A SCENT STEALS THROUGH
Ella Barbary couldn’t remember, at first, why she was standing by the soaps in The Body Shop. She never bought Body Shop products these days. Couldn’t afford them. Everything was so much cheaper at Asda. Or, if she was feeling reckless, she’d go to Superdrug and add points to her loyalty card – the one with the shiny little mirror on it. She fantasised, occasionally, about what she’d do one day with her Superdrug points. Would it be better to save up for her favourite perfume – Calvin Klein’s ‘Eternity’ – or something more practical like a good quality hairdryer?
But here she was, the summer heat marinating The Body Shop’s cocktail of fragrances and making her head spin. She reached out to steady herself, and her hand closed on a translucent green slab of glycerine soap. She brought it up to her face, as close to her nose as she dared. Apple. That had been her favourite. See-through summer green, sunlight at its back. And the scent of apples, and the orchard at the cottage near Rye where they went every summer, and her mother’s skin – sometimes hers, as well, when she was lucky – as these spilled from the sweet green talisman they brought back to her, on the surf of memory, why she was here.
It must be one of the earliest things she could remember, for her sister had only just been born: her mother was carrying her in a sling close to her breast, and pushing Ella in a buggy. So she can’t have been much more than two and a half. Looking back, she wondered if the whole episode had been launched by bald jealousy – by her new rival imprinted against her mother while she was forced to gaze out at a harsh world, back turned to the betrayer. Or maybe she’d simply felt restless, resentful of being strapped in.
Well, she’d insisted that she be allowed to get out of the buggy and walk. They were in Mothercare. That detail she probably knew only because her mother used to bring it up whenever (and there were many such occasions) she told the story. They were presumably there to buy something for baby Grace – although there might well have been a consolation prize intended for her. Needless to say, she couldn’t recall every receiving it: their mother, given the turn of events, wouldn’t have made it to the till.
She knew exactly where she was going, and she trusted her Cinderella shoes to take her there. She was going to her favourite shop – just a few doors away from Mothercare, but unlike that temple to The New Arrival, a cornucopia of fruity delights. All she needed to do was follow her nose. So, breathing in the rich, alluring perfume of strawberry, lemon, orange, grape… and, of course, apple, she stepped inside The Body Shop. The soaps were her first port of call. She had to stand only slightly on tiptoe to reach these treasures. Pink, yellow, orange, purple, green. Hold them up to the light; glimpse an enchanted world. Which one to choose?
Having picked up, inspected and sniffed them one by one, she squeezed her eyes tight shut and pushed them about inside their little baskets. It might be better for the whole thing to be a surprise, like when her father crept up behind her and put his hands over her eyes and she thought it was him but couldn’t be quite sure until he revealed himself…
She opened her eyes. She’d made a bit of a mess. She sniffed her fingers and wanted to suck them. A woman standing close by eyeing up the shampoo gave her a not entirely friendly look. She’d better be quick. So she chose the apple soap, as she always knew she would. An instinct told her she couldn’t keep it in her hand. So she lifted her dress and popped it in her knickers, just in time to see Mum, baby Grace jiggling precariously in her sling, enter the shop and dart towards her.
“Ellie! I was so worried!”
She’d never seen her mother’s skin so pale, or heard her breath come so quickly. For a split second, her brow was a smudge of anger, but this vanished immediately. And, as though she’d utterly forgotten the infant suspended from her breast (mercifully asleep, it appeared), she flung herself to the ground, wrapping her arms round her elder daughter’s legs and sobbing into the tops of her long white socks. Ella couldn’t see what all the fuss was about, and hoped that the teardrop she noticed splashing onto her Cinderella shoe wouldn’t leave a mark. Then she looked up, just in time to exchange a smile with the now friendly Shampoo Lady, queuing at the checkout.
Her mother never did find out about the soap. But that’s probably because Ella never used it. For several years (until round about the time she started school), she kept it hidden at the back of her top drawer – the one with the knickers and socks and tights and vests. She’d take it out from time to time and inhale deeply, the fake scent of apples like a teat leading her to the milk of life. Occasionally, she’d take it to the window and hold it up to the light, then close one eye against it and adventure to magic worlds.
Gradually, its smell faded. One day she noticed that the fragrance had completely gone. So she popped it into her sister’s Christmas stocking.
It had been ridiculously easy. Why not have another go? Her two-year-old self had been so free of any anxiety, so certain of what she was doing. Had she grown into a woman in her thirties who lacked the confidence of a toddler?
Would it be the apple soap again?
It had to be. Her hand still clasped the translucent green slab. The fragrance must have leaked all over her fingers; sweat must have leaked all over the soap. No-one else would want it now.
She couldn’t put it in her knickers – obviously. But, making a big play of adjusting the light scarf round her neck – and surreptitiously checking the shampoo section – she managed to secrete it in her bra. It felt as snug and as right there as a suckling infant.
Then Ella Barbary walked out of The Body Shop into the bright day.