‘I’m getting gooseberry,’ said the lecturer, sniffing deeply from the glass. He looked up, enjoying the moment, closed his eyes and was lost in contemplation of the swirling wine. The class was busy as we sniffed our glasses, following his lead, trying to understand the wonderful aromas filling our nostrils. Mumbles of agreement soon filled the room as we began to understand the beauty and power of the smells that we were experiencing. It was a moment to remember, but nothing like one that I had experienced some years before.
It was Christmas Eve, and I was on my way home with the last of my shopping, when I passed the front door of my old school. It had been many years since I had left the place and in all that time I had never darkened its doorway. ‘Why not?’ I thought, and skipped up the steps and knocked on the large, carved door. The sound echoed in the hallway behind, and seconds later I heard footsteps approaching.
I introduced myself to the Christian Brother who opened the door, and I could see that he was intrigued as much at my presence as I was at being ‘in school’.
‘Come in, come in,’ he said and we shook hands warmly. ‘This is a real surprise, and Happy Christmas,’ he added and I could only smile and agree.
We chatted as we walked down the hall and he told me about teachers who had passed on since I was a pupil. He pointed to lines of dusty, class photographs many of which were fading and showing the unmistakeable yellowish hue of old age. Times past indeed, I thought, when my guide asked if I would like to see the ‘old place’. Considering that ten minutes before I hadn’t even thought about this, I was now looking forward to a walk down memory lane.
The place had changed somewhat since my time, that was to be expected, with rooms altered and corridors painted in bright colours. The stairs were smoother than I remembered, and the view of the local church from the top of the building was unchanged, except that acid rain had added to its aging beauty.
Desks were tiny and the blackboards not nearly as massive as they once appeared, where algebra, Latin verbs, dates of famous battles and hand-drawn maps of foreign places had once held my attention.
I was really enjoying the unplanned visit and was unprepared for what happened next.
As I pushed open the door to my old classroom I was suddenly stopped in my tracks. The smell of the place hit me like a slap in the face and I was instantly transported back to those carefree days. There was no doubt about the images that filled my mind, and I could see all the desks and my former classmates. They hadn’t changed, and I slowly looked about the small room where coats and jackets hung from crowded hooks. And schoolbags lay on the floor.
The teacher was at the front of the class writing neatly on the blackboard, as tiny flecks of white chalk drifted away. I saw where I used sit and felt a nervous shiver run up my back.
It was a very, real sensation that was only broken when my guide walked past, the loud creaking of the old floorboards breaking my dreamy connection.
‘Are you okay?’ he asked, noting my bemused look.
‘Yes, thanks,’ I replied and took a last, deep breath before leaving the room. Up until that moment I had never thought much about the sense of smell, but since then I have come to view it differently, and especially its power to stimulate and rekindle memories that I thought were gone forever.