The scent of grief

There’s a poem, that I’ve forgotten the name of, about changing the sheets. It contains a line about the poet’s mother “the smell of clean washing is hers” I think of this every time I change the bed. I use the same washing powder that my mother used to, just for the smell.

When I think of my Dad, I can smell shoe polish, the kind that comes in a metal tin with a tiny lock, that needs a brush. I can hear his voice, admiring the shine and reminding me of the importance of paying attention to the backs as well as the toes, for the benefit of the people behind you. When I was small I used to sit on the floor and take his boots off, releasing the hot dampness of his thick socks.

But what smells remind me of Fred?

This is all the wrong way round, he’s supposed to have things that remind him of me. The washing powder, the shoe polish, the crumble in the oven, the waft of pancakes. These smells can’t belong to him, they are mine to give.

When he was a baby, I would tuck a cloth down my top in the vain hope that it would comfort him and persuade him to sleep. I never needed one in return.Years later, we moved onto my extravagant sleep balms. “Will you do my potions?” he would ask, as I rubbed my prized organic sleep serum onto his forehead, and sprayed lavender pillow spray on either side of his head. Neither of us believed it worked any more than the cloth, except that he had asked something of me and I had given it willingly – the scant brush of physical affection and service that a teenage boy will allow.

There was no cologne to cling to, just a desperate attempt to persuade him to wash. “Your hair stinks!” which would be his final cue to get in the shower, after days of pretending he’d already had one. That fetid, oily stench disappeared along with his hair, and his treatment’s demand for cleanliness. I longed for that smell to return as I kissed the top of his bald head. Now there was a larger target area for me to reach, and he was less inclined to stop me.

It was not the only smell that was taken from me – the strawberry milkshake, kept in the cupboard for school holiday treats. It’s synthetic, sickly fragrance (having never seen a strawberry) turned putrid day after day on a hospital ward when he couldn’t eat but needed the calories. Pints and pints were whisked up with extra spoonfuls, no longer caring about the sugar. When I opened the box, months later, came screaming back as a vicious reminder of all that had been spoilt.

Now I anxiously look for new things to fill the space. New perfume, new room fragrances, flowers, anything to fill the things that have been taken, the smell of an empty room.

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