Proust in the prose

I’m having a Proustian moment. I ordered a cheese sandwich for lunch today – just cheese on white bread, not toasted – knowing it would arrive wrapped in thin paper and delivered in a paper bag. When it came, I smiled, thanked the man behind the counter and turned away, pressing the white paper bag to my face and inhaling the memories of early childhood.

I’m at school, just six or seven years old, and I’m standing in line at the tuckshop. The lady behind the counter gives me a brown paper bag and I hold it close to my face, breathing in the smells of paper, bread and cheese. That smell makes me smile. I’m suddenly hungry and I join my friends on a nearby bench, each of us chattering with full mouths, crumbs drifting down onto our blue uniforms. We sit in the sun because it’s a little too cool to sit in the shade of the big trees. The sunshine is as warm and welcome as a soft blanket on a cold morning, an invigorating change after the darker, colder air of our classroom. I can see the faces of my friends, the Indian Myna birds chasing after our crumbs, the bitumen of the parade ground at our backs and the short, green grass of the schoolyard where we will play when our sandwiches are just a lingering taste of cheese and soft crust in our mouths.

I see my Mum’s handwriting on the paper bag, letting the tuckshop know what to give me for lunch and that a little change should be left over for me to buy a Slippery Sam – a long tube of frozen orange cordial – as a dessert. My Mum has signed her name with big, beautiful loops that I love; I wish I could write that well. I hear the jingle of the left-over coins in the bag and decide I will get my cold, sweet treat; the sun is just warm enough to make it perfect.

I haven’t a care in the world except how to keep orange cordial from spilling down the front of my school uniform.

It’s a nice feeling, remembering that innocent moment; Proust had his cake and tea, but a cheese sandwich wrapped in paper is all it takes for me. The memory is all the more powerful and tangible for having been triggered by smell. It sort of works in reverse too. The first book of Stephen King’s I ever read was The Dead Zone. In the opening chapter, the main character – John Smith – takes a knock to the head playing hockey on a frozen lake. As he’s recovering, he’s sat down next to a fire – two rubber tires burn[ing] sootily – and that smell will be with John for the rest of his life. The smell of melting rubber was strong and pungent, making him feel a little sick to his stomach. For some reason, that description reached out and dragged me into the book and I’ve never forgotten it. I’m a sucker for descriptions of smells, odours, scents, perfumes, fragrances, reeks and stinks; they’re just so incredibly evocative, genuinely bringing a scene to life. It’s something I try to remember when I’m writing, to think beyond the visual and find something more, something visceral.

Something smelly.

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2 Comments on “Proust in the prose”

  1. bloowillbooks Says:

    My favourite scent memory? When my son was a first year apprentice chef he bought me home a truffle. He slammed through the front door (not from excitement, just because that’s how he enters our house no matter what time of the day or night) and bounded into my bedroom. It was one in the morning but he woke me up saying “Mum…guess what I bought you.” He held the container to my nose and lifted the lid.

    My eyes flew open. “TRUFFLE!”

    We spent the next two days researching the best way to eat it. In the end we did plain buttered pasta with shavings of truffle…fantastic.

    Fantastic for the flavour and fantastic because my son bought me a gift and he was so excited to give it.


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