Childhood can sketch memories that race from cloaked corridors of the psyche to the forefront of your thoughts with the random unpredictability of an old drunk in a bus shelter. You could be sitting on a deckchair, and a distant waft of obscurity will bring back a picture of time and place. Your first fight; your first kiss; or even the time you got lost, and as the sun started its descent, the fear that you might never make it home for tea. Your heart starts to race and you could almost be in that place again.
Whoever could associate Tesco with such powerful memories of childhood? The corporate bastards have crushed any sense of cohesive society and community under their jackboot of consumerism. I hate the smugness of their commercials and feel a bolus of vomit whenever I see people misguided in the zombified stupor of using self-service checkouts -without realising the implications of it. Yet I cannot stay away because of a specific reason: memories of happier times.And it’s all to do with the fish counter.
Psychologists have long recognised the link between olfactory senses and memory: cut grass, burning wood, brand new plastic footballs, the rain on summer tarmac, etc. …but the bloody fish counter in Tesco? This has its genesis with a memorable summer spent at the local beach in the days when 10 year olds were allowed to wander for miles in the wilderness unshackled by parental fears of predatory pederasts, and free from the threat of an asbo. Older generations will always spout on at increasing revisionist length about how all summers were long and hot. And I’ll be damned if I’m going to disagree.
This particular season seems burnt onto my brain with a solar stencil. They may very well have been different summers, but to assist the embellishing of reminiscence when I’m finally chained to a commode dribbling a mulch of toast from the side of my abusive contorted mouth, I will put it in one pigeonhole: summer 1974. A million UV-scorched events: getting bitten by an adder; being chased by a tramp we caught wanking in a shed; climbing the ropes of a huge deserted marquee; getting a sly grasp of an older girl’s breast; hiding out in haystacks; building tree swings that would propel you through small forest fires. And a dead whale on the beach.
The latter episode featured an unfortunate creature who had presumably found its sophisticated sonar corrupted by a sargasso of industrial oil, used condoms and domestic sewage, and stranded itself on the deserted beaches behind the local steelworks. Word soon got around, and an army of delirious locals headed in rabid anticipation to the rare sight like a public hanging. Only thing is: we got there first. Nothing could best a Raleigh Chopper propelled across rough terrain by excited schoolkids.
Our imaginations spiralled with visions of a giant leviathon that would swallow the town whole; a maritime monster with the souls of lost seafarers imprisoned in its belly. Reality was a 12 ft pilot whale in an early state of decomposition being picked at by seagulls like some huge moulded smorgasbord. Of course the seeping oils and liquefying blubber didn’t put off a load of panting kids who couldn’t believe the sight before them. We climbed over the demised demon, slid down its brow, used its tail as a trampoline and attempted the fosbury flop over its spine and into the sandpools formed by its once-thrashing bulk. Meanwhile, the summer sun was calling in its debt and turning the poor bastard green. A noxious aroma curled at our noses and concocted pits of nausea. The novelty was beginning to drop off like the barnacles that had accompanied the beast on many cross-Atlantic journeys. And the adults were coming, with their earnest faces of disapproval.
I took one look back and realised that there was one area that we hadn’t exploited for our novelty. We couldn’t get at the teeth, and the gulls had harvested its eyes. Armed with a pointed piece of driftwood, I jumped onto its back and with a roar like the best pantomime Ahab, plunged the stick into its spout. A sickly squelch of twisted sodomy echoed from its midst. Removing the shank I bent forward to view into the aperture and was showered in a vast geyser of putrid mammalian lung water. It was the smell of death. No, the stench of a holocaust. I started to vomit, and those close by who were splashed with the spittle of beached doom also started retching. But we were laughing. Laughing at the stupidity and the idiocy and the retribution of disrespecting one of god’s great and gentle creatures. We were covered in cadaverous stagnation and we didn’t give a fuck.
It took days to rid that acrid stink. Dozens of baths and clothes changes. I can still smell the putrefaction it to this day. It’s a reassuring smell. A smell that tells of better times of no worry, no pressure, no responsibility. And sometimes this smell comes to me at the Tesco fish counter. Almost beckoning me to leap into the midst of dead wall-eyed swimmers & crushed ice, plunging a great stick into the void and heading back to the summer of 1974.