What are our first memories?
Aleeka’s father used to say he could remember lying in his crib. As a small baby.
And she has a friend who says he remembers suckling on his mother’s breast.
Her own first memories are later than that. Being tossed in the air by her father, and as she came back down into his hands screaming, not with delight, as baby-tossing adults like us to believe, but with pure terror. That fear of being separated from the earth, from the solidity of her father’s arms. That fear of losing touch with everything that holds her, and keeps her safe.
Most of Aleeka’s first memories are oral history told to her by her older siblings, of which there were many. She can but listen when her siblings reminisce, the memories are not her own, they are images in her mind that she gives gravitas with her very fertile imagination. So, she can say she remembers the water in the bay where they swam when she was three years old, she remembers the jungle, and the tropical forests they walked and drove through. But how many of these memories are really her own?
Her memories of the first seven years of her life cascade between the crystal green cathedral of the dense forests of the tropical Paradise island where she was born and the equally crystalline ice and snow of the North of Europe whence the family would return at regular intervals. From the heady smell of garlic and tamarind, the more sober odours of rice and aubergine of the cooking from the Tropics, to the solid family fare of the chicken soup her grandmother made.
How she remembers, as a little girl, holding her father’s hand to steady her, approaching her grandmother’s house, her scarf pulled tight around her ears and her boots, unfamiliar to her feet used to running barefoot on warm soil and grass, crunching on the snow that lay thick on the ground. She remembers the green iron fence and the palings with sharp arrow shaped heads. The house was on one side of the canal, near the Iron Bridge that opened to let through the fishing boats and other craft. And she was not yet at her Ma’s house when she could smell that soup, flavoured with parsley and a small sprinkle of curry. Or was the curry her mother’s touch, born from a decade of Island fare to bring depth and character to that family favourite and to tantalise the Northern palate ever so slightly.
There was no garden to speak of in the front of her grandmother’s house, only a metre or two between the house and the fence. But the back garden! Full of strawberries and gooseberries, beans and carrots and leeks and other things she could not have eaten in the land of the tropics because the climate did not support their growth there. But even now, she still sniffs strawberries before she buys them to see if they smell like her Ma’s, breathing in their freshness, and their sweet, sweet fragrance. Even now, she knows the freshness of a small carrot by the crunch on her teeth as she bites into it.
Even now those smells come to her in a flood of olfactory memory that transports her across time and space, back to that childhood, and her heart gives a lurch as she remembers.
By the time of her eighth birthday the family had moved to the country on the Mediterranean Sea, in the old town where the Romans raged in war with the Carthaginians. Here, the sights, the smells and tastes of the North and East were replaced with something new. Grapevines laden with their fruit, red and green, in the hot desert sun. Markets filled to the brim with colour, fruits and vegetables, now common around the world, that they hadn’t seen before. The vendors called out their wares in a language she didn’t understand.
The smell of fish, fresh from the sea.
Never will she forget the odour of a freshly fried egg in a delicate puff of pastry, with only a hint of spices.
Or her first taste of a local dish of tomato and herbs taken with a thimble of red wine.
And the crispiest soft and buttery pastry, laced with chocolate that was delivered to the house on Sundays, by a man with a horse and cart.
As Aleeka remembers her heart softens as her mind takes her to her past. A past lived, it seems, lifetimes ago.