The Smell of Cucumber in the Morning

I’ve been making myself packed lunches on my drawing class days this term – usually a salad in a box – so I’ve found myself chopping up lettuce, tomatoes and cucumber early in the morning while I’ve been drinking coffee, and still in my pyjamas.

I often have salads, but there is something about the conjunction of the aromas of coffee and freshly sliced cucumber that reminds me of holidays.  It could be a distant memory from childhood and sandwiches on long car journeys, or more likely, a series of walking trips I took with a group of friends in the Lake District.  We each took responsibility for one aspect of catering, and I was generally cooking breakfast while someone else was making sandwiches for us to take up the fells; some kind of meat or cheese, and always with cucumber, or chutney.

A couple of weeks ago I had a number of friends over for lunch, and as part of my preparation, as soon as I got up, I put a couple of  chickens in the oven to roast.  The flat was filled with the smell of roasting poultry while I ate my breakfast and drank (more) coffee, and it reminded me of Christmas; of those days when someone has to get up extra early to put the turkey in the oven, and the smell of it cooking flavours every other activity of the day.

Our sense of smell is one of the most powerful aids to memory, conjuring scenes in our mind’s eye more quickly even than the sound of a familiar song or the feel of an old shirt against your skin.  The evocation of a smell can be an excellent way to give depth and complexity to a sense of place in writing.  But I find it a tricky thing to achieve, to find the right way to express it, the metaphor or few words of description that will evoke for the reader the smell I can sense so clearly as I’m writing.

One of the defining smells of Moscow for me was the smell of partially combusted petrol and paraffin that hit me in the face when I walked through the doors of Sheremetyevo airport on arrival.  The routine was always the same; the driver would wait for me in the over crowded melee of the arrivals hall, and then would lead me outside to wait on the pavement while he went to fetch the car.  In winter, it was hard to believe that cold air could be so pungent, or that the ground underfoot could be so cold and slimy.  It was that smell, from the idling engines of a score of Ladas crowded together under the concrete canopy that always made me know that I was back in Moscow.

I wanted to describe that unique and powerful impact on the protagonist in my novel on her first arrival in the city, where she has travelled having no idea what she is about to encounter.  It’s a paragraph that I’ve now edited and rewritten several times based on feedback from my friendly readers, who, never having experienced it, frequently asked me why I was so specific about what is essentially only the smell of car pollution. It’s tricky because when the character encounters it for the first time, she can’t know how significant it will become, how emblematic of the city it is.  And I’d cut my own hand off before writing something like ‘little did she know how memorable that smell would be…’  So, in the end, I’ve decided to simply describe it, and keep its significance as only my own memory.

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