I haven’t seen my mother for 15 years but I swear to God I smelt her perfume in my bedroom on Saturday night.
The woody undertones of ‘Bluegrass’ made my nostrils flare as I sat at my dressing table. Painting my face, I saw my eyes widen in the mirror when the smell wafted from nowhere as though she stood behind me. Fear stole my breath as I waited to see if she would actually come. Every hair on my body stood as antenna, all separate, all vibrating, searching for a signal that she was there. Frozen in my seat, I scanned the reflected room. Nothing. Not yet. Not yet.
The scent plunged me back to those sepia evenings watching her transform from Mummy to woman. I’d sit small and pyjamed on the stool next to her at her dressing table and stare freckle-faced at her precision in applying kohl to her eyes. Then she’d wet a gummed-up brush in a cake of mascara and apply layer after layer to her lashes, until they stood spiky and doll-like. Hair cooled in heated rollers until she brushed it out and shook it wild and curly. The perfume was the finishing touch, ‘everywhere you would like to be kissed’, she winked as she dabbed the scent on wrist and neck and décolleté. As she kissed me goodnight and left on the arm of a new uncle, her smell clung to me, making my throat dry and my thoughts heady.
She had always been so beautiful, the youngest mummy in the playground. I’d skipped along beside her as she walked on platform sandals, brown ankles slim and toenails painted. The other mummies looked dull in comparison, wearing clothes like curtains and smelling of roses. I’d loved the looks she got, almost as much as she did, floppy hat hiding her cat-cream smile.
Beautiful, and available, meant a busy social life for my mother. Every Saturday was date night for her. The silken sound of the Carpenters would drift through the house as she waited for men, oiled and combed, who opened doors for her and shared their fat wallets. She’d tuck me into bed and I’d listen to the front door click as she left and hoped to fall asleep soon. I always heard her come home, never alone, but quiet enough that I finally slept. The next morning, her perfume would be gone and she smelled stale.
Her scent in the air now, decades later, is enough to still me, to stun me. To make me think this is the day I will see her. The day she will come back to me.
On Monday I smelt it again as I bent to buckle my new shoe, the musky basenote ingrained in my memory. I straightened like I’d been whipped, sweat on my spine. Spinning round, I sniffed hard to find its source, but it faded to nothing as it reached my senses. She wasn’t there.
She would have loved my new shoes I thought afterwards, sinking a swift shot of whiskey to calm my shaking hands. Maybe that’s it. She’s jealous of my shoes. I hoped that was it. But I knew better.
She’d always loved beautiful things. Her ivory jewellery box was filled with gemstone brooches and dress rings, gifts and bribes from lovers whose presents lasted a lot longer than they did. She wore them on an everyday, not just on weekends, and they glinted, hard and pretty, just like her.
The day my mother first slapped me was sunny and bright. April showers had morphed into May’s promise of summer and I was ten, approaching eleven. My legs had lengthened like a skinny foal and my hair was long and auburn, to match my freckles. Playing alone was my speciality and that day I was a princess, awaiting my prince and I draped myself in beads and bangles and brooches for my bridegroom. Her face was flat when she saw me wearing her treasures. She walked across the room and took them off, one by one, before laying them on their cushioned pads for safekeeping. Then she hit me. Flat handed. The noise ringing in my ear before my cheek began to burn.
‘Don’t touch my things. They’re too pretty for you’.
I never opened the box again and learned to stay arm’s distance away.
As I grew up, her sunny smile weathered with the seasons. The uncles got age-spotted, with less hair to oil and sparser manners. Her make-up got heavier and her perfume hung on her creped neck. Skirts got shorter and necklines lower, and her hope withered like a grape on the vine, showing itself in the tight lines around her mouth when she dragged on her cigarette.
But she would hug me so hard my ribs would hurt, or swing me crazily round the room as she laughed like a loon, or show me how to curl my hair or mix a martini, ‘essential skills for later life,’ she said.
Then one day I was sixteen. Brace-straight teeth and breasts that sat proud. Opening the door to an uncle, he sucked his breath through his teeth and patted me on the bottom. Smirking at my mother he leered, ‘Now I can see the beauty you used to be.’ Coming home alone that night for the first time ever, she closed her bedroom door quietly and I heard her weeping. She never kissed me good night again. She drank more gin instead.
As I grew into my looks, she fell out of hers, collapsing into a pile of badly-fitting outfits. I helped her to colour her hair to cover the grey and painted her nails when her hands shook in return for a soft look or a watery smile.
When I met Steven, she snorted when I told her he loved me and was open mouthed when we got engaged. On my wedding day, she flirted with his father and spilt her red wine on my wedding dress. Then she cried as I put her in a cab.
“If you leave me on my own, I’ll die,” she said, mascara-stained and broken faced.
That was the last time I saw her. She drunkenly drowned in the bath while I honeymooned. Apparently her face was perfectly made up and she had on her favourite bikini. There was no note. She’d already said what she wanted to say. The words were etched in my gut. She didn’t want to be on her own. It was my fault that she was.
Lately, I’ve known she wants to come back. My family filled life is too much for her to bear. Freckly children, gentle husband and cosy home have made me so happy. But my Bloody Mary life is missing a dash of bitters. The secret ingredient to bring it to life. Someone to whirl me around in a late night dance or get me out of bed at three am to watch the stars. To feed me chewing gum at breakfast tor tuck a feather behind my ear in the garden.. Every time I smell her, I wonder if I will see her again. It makes me ache inside.
Now, the radio in the next room suddenly coughs, crackles static and then blasts music through the silent house. The haunting tones of the Carpenters echo at full volume …’Yesterday once more.’ I stand from my chair and look towards the open door as her scent seeps through. Every cell of me is alive. And even before I see her, I know. She has come back. Today is the day.
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