A DOG'S LIFE

From a high shelf in the garage I took down the ancient, cobwebbed 5-litre jar of linseed oil. God knows why I bought so much. Perhaps 20 years ago it was on special.

The jar was still half-full, the oil the colour of old honey, and the lid crusted on, where oil had dried to a crystalline texture.

I increasingly struggle to open things these days, with my greatest foe being factory-sealed jars of pickle. My grip has weakened, as has my power to twist. How the frail and elderly manage I don't know. Perhaps there are gadgets or tricks. (I realise of course you can break the vacuum seal by stabbing the lid. The one time I tried it I was pleased to escape with only a minor wound to the thigh).

 I increasingly struggle to open things these days, with my greatest foe being factory-sealed jars of pickle. Photo/Getty Images
I increasingly struggle to open things these days, with my greatest foe being factory-sealed jars of pickle. Photo/Getty Images

Anyway I gripped the lid with a tea-towel and grunted in a manner that could get me into the last 16 at Wimbledon. By the time I'd turned the lid half an inch I was sweating. But it loosened slowly and when I was on the point of opening the jar I leaned in close for my reward: the smell.

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As has often been noted, smells can trigger memories you don't remember remembering. And with the memory comes not only full sensual detail, but also full emotional detail. You feel, in other words, as you felt at the time of the memory - which is why I leant in. I wanted to feel young. For linseed oil and I go back to the beginning of time. Because of cricket.

In childhood every cricket bag, every pavilion changing room, indeed the sport of cricket itself smelt of linseed oil. For as a cricketer you owned a bat and at the start of the season you smoothed the face of that bat with the finest sandpaper and then anointed it, ritually, with linseed oil. Why was never asked. It was just a thing you did, like breathing, or sacrificing goats.

I took the lid off the oil, put my nose where it had been and drew a long deep breath. Nothing. No whoosh back down time's tunnel, no long dead cricketers, indeed no smell of linseed oil. I tilted the jar. The oil did not shift. A crust had formed during the years of standing on the shelf untouched.

In childhood every cricket bag, every pavilion changing room, indeed the sport of cricket itself smelt of linseed oil. English cricketers Alan Moss (1930-2019, left) and Stuart Surridge (1917-1992), felled willow trees to make Stuart Surridge cricket bats. Photo/Getty Images
In childhood every cricket bag, every pavilion changing room, indeed the sport of cricket itself smelt of linseed oil. English cricketers Alan Moss (1930-2019, left) and Stuart Surridge (1917-1992), felled willow trees to make Stuart Surridge cricket bats. Photo/Getty Images

I poked a bamboo stake down the throat of the jar and prodded. The crust was thick and resistant but then the bamboo broke through and sank into the richness beneath. And up through the mouth of the jar there wafted the smell of oil and, on the instant, whoosh, back down time's tunnel I flew.

To my bedroom, aged maybe 10. I am sitting on the bed which is covered with a thing known as an eiderdown. It has a greenish dotted paisley pattern, like an aboriginal painting of sperm.

One bedroom wall is covered with pictures of fast bowlers - Wes Hall, a golden crucifix bouncing on his great black chest, Fred Trueman, his hair aglow with Brylcreem. On the chest of drawers there's a tank of snails in fetid water. The goldfish died of neglect some months ago.

I am wearing grey school shorts. Where the shorts end my thighs bulge as white as the flesh of garlic. (How I despair of the plumpness of those thighs. How I envy the skinny boys whose shorts flap in a breeze). And laid across those thighs like a cradled child is a cricket bat. My best possession.

It is discretely stamped at each of its shoulders with the maker's name - Stuart Surridge - and across the front is the facsimile autograph of Peter May, the former England captain.

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I have sandpapered the blade. Now in my left hand I am holding a scrap of old flannel over the neck of the linseed oil and tipping. The label on the bottle is translucent with old oil drips.

I run the flannel over the face of the wood feeling the bumps and indentations and in the silence of my head I see the innings I am going to play in the season to come, the summer that stretches out ahead of me so unthinkably long that it will go on for ever. And like the character in the Larkin poem I sense "the certainty of time laid up in store".

Ha. The memory faded and I was standing in a garage with an open jar of linseed oil.

And I tipped a little on to a scrap of flannel and just as 50 years ago I applied it with a gentle rubbing motion to my newly-cut and peeled and sanded macrocarpa walking stick.