Is it possible that air holds memory? We certainly know how sounds and smells can take you right back to falling in love, heartbreak, the sea. But today I walked into a shop and the cold rush of air took me straight back to childhood in France.
I’d help out in my uncle’s bakery most days and towards lunchtime, my aunt would often give me some money to go and do a quick shop, which often involved a trip to the butcher’s. We rarely ate meat when on holiday, too expensive and we preferred the daily access to mussels, oysters and yesterday’s catch. But my cousins ate a lot of meat, often bifteck or steaks.
I’d run off to the butcher a hundred yards away, often taking their order of bread with me. No air-conditioning at my uncle’s bakery and outside it would often be blisteringly hot. Then I’d push open the door to the butcher’s, the little bell would ring and this astonishing wave of cool would waft around me. No smell, just cool. He’d cut the meat and ask me some question about the village gossip – boulangerie being a fresher source than the boucherie. Or some odd question about living in England; we were always a source of bemusement to the village. Was it true we ate jam with our meat? How did we manage to see people through the endless fog? Had we met the Queen? Depending on my mood and to stay in the deliciously cool air as long as possible, I’d often add to their sense of wonderment by insisting that no self-respecting Englishman would ever eat meat without a large helping of jam on the side. Or that we had developed better eyesight to see through the gloom. Or even that the Queen regularly visited her subjects incognito to have tea. Ah le five o’clock they would all chorus.
I’d linger as long as possible, the cool air washing over me, before taking the package wrapped carefully in pink paper, with the butcher’s name on it, opening the door and running back to the boulangerie.
Today, years later, it was exactly the same wave of cool air on a hot day and I was ten years old again.
The memory of air.