The Clean Smelling Man
I started life in an orphanage. Well, no. I started life hidden beneath a shrub on a roundabout in Gants Hill, Essex. I have limited recollection of my first eight years in the orphanage. My earliest memory, that of my house-mother, Grace. I think maybe I was around five or six years of age. There were other boys though their names have deserted me. The only vivid memory that remains is that of a smell. It was a very clean smell. At six years of age, I began schooling. After breakfast, Grace would walk all of us to the bathroom. She would insist on watching us brush our teeth, clean our ears, and brush our hair. Before leaving the house, she would hug each of us. We were put on a bus and taken to school. School was never fun. Never.
The orphanage, called Red House, was a Barnardo home. It was situated in North Yorkshire. It was my home. I was loved. In the grounds, there was an old oak tree on which I skinned my knees a hundred times, and from which I collected a million acorns, and it was the very same tree I’d seen felled by a bolt of lightning when I was eight. I saw that…I did…from the dormitory window on a storm-torn night. It might have meant something. It felt biblical. But if it did mean anything, well it was lost on me.
It felt like a huge home. There were corridors, staircases, and chandeliers. The staircases were sweeping, and fun was had sliding down the banister rails, provided Grace didn’t catch us. Get caught, and Grace, holding a broom, would chase us through the corridors. She never caught any of us, she never meant to.
On my last visit, forty years after leaving, I found that visitors were mostly struck by the vibrancy of the beautifully manicured gardens, and beyond them, the imposing grandeur of the Georgian architecture. I realized then, I had been raised in a mansion. I recall a tabby cat called Ginger. He was fat and cleaned his face in the fountain. The stained glass windows, edged in stone embroidery, reflected the early morning sunshine on the day of my visit. The steps leading up to the porch were black and white mosaic tiles. The lobby’s interior, too, exquisitely decorated. Elegance as only money can do, with a plush, dark, wine-red carpet on which stood masculine, but elaborate furniture. The high vaulted room, dominated by the black mahogany table, was topped with a white sculptured bust. The high vault ceiling, carved in a frieze of the heavens, constellations, and moons in all their artistic glory, was where we played games during the inclement afternoons. It offered a palatial feel and yet a coziness. It wasn’t at all strange to me or grand, back then. It was simply where we played games.
The clean smell, to which I earlier alluded, is a poignant memory. This clean smell was in some ways scary because on the days when it was strongest, lingering in the corridors, those were the days when a boy disappeared. A fact evidenced by the empty chair at the supper table. We knew we would never see that boy again. We didn’t know why. Nor could we ask.
Then, it was in summer time, I was playing in the gardens. Mr. Bunsen, the caretaker, with silvered hair, huge craggy hands, and a gimpy walk, was mowing the lawns.
I never saw him, the clean smelling man, the freshly mown grass had disguised his abrupt appearance. Here, he said, in a kindly voice, let me fix that for you. He straightened my spaceman helmet, took my hand and we walked to matron’s office. Matron, smiling, greeted me with arms open, beckoning me around the desk. Grace was beside her. There were tears in Grace’s eyes. I went to Grace first. She hugged me hard. The clean smelling man dragged a chair from the back wall up to the desk.
He spoke to me in quiet tones about the two people who had been coming on weekends and had been doing so for several months. They were nice. They brought chocolate, took me to the zoo, the cinema, and one weekend to Madame Tussauds. It was a weekend adventure by train to London. The first time I had ever stayed away from the home. It was a hotel near Buckingham Palace. They told me the Queen lived there. There were men in huge furry hats marching up and down. The man told me to call the woman Marion and him, Frank. They were truly nice to me. The lady was pretty, with smiling eyes. She wore a red beret on the back of her head. On the lapel of her cream jacket was pinned a corsage of fruits. Frank appeared as a giant. The biggest man I’d ever seen. He talked of the sea, catching fish from a boat. He told me lots of stories, scared me and excited me at the same time and gave me a boat he’d made from match-sticks. I’d only ever seen photos of the sea.
Grace released me from her arms. Not quickly, slowly…very slowly…then pulled me back close and kissed me on the forehead; a strange kiss, longer than her nightly kiss goodnight. The clean smelling man called me to his knee. I went to him as a child goes early to bed. He put his hands on my shoulders, and then with one hand lifted my chin. How would you like to call these people mum and dad? He said. Grace dabbed a handkerchief to her eyes.
I had lived for eight years in a secret world. The place in which my bed became a spaceship, the place where I was kissed and tucked in, where I could hear the older children playing outside on the lawns. It was more than a home; it was the place I rode my childhood dreams, which was just about as far as any child could ride, coming home to find Grace waiting to change us out of our school clothes, unaware I’d ridden off to war that day. To whom does a kid explain such magical sophistries? I was a fabulous opera, suffering the brilliant argument of childhood madness; a child born in a whirlwind of misunderstanding. In the end, I was damned by the rainbow, rode wooden dolphins, and was muddied by affection.