But when from a long-distant past nothing subsists, after the people are dead, after things are broken and scattered, taste and smell alone, more fragile but more enduring, more immaterial, more persistent, more faithful, remain poised a long time, like souls, remembering, waiting, hoping, amid the ruins of all the rest; and bear unflinchingly, in the tiny and almost impalpable drop of their essence, the vast structure of recollection.
A smell can evoke memories in a way no other sense can.
Minnie and Cassie have a touch of thrush in their feet and after I had cleaned and dried their hooves I decided to put on some Stockholm tar. I opened a new jar and the pungent aroma took me immediately to my great aunts yard.
My great-aunt was my grandfather’s cousin. She had a riding school and jumping yard in Belgium and I have fond memories of all the times I went there during the summer holidays. The yard was in a small town about 40 miles from Antwerp. It was a funny place. Originally a factory, most of the huge manufacturing hall had been converted into an Olympic size indoor arena. The hall also housed a long row of boxes where all the young sports horses were stabled, and tack and storage rooms. Then there was an outdoor arena and a block of loose boxes that housed the riding school horses.
The first time I went there I was 10, and they were holding a kind of pony camp. Not the kind where you do games and stuff, it was quite serious with a daily schedule of 3 or 4 hours of riding lessons and after that stable duties. It was fun though and I remember I cried when my parents came to collect me, because I didn’t want to go home yet. I went back every summer.
It was a busy place and it was run with almost military precision and strict rules. Everything had to be immaculate, tack had to be properly cleaned after every use and the yard was swept morning and evening. The horses were handled with the utmost consistency, they were fed, groomed and exercised at the same times every day, so that they knew what to expect.
Every Monday was a rest day. For the horses. A rest day for the school horses, so that they wouldn’t turn sour. A rest day for the sport horses, after a week of training and competing. No rest for the humans. Monday was a day for odd jobs. One of those jobs was to treat all horses’ hooves with Stockholm tar from a big jar with a sticky brush. After a few horses you’d be covered in the stuff and it was almost impossible to get it off your hands. I always loved the smell though.
One whiff of it and I’m back in Belgium. I had not thought about the place in years. I don’t know why, because I loved it there and I learned a lot. I still like their top rule, painted on the wall of the tack room: “when dealing with horses, always stay calm and never raise a hand or voice in anger.” I first learned to jump there, and they helped me to regain lost confidence after a disastrous fall. I learned skills I still use to this day and some that have become obsolete. I was told I was useless as a show-jumper, because I relied on my horse to see the stride, but that I would make an excellent groom, because there wasn’t a horse that wouldn’t load for me and I could turn them out looking their best, with neat plaits properly stitched with needle and threat.
It’s a long time ago now. The yard closed down years ago and my great-aunt and all the horses I used to know are dead. But the smell of the Stockholm tar brought them all back to me.