Lovecraft Idea #37
Peculiar odour of a book of childhood induces repetition of childhood fancy.
Peculiar odour of a book of childhood induces repetition of childhood fancy.
Grandfather always smoked Woodbines.
And he always knew. Any other cigarettes - cheaper, more expensive - he would spit them out like poison. I remember his face, scrunched up like an old walnut in his deepest disgust. It was an impressive feat for a blind man. He hadn’t always lacked sight, but over the years his eyes had clouded over and the cataracts had won. If Grandma had been alive, or if he had not lived with my mother and I, I think he might have gone to a doctor. But he did not; he had everything he needed. His were simple pleasures: his cigarettes, his money, a cooked ham every Sunday. He had everything.
He had the smells.
‘Smells’, he said, ‘they are the true mark of a man.’
He kept to his philosophy strongly and any man who carried even the faintest scent of Woodbines on his clothing was immediately his greatest and most loved friend. This privilege was not carried over to any other smokers, as you might very well have guessed. And aftershave was not appreciated - any man who wore it (no matter how upstanding, how rich, how charming he might be) was not welcome in the household. It left my mother with only a small pool to cast her line in.
She did not seem to mind. When I was younger I wondered if it was that aftershave reminded her of my late father. But I never asked her if he had ever worn it; some things you just don’t talk about.
The book was one of them. I hated it then. A battered copy of ‘The Adventures of Tom Sawyer’ on its way to falling apart but not quite making it. I had read it at school, and had been mostly unaffected. Some long lost Aunt had donated it to me, sending it in the post, enclosed with a repulsively florid card and, supposedly, her love. It confused me even then - we were not that poor, we could buy books, we could read books, and surely it would have been better to send a book that had slightly more chance of surviving the mishandling of a postman. But somehow, survived it had.
My Grandfather had opened the package, as I found it wrapped too tight.
‘Old book smell,’ he said. ‘With a hint of...’
And he trailed off, and handed it to me. I brought it up to my nose - just musty and dusty to my ten-year-old self. Of course, that was before I read it.
I did read it eventually, when I was bored enough to. And it was, indeed, about Tom Sawyer and his adventures for the first half. I read about Aunt Polly and Huckleberry Finn, all while tucked into bed, staving off sleep as the clock ticked again and again. I don’t remember if it was precisely the middle of the book or just near it that it happened, for I had never paid attention to page numbers. The first thing I noticed, and I remember this well, was the distinct smell of aftershave. It was no aftershave I had smelled before, but there was that not-quite-perfume sense about it. Aftershave, I was sure of it.
Looking around, I saw nothing that could have caused it. Except the book. I lifted it up, just as I had done when Grandfather had handed it to me. Aftershave. Not even the slightest hint of dust or age. And more than that, it was strong, growing stronger with every second. I breathed in, and again, and again: too much! Coughing for a while before I managed to regain control, I smelled it again, more cautiously this time. Definitely aftershave. And I looked at it, confused, befuddled, brow furrowed in that way only children can manage.
The illustration of Tom Sawyer stared back. Tom Sawyer had always seemed to be like a mirror reflection of myself - sandy-haired, a little scrawny and, until the very end, just a boy. Only, if this drawing was to be taken as gospel, Mark Twain had been sorely off in his colourful descriptions. This was no boy, but a man. And even ‘man’ was probably not the best of terms. He leered at me, and it was leering. It was actual leering, so real that even in black and white he seemed to exist more than my father, whom I had only ever glimpsed in photographs. The caption said ‘Tom Sawyer’, the man wore a jaunty straw hat and only minutes before I had seen a child in that drawing, yet there was no child now. It was a monster.
The worst sort of monster. Not goat-footed, or horned, or covered in boils or coarse fur. A monster that wore human clothes, but as soon as I saw him I knew he was a monster. The sort of monster you might see in the street, and shy away from. Someone who had done horrible things to innocent people; I knew. It was a subtle sensation but a strong one, like that crawling revulsion you get when you witness a cockroach scuttling along the floor. And it was so obvious to me that I even wondered why Huckleberry Finn was still smiling at him, the monster that had consumed Tom Sawyer.
I don’t know what happened next. I must have slept.
I opened the book again the next morning. The tang of aftershave had left. The picture was as it had always been. I gave it to my Grandfather. He couldn’t read, of course, but thanked me anyway, and nodded as though he understood what I was doing.
Afterwards I had nightmares, of the leering man, of his burning eyes and his monstrous nature.
The aftershave never returned to the book, and thankfully neither did he.
‘My room,’ my Grandfather said on his deathbed. ‘You must look after my room.’
My Mother moved out some years later. I did not, and I did as he had asked. I was twenty then - the room had been abandoned for a few good years.
The room was covered with dust, and the strong scent of Woodbines still hung over everything. Others had offered to help me clear it out but I refused. This was my undertaking. It was no great task: for all of my Grandfather’s love of wealth, his room had been modest I started with the bed. The underneath was filthy, and underneath the dirt I found filthier things - a few magazines of women and men hidden away, unused for decades perhaps. I almost expected to find a bottle of aftershave, guiltily secreted away, but I was disappointed. In the end, it was just an old man’s things. I had admired and known him well, and there were no surprises.
Even as I reached the bookcase, this antique the greatest testament to my Grandfather’s stubborn nature, I was unsurprised to find my old book - with my old friend, Tom Sawyer. I flicked through it. An almost welcoming wind of aftershave blew into my face. Perhaps I should have dropped it then, but why? Instead of choking me, it seemed far more pleasant this time around, and familiar... I laughed as I realised the aftershave I was smelling was my own; the pages had probably disturbed the air around me.
I laughed again, and stowed it in the breast pocket of my jacket.
And I read it most nights. In my bed, tucked in like the old days, enjoying every word and picture. Tom Sawyer was in every drawing, the boy with no evidence of his doppelganger. In the day, I kept it in my jacket: comforting almost, a childhood memory. Never in those days did the man reappear, even when I found myself wishing him too. I wanted to see if he was just like I remembered. I had dreams about him, not nightmares, just dreams. I wanted to talk to him, and maybe pictures couldn’t talk, but I was certain normal pictures couldn’t leer either.
At work they told me to take it out of my pocket. I decided to take a holiday instead. All day the book could stay close to me, no one to come between us. It was warm, like a freshly cooked ham.
We did have ham a few weeks later. My Wife cooked it up. I was married, of course, being a man of good standing just like my Father. She was pretty, and smart, and a whore.
I had changed for her, not much, but enough. Enough to comb my hair just a little more, and sprinkle a little aftershave every so often. Just those small things that we do for love. My Mother cried at our wedding. My Wife cried as she asked for a divorce.
She tried to explain it. She spoke tremulously and sobbed and said that we had just grown apart and that it wasn’t fair and that I could make any woman happy but just not her. In her sorrow she seemed to me more beautiful than ever before, but I could feel no pity. The book in my pocket throbbed with every beat of my heart. It was warm. It began to burn. I looked at my wife.
An hour or so later, I looked through the book again. I found that fateful page, the illustration, the nightmare. The man was back: Tom Sawyer was gone. I smiled, as I had at the scent of the aftershave. I remembered the man’s face now, not because of my nightmares, but because I had seen it so many times before. Every morning, when I looked above the sink at my mirror, as I shaved and put on my wonderful aftershave.
I wished I could smell it now. But I couldn’t, of course, over the thick black smoke, even though I was outside. My Wife, I reflected, was probably more troubled by that smoke than I, but that did not matter now.
Instead I sat under my favourite tree, and began to read again, even as she screamed.
‘Nothing like the smell of burning meat,’ my Grandfather had said in his cheery tone, when he used to tuck into his ham.
I couldn’t help but agree.
Jessica Moore is a student at Loughborough University, she enjoys reading, writing, and the occasional bout of mind-devouring insanity
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