Lilacs. It was lilacs. A whole half-day had gone by until I knew. Half a day while my subconscious had worked, opening memory boxes, figuring out what had been so evocative.
That morning I’d passed a woman in the icy-cold train station. Both of us fast walking in opposite directions: to different platforms, different destinations. A tall curvy blonde in turquoise swing coat and tan leather boots. A bouquet of sprightly tulips from the tiny florist by the entrance tucked under her arm. She was rummaging in her bag, blowing exasperated breath up into her thick fringe as I heel-clicked past.
In those micro-moments that we shared the same chilly air, an intimacy often awkward with someone you know, the briefest time separated only by our lives bulging in our bags – hers tan mock-croc with gold clasps, mine olive canvas with a Wonder Woman keychain rattling off the zipper – I breathed enough molecules of her scent to start my brain sparking, for half a day.
Now, midway through a tedious training day, eating an M & S lunch-deal chicken salad sandwich, the memories my brain most associated with the smell of lilacs rush in…
My mama curls into my bedroom like a beautiful cat, bends to snug my quilt. Her skin is rose-flushed, velvety with her favourite lilac lotion. Her curls are brushed out, plaited so the nutmeg hair seems impossibly long; like the princess in one of my jumble-sale storybooks. She kisses my forehead, then each pillow-warmed cheek, and I’m enwrapped in sweet florals, crisp mint and a hint of tangy-malt from the saucy sip she’d taken of Daddy’s beer at dinner.
She’d handed him back the ochre glass with a Hot Cherry lip-print on the rim. He’d playfully grabbed her, his gorilla arm encircling her wasp waist and she’d squeezed his hand, licking froth from her upper lip, shrugging at me. I’d giggled, snorting bubbles into my warming cola; I was becoming old enough to find their affections squirmy, but still kind of sweet. Mama had sat down opposite me, beamed me a cherry smile and bunny-scrunched her nose. I’d grinned back through gravy-mashed potatoes.
Giving me one last kiss, mama checks my knit cat, Moogie is snuggly in the crook of my arm, leaves me drifting away with the unique perfume that is her. It will cosset me like the bedcovers until morning, when, my bare feet squirming on chilly linoleum, she’ll lather the bed scents from my cotton-creased skin with Pears soap before I can have my porridge and jam. She’ll brush my tumbleweed hair until it gleams spice-brown like hers, finger twirl it into bunches. Mama’s morning perfume is always zingy and fresh like summer: orange-blossom and sweet woodruff. The mellow heat of coffee in her boundless kisses.
I put down the last bites of chicken salad, my throat a little thickened. I drink tepid bottled water. I’d used the same citrusy perfume until I was in my late twenties, when it was discontinued. I’d used up Mama’s last jar of lilac lotion before I was seventeen. They were both in my life longer than her, had kept her close to me. Then today, a whisper of a forgotten floral amidst the harsh, grey smells of the train station had brought her back to me again.
The next time I see the curvy blonde in the station – checking departures in a burgundy leather jacket and gold ballerina-flats – I feel brave enough to ask her about the lilacs. She smiles and reaches into her handbag, shows me an almost flattened tube of hand cream. Vintage Florals: one of a triplet given to her as a birthday gift, she explains. The lilac one reminds her of a beloved Grandmother, long lost, who had the creamiest skin even in her eighties. She lets me snap a picture so I can look for the brand online, doesn’t once question my reasons. As I thank her and turn to leave, she takes my wrist, smiles warmly as she squeezes a shiny pearl onto my right palm.
We move off in opposite directions: to different platforms, different destinations, strangers but for the evocative smell of lilacs. I rub the luscious cream into my hands and as I push through a throng of agitated, tired travellers, I’m also snug in bed with a jumble-sale storybook, a cat called Moogie and my mama’s malt-mint kisses, lingering.
Author Bio: JP Relph is a working-class writer from North West England who is mostly hindered by four cats and aided by copious tea. She loves murder programmes, zombies and Marvel. A forensic science degree and a passion for microbes, insects and botany often motivate her words, which can be found in Splonk, Noctivagant Press, Cranked Anvil, Popshot Q and others. Find her on Twitter at @RelphJp.
Photo by Ana Essentiels on Unsplash.