The stink of summer

A woman fell over in Ikea yesterday, a Moslem woman in a
scarf with a long skirt and wide coat. She had been pushing one of those stub
Ikea trolleys and must have lost her grip on it because there she was on the
floor below the first flight of stairs on the mezzanine crying out in
pain.  She had hurt her leg.  I offered to help, my son in law
offered to lift her but no, she had hurt her ankle and did not want to move. 
An Ikea attendant dressed from top to toe in butter yellow
came to her rescue and we moved on. ‘These stairs are a health hazard,’ I
said.  ‘It’s a wonder people don’t
fall all the time.  The banisters
are too short.’  
Last night at dinner with a small group of old friends we
talked about installing a banister along the walkway into the garden of one of
our friends, who is ill, seriously ill, soon to die.   
But the banister was not so much for
him, he said, as for other friends who visit, some elderly, some unwell, but all
of whom are vulnerable to falling when they walk onto the uneven footpath that
gives access to his house.
Memories return:
The banister that leads down the five or six short steps
onto the concrete path that takes you to the change rooms of the swimming pool
in Camberwell is made of steel, round and cold to touch. It bends to accommodate the slope of
the ground as it moves down the hill beside the pool onto the entrance to the
change rooms. 
The change rooms themselves are underneath the pool.  In the corners of the shower recess
there are long green slimy marks from the constant dripping which I imagine is
the swimming pool slowly leaking into the earth beneath.  The change rooms also stink of
chlorine.  Chlorine is the smell of
The water at the swimming pool is the bluest of blues.  I do not realise until adulthood that
its colour arises from the colour of the tiles that line its surface.  I had thought as a child it must come
from the stuff that is added to the water, the stuff that gives the water its
peculiar stink, a stink that stays on my skin long after I have returned home
from the pool.   The stink of
Summer is also the freedom of swimming, an escape from my
father.  He does not swim.  He has diabetes and must take care of
his feet.  He will not go to the
beach for the same reason. 
There could be strange things in the sand, broken bits of
glass, the sharp edge of an abandoned tin can that could cut his feet and if
his feet get cut, he bleeds and if he bleeds from his feet something happens to
his circulation and he could wind up with gangrene and they might chop off his legs. 
How I wish they would chop off his legs, then he would not
be able to walk.  In a wheelchair
he could not visit us in the night. 
My sickly friend from the dinner party last night talked
about death, the need to pay attention. 
He has gone from a round corpulent fellow to a grey shadow
of himself, thin and wan.  He
spends eighteen hours a week on dialysis and cannot drink liquid except in the
form of ice to go with his whiskey. He does not pee anymore he tells me and I
wonder about this.   
Not to pee any
more, not to feel the trickle pass from inside and out into the toilet or for
him against the urinal wall, a strange loss, a loss greater even than the loss
of blood through menopause.
In the change rooms of the swimming pool I notice my first
pubic hairs sprouting there below the V bone above my legs and I fear that
something terrible is happening to me. 
I have not taken in the sight of my mother’s naked body if I have ever seen
it or of my older sister’s and have no idea that such things might happen to me.
My childhood fantasy is that death belongs only to the elderly, those older than me, but not to me.  At the swimming pool I use the silver
steel of the banister as a monkey bar and hang upside down to see the earth
underneath my head.  I do this
repeatedly until my hand slips and I am on the ground with a crash. 
I feel it in my shoulder, the sharp pain that signifies a
broken bone or some other internal damage but I do not tell the pool
people.  Not until I get home do I
complain of the pain to my mother. 
This is a mistake. 
My mother tells my father.  My father goes to examine me.  We do not use doctors in our
house.  Our father sees himself as
the resident medical expert. The worst of it is when he bandages my chest round
and round like a mummy. 
I am ten years old without breasts to speak of but I know
that soon they will be here and my body feels taboo.  Yet
like a parcel handler, my father bandages me up, ready for postage.  
And the woman from Ikea, how is she now?  

49 thoughts on “The stink of summer”

  1. Particularly nicely written piece. I remember a letter to a publication. "Dear Dorothy,
    I have fallen in love with a professional swimmer but he constantly stinks of chlorine and I cannot stand the smell. Help!"

  2. You have a wonderful ability to make the reader part of so many moments and ideas and then pull them into a coherent whole. I was remembering moments and fears of youth and of interactions with family. Thank you

  3. Wonderful writning here. You make my Saturday morning.
    Before my husband died he had trouble with simple things like peeing and when it did come it was almost black, very frightening.

  4. The smell of summer is chlorine. unless you gets to a good lake. Then the smell is wonderful!

    Interesting way you have of weaving stories together.

  5. I have not been to IKEA for almost ten years. When we moved into our last flat we had no furniture at all bar a TV and Carrie’s desk but a trip to IKEA rectified that. We bought everything apart from our bed and my green leather chair there, the one that sits in my office now. There was far too much for us to manage so we paid for a firm to deliver it all and I took time off from work to build it all. I remember it was summer and I was stripped to the waist humping around all these bookcases and desks. That would kill me now. It saddens me to see how much I’ve changed in that time. When Carrie went to America last I pulled out one of the bookcases in the living room to fit a cable behind it and that alone wore me out. I’ve started doing out for constitutionals in the mornings. Not every day—every day is a bit much—but I’m building up to it. And a half-hour is enough too. I haven’t swum in years. We went once just after we moved here but never went back. My osteopath encouraged me to swim but it’s such a chore and I don’t enjoy it. I can only do the breaststroke. I could never master the crawl and I was about thirteen before I even learned to swim. Odd you might think considering the fact we lived only a short walk from the beach and huge chunks of our summer holidays were spent mucking around on the beach. We went to the baths too—Dad took us (I don’t ever recall my mum there or with us at the beach)—but no one ever pressed me to learn to swim. I have no idea if my brother or sister can swim. I can’t ever recall seeing them swim. By the time my daughter was old enough trips to the beach were becoming less common; the state of British beaches was a talking point. I know I’ve taken her there but only once I think; I remember her splashing in the sea; she’d be about three. I took her to the baths a few times but never tried to teach her to swim. I have no idea if she ever learned.

    There’s a bit in Stranger than Fiction about peeing:

    Life’s like peeing—once you’ve started you’ve got to keep going till you’re done. He remembered his sister interrupting him in mid flow behind the garden shed and his mother making him wash out his trousers himself. Oh the shame of it! Mary had wanted to know why she didn’t have “an aiming tube” too—such an appropriate euphemism, he’d always thought—but their mother had circumvented the issue with her usual consummate skill and the matter never raised its ugly head again. If only his sister had realised how poor the original design had been and that men did not refer to their genitalia as if they had minds of their own for no good reason. Why was it when he pointed the blasted thing in one direction the stream, if he was lucky enough to have only one to contend with, went some other—invariably on the carpet?

    The sister was not my sister. She was called Mary through. She was my best friend’s sister and that’s exactly what she said. In my last novel, Left, the protagonist makes this confession:

    I like peeing. Now there’s an admission. It doesn’t get me excited or anything. It’s not like that. I simply enjoy it. I’ve never really analysed it. I’m not particularly analytical. Wherever you may be let you pee flow free—one of my dad’s less profound maxims. Anally retentive I may be (as in ‘emotionally constipated’) but I never have difficulty peeing. I suspect actually that it’s a privacy thing. If there’s one way to get a few moments peace and quiet in the hurly-burly of this life you can always find it in a toilet.

    And, of course, you’re read my recent poem, ‘The Old Codger’. Who’d ever imagine I’d have so much to say on the subject of urination?

    I have no idea when I noticed the growth of pubic hair. My dad’s euphemism for male privates was ‘old man’. The poetry of the expression has never been lost on me. I’ve never known anyone else to use it. But the idea that this part of me would rush towards old age and leave the rest of me to catch up has always appealed. Old men were dirty—literally and metaphorically—sex was dirty. Made total sense.

  6. For me the smell of summer was hot sand, salty water and the smell of fish from the nearby fisherman's wharf, populated with many small boats that went out daily. The fishy's wharf backed up to the fishery where the catch was processed and sent to the storefront where the chippies would buy it and create wonderful fish'n'chip dinners in the cafes of the town.

  7. How brave and honest you are.I'm glad I found this blog. One does heal from childhood stuff though. I think one does.Should be able to …

  8. Your chain of images/memories is, on the one hand, strangely fragmented, then on the other, profoundly whole. I love the way you generate a jig-saw puzzle of ideas clipped together slowly throughout the full narration.

    Likewise you made a connection between the wound on a body and the winding (past tense wound) mummy like bandages.

    Always a pleasure to return to your blog.

  9. How you manage to tie so many discordant thoughts into one coherent bundle amazes me, Elisabeth. And at the end there is always a point, only with more questions.
    As I read each of your thoughts, I go off into my own connections and memories, but then I read on and there is another thought, seemingly unrelated and where I wonder if I have even understood the meaning of your previous intention.
    And then at the end, I know. These are YOUR stories. Unsorted and uncategorized and still weaving their emotions through your life.
    Write on.
    Karen C

  10. "This makes Proust tame."

    Good heavens, leave the man alone, he's dead.

    I don't exactly know what being Proust means but River's comment is spot on for me: hot sand, fish and chips: an Australian childhood, big city.

    Comparisons are odious, my word, the stuff I write is likened to sewage. How unkind. Still, it's me, RH, penny-for-a-shit spontaneous.

  11. In hindsight, I am sure you realized that that was the only way to go if you wanted to maintain an elevated status in the Underworld. Even in low to no moisture, hot arid climates that would mummify the Earthly Temple of Flesh, if one could afford it, they always paid the the expensive premium charge for the wraps. Although if one had to ask, t usually meant they could not afford it, nobody back then would put a price on comfort within the context of eternity.

  12. Chlorine may be the smell of summer if you only swim in a pool, but swimming in the ocean or a lake offers its own uniqe smells. But swimming is such a messy thing, that perhaps you just assume a smell to be their even if it's not. There's also kind of a liberated feeling to swimming, to getting wet. No sense worrying about your hair or your clothes (what little you're wearing) when swimming. Nothing's going to stay in place anyway. Swimming is freedom. Swimming is nothing left to lose (as long as you keep your valuables locked in the changing room)

  13. That's one Dorothy Dix letter I have not yet red, Andrew. Strange the things that can come between us- the swimmer and his lover.

    Thanks, Andrew.

  14. I suppose memory making is one aspect of reading other people's writing, Anthony. I'm glad my post provoked a few of your own.

    Thanks, Anthony.

  15. Thanks, Elizabeth. I'm flattered by the comparison, but I very much doubt my writing will ever enjoy the longevity or readership of Proust. Though I suspect you refer to him merely metaphorically and for this I'm grateful.

    Thanks, Elizabeth.

  16. Black pee, Jane. It sounds worse than no pee. Your poor husband. He must have had a dreadful time and you beside him to help but to some large extent presumably helpless in the face of such debilitation and eventual death.

    Thanks, Jane.

  17. I've no doubt that lakes and rivers smell a thousand times better than chlorinated pools, Rob-bear. Our human attempt to create a hygienic barrier for ourselves in still water that nature provides in its rivers, lakes and streams, how shall I say? naturally.

    Thanks, Rob-bear.

  18. The business of learning to swim is as commonplace in Australia as learning to read and write, Jim. It's considered essential, though in my day, many like me had to make do with teaching ourselves. These days there are numerous swimming schools attached to pools ad schools for the purpose of teaching little ones learn to swim from infancy onwards.

    As for Ikea, we go there and buy their stuff from time to time but its considered by many to be lightweight and cheap – the furniture you buy out of necessity for the moment with little expectation that it will last, though sometimes it does.

    I imagine most Ikea stores worldwide are similar with all those odd – to me odd – Swedish words pasted here and there and everywhere.

    As for the business of peeing and old age, it's as you say one of those things that slows down for all of us, or speeds up as the case may be: our bladders get smaller, our muscles looser. Our bodies wear out.

    Thanks for all those terrific quotes, Jim. They bring a young boy's childhood to life.

  19. Wow, Elisabeth….. what a complex and sad and awful memory for a hand rail to awaken.

    Please tell me that your injury was eventually dealt with properly and you were OK….?

  20. Those smells from your summer memories are wonderful, River. I share some of them : the salt and sand and the smell of fresh fish and chips wrapped in newspaper, over a layer of butcher's paper.

    Thanks, River.

  21. I'm sure you are right, petrujviljoen, many of us heal from childhood trauma, to some extent at least, and especially after we work on it and get help along the way, in whatever shape or form it might come. But there are always scars, and scar tissue is not as flexible as healthy tissue.

    It's lovely to see you here and thanks, Petrujviljoen.

  22. It's good to see you here again, David-Glen. I appreciate the way you describe my fragmented wanderings as akin to jigsaw puzzle pieces that come together to some extent in the end.

    Of course it's easier for me as writer to see the elements behind the scenes, the way they knit together and far harder on my readers, so I'm grateful for this feedback.

    Thanks, David-Glen.

  23. That's the point, Karen, these are my thoughts, my memories, my imaginings, all woven together in what seems like some incoherent stream, but as I just suggested to David-Glen, there's a cohesiveness that belongs to the piece which is easier for me to see.

    Though I should qualify this because many of the connections emerge out of my conscious awareness. It's only after the event, after I've written them down, that I can see them, and even then I recognise they're not always clear to my readers.

    Thanks, Karen.

  24. Comparisons may be odious, Robert, but we tend t make them, perhaps because things trigger off other thoughts and we sometimes like to share them.

    Proust certainly seems a long way from fish and chips on an Australian beach. Proust and his madeleines which I gather were something else in reality, but who cares.

    The writers of yore, those whose writing gets remembered become universals and cliches and inspirational and all manner of things for different people.

    Thanks, Robert.

  25. I'm interpreting your comment, Dusty, as a wry metaphor for the cost of mummifying and bandages, but I'm not quite sure how to get to your intended meaning.

    Even so I appreciate your visit.

    Thanks, Dusty Who.

  26. I also enjoy the freedom of swimming, Kirk. When I was a child it was my favourite sport, not that I ever competed, but it was about the only physical activity I undertook that I felt I was good at, along with diving, but self taught as I was I was not very good at it – a crooked swimmer whose technique I learned later watching my children learn to swim was all wrong.

    I agree with you about the smell of wet, whatever water you've plunged yourself into.

    Thanks, Kirk.

  27. It's hard to think of anything more ridiculous than saying someone has beaten Proust at his game. I laughed when I saw it.

    Don't believe it.

    I'm not sure what you're after, if it's women's mag you might pass. For something more you'd have to get nasty. I don't mean swear words.

  28. I imagine it was a feature of our times and situations, Luluberoo, this decision by our parents not to use doctors. It's good to see you here.

    Thank, Luluberoo.

  29. I couldn't understand what you meant. I like stink better than "bad odour".
    I remember in primary school a teacher saying some words look like the thing they're describing: "skeleton" looks like a skeleton.
    Who are you writing for, the well-to-do along Burke Road? When I read your stuff I hear a string quartet.
    Yell, be raucous -if you're really angry; I don't think you are.

  30. If I ignore their stage- management I find your posts interesting, we're in the same city and although it has millions of people it's always been 'small town'. And so we share experience in a way. Of course you've got a lot more dough than me and that's one reason I'd give your writing a stern critique. On the other hand, placing you above Proust would have to be sarcasm. I'd be alarmed if you believed it.

  31. I meant no ill will. Just playing around with the theme of death, the ordour of sanctity, mummification through rapid dehydration (which produces a dead body sanctity without the cover up perfumes.)

    Not that there is anything impious about a dead corpse stinking. That false belief serves only the purpose of man needing to believe that Heaven couldn't possibly be reality here, because that would entail taking the responsibility to live within the laws and what is required to maintain citizenship in the Living Celestial Kingdom without the facade created by man. Owning our shortcomings rather than blaming the woman.

    Although I guess I was being snarky to the dude doing the Rick Moranis impersonation trying to sell bubble headed water filters

  32. I'm not sure that Elizabeth was comparing my writing to Proust's writing, Robert. I doubt that such comparisons would be helpful – accurate or not – but perhaps something of the style or flavour of what she read in this post evoked thoughts of Proust.

    I often read writing and it reminds me in some way of another writer's work. Not that the writing is the same but perhaps something of the content, focus or style evokes an idiosyncratic memory of another's writing.

    My guess is that's what this reference is a about. To reassure you, I have no delusions of writing like Proust. His writing in any case comes as a feature of him and his age. Mine comes out of me and mine.

    Thanks again, Robert.

  33. Thanks for the clarification, Dusty Who. I didn't take offense, nor as I just said to Robert, do I get carried away with the reference to Proust. We needn't take such things too seriously, at least not in my opinion.

    Thanks, Who , twice over.

  34. The smell of the sea to me is not half so disturbing as the chlorinated smell of swimming pools, Heidi. But then again a polluted ocean or beach could have a pretty foul stench too.

    Thanks, Heidi.

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