for me to take in, I feel I have to explain: “I was sure you’d never wish to risk another coaching session with me, not trusting me or, unfairly, feeling embarrassed with yourself.”
What I’d just said provided cover for my anxious thoughts: had our brief encounters meant more to her than I’d believed? Had I hurt her by withdrawing from her social circle? Why had I recalled our small-scale relationship so infrequently over the years? Why does it feel much more important to me now? Do I believe in Fate?
Shirley maintained the conversation while those rapid questions circulated around my mind: “One thing: how did you know who I was from a glimpse on a busy platform?”
“When I noticed your perfume, and we stood under the departures board, I saw that, on your nose, where the bridge of a pair of glasses would be, there’s a tiny faint white mark, less than a scar.”
With a half-smile, Shirley half-turns towards me, perhaps now revelling a little in her old squash injury. In the closed compartment, I inhale another wave of Charlie, which relaxes me enough to notice that she wears no ring on her wedding finger. Emboldened to take more chances, I switch the subject to the here and now.
“So, Shirley, which train will you catch for your onward journey from Piccadilly?”
“Not another train. I’m going to the airport for a flight to Guernsey. That’s where my finance job is.”
“I love Guernsey, always have.”
“Here’s my card. Please feel free to be in touch; you’d be very welcome to visit. Don’t leave it for another 30 years, though.”
If this story has piqued your interest, NorthernLife will be running a short story competition over the five issues released this year, with a theme for each issue:
MARCH/APRIL is New Beginnings (deadline for submission is February 1st)
MAY/JUNE is Mysteries (deadline April 1st)
JULY/AUG is By the Seaside (deadline June 1st)
SEP/OCT is Supernatural (deadline August 1st)
NOV/DEC is Christmas up North (deadline October 1st)
All submissions should be around 800 words.
NorthernLife Jan/Feb 24