A Faraway Smell of Lemon
It is as if Binny has stepped through a curtain and discovered an alternative universe. It’s been here for ever, this shop, but she’s never bothered to come inside, just as she’s never bothered with the boutique next door that sells party frocks and wedding dresses. For a moment she stands very still in this strange, new place where the dust swirls like glitter. The silence is unearthly. There are shelves and shelves of cleaning products. They come in jars, canisters and bottles, some plastic, some glass, all arranged at regular intervals and in order of size. There are displays of brushes, cloths, scourers, dusters – both the feathered and the yellow variety. There are boxes of gloves – heavy-duty, latex, nitrile, polythene – as well as Kentucky mops, squeegees, litter-pickers and brooms. Binny had no idea that cleaning could be so complicated. Right beside the till stands a small plastic angel, the only clue as to the time of year. She has a halo and a crinkly white dress and two pointed tinsel wings. There is a smell Binny can’t put a name to, but it makes her think of lemon peel. Clearly there is nothing here for a woman like herself.
She is about to retreat when a female voice chimes through the silence, ‘Can I help?’ Binny squints in the direction of the voice and sees a slight young woman gliding towards her. Her skin is a flawless ivory and her deep-brown eyes are like seeds, as if she is studying Binny from inside a porcelain mask. She must be in her early twenties. She wears a crisp uniform that suggests a dentist’s but surely can’t be, and her black hair is caught in a polished ponytail. The young woman stands with her hands at her side and her crepe-soled shoes not quite touching, as if physical untidiness would be offensive.
At the age of ten, Coco is the only one in Binny’s house who understands tidiness. Luke does not understand it (because, he says, he’s only eight) and Binny doesn’t understand it either, although she is forty-seven. The daughter of a naval officer and a girdled socialite who had people ‘who did’, Binny has made a point of embracing chaos. Her home is bound in a thicket of ivy. The small rooms are so packed with her parents’ Victorian furniture (‘Junk,’ Oliver calls – no, called – it) that most of them have been reduced to passageways. Surfaces are felted with dust and piled high with old magazines and newspapers and tax returns and letters she has never bothered to answer. The carpet is thick with dust balls the size of candyfloss, screwed-up clothes on their way to the washing machine and nuggets of Lego, and in the middle of the sitting room there is a dead shrub that the children have been using for a Christmas tree. They have decorated it with cut-out paper snowmen and pigeon feathers and brightly coloured sweet wrappers. ‘Don’t you sell stuff for someone like me?’ asks Binny. ‘Paracetamol or coffee or something?’
The young woman is curt. Not exactly rude, but she isn’t friendly. ‘This is a family business. We’ve never sold anything but cleaning products. We supply mainly to hotels. And also corporate catering.’ Binny examines the bottles that gleam from the top shelves like coloured eyes. Keep out of the reach of small children. Phosphoric acid. Benzyl salicylate. If swallowed DO NOT INDUCE VOMITING. ‘Is this stuff legal?’
‘We don’t sell a product if we can’t guarantee it will work. We are not like those supermarkets where the bleach you buy is water. For instance, some bathroom cleaners are specifically for shower tiles and some react badly with the grouting. You have to take these things into account.’ ‘I suppose you do. I don’t have a shower. At least, I do, but it has no door. And the water doesn’t shower. It sort of dumps on you.’
‘That’s a shame,’ the young woman says.
‘It is,’ agrees Binny.
‘You should get it fixed.’
‘I won’t, though.’
The shower is one of the things Oliver has spent the last three years promising to mend. The Hoover is another. Oliver is messy-haired, easy-going, slightly fuzzy at the edges, always wearing his T-shirt inside out and socks that don’t match. He can spend minutes untangling loose change from his trouser pocket for anyone who happens to hold out a hand and ask for it. The rest of the time he is so busy gazing at the sky that Binny has long suspected he will one day flap his arms and soar upwards.
It never used to matter that Oliver was a good twelve years younger than Binny and had no regular income because he was an actor who couldn’t get what he called ‘proper acting work’, only voice-overs or the odd commercial. It never used to matter that he always left the keys to the van in the driver’s door and forgot about things like replacing toilet rolls. It never used to matter that he might go to fix the shower and notice his reflection in the bathroom mirror and drift straight back to the kitchen to ask Binny if she had some concealer because he was afraid he might have a spot coming. But their loving had become commonplace. They had stopped noticing the otherness of one another and now that otherness was no longer a source of wonder but instead an irritation. Binny cussed every time she walked into his guitar at the foot of the bed. Or, ‘Why must you always use the moisturizer?’ she’d complain. ‘I didn’t think you’d mind, Bin.’ ‘I mind because you never replace it and you always leave the lid off.’ ‘Well, I won’t use it then,’ he would shrug. ‘But if it were mine, I’d just share.’ He would wander upstairs to play his guitar, leaving her even grouchier because now she felt not only disgruntled but also less generous than him. Playing his guitar was what Oliver did when he was sad. His songs offered an escape to a land where girls had long hair and wept over Irish seas. They were beautiful in their way, even if they were childlike.
However, the shop woman is still talking. She is still on cleaning fluids. ‘Of course, you can’t use some materials on plastic. Or carpets. Even lino you must be careful with. You have to match the product to the problem.’ This is anathema to Binny. Surely there is clean or not clean? And in her house there is only the latter. She tries to find a new point of contact. ‘Where I live, there’s a smell. I don’t know what it’s of. It’s been there years.’
‘Drains?’ Despite herself, the assistant looks very interested.
‘No. It’s more like . . . old things. The past. You get it differently in different parts of the house. For instance, upstairs, just outside the loo, I can definitely smell my ex-husband’s aftershave and we divorced six years ago. Or other times I’ll get this overwhelming scent of my mother’s jasmine soap. Then there was a friend I had once when I was a girl. She was a few years younger than me but we did everything together, and then she got married after university and we lost touch. I still get a whiff of her rose-oil perfume once in a while. Do you think the memory of a smell can hang about in a room? Would you have anything for that?’
Extract taken from A Snow Garden and Other Stories by Rachel Joyce (Doubleday).