It’s a truth universally acknowledged that the sense of smell is more evocative than the other four put together, so it is no wonder that, as I get older, I am continually hooked back into my distant past. It is also universally acknowledged that as one gets older, one’s long term memory increases, as the short term one decreases. In fact it’s a standard senility test-“what did you have for lunch yesterday dear?.... Can’t remember? Never mind we’ve got some nice pictures here for you to match” Well- can you remember what you had for lunch yesterday, or can’t you be bothered, in a busy life, to even think about it? Still, senile or not, I still have senior moments, and they seem to be coming along ever more frequently, like the times when the past clutches me by the nose and pulls me back….
And I am there, in the huge municipal swimming pool in East Ham: shouts and echoes, slimy tiles, weird wire baskets for your clothes, communal changing- oh the teenage blushes when your boobs were too small and your bottom too big! And what has brought me here? A whiff of chlorine when I cleaned the sink. It’s no use me peeling off my Marigolds and trying to chase away the memories with the smell of fresh coffee; I am there. Why today? It’s not as if cleaning the sink is that rare ( I may not do it every day, but I do do it) then I realise- it’s because I burnt the toast this morning, and the smell still lingers, and combines with the chlorine to make that unique smell which snares me and draws me into the past, bringing with it sounds and sights and the feeling of being a spotty, insignificant kid.
It wasn’t just the chlorine, eye stinging and almost visible- us east end kids used to pee in the water you know-, it was the toast- mountains of thin white sliced bread- (do I really remember that a loaf of it was eight pence three farthings when I used to be sent to buy it at the corner shop, in the days when there was a corner shop?) Big ladies with comfortable bingo wings made these mountains of toast and scraped cheap margarine and fish paste onto them.
-‘Ere, you got any ends missis?
(Ends were cheaper)
-There y’are love
-Put a bit a paste on it Missis
-Oh go on wiv yer then
On flush days when we didn’t have to rely on the good will of the ladies we would stuff ourselves with five or six dripping smelly slices. No slot machines full of choc bars and crisps, just bingo wings, white tiles, crumbs and chlorine. No health and safety inspectors to tell the ladies they couldn’t slap on the marge by hand and pass the greasy things straight into our chlorine scented hands.