This is a little story I’ve been working on for a while. Inspired by scent and memory.
The mirror is round and slightly convex, secured in a dark wood frame to the wall in the hallway. There is a smudged fingerprint at either side where someone has straightened it after a knock. She wonders if the ghostly, complex whorls belong to her.
Behind, light spreads muted and dappled through the frosted glass of the front door and is too pale to be anything but a winter’s morning. The air hangs like a chilly exhalation of breath, nipping slightly at her ears. It is always a thrill to view the familiar reflection of the hall made strange by angles in reverse, slightly bent in the mirror’s curve. Her winter coat, well worn and soft, oddly animated, as if she had hung it upon the coat stand with part of herself still concealed inside. The pretty willow pattern jug on the sill from a visit to an over-priced antiques market; seemingly taller and more slender than it’s actual, rather squat little form. The wooden rungs of the banister appear to be both climbing the stairs and bracing them; at once high stepping and bending as the stairs make their bizarre journey upwards and into the dark of the landing.
Her eyes dart back to her own reflection and she catches an expression there, one that she has never seen before. A flicker and it’s gone and in that moment her face belongs only in the mirror, the gaze already turning to join the electric stillness inside the glass, where inanimate things move so quickly that they remain still. She can sense something in the air of that mirrored hallway; an expectation, the acrid scent of burning paper while the match lies unlit in its box. She is tucked slightly too far into the wings, while shadows flit across the unseen stage.
She finds herself often transfixed by objects. Trinkets hidden in plain sight that flare brightly at the corners of her vision, as if trying to catch her attention. Of course they are just ordinary things when she turns her adult gaze upon them but she becomes convinced that they must have a secret purpose. Like the willow patterned jug for example. She found it amongst the vast cascades and toppling piles of antiquity, partially obscured by a rather grandiose gilded chamber pot. When glanced at, it seemed to peep its delicate form out from behind the immense frilled bottom of its guardian and shimmer a little. The air had momentarily thickened and a suggestion of burning caught her at the back of the throat. With closer inspection she noticed that it was in fact a rather plain, lazy reproduction, cracked slightly and discoloured inside. It lay absolutely still and cold in her hands, yet hadn’t it caught her attention for a reason?
And so it goes, she must have it. How could she possibly leave it behind? On the way home she picked one flower head from an abundant hydrangea bush to crown her prize with softest blue and bronze. Once inside she had placed it reverently on the windowsill and stepped back to admire her purchase. It was such a simple little thing, the flowers with all their fluttering petals somehow threw the shabbiness into sharper contrast. She puzzled over what had possessed her to buy it in the first place.
Looking at the jug’s reflection in the mirror now it seems to regain some of that shimmer and her heart skips slightly. She understands once more how such an ordinary object could practically jump from the shelf into her hands. The blue and white is such a vivid contrast against the dark windowsill, the pattern of boats, bridges and little men made somehow more animated by the amateurish, hand drawn lines. In the mirror’s reflection the jug becomes a vessel in which to hold something precious. She must find a beautiful bit of nature to fill it once again. There will be no hydrangea so late in the year but maybe a sprig of holly. The red of the berries will contrast nicely with the willow pattern blue. There is a magnificent combination, she thinks, the harlot and her sailor boy.
Her need for colour is as important as breathing. She craves it like a drug and puzzles further over whether this is normal. She feels so sad to see Mr and Mrs next door, going about all swaddled in beige and brown and grey. It is as if they are trying to disappear. The soup and porridge hues in which they are cocooned whisper of untold misery. Mrs wears the beige of a hospital curtain when she could have cream, rich and soft as a barn owl’s wing. Mr wears trousers that are mud shot through with ash. It looks as if he has been wading waist deep in gloom. Why does he not want deepest charcoal or chocolate brown?
Last Christmas, feeling especially festive, she bought the Mrs a gift in the hope of lifting the fog which clouds her, making her bland. A scarf of softest, finest wool the colour of a new leaf, almost a silvery green. Not too bright but just enough to bring out the flecks in her eyes. On opening the gift such a look of bewilderment crossed the woman’s face, she stroked the softness of the wool with guilty fingers as if this was not something that should belong to her.
As far as she knows the scarf has never been worn. She imagines it neatly folded in a drawer and glowing subtly whenever it is glanced upon. Maybe that is enough. She believes everyone should have a little colour in their life, no matter how well hidden it is. It amuses her greatly to entertain the idea of the Mrs wearing red lingerie beneath her putty coloured trouser suit.
Sometimes, when she least expects it, she gets the slightest glimpse into other peoples lives, just by touching them. If she were to deliberately lay her hands upon a person in search of their deepest secrets, she’d see nothing but their alarmed face staring back at her. It is the odd moment; like when someone hands her change in a shop, that she sees more than she should. A front door, a favourite item of clothing, the echo of voices. Just small things really, but enough to piece together the bits of that person’s life. Maybe she is just very perceptive. The idea that she might be anything more is faintly alarming. Besides, that sort of thing is all psychological anyway…
She remembers being a child, holding her upturned palms out for goodness to fall into as easily as raindrops. She feels an almost painful stab of nostalgia for those times, when innocence flittered and glistened around her like fireflies and reaching out to make a wish was instinctual. Those fireflies are still dancing, she is sure of it, but now she is grown they stay at the corners of her vision and always just out of her reach. Doubt is a constant presence, muddling her best intentions, dipping a bitter finger into her freshly brewed tea, peppering the downy cloth of sleep with tiny holes. It has such stealthy shadow, she can be sitting in full sunlight and still sometimes it finds a way to darken her day.
She sighs and finishes applying her lipstick, a blushed berry pink that makes her cheeks look rosy. As she tucks the little golden tube back into her purse her mind begins to turn back to the mundane tasks that will take up her day. As she buckles her bag she remembers she has not put any perfume on, so she reaches back into the leather recesses and pulls out a little vial. Another little stab of nostalgia leaps within her as she spritzes a mist of fragrance around her head. This was the scent her mother wore when she was very young and now it seems to throw her recent musings into an even sharper light. It reminds her of forgotten things.
All of a sudden her eye is caught by a slight movement in the mirror. There, halfway up the stairs, is the suggestion of someone small, with a hand clutching the banister rail. She is hit by such a wave of recognition that she feels herself locked into the reflection, unable to turn around. She knows what is about to happen but cannot move her lips to utter a single sound. The little form on the stairs, the size of a four year old child, seems to bend its knees and with an almost audible intake of breathe, jumps.
Her heart is lurching in her chest, the stairs are too steep and the child is too small. She sees it all distorted in the bend of the glass, the arc of limbs as they are raised in flight, the impending impact of fragile body against hard floorboards. Then there is a sudden thickness in the air, a change in pressure that makes her ears pop. The atmosphere sparks with the strike of a match and in that moment she is released from her paralysis, spinning around to face the stairs. There she watches as the child, in blue denim dungarees and small yellow shoes, executes a perfect landing. All around the little figure the light dances in golden beams. The child looks straight at her, dark eyes and brown curls all lit up with delight. There is a delicious little giggle of pleasure, echoing so clearly in her mind that she is rocked again by an immense sense of recognition. As she struggles with the growing rush of blood in her ears the whole scene begins to fade, slowly fizzling away until nothing but the winter sun and the scent of her perfume is left behind in the hallway.
She sits down slowly upon the seat below the mirror and continues to stare at the bottom of the staircase. She knows the small yellow shoes. She remembers them quite clearly. The Velcro straps had rows of ladybirds marching along them. She used to pretend that they were her magic shoes.
For how long she stays there she is unsure, the sudden snap of the letterbox spewing its mail onto the mat dislodges her sharply from her reverie. Glancing out of the window she sees that it really is a lovely morning. She puts on her coat and hat and steps out of the front door into the pristine winter air. The chill nips at her fingers as she pulls on her gloves but the sun is bright and sparkling in the crystal sky. Her hand instinctively flutters over her belly as the child inside does a little flip of excitement.
The scent of her perfume follows behind as she shuts the door. Perhaps it might still be possible to make wishes after all, she thinks as she sets off down the frost-dusted road. So she wishes for her child’s first pair of shoes to be yellow.