I think my aunt’s house is where I noticed it first. But the first time I consciously fixated on it was when I began regularly going to my best friend’s house after I started primary school. Everyone’s house had a distinct smell. As unique as a fingerprint. But our house didn’t have a smell I could detect – that’s what fascinated me the most; you couldn’t smell your own house. My grandfather’s house didn’t seem to have a smell either, I guess because I went there every day it was another home where I was inside the smell rather than outside it.
I was getting my daughter dressed one day last week when I reached to the bottom of the drawer for a vest. It smelled of Derry. My brain took a second to figure it out. It hadn’t been worn since it was washed and packed the last time we were in Ireland. My mum sent a parcel in the post a couple of days later – a freshly knitted jumper for Meabh and her stripy top we’d left behind on our last visit. Again the smell of home wafted out of the envelope. Washing detergent was definitely part of the composition of house smells from my childhood but it was more than that alone. Although I can’t say what exactly. Shake n Vac perhaps?
When I started secondary school, aged 11, one of the first things we were told to do for Art class was bring in an oversized shirt for painting in. My mother gave me an old blouse that smelled of her. Part perfume, part mystery. Our painting shirts resided in a box at the back of the room all year and despite being mingled in with the odours of other children’s parents that blouse smelled comfortingly like my mother the whole year through.
My first landlord in London was a creepy old guy who would show up on our doorstep at all hours wearing smart trousers and a yellowed shirt with a shell suit jacket over the top. He always carried a Marks and Spencer plastic bag with his ‘paperwork’ in it. He smelled of musk and must. Years later I was on the upper deck of a bus and I could smell that he had gotten on downstairs. My stomach churned.
It’s easy to forget how many helpful sensitivities we have. As we get older we tend to turn off our sensitivities – or at least try to – but if we are able to remain present and in tune with them, life reveals itself to be rich and mysterious in ways that can’t always be captured in words.