The first time I went to Paris, I remember nothing about the journey, except coming in from the airport (in those days) early in a cold morning and beginning to walk along the river in the centre of the city. Everywhere was grey except the sky which was the colour of peardrops, yellow and cream and beige. I kept stopping to look at it, the famous Parisian light. I don’t remember very much else. Years later, after visiting the Paris of this one and that one (places make themselves over for each individual visitor) I went alone and walked to the Musee d’Orsay in the early morning, talked to people in schoolgirl French and breathed differently. I kept checking the sky and remembering but it was never so precisely strange and beautiful again.
I am not a neurologist but the crossover of senses – sight, smell and sound – fascinates me – I suppose because I can see how one enhances the other, that smell may give you colour, that colour may give you sound. And if it doesn’t actually provide them, it enhances your image or memory of them. Did I ever eat the peardrops whose colour I have attached for fifty years to my first Parisian sky? Or was it a memory born of pears and a line in a book I liked ? Like Jeremy the Jackdaw in the animation of The Rats of NIMH, I pounce on words crying “Oh, look – a sparkly !”
A friend took me to Provence, to a village, once a Roman garrison which had built a three tiered well, and we lived in a hut halfway up the hill, cement floored with a proper window, a refuge for undesirables during the fall of France WWII. We hauled water up the hill and cooked over an open fire, and our firelighters were clumps of dried thyme, lavender and other herbs. The smell will never leave me. The sky was clearly blue and the dust brushed off your feet. And in all its glory, it was a rehearsal for Crete where I got off the plane and felt I had come home. (An illusion of course but that’s what I felt.) The heat came up from the ground and something very old and dark breathed in my ear. It wasn’t frightening, it just required me to be respectful, careful even. And I felt it again in the old boatyards, when I learned that the street of jewellers had been just that for thousands of years, when I saw Phaistos rise above the dried grass in the sunlight, when I first saw the bull altar at Knossos. Fake it may be (clever people to take away their treasures and preserve them away from the coming of modern tourism), but the impact is real. I wept.
If – as I did this morning, heaven knows why – I think about the smell of my mother’s face powder (Coty), I conjure her voice and then I hear her saying “ I do like a voice !” “I can’t look at Frank Sinatra” she used to explain “ I just want to hear him.” And there were others, singers and speakers. And sometimes all the senses come together in a special memory.
My son was very small , the winter was very cold and I had had the great and unforgettable pleasure of wrapping this treasure in cuddlesome things to take him out where I saw snowflakes on his eyelashes. And he slept when he slept, so I awoke the next morning with him at about 5.30, wrapped him up again and took him in his buggy to Hampstead Heath ( seven minutes down the road, every surface glinting with frost), up by the duck pond , sticking to the path, held in the palm of the peace and the dark and a man came towards us, a face I’d know anywhere (I had met him once before, for two minutes in the local deli). “ Good morning, Mr. Hurt” I said – that’s what he was then, John Hurt.
“Oh – hello, Anna” he said and walked on. I remain thrilled. I hope he has a nice walk wherever he is.