Suppose your whole life doesn't flash before you when you die? Suppose you focus on going home, happy times and sublime comforts as a cocktail of drugs, excruciating pain and oblivion are the sum of your finite temporal future? 'Brown Bread' in rhyming slang means 'Dead.'
The smell of bread and baking woke him. It was familiar and comforting. He tried to sit up but didn’t move. Muffled voices crowded his mind. He couldn’t see them. When he tried to call out, he was silent.
A cold fear crept over him as he lay, wherever he lay. He didn’t know ‘where’ that was. He didn’t know why he was there. He didn’t know…who he was…he didn’t know how to move, speak, touch, see…images, distorted, disjointed, disoriented, crowded his mind. A snatch of a song…someone’s got it in for me…
He decided to concentrate on the smell of the bread. It reminded him of… Jesus, what? Then the screens came down again and he slid into a warm bath of dreams.
Home, for him, was the smell of baking bread.
In the kitchen of his home the aroma of freshly baked bread wrapped itself around you like a warm, fragrant blanket. It rose from the stove cooker in the scullery and from the top of the dresser by the kitchen window where his Mammy had laid out that day's baking to sit and breathe.
As life passed by with a rhythmic beat, some things marked its inexorable passage. Fresh bread baking, dough rising, slices, warm from the oven and dripping with dollops of melting butter, these kept time for him.
He could discern the sour musk of buttermilk in the egg white glow of the soda bread, studded by raisins and sultanas that carried their own hum of fruity fermentation.
Beside it his Mammy had set the humble wheaten loaf, the family nutritional furnace, a carefully nurtured and kneaded eruption of coarse wheatmeal flour, the colour of warm coals.
This time when he awoke he was wet. He knew he was wet because it felt like his eyes were steaming up. He wasn’t sure if it was sweat or fever or both. Was he in a bath or tossed into a river, another body discarded, a wasted husk, with less than reverence for his soul’s sacred journey.
He tried to concentrate. He could feel a faint buffeting as though he was being rolled in a barrel of tripe. A muffled voice penetrated the blur of white noise crackle around his head.
‘If he lives, he’s a miracle but he’ll be scarred to the bone,’ the first voice said. I say ‘the first’ because as wakefulness took more control and honed his senses he became aware of a number of presences.
‘Will you keep your big mouth shut? he’s not dead or a vegetable. He’s in a coma. The poor lad might hear you. Lord knows what sort of suffering horrors he’s endured,’ said voice number two.
‘Excuse me. He’s not the only one…but right enough, he has enough on his plate without having to listen to me wittering on…he was a fine cut of a wee lad too,’ said voice one.
‘It’s always the youngest and the bravest go first…’ voice two, an older voice, trailed wistfully. He struggled to smell them, to catch some distinguishing odour. He smelled fruitcake…
Here was his mother’s magic, the fruits of her daily alchemic rituals. Her efforts went beyond food to sacred action as she assembled and arranged her instruments, jars, spoons and ingredients on the altar of the kitchen table.
Every morning after she had risen and fed the cats and the children and her husband and packed them all off on their respective paths to a sun trap patch beneath the garden hedge, to school or to work, she cleared the table and began her preparations.
A jug of buttermilk, covered with a thinning strip of muslin, was fetched from the dry,cool pantry alcove off the kitchen along with half a dozen sand shell coloured hen's eggs.
A slab of fresh country butter was laid on the table with a tin of salt and a grocer's bag of white sugar. Next came the red and white sack of Odlum's plain flour and two small tins, one of Bextartar, the other of bread soda. Pride of place in the centre of this assembly was given to the sack of wheatmeal .
The instruments for the operation to follow were then gathered together at hand's reach on the table. First the shiny butterscotch brown delph mixing bowl, then a wooden spoon, a teaspoon and an old ceramic handled kitchen knife, yellowed, cracked and curling with age. A wooden rolling pin was kept within reach.
He loved to sit and watch her work on chill, Autumnal evenings when the day's curtains were drawn early and a spray of rain mist would keep him indoors after school.
She would pour him a glass of cold milk and, for a treat, butter a slice of warm raisin dashed soda bread which she'd sprinkle with sugar. She’d call it ‘a piece’, saying, ‘sit down there, wee man, and eat yer piece.’
He'd sit at the end of the kitchen table with only the fading light of the evening sun to illuminate her actions and listen to her sing songs that had caught her fancy like Que Sera, Sera and If I were a Blackbird.
His mind wandered. Or should that be strayed? He felt engulfed in a daydream. Surrounded by a liquid warmth that dulled his senses. So he could not move when he desired or speak or shout. He had no sight. He was aware his eyes were open. Vague noises: the rustle of starched cloth, the tinny clank of bedpans or dishes, the slosh of water filling a glass. He could feel the soft breath of damp air when a window was opened or a door slammed. Footsteps; some loud, hard and resolute, some shuffling, without direction. Voices, muffled and indistinct, some loud, some whispered. He opened his mouth to speak but he could hear no sound except a faint echo in a far recess…
Outside the evening gloom encroached slowly on the garden and the rain beat a sombre tattoo on the window. Inside was warm and safe and smelled of fresh baked bread and the salty treacle of melting butter.
Evening time was the time he loved best. The house had the cosy warmth of brushed cotton bedsheets that when combined with the aromatic blend of dry, country turf burning in the stove and the ambrosial scent of his Mammy’s baking created an indelible imprint of home in his mind that he could store in the recesses of memory when comfort, serenity and love were needed and he could recall them.
In these memories nothing had a time, just a place in the picture. So the pictures on the walls included a picture of Pope John XX111 alongside US President John F. Kennedy and Daddy’s framed version of Yeats' poem, The Lake Isle of Inisfree.
A statue of the Virgin Mary as she appeared at the shrine at Knock stood in a bed of blue satin, encased in a gold painted frame over the kitchen door. The Blessed Virgin shared pride of place with St Martin de Porres, an ascetic Brazilian monk, to whom his Mammy had a particular devotion as Martin was the name of her husband.
In these memories the kitchen walls are always painted blue while the free standing dresser, painted two shades of green with the plates and the cups and the drawer of cutlery on the left and allsorts on the right side , stood inside the door to the back garden.
This dresser had six doors and two drawers. In the middle behind one big drop down door were shelves of tins of beans and boxes of marrowfat peas and supplies of dried herbs, spices like allspice, cloves and white pepper as well as all his mother's baking magic, like baking soda, bread soda, Bextartar, colourings, vanilla essence and packets of raisins and sultanas and all those things that went into the Christmas cake mix like cherries, maraschino, green and red glace , mixed fruit peels and almonds, flaked, chipped and whole as well as coconut, chipped and dessicated.
The two doors above housed the dinner plates, saucers, side plates, dessert plates and cereal bowls for every day use while the teacups hung from hooks and the glasses stood ready for action and easy access. The best tableware was on display in the front room in a glass fronted cabinet.
Below the main drop down desk style door and work place the delph and glass mixing bowls and oven ready Pyrex bowls in different sizes were stacked behind two knee height doors alongside the steel cooking pots, frying pans, steamer, aluminium colander and wire sieve.
The kitchen floor was covered with linoleum in a woodcut diamond pattern. I imagined it was three dimensional when he stared at it long enough.
In those autumn evenings as he sat at the kitchen table, his sugared 'piece' in hand, he would listen to his mother's gently absent minded crooning, 'que sera, sera…whatever will be, will be…the future's not mine to see,… que sera, sera…'
A noise, louder than the muffled rustling he had become accustomed to, shattered his reverie. Its thunderous rumble reverberated through his frame and where he lay. Screams, groans and the crash of shattered masonry followed. Then barked orders, shouted with the authority of fear and command.
A voice to his left said, ‘that was a close one. I think we took a hit…’
Another said, ‘Jesus, I’m bleeding. I think I’m hit.’ He sounded surprised.
In his bed, awake and conscious, he thought, or is this my nightmare? He strained to feel but all he could do was drift again…
You could set your watch by mammy, he thought. Her day's work of washing and hanging out the clothes on the line in the garden; making the beds and dusting, baking and gardening over she would walk to the local shop to stock up on essentials for the tea and a visit to a neighbour for a wee cup of tea in her hand and a chat . By four o'clock she was ready to bake again and this was the time he loved best.
If she baked a sponge cake there'd be a chance to swipe his finger along the inside of big mixing bowl after she'd emptied its contents into the baking tin. The creamy, sugary mix pasted to the bowl was the prize for being there with her as she floured, kneaded and rolled . Sometimes it was Madeira cake or 'coloured cake' as he called it, a mesmerising kaleidoscope of colours, flavours and pungent, sweet aromas, cherry pink, chocolate brown and vanilla, a pale, delicate yellow.
Other times it was coffee cake and the bottle of Irel, a liquid chicory flavouring that gave the sponge and its creamy sandwich filler a rich, treacly coffee brown colour and taste.
Everyday she'd bake an apple tart when there were good cooking apples available from the tree in the garden at the back of the house. She'd lace it with cinnamon and dashed with cloves and then seal and paint it with country butter yellow egg yolk and coat it with white grain and castor sugar. He used to think his head would explode with the pleasure of swimming in the warm, sensory swirl of baking apples.
A putrid stench. He hadn’t realised he couldn’t smell until the acrid odour of steaming urine assailed his nostrils. Then he felt his whole face fill with a symphony of smells: sweaty socks, body odour, boiled cabbage, turgid faeces, disinfectant and bleach and a fetid reek of decay…the smell of cordite and exploded high calibre ordnance and the sweet, nauseating reek of burning flesh…
All these rushed into his brain, filling him up. Now he could hear and smell. He tried to combine both in his sensory deprived limbo. But his efforts were confused and pointless. Everything drained away again like waste from a sink. He struggled to hold on to something.
‘Here comes the shit,’ he thought. Was that a door opening? Were those the footsteps of a man or a woman? As soon as he could discern a movement he tried to concentrate on it to give it an attendant odour. But nothing stood still long enough to give it an identity. He felt tired and lost.
They were tying a rope to a branch of an old, gnarled blackthorn tree that stood on a ditch up the lane behind his house. It was mid-afternoon and a fine summer’s day.
The tree cast its big, curly shadow over the stream that skirted the field beyond the hedge. On our side the lane ran behind the squat row of houses.
The object of their adventure was the nest of wasps that had made their home in the dry, porous clay of the embankment just below the tree. Their mission, should they choose to accept it, as they’d declare solemnly to each other, was to swing from the embankment and kick the wasps’ nest on the inswinging return. In the way of things he took first turn while Hughie, his best friend, looked on.
Nothing happened on the first swing. The wasps went about their business, apparently unperturbed, hovering and buzzing in and out of the tiny wasp sized holes they had dug into the embankment.
Hughie, taller and heavier than he and with shoes that were three sizes bigger swung and hit the bank with a dull shudder. In his panic to escape he released the rope and leapt to his feet, dancing a bizarre dance by kicking his legs out while brushing them frantically with his arms. They could see more wasps had come out to investigate the disturbance.
Taking the rope, he swung again. His feet, like diving bomber planes rained death and destruction on the wasps. He imagined their tiny dwellings collapse and implode, crushing their numbers with sudden, terrifying death. The impressions of his feet were plainly visible in the embankment.
Releasing the rope the rope he knew there was no escape. At least two wasps had got off their chocks to swoop and harry the enemy. A sharp protruding stone split his shin as the wasps stung deep and bitter into the soft flesh behind his knee .
Tears welled up in his eyes and flowed fast like the blood staining his socks. He turned and ran.
There it is again, he thought. The smell of baking bread and apple tart with cinnamon and maybe fairy cakes with icing cream and hundreds of thousands.
He could hear a confusion of sounds. Somewhere close by a voice said, ‘nurse, I think yer man’s awake again…’ Running footsteps, raised voices, orders, ‘get a doctor…get a defib…’ He ignored them as they had ignored him.
He ran to the door as fast as his injuries allowed and his young legs could carry him. Now he was banging on it and the tears that had been welling burst their floodgates. He wanted the comfort of his mammy, a sugared piece, a plaster and a wee hug to wipe the fear away…
‘Mammy, mammy…let me in,’ he wailed. Then the door swung open and he was enveloped in the pungent comfort of home baking and suffused by a brilliant living light. He was home.
In an hour Daddy will be home. Homework will be discussed and examined. And as Tommy plays Scott Joplin on Teatime with Tommy, we’ll devour the day's labours and dissect the day's events.