The scent of memory

This is an appetiser:
But work with me first. How do you describe the smell of rain to someone? Or the scent that rises from a drawer full of fresh but worn bed linen when you first open it? I have been trying to capture the smell of my dad’s black donkey jacket, the one he wore to work in the 1960s. When he came home from his shifts at the steelworks he hung it under the stairs in the porch. The closest I can get is ‘a mixture of oil and cold weather and the inside of a lorry cab’. 
Tony bought some cheese a couple of weeks ago, two white stiltons, one with chopped mango the other with blueberries. I couldn’t eat the first one: it tasted like tomcats to me. ‘I know what you mean,’ his daughter said. Not that either of us, please believe me, have tasted any part of a tom cat but there was something about the acidity, the sourness, that automatically conjured the image in my head. Or in my mouth.
There’s a poem by Kate Clanchy called, 'Poem for a man with no sense of smell’ that closes with:
the delicate hairs on the nape
of my neck…..
hold a scent so frail and precise as a fleet
of tiny origami ships, just setting out to sea.
I can try and articulate why that makes sense to me, but it feels right before I even begin to think about it. Intimacy and fragility: there’s a connection there.
I can’t imagine anyone without a sense of taste wanting to try the stilton with mango after I tell them it tastes like tomcats! But maybe they would want to try the easiest Thai green chicken curry in the world if I told them it tasted like mini lightning bolts trapped in a silk scarf, or like the heat that makes your foot tingle when you first step into a bubble bath, the sparkle of foam.

I served it on a bed of steamed shredded cabbage and ribbons of carrots which I’d sprinkled with some crushed cumin and fennel seeds during the cooking time. The flavour of that worked perfectly with the Thai blend of ingredients. Would the curry have been better if I’d started with all the ingredients from scratch rather than using the paste? Possibly. Probably. But sometimes cooking is like sending an email to an old friend rather than a long letter to your great aunt. Comfy and quick with the shorthand you can use with someone who knows you well. And the ready-made paste was my shorthand.
Thai Green Chicken Curry (courtesy of Blue Dragon)
1 tbsp oil
¼ jar of paste
400 ml of coconut milk (there’s a half-fat version out now)
2 chicken breasts, thinly sliced
1 pepper thinly sliced (or mix up different colours as I did)
Heat the oil in a pan and fry the paste for 2 minutes. Then add the coconut milk and mix in well. When it’s hot add the chicken and pepper and simmer until the chicken is cooked through. Coriander is pretty on the side and you can always have rice with it if you’re not into cabbage. The sound of the word isn’t great, I have to admit. Cabbage? What does it sound like? 
Shredded cabbage and carrot ribbons steamed with crushed cumin and fennel seeds
Hungry Writing Prompts
  • Write about the smell of summer.
  • Write about a smell that reminds you of sadness.
  • Write about a sound that makes you feel happy.
  • Write about something fragile.
  • Write about taking a bath.


catloco said…
Just joined a creative writing class for 10 weeks in the Taibach Community Centre...maybe there's hope for me yet ;) TC Jones
Lynne Rees said…
Great! Hope it goes well. I'd really like to organise some one-off writing days next spring and summer in and around Port Talbot. I'll let you know!
Brenda Turner said…
Some years ago, I worked in mental health services, one of my cients was a young man with quite severe Asperger's, he couldn't 'feel' emotion, he knew he felt something, and would, when someone cried, make a crying sound, because that is what he thought was expected. He did, however, have an almost obsession with colour, so I devised a sort of plan to help him to understand feeling.
Yellow being happiness, red anger, all hot and noisy, green was calm etc he helped to devise the list obviously. I also used a similar technique to describe colour to people who had been born blind using smells and taste. I remember the taste of honey was yellow, which is apt, cold was blue etc. It was an uplifting experience when someone 'got it'.
Lynne Rees said…
I had a lad with Asperger's in a creative writing class at Uni of Kent and while it was a challenge to teach the whole group without discriminating against him or the other students it was also really rewarding. Your colour plan makes sense too: this lad didn't empathise with other people in the group either.

We rely on our sense of sight so much - maybe even more these days as we're bombarded with visual imagery - so exploring the other senses, and synaesthesia, to communicate ideas can be a really deep experience. Especially with people who have never seen, I imagine.

Thanks for sharing this, Brenda.