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
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.
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
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
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
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
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.