Turning the corner of the stairs leading down to the basement kitchen of YHA Penzance on a camping trip two springs ago, the smell of burnt toast mixed with the scent of wet foliage drifting in through the open fire escape and I found myself back in 1996, aged nine and choking back a panic attack over morning grace.
Scent is funny like that. I can be going about my daily life when suddenly a smell will knock the wind out of me and I’ll find myself lost in memories. Burnt toast, the glue and varnish of an old fashioned leather violin case, a steamy chlorinated swimming pool changing room. Each is like a little button in my mind which when pressed throws me back in time as if the intervening quarter of a century never happened.
Burnt toast and I’m nine, saying grace on a Monday morning over a plate of toast and marmite, overwhelmed because I’ve just come back from a weekend at home and am facing down another two or three weeks of indoctrination and zero privacy. Religious boarding school is not a place for introverts or the godless.
Burnt toast and I’m ten. It’s Sunday evening and I’m gathered around the catering toaster in the junior kitchen waiting for my Tesco Value slices of white bread to be done so that I can spread them with a thick layer of butter and disappear to the back common room to play piano for two hours before lights out. An older girl in the boarding house has just died, and I’m scared of the places my mind will go after dark following too many nights playing with an Ouija board by torchlight with my dorm mates. Rosalina had climbed out of the fire escape after lights out to chat and smoke on the roof with the other girls in her year as they did most nights of the week, and she fell. Money silenced her parents and kept the story out of the local and national newspapers. To this day just a small memorial plaque on the side of the school’s concert hall and a rose bush outside the girls’ boarding house bare witness to the accident.
Burnt toast and it’s a nondescript weekday in the mid-1990s. I’m stood on a sofa in the common room having a furious screaming match with the house mistress because, having finished my homework early that evening, I wasn’t allowed to leave prep and go play violin or piano, but was instead expected to sit and read the bible.
Burnt toast, because outside of meal times at the refectory, we had access to a toaster and a kettle to make snacks and hot drinks. The refectory meals were often inedible – gammon night especially – and so we supplemented our diets with white toast, instant noodles and penny sweets bought from the arcade at weekends.
As an adult, I have never owned a toaster and will only go to church if I’m paid to.