I wrote the following piece for an American website called Creative Writing. It’s a memory piece. It’s amazing how evocative a smell can be. It can take you back years……….My short concerns a holiday spent on the Croatian island of Hvar. I still remember the sights and smells and tastes vividly, though I was just six……
The sun beats down on the tarmac. It’s the hottest day of the year. A tabloid newspaper prints an egg frying on a flagstone. There are photos of crowded beaches pegged out with windbreaks and picnic blankets. Men lounge in skimpy trunks, sprawled out with tattoos and lobster-red flesh. Phew, what a scorcher! The radio and TV are full of advice on how to stay cool: open your windows to let in the chill night air; pull down your blinds to block out the scorching sun; keep a jug of water in the fridge. Despite the heat, there is a gentle breeze tracing lines in the marsh meadow.
I pull on a loose linen shirt and cotton trousers. I sip iced water and chew spearmint gum, taking precautions against this un-English weather. Sunlight glares from car roofs and windscreens. Hedgerows and rooftops blur and shimmer in the white light. An ice-cream van chimes in the distance. A train rattles through. A sparrow baths in the dust at the roadside. Bees float groggily, bloated by pollen. I cross the road, ducking behind the scarce shade from a lilac tree, and it hits me.
Lavender swishes in the breeze. The sun beats down relentlessly. Seams, where repairs have been made in the road, begin to melt. I close my eyes and inhale deep. For a fleeting moment I’m a six-year-old boy running down bowed steps worn smooth by generations of fishermen’s feet. I can taste the sea. On the hills above, lavender sweeps like waves in the breeze. There’s a tang of fish from the harbour. I follow Dad up another steep flight of steps and we go through a door into a church. A tour guide is waving her arms about, talking in German and English. There are paintings of Jesus in gold and amber. It is cool inside. I’m thirsty and press my cheek against the chill marble. We step down into a crypt and the tour guide asks for silence. She stoops and tugs at a chest of drawers. The wood is knotted. The drawer squeals in protest, but she gets it open little by little. A pane of glass lies across the drawer, reflecting the flickering church candles. We’re shown a saint’s bones. She calls me forward and says he’d be little bigger than me. Seven hundred years ago, she says, smiling.
“Can you count to seven hundred?”
Everyone laughs. Finally, we step out into the bleaching sunlight. Fishermen land lobster far below on the smooth cobblestones.
“Look,” Mum says.
The island is a sea of lavender. She picks a bunch for her pillow. Lavender is calming and helps you to sleep, she says. It must be good, I say. The saint has slept for seven hundred years.