In which I imagine a ‘Madeleine moment’

Well, I was thinking about Proust (as you do) and I remembered a story I’d writing about the memory a smell can invoke. So I thought I’d share it here:

The Smell of Safety

Meg was in the kitchen, struggling to fill the kettle one handed and muttering about the inconvenience of plaster casts, when the scent of chlorine and CK One washed over her. She turned into Jon’s embrace, smiling as he pressing kiss to her temple and divested her of the kettle in one fluid motion. If you’d asked her a month ago what it made her think of she’d have wrinkled her nose and said swimming pools and lemons but that was before. Now, well, now it was the smell of safety …

She didn’t know how far she’d walked and she hadn’t, until she’d recognised the rickety bike tied to the railing at the end of the street, known where she was headed. She’d been far more concerned about the from than the to. The wind was swirling round her, pulling on her thin cardigan and tugging at her hair, like an impatient child urging her to move faster. Moving at all was proving a tougher challenge now; the adrenaline fading from her system, allowing her fear to regain a foot hold in her mind. A small part of her mind, the bit that was always watching and criticizing, was amazed that she was still upright at all, given what had happened. She pushed the images firmly away, not ready to face them. A rustle in the hedge startled her but it was only a cat. She was glad. She didn’t want to see any one, nor did she want anyone to see her in this state. She was grateful it had happened in the evening so that darkness hid her from prying eyes.

Why had her feet brought her here? She wondered as she reached the pavement in front of their house. This was the first time she’d seen it in total darkness but somehow it still seemed welcoming. She got half way up the steps to the front door before sinking down onto them, legs shaking. She shifted slightly, trying to get into her jeans pocket for her phone before realising that it wasn’t there. She’d left everything in her haste to get away and while she didn’t question the necessity she did wish she’d had a little more foresight. She stopped moving, it was making everything worse anyway, and tried to remember why she was there but her thoughts were like ice in water. She could see them but when she tried to grasp one it disappeared below the surface, bobbing up only when she let it alone. She gave up, letting her mind drift where it wanted, which was anywhere but here.

She didn’t know how long she’d been sitting there when she heard the footsteps. Had she been followed? Should she run? She tried to stand but the minute she moved flight was forgotten, white hot pain imploding in her arm and side. Her ears roared and she sank back onto the step, incapable of anything else.

‘Meg!’ She knew that voice, so full of welcome, but her addled brain couldn’t provide a name. The speaker bounded up to her and she tried to focus on them but her vision was blurred – whether through the pain or the swelling she couldn’t tell – and all she could see was the dark outline of a person.

‘I’ve been to the gym, didn’t realise you were going to come over. I thought you’d …’ there was a sharp intake of breath. ‘You’re hurt!’ She still couldn’t place the voice but she could see the person bend, reaching towards her. She shrank back, revolted by the thought of being touched, crying out involuntarily as the pain in her side surged again.

‘It’s ok, Meg, it’s Jon.’ He said, now crouched in front of her, close enough that she could make out his face. Relief flowed through her and then she knew exactly why she’d come here.

‘Sorry, just … please don’t touch me. I’ll be fine in a minute.’ Meg whispered, biting back on a moan.

‘Yes and I’m Mother Teresa,’ Jon snapped, before added in far softer tones, ‘Can you even see me through that eye?’

‘Not well,’ she admitted, the tang of copper flooding her mouth as the split in her lip opened again. ‘But I do have two you know.’

‘Well at least your sense of humour’s still intact,’ he said, eyes kind. ‘Now lets get you safe inside and you can tell me what happened while I call an ambulance.’

‘No!’ She exclaimed loudly, instantly panicked. ‘You can’t … please, I don’t want anyone to know. I just need some aspirin and some ice.’

‘You can’t fix this with aspirin.’ He said sternly. ‘You need proper medical care’

‘No!’ She could hear the hysteria in her voice and it brought her up short. What are you doing? her inner self enquired.

‘What happened Meg?’ Jon’s voice had gone soft again but his mouth was taut, face blank. ‘Please, I need you to tell me.’ He met her eyes, silently pleading with her to answer and she tried to force her brain to come up with something that would satisfy him. No lie would come.

‘I …’ she swallowed, feeling fresh tears flowing over her bruised cheeks, stinging where they touched broken skin. She closed her eyes for a moment and she could feel the blows again.

Jon didn’t do this to you, you don’t have to be afraid of him, her inner voice was gentle. Tell him the truth … let him in. He’s been your best friend for years and you know you can trust him. Do you want to live like this for ever, alone and frightened? Her thoughts clarified, coalescing like cornflower in hot water and she opened her eyes as she heard herself say:

‘It was Chris.’

Her voice was barely above a whisper but the stream of invectives now coming from his mouth left her in no doubt Jon had heard. Abruptly the cursing stopped and he turned his head away, so she couldn’t see his face, before he stood and began to pace. Silence, broken only by the rustling of the wind in the hedge, stretched between them until she felt him sit down next to her, close but not touching.

‘Has he done this before?’ His voice was hard, so unlike him it made her shiver.

‘Not hit me, no.’ Meg said, She hadn’t meant to continue but suddenly her tongue wasn’t her own. ‘But since I moved in he hasn’t even tried to control his temper. If I upset him he breaks things of mine. He doesn’t like me spending time with anyone else either.’

‘That’s what happened to your Ipod and the vase of your Gran’s. That’s why we haven’t seen you for ages.’ They were statements, not a questions but she answered anyway.

‘Yes, he said I hurt him by spending time with you, that he couldn’t bear for me to be away from him. He said he only got angry when I pushed him too far. He said I’d only understand how broken he felt if things of mine were broken.’

‘And now he’s broken you!’ Jon’s voice was shaking and the air around him felt as fragile as spun glass. He was breathing fast, like he’d been sprinting and for a moment fear spiked inside Meg but then slowly his breathing regulated and when he continued to speak his voice was his own again.

‘You do know it’s not your fault? That you don’t have to protect him? That you deserve better?’

She considered his words, wondering whether she could allow herself to believe them.

‘Yes, I do,’ her voice strong, bolstered by the truth in the simple statement. ‘And I’m not going back you know,’ she swallowed, hesitantly, before continuing. ‘I just … I wasn’t thinking straight earlier … didn’t want anyone near me.’

‘I’m not surprised,’ Jon said. ‘I’m glad you came here though. I missed you.’

‘Me too. I … oh,’ she gasped, having tried to turn towards him. He was back in front of her in an instant, hands outstretched, scant inches from her skin.

‘Where does it hurt?’ he sounded far calmer than she knew she would have been if their positions had been reversed.

‘Everywhere’ she admitted, hating the fact she sounded so weak.

‘I should get you inside, out of the cold. Can you walk?’

‘I don’t know. I mean … I walked here but now the minute I move …’ She trailed off, trying not to moan aloud. The pain was deepening now, like a banked fire rekindled with fresh air, frightening in its intensity. Her left wrist and side felt like they had shards of glass in them and she didn’t want to even try to move her left hand. Instead she clenched her other hand, nails digging into her palm as she fought to regain control.

‘I don’t want to try,’ she finally managed to say.

‘Right,’ he stood up and she could just make out him fishing in his pocket. ‘I’ll call an ambulance and then text Ed. He can meet us at the hospital so we’ll have a car to get home in. You’ll stay here, if that’s ok, Meg?’

‘Uh huh,’ She breathed, unwilling to open her mouth; the pain was starting to make her nauseous and she really didn’t want to throw up on him. She swallowed convulsively instead, trying to breathe through her nose in the way her mother had always told her to when she was little and car sick. She was vaguely aware of Jon talking urgently into his phone, but the wind had picked up and for the first time she noticed the temperature.

‘Meg, the ambulance will be here in 10 minutes,’ Jon crouched back down in front of her so she could see him with her good eye. His face belied the calmness in his words when he said. ‘Can you hang on for me till then?’

‘Think so.’ She said, trying to smile at him. ‘You’ll get cold though, staying out here with me.’

‘You mean you’re cold. Like usual.’ He attempted a smile in return. ‘At least that’s something I can fix. If …’ his voice tailed off as he fiddled with the zip of his hoodie, still crouching in her line of sight. He tensed for a second, expression unreadable before he quietly asked ‘May I touch you?’

‘Yes … Like I said, I wasn’t thinking straight before.’ Meg’s voice cracked as she spoke. ‘Just avoid my left side. I think you might be right about me being broken.’

He let out a breath she hadn’t realised he’d been holding as he moved round her, back out of her sight. ‘Please tell me if I’m hurting you.’ He said quietly into her right ear and then she felt him drape something round her.
It smelt of him, of the gym swimming pool he spent so much in and his favourite aftershave, the one she’d given him for his birthday, just after they’d first met. As she breathed in the comforting aroma he sat back down next to her, this time so his body was touching hers, sliding one arm behind her back and taking her right hand in his own. Gingerly, trying not to jolt herself, she leant into him until the back of her head rested against his neck and shoulder as he held her.

‘You’re safe now’ His breath moving her hair as he spoke. ‘You’re going to be fine.’

‘I know,’ she muttered back as the heat from his body seeped into her, warming more than just her physical shell. ‘I always feel safe with you.’

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