by Oonagh Prettejohn
In the leap year of 1948 I slipped greased and puckered from my mother’s womb. My first breath filled my lungs as dawn bloomed on a cold, dry day with the scent of Neem trees trailing the corridors of the Stanley Hospital in Madras.
I was a child born of uncertainty. Poked, prodded and pushed into swaddling, I was allowed to be carried mewling in the arms of grandmother Beryl into the rambling home where my grandparents had ‘Stayed On’ in Madras.
I first came to know my world by its scent. The fungal soup of damp monsoons moistened my nostrils as I lay in my cot. The scent of 4711 Eau de Cologne slipped on the breeze as my mother entered a room crooning a favourite song. My brother trailed whiffs of bubble-gum. My ayah brought a scent of the coconut oil that glistened in her hair.
Before sight I knew the scent of lavender that clung to moist creases in the folds of my grandmother’s arms. Cradling me in the deep shade of the verandah, we clung together in a round cane chair; my ears filled with the soft, winded puffs of my grandmother’s clove-scented whispers. Then some delicate detail would lost by the call of mynah birds, or the arrival of my grandfather infusing the air with the scent of leather and the rice water starch that impregnated his cotton drill.
My grandparents’ home shared the spread of its grand old trees with a troop of small silver grey monkeys that were smart, very fast, and absolutely fearless of humans. The monkeys sported a rather smart short back and sides type of hair do, and when agitated they had the habit of peeling back their top lip and pelting passers-by with wood apples. These were extremely hard and heavy, sometimes the size of a cricket ball, and well capable of cracking open an unsuspecting skull.
Breaking open the hard shell releases the scent of sugary muskiness from the brown mush inside – it was deliciously irresistable. On a day when the Wood Apples were at their best, a particularly large congregation of monkeys was in residence. One cavorted into my mother’s bedroom via the elbowed limb of one of the Wood Apple trees that propped on the windowsill. When my mother walked in it was perched on the dressing table doused in sprays of 4711. Carefully positioning itself in the mirror it proceeded to delicately dust its bottom with a luxurious powder puff.
Startled by her entry, the monkey jumped for a hanging lamp, chained to the ceiling directly above my cot. It swung in frenzied arcs gibbering abuse. Seized by terror it defecated, leapt to the window, and swung back to the Wood Apple tree where it then proceeded to pelt my mother with wood apples through the window.
A certain familiarity on entering monkey enclosures makes me certain that I have clearly retained the memory of that odour.