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Wednesday, 2 June 2010

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The smell of sawdust

It was bound to happen at a family get-together of septuagenarians. The squeaky wheels of geriatric grumblings over stale issues ground to a slow but decisive halt as nostalgia inveigled itself into the conversation.

We looked back and saw our childhood as one glorious golden era of sunshine and cool breezes; moonlight and fireflies; gay outings and family togetherness. The quarrels and fisticuffs; reprimands and punishment; the yearning for things we could not have; the dreary hours of study had all been deliberately drowned in a whirlpool of forgetfulness.

The inevitable foolhardiness of old age followed..... the bright idea of revisiting the home of our childhood. To prevent enthusiasm from waning after going our separate ways again we finalised plans immediately for a one day trip the next week to the old home site, trying to catch the end of a rainbow.

So there we were as planned out on an adventurous trip like in the past, in eager anticipation of what lay ahead and the destination beckoning to us invitingly across the years.

As we neared the end of our journey we looked out for once familiar landmarks, so prominent then but snuffed out or dwarfed by new buildings now. The landscape had changed but it was not difficult to locate the turn-off to our former lane which was now a well developed side road. We had not taken into account the fact that the geography would have changed as much as we ourselves had done.

Driving up to the house that held so many precious memories for us, we became subdued. It was a collective reaction of shock, disappointment and sadness at its present state. It was no longer the home of our childhood. It was not even family residence. It was a slightly dilapidated store house for a business establishment as proclaimed on the board outside.

How naive of us to have expected it to find it in the same state as of half a century ago! How foolish to have hoped that it would have remained frozen in time.

The trees we had climbed were no longer standing and the surrounding wilderness had invaded the once lovingly tended garden. After the initial shock this seemed to matter little. All we wanted now was to see the house. Introducing ourselves to the person in charge we requested permission to see the inside of the building.

It had shrunk in size of course but now we were resigned to expect major changes. Happily there were, only a few alterations and the whole remained more or less faithful to the original image engraved in our minds. Our guide followed us from room to room asking questions and we finally turned towards the kitchen and the enclosed corridor next to it that housed the narrow staircase leading up to the attic.

The Attic!

It held the same fascination for us septuagenarians as it had done for our pre-teen selves. Ignoring creaky joints we climbed up to peep into our childhood sanctuary..... the refuge each of us had sought in turn, to nurse a grief, real or imagined, to read undisturbed or weave dreams in isolation.

It could not accommodate all of us together as it had done in our childhood, and we took turns at entering it hushed and reverential as if making a pilgrimage, which in a way it was for us.

I waited to go in last. I wished to spend more time in it than the others, to relieve memories of lying on the sawdust strewn floor in the dim cool sanctity it had offered for reading, dreaming or weaving magical tales in my head.

I sat on the floor and took in the now constricting wall sexpecting to retract from them lost dreams from a distant past. But what happened took me by surprise. They appeared to turn hostile and withheld from me what I had come to seek and gave back on the suffocating smell of sawdust.

It closed in on me from all sides smothering me with the pain and horror it evoked. Deeply buried feelings I had failed to uproot and eradicate were now clawed out of the subconscious and lay exposed raw and painful.

I had been only nine years old when it had happened and more than sixty years lay between that day and this, yet I was still entrapped by the revulsion I had felt then. It had not dimmed with time and I cringed mentally at the memory.

My mother had been having visitors that morning, old friends visiting us after a long spell. She was showing them around the house into which we had moved since their last visit, and I could hear muffled voices as they moved from room to room with her. Soon I heard them in the room immediately below me and then move away. As they passed the corridor I heard a male voice exclaim in surprise, “A secret staircase! Where does it lead to?” “The attic” Mother replied, “The children’s favourite hide-away.” Then they moved away trailing behind her as she resumed her guided tour.

I had been engrossed in a book of horror stories and had paused just long enough to pray that no one would came up to investigate. As the voices moved away to an indistinguishable murmur I turned back to my book and was again gripped by the horror emerging from its pages, Ghouls, vampires and werewolves grabbed me and chills ran up and down my spine at every sound. Ghostly whispers, sighs and creakings made my hair stand on end, and then I was aware of a slow secret tread coming up the stairs. I froze, fear knotting up my stomach as I sat up on my haunches to face whatever ‘thing’ that was coming up to get me. Then everything happened at once.

It was long after they had gone away that I heard my mother moving around in the room below and knocked repeatedly on the floor unable to call out. “Why are you still up there?” she shouted, “come down now. Lunch is being served.” But I could not answer her.

I was cramped up with pain and my under clothing damp and sticky. I had rolled over on my stomach to ease the pain and the smell of the sawdust on the floor had seeped into my body to lodge there permanently. I turned sideways curling up in a foetal position, gripping my book hard, but the pain would not leave me. My clothes I noticed were soiled by blood and it terrified me. My heart and head throbbed in unison and the tightening of my throat prevented me from answering her.

When she received no response from me she climbed up to the attic. Seeing the state I was in she made a startled exclamation and came to me quickly. As she enfolded me in her arms I collapsed in uncontrollable sobs. She hugged me tight speaking comfortingly and in a while, said softly.....”Stay here and don’t make a noise. I’m coming back.” Then she went down and returned with a sheet in which I was wrapped and carried down to my bed.

She did not ask me what had happened and I could not read the expression on her face. She closed the door of the room and I remember how gently she cleaned my sore body, powdered and dressed me in a fresh nightie. She spoke to me soothingly all the time but I did not understand what she was saying for I was in shock and not listening to her.

I was given some medication for the pain and she stayed beside me stocking my head until I became drowsy. Then she made me more comfortable with an extra pillow, covered me and with a parting kiss, said, “Go to sleep now. I will give the others their lunch and come back.” As she was closing the door behind her I heard the others asking her curiously. “What is wrong with her?” and her answering “She is sick and must sleep now. Don’t disturb her.” Their voices were carried further and further away as I drifted off to sleep with the comforting fragrance of my mother’s skin lingering in nostrils.

It had banished the smell of sawdust that had smothered me in the attic above; but only temporarily as was to prove later. The memory of the trauma I had experienced that day never left me.

I could not run away from it, ever. Often I wondered why my father had not visited my sick bed as he usually did at other times. Was he ashamed of me? Did he not love me any more? Did he not care about what had happened to me that day? I understood why only much later.

From that day I hated sawdust.... the sight of it, the feel of it and mainly, the smell of it..... which rose above all other revulsions. The stuffed doll I had been playing with from childhood now repelled me. Secretly I destroyed it and hid it where it would never be found.

I could not pass a timber store or firewood shack without being overcame by nausea. I shuddered each time we passed the mountains of sawdust on the roadside when out on trips. As an adult I refused to handle the sawdust cooker we were compelled to use during a state initiated economy drive. I found it repugnant in whatever form I encountered it.... a devil I could not exorcise out of my system.

It was many years later that I was able to come to terms with what had happened to me that day. With that understanding the claustrophobic aura surrounding it shrank like a shadow in the noon day sun, but never fully freed me.

Now I was back in the attic where it had happened. I sat there in the dim cool shadows reliving the terror that had struck me when as a lively nine year old I had found that my body had been denigrated in a way I was incapable of understanding.

I had been an active young tomboy and my mother had not considered it necessary to warn me about certain matters as she had not anticipated such a situation. How could she be blamed? I was so young.

She never knew how deeply traumatised I had been by the events of that day because I could not bring myself to tell her how shocked and terrified I had been to learn that I had suddenly changed from ‘child’ to ‘woman’, and that on becoming a ‘Big Girl’ life for me would never be the same again.

“Still up there? We are leaving now,” my sister’s voice brings me down to the present. As I came down to join the others I realise that the smell of sawdust is no longer clinging to the walls of the attic, and I know that at last I am free.

..................................

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