Strange how the mere hint of a smell can take you back years. It happened to me this morning, in my local garage shop, waiting by the coffee machine for my latte. I’ve used the same machine countless times, but today was different. I caught the smell of coffee beans and was instantly transported back over fifty years, to the coffee-house under the arches at Portsmouth station. The smell that emanated from its door was the most exotic, exciting scent in the world to me. A mixture of rich, heavy coffee, ice cream and wafer biscuits. Inside the long, narrow shop were two rows of fixed booths, with an aisle between them. It was like a train that never went anywhere.
My treat was an ice cream; cold, thick, and buttery yellow. I always went there with Great Aunt Eva. I spent a good part of my childhood with her, while my parents ran a pub in the city. Her sprawling Victorian terraced house had two steps up to the front door and a brass knocker that got polished every morning. Ice cream in hand, if it was fine, we’d wander into the park, with its aviaries and wide lawns. We’d watch the old man who spent every day there with a bag of seed, feeding the sparrows. They lined up on his outstretched arm, waiting to be fed. Sometimes we’d venture under the arches, into the town and stroll through Charlotte Street market. There was little shop, just a few feet wide, with a sloping marble slab in the window. Here were piles of cockles and winkles, fresh from the shore. We’d go home with a pint of cockles, wrapped in newspaper, through Guildhall Square, following the railway line, over the bomb sites (Portsmouth took a real pasting during WWII) and back home for lunch. The cockles were large and plump and tasted of the sea.
I loved my childhood with Aunt Eva. She didn’t mind if my long hair was loose and wild, didn’t mind me playing with a stray kitten in the coal shed at the bottom of the little garden, didn’t mind me roaming the castles and caves of the bomb sites. My mother would have had a blue fit if she’d known how much freedom I had in those years. My mother put my hair in rags at night so that I had pretty ringlets every day.
On rainy days I retreated to the chair below the little window in the back room that looked out into the yard. This was my island in the South Seas, safe from the storms, and the big dining table was the roof of my secret cave. The green velour cloth that always covered it hung down almost to the floor, and I’d sit with my back against a stout round leg, perfectly content with my world.
Aunt Eva had once been married to a sailor. I never met my Uncle, always referred to by my aunt as ‘My Jack’. He was a submariner. One day his boat submerged and never came up again. Aunt Eva never remarried, never had children of her own. Their wedding photo sat on the sideboard, next to the blue biscuit barrel, a sepia portrait, with Jack in his sailor’s uniform, and my aunt in her fox stole, leaning towards each other, smiling at the camera. I thought they looked like film stars.
Three doors down from my aunt’s house lived an ex-soldier and his Polish wife. When we visited we sat in the front parlour, surrounded by rich velvet throws and large plants. It was voluptuous, a feast for the eyes of deep red and gold. It was a different word and it took my breath away. I can still feel the softness of velvet throws against my legs and see gold tassels shimmer in the firelight. To this day, I believe that room informs my choice of colours and fabrics for my own home.
I remember the corner shop, two streets away, where I was sent for packs of Woodbine cigarettes. I liked the picture on the packet front, the tiny blue flowers, and curling leaves. Sometimes there were pop bottles to take back, and the returned deposit to spend on sweets. There were square tin boxes of biscuits that could be bought by weight, and a box at the end of the row with broken biscuits for when money was tight. A paper warehouse at the end of the road paid pennies for bundles of newspapers. Tied up with rough string that cut into my fingers, it was worth the pain for the sweet money.
Then the bomb sites were redeveloped as part of a grand plan for new housing. Aunt Eva’s beautiful house was subject to a compulsory purchase order. Even the road disappeared, buried somewhere under a high-rise block of flats. Aunt Eva moved back to North Wales to live near her sisters. I moved to Yorkshire with my parents and my childhood was over.
All this from a cup of coffee.