Scent by pen
I am using the pink pen. It is a new gel pen and it feels so light on the page, gliding over the typed pages I am working on. I make small notes in the margins … and corrections. Sitting on my Nanna’s old bedroom armchair, resting against the stiff silk cushion – orange – I stare out over the Vlakkenberg, bored by my own writing. How do I rewrite it so that it has an essence that captures the reader … well, the judges actually since this piece is for a competition. I drift off in my sunny patch, wake, scribble something, yawn, consider making a cup of tea, get up, stretch. I need to pee. Sitting on the toilet, my perfume bottles lined up beside the basin, I reach over for Nuit au Desert. Spray. That’s it! The cloves, the nutmeg, the cinnamon. The scent I hid in my backpack. My little indulgence amongst hiking boots, polyester and travel wash. It brings it back. The essence.
Do you remember how you never wanted to backpack? Luxury travel: that was your thing. First class all the way. You kept journals of those trips, transferred to email to your friends as a way of gloating about your escapades.
Remember St Petersburg? I know: you almost didn’t make it. Too busy buying fancy sunglasses and a Fossil watch at the airport. But that hotel … the Astoria, wasn’t it? Forget first class; that was super-deluxe with gilding and caviar. A backpacker’s alter ego and a benchmark to set all travel by. Didn’t you say you wanted it to be like that forever? You could enjoy all that and share your experiences with your friends so they could also get a taste of the high life. They loved those emails; always told you you should write more. You fobbed them off, told them you were in finance … none of that creative stuff … only used your flair to rub their noses in it. It worked you know. But they loved you for it – called you the ultimate Gemini multi-tasker. Not that you cared much what they thought, mind you.
Then you bought a backpack; told them you were going trekking. They bought you a journal … and a hipflask – they didn’t want you to totally lose who you are. “Stay in touch with the real you,” they said, “the one that’s going to curse the hills and the blisters and really need a stiff drink at the end of the day.” And they told you to record everything. You packed several pens but ended up giving them away to the school children constantly at your heels asking for school pen, rupees, shampoo … So you sacrificed your pens because the other two were so much more important. Even backpacking through the Himalayas, there was no way you were going to be seen with greasy hair. Remember the time you had to wash it under the village tap? That was melted snow off the mountain you doused your head in. Remember how you felt it right down to your toes? But you endured it anyway … even despite the stares and giggles you got from the local craftsmen sitting atop the stuppa they were tirelessly constructing by hand, using the most rudimentary of tools to chip the stone and plane the wood.
But you kept the one pen. It was green and it lasted forever … never dried up the whole trip. Only when you were sitting in the mosquito-infested Bombay airport, feeling relieved about the anti-malaria tablets you had been taking – and writing as much – did that pen dry mid-sentence. You finished your final sentence, scratching the words into the paper. You had to have an ending.
When you went again you took a pack of Hello Kitty pencils and a good metal sharpener. And that bottle of perfume. You snuck it in. Michael had volunteered to carry the toiletries in his larger backpack and you made him believe that you had packed only the essentials which were measured out and decanted into smaller bottles. You needed to have a little luxury tucked in there though – backpacking was a drug but it had a habit of dulling that part of you that still longed for a little bit of first class.
Remember how you walked into that five-star hotel, grubby and travel weary? You booked a room … just for a night. You needed a break and you knew Michael wouldn’t object. There was, after all, a TV. And a bath. With hot water. You didn’t really need the perfume there after soaking in all those free products. But you didn’t leave the room. Room service was all you needed. Coffee … hot! And a balanced meal.
You didn’t need to dig for your green pen when you pulled your journal out of your pack. That was the night you emailed all your friends about the trip so far. It was also the first time so far that you were staying in a room with real walls. You had sex.
I flush the toilet and breathe deep. Cinnamon and cloves. I don’t feel like tea any more. I feel the essence. I sit back in my Nanna’s bedroom chair, bathed in full midday heat, and pick up the pages once more. I grasp the pink pen, feeling comfortable and awake now. My fingers clench the rubber pads – pink to match the ink – and the words begin to flow. New words are formed where others are crossed out. The piece is taking shape now. Breathing in the memories, my past experiences come to life once more.