The smell of the breakfast cereal called Fruit Loops immediately takes me to my childhood home. We all know the power of the olfactory and its innate ability to forge a link in some cranial abyss: a link that we instantly associate with a time or a place, or both. For me, nearly 30 years removed from the land of my birth, it is Fruit Loops. The faux fruit aroma from the brightly coloured rings instantly transports me to my mother’s kitchen.
There are others, dear readers. The smell of soft whipped vanilla ice cream, of pickles fermenting in good quality olive oil, of cut grass and barbecue smoke, of the ocean: all remind me of home.
England is the smell of damp brick, of mud centuries old. It is the smell of rain and frosted breath. England smells of thick, cold air and blankets.
My daughter returned from a trip around the world last week. In less than a month she had seen sights I can never hope to in my next 50 years: the steamy streets of Kuala Lumpur, the neon deserts of Vegas, the slick shine of dolphins in Australia. On her return she eagerly distributed gifts from her suitcase. The colourful cartoon toucan on the box was unmistakable; she had brought us Fruit Loops from the golden hills of California.
And when I ate a bowl for breakfast, dear readers, it was not some industrial chemist’s interpretation of 5 fruit flavours that I savoured. No. Drawing the smell deep into my lungs (drawn slightly more efficiently having been a non smoker for 3 months now) I shut my eyes and was transported to my mother’s orange and oaken kitchen. My reminiscence was disturbed only by my youngest daughter’s observation, “These remind me of nanny’s house.”
And so the story might have ended there. Lacking conflict or resolution, it might not have been a story at all. Instead, it might have merely been an observation; a moment of illustration to be relayed in passing.
The great glass box will soon be no more. The school is being redeveloped and with it the administrative block and office that surrounds me will be transformed into something quite different in the coming months. Today we met to consider the immediate implications; where items will be stored, where office staff will be re-located during the building work. One of the Assistant Heads pointed to his jumble of teaching resources and wondered where they could be housed. I scanned the shelf and the treasures it held; a wooden marionette, a replica Eiffel Tower, a skull. A skull.
Not smell this time, dear readers; it was not the aroma or lingering odour that transported me back to my youth but the sight, the view the image of the skull on the shelf.
The summers of my youth were spent camping with my family. It was one of those purpose-built camp sites which while set in a pine forest clearing, still had electrical access and showers. Each evening my father would build a bonfire and we would toast bread smeared with peanut butter and jam while he turned the portable black and white television to the local baseball game.
Afterwards, as darkness settled on the summer heat, the game would finish and Doctor Shock would come on the tv. He was my hero. Dr Shock’s Scream In: a cheaply made studio dungeon hosted by a local magician dressed like a corpse. Zombie make-up and hammish magic tricks would fill the gaps as he introduced the next segment of some B movie horror offering. The Crawling Hand, The Slime People, The Screaming Skull; they were titles to enthral an 8 year old.
The show would start, at least in my remembrance dictates that it started with a close up a stage skull and organ music. This was followed by a piercing scream as the show’s title would overlay the scene. The Dr Shock would be summoned from his coffin (bizarrely) by his toddler daughter Bubbles.
We would huddle around the flickering black and white telly burning our tongues on the pine smoked jam sandwiches and watch as Dr Shock stroked a live rat or pulled a rubber chicken from a hat whilst encouraging us to watch the commercial break. Then each of us would dare the other to walk to the toilet block and brave the macabre shadows that lie there in-between.
And there it was, in the Assistant Head’s office; a skull. A skull reminding me of those treasured summer nights around the campfire; a rickety black and white portable television flicking in the dark of the forest. The sound of baseball cheers and beer jingles echoing amongst the pine trees, giving way to Dr Shock and Bubbles’ screaming skull. The warming envelope of my childhood was there on the shelf.
I pull the skull down and hold it , looking into its vacant eyes like Poor Yorick. “We will have to keep this safe,” I mutter out loud. The Assistant Head looks puzzled as he scans my face for some clue as to why the prop is any more important than the rest. “You know it is not real, don’t you?” he offers.
But I know better.
I sniff the air for a hint of burning peanut butter and jam, or pine, or even the waft of the toilet block across the campground. There is none. I hold the skull’s jaws open and make a screaming noise.
Keep the Faith,