‘Go on and try,’ Erin replied and disappeared in the austere block of apartments where she lived with her nonna.
After her mother died and Erin moved in with her grandmother she was forced to quit school and work. Her nonna used to turn a coin salvaging the Heights and the surrounding areas for refuse boxing paper, elastic bands, paper clips and other stationary – and repackaging it for old man Mikhailovskiy.
The earnings were meagre – shrapnel to line her pockets with the light weight of reassurance that made her happy. But chronic arthritis had robbed her of any remaining faculty.
As a result she was prone to bathetic extremes – swinging from maudlin depressions to nostalgic euphoria and solicitude. But Erin watched her nonna battle her inner demons with courage usually reserved for women with hearts rebuilt by loss.
When Dale met her at the end of her shift the heat of the factory would make her uniform stick as if she’d spilt lime cordial all over her cherry-blushed skin. He told her she reminded him of late summer. She pushed him away like a warm summer breeze.
‘You smell so fine,’ he said each time they met.
‘You’re just saying that cos I work in a soap factory,’ she always replied and smiled.
He looked into her green eyes and became lost in the sough of reclaimed pasture lands around his father’s homestead that were drenched with cicadas in the summertime.
Although Dale knew Erin was the most significant girl to pass through his short life, he was yet to realise, and no one told him there would be more than one.
Since he had memories Dale had played with his neighbour Kelly on the mound of construction sand that lay on the verge outside her house. Kelly’s house was actually a caravan, but she called it a house and would get angry when Dale didn’t. It lay further down the same track that led to the stables Dale’s father built, which made her Dale’s closest neighbour.
When they were at the age they knew what marriage meant (but not what it was) they had declared they would get married one day and they believed it.
She smelt like he did, and he liked it – suncream, crushed grass and construction sand from bundy wars after it rained. And there was the effluvial reminder from her hair and clothes of algae and mud from local storm water canals where they hunted for toads and gamboozies that Kelly pronounced ‘gambeezies,’ and then argued with Dale that she was right when he corrected her.
Dale remembered the day she stopped playing after school because she didn’t smell like construction sand and crushed grass. She smelt like blackcurrant varnish and was dressed weird standing outside her house waiting for her mum. When Dale tried to push her into the construction sand she shouted at him that shouldn’t get dirty. The distinctive clatter of the caravan door swinging open and shut made Dale feel better because it was something he recognised, unlike the feeling he was feeling. He heard Mrs Clements, who always carried the civet scent of bitter orange, empty beer bottles and elastic bands get in their old pick-up and drive it around the front of the house, which was technically the back of the house. As she got in Mrs Clements told Dale she was taking Kelly somewhere else to play
If the weather was warm they strolled up through the waste land to grazing paddocks at the back of the factory – time seemed to halt in the brittle sun soaked grass that crackled like fresh-lit kindling. Pointed seeds caught in Dale’s school sock which made his ankles itch.
‘You smell so fine,’ he repeated.
And again she replied, ‘You’re just saying that cos I work in a soap factory.’
On the walk back they would hit a narrow corridor of fennel and lemon-soaked gumtrees that reminded him of his mother – standing on uncertain legs beside her, handing up to her clothes pegs as she hung out the washing.
When the summer unleashed its true potential the concrete terrain around the school and factory sizzled. While Dale waited outside the soap factory for Erin to finish work he strained his eyes trying to see cartoon palm tree oases in the wet eyelids shimmering off the penumbra of the ballistic smoke stacks. He knew well enough that Saturday morning cartoons lived in the world of make-believe. But he was disappointed when he had to admit mirages didn’t exist, because the cartoons made them seem so believable and real.
As the surrounding fields turned to straw and dust, they sat in silent, sweaty reverie on lunch breaks and stolen moments. They forgot things to talk about and Erin stopped reminded him summer. Summer now was the smell of dust, oil, and mastic resin and leather tanning in his father’s shed.
It wasn’t that hearts were broken necessarily. She had a different life now, connected to women that baked, shaped and packed soap cakes. She started smoking and drinking beer and didn’t like being reminded of her old life in stories Dale brought back from school yard pranks and classroom chatter. He started taking notice of Genevieve and her mum and found more and more reasons and excuses to stay at school and not visit the factory.
Genevieve’s mum had skin like wedding cake icing. When she stopped and kissed a morning goodbye into Genevieve’s shocking copper hair her figure imbued the school entrance with the scent of talcum powder and honeysuckle milk moisturiser.
She worked for Ovan selling cosmetics and perfume door-to-door to the ladies in town. This mainly comprised of the women at the soap factory, which Dale found peculiar given all the ladies at the soap factory already smelt so fine.
He didn’t really know at the time why he started talking to Genevieve, because she was weird and didn’t say much. But he got into the habit of waiting with her for her mother to pick her up after school. She always smelt different, but exuberantly exotic and compelling – caramelised squashed ants, frangipani spiced potpourri, candied ginger and buttery peaches, peppercorn berries, and cocoa-dusted hibiscus flowers.
It made him shiver sometimes and gave him a strange sense of solace – a solace that reminded him of waking up on weekends in the dark depths of winters, where he stayed swaddled in the duvet until he couldn’t resist dragging himself in front of morning television to watch cartoons. He tried to reclaim the comfort of the duvet while sat cross-legged on the floor, waiting for the smell of his mother’s nutmeg porridge to tell him she’d woken up.
She worked in Brambles, the pioneer-themed confectionery story on High St near the school’s campus. The store was forever engulfed in the redolence of molasses and liquorice which spilled out the store and down the street. Sinewed, saccharine flavours of pick ‘n’ mix and boiled lollies, milk chocolate, honeycomb, toffee apple and fudge washed about the aisles and display counter. The longer Dale lingered in the store the delicate bouquet of Turkish delight, white chocolate, cardamom and mint coated the air like sugar dusting – occasionally interrupted by a momentary affront of walnuts, peanuts and desiccated coconut.
The ambrosia of fragrances stuck to her like bubble gum and drew Dale in through the open glass doors every time he passed with his weekly allowance. Eventually they got together and sank cream-soda spiders till they were sated and sick. Lana’s long blonde hair seeped strawberries & creams, and her skin smelt like milk bottles. Her lips tasted of cola and sherbet centred lollipops and her tongue was a wet sour bear.
He told her, ‘you smell so fine,’ but didn’t say she made his insides tingle like Spacedust.
They spent most their time stuck together like gummy bears and snakes – pashing on like each other was cotton candy.
He was still reminded of Lana when he passed the confection section of Flossman’s Department Store. Even Genevieve’s mother with Genevieve’s shock of copper hair occasionally popped into his memory when he passed the perfume counter. But by now he was old enough to appreciate time invariably exaggerated nostalgic flavours dedicated to memories of beauty.
He hadn’t been home since his father, the saddler passed away. Recalling his early childhood, Dale found it odd that they remained so fresh when his more recent memories were a watery backdrop. Dale couldn’t even properly recall his first serious girlfriend. And it wasn’t that long ago. He met her in second year of university, after he swapped from Engineering to Law. All he could remember about Wendy was her impeccable visage – tug-of-war pony tail, an assertion of make-up, legs like plumbing in nylon, and clothes freshly pressed.
Dale didn’t mind. She introduced him to curries and Asian flavours – and the briny estuary hiding behind a floral chaparral that surprised him because he didn’t think he would like it, but found so alluring. One time his old playmate and neighbour Kelly flickered his memory while deep in the forest of her thighs.
Wendy was pretty, in a chaste and dull way. With movement she embalmed the air with a cashmeran effusion of an air hostess pushing a duty free trolley cart. But her duty to remain pristine didn’t end when she finished classes or work. And her natural penchant towards perfection was unending and she soon transferred her compulsive tendencies onto Dale.
She forced him to be uncomfortable in uncomfortable threads, shave every morning then moisturise. She also taught him how to be clean and inculcated him on clutter, especially in regards to the coffee table and kitchen surfaces, so their apartment retained an immaculate and sterile state. It was as if she owned his shadow after a while, paying it off slowly via lay-by. When Dale eventually realised he concluded everyone should own their own shadow.
He graduated, and vaguely recollected seeing a vegan for a while. She had no scent, which Dale liked at the time. It matched his utter impartiality to her, and to world through his youthful and exuberant independence. It was what he liked most about her, but without a smell she held no form in his memory, which he now regretted. He tried to picture her image, but all he evoked was a vapid smoky outline of grey and green – before his imagination compensated by rallying a composite of features from all his other past romances. Then he met Jocelyn and within two weeks they moved in together.
The lingerie section was complimented by luscious furniture and deep, intense colours. They played bordello music softly in the background – Spanish bolero, Cuban trova, timba and son and Columbian bambuco. And the mise-en-scéne never failed to arouse and seduce Dale. Even the mannequins were sexy by default.
Jocelyn often wore ripe raspberry panties with aching transparency, a luscious plum push-up with a recalcitrant temperament, and lace suspenders the colour of pearl that made him slave and sacrifice to the entanglements of her tan-pole legs. At home she often dressed in a citron-champagne negligee that hung from her like gossamer. It impregnated her flat with lavender and expectation, preserving the subtle suggestion of a door ajar – at least in the beginning.
She was the most sensual and irresistible wo he had ever met that let him touch her, taste her and in turn wanted the same of him. She was a one-in-six-billion In retrospect Dale found it hard to work out how they never worked it out.
‘You smell so fine,’ he said while on their first vacation since meeting on separate holidays three year ago.
‘You’re just saying that because I’m the faceless science behind the multi-billion dollar perfume industry.’
Ester was a chemical engineer who bashed random molecules together for a living, and by way of fluke, discovered and patented fragrances that never existed before and no one had ever smelt.
She was infinitely smarter than him, sassy, sardonic and self-deprecating. And a confident, challenging scent always followed her like the wake of shampooed hair.
Coming home after a work day, feeling baked and over-worked Ester always showered, revealing herself afterwards in a velvet fondue mist of seasonal harvest.
In summer it could be the tantalising panoply of stone fruit and stewed figs, diced up and seasoned with hints of sweet peppercorns and mint, and accompanied by the flamboyant vanilla overtones of an oaked Chardonnay.
She then might wear the Ambergris decay of autumn percolated through a delicate Ambrette umbrella of tannin, wet dirt and roasted squash, macerated into a more complicated essence with framboise and heather.
Onto the smoky peat of a winter’s dram, enveloped in the robust tincture of absinthe and fruit mince, with setaceous hints of parsnips and cloves.
Dale’s favourite was a dew covered muddle of pink grapefruit, pomegranate and rocket at dawn. Ester married this scent to the springtime. It infused the linen that made him not care about washing the sheet and stuck to his collared shirts.
When he wrestled her back into bed after she completed her pre-game morning ritual in the bathroom, which didn’t happen often, he savoured the citrus overture of her body. It softened with the heat of her reluctant body on his – blossoming into a pine forest picnic of ripe blood orange, melon rind, fleshy dates with a cheeky Pinos Gris to wash it all down.
She still wore the sexy underwear – but it was usually when she wanted to tease him. And then he’d taste the wrack and roe tapenade that belonged to her like a fingerprint.
They’d been married now almost five years. And from the moment Dale saw her standing at a bamboo bar in Mauritius he knew he would never tire of looking at her. However, there were moments, more recently exhumed from the murky depths of early memories – fleeting, yet they possessed him like sleep, or the somnolent lullaby of driving on long overland road trips.
He blamed the seasons, summer in particular and the brand of washing powder Ester bought.
Under the washing line in the portentous midday heat, trapped between walls of dry white cotton sheets, the suffusion of eucalyptus and lemon grass takes him back, all the way to the field behind the soap factory. He again sees the faces of the clouds reflect his own jejune contentment. He can feel the weight of her press on him and the long, dry grass crackle beneath him – so when they finally peel themselves off from under their tree, to head back to the soap factory and school they leave an indelible stencil of themselves like making snow angels.
Dale sinks deeper into the load of dried washing with the empty laundry basket. He watches hay seeds blow past in the dry wind and catch the sun like beads of light. He feels the daily vicissitudes melt like sugar. The onerous accountability of domestic reality and mental limbus of continual nagging grow light and translucent and evanesces into the ethers. With his head buried in the sheets Dale grovels in the moment suspended from the vagaries of life. It is the taste of Italian amaro – a bitter sweet feeling of pleasant hopelessness.
Part of him occasionally looks for her on busy streets while driving his car, and in shopping centres – inveigling consorts of destiny and coincidence so that he might run into her randomly. What would he say? Would they even recognise one another? Dale knew it was all folly – the conclusion was set so long ago.
He conceded some part of him will never stop wanting the soap factory girl. The frightening imperfect perfection of it all. It’s between words – existing somewhere between regret and inevitability. Something to do with first love he reconciles. As the feeling subsides he start to wonder what he’ll each for lunch and when he can get away with his first beer of the day.