Notebook

Eau de Basement

I’m a January cliché, but it feels good, in theory.

I’m stretched out on the living room floor, forehead on the mat, arms out in front of me. It’s day five of a 30 day yoga journey with the online instructor Adriene. UK radio announcer and (very funny) podcast host Alice Levine just posted a photo of herself on Instagram looking fresh faced and cool in an acid-wash jumpsuit. “Does yoga with Adriene once” was the caption. HA. I’ll need all 30 days, but it’s good to have goals.

I can’t concentrate. The floor beneath my forehead is shaking. There are people down below tearing decades of plaster off the walls and removing old cupboards. It’s demolition day.

The basement, like the rest of the house, is 170 years old. I once visited the Tenement Museum in the Lower East Side of New York, where a series of walk-ups have been restored to resemble different points in the neighbourhood’s history: Italian families, Jewish immigrants, an Irish family trying to nestle into a German community.

Our basement could’ve been the encore presentation. In a way this space, with its stainless steel sink, moldy linoleum flooring with an inlaid dirty hooked rug and the pink toilet paper hanging on a pale green plywood wall, was someone else’s life. A history that I want to be gone, but that I also don’t want to destroy.

As I lay here listening to sledge hammering, forcing calm, I think about our cat Pearl that uses our dirt basement floor as a litter box.

It’s sad to rip away what was once someone’s home. But details can linger in memory, even when the space is long gone. Like the way the smell of Nivea cream takes me immediately to my grandmother’s house …

It’s 1983 and I’m sneaking into my grandmother’s bathroom. It’s bright with a sheer curtain on the window, cold toes on the tiled floor. The walls are soft yellow and the toilet, the bathtub, the sink, are all a lavender blue. A waft of Nivea hits me – fresh and clean, almost medicinal. The tin of Nivea sits out front on the cupboard shelf. It’s also blue, but a rich navy blue, sharp against the white lettering. NIVEA. I pick it up and twist off the lid as the clock ticks in the living room. As a 10 -year-old girl, this is an illicit activity. I twist off the top and the cream is thick, like boiled icing. I swooshed my index finger across the top. I want just to smear a thin layer on my hand to smell throughout the visit. I smell a forest, a clean bathroom, a secret moment, and my Gran. 

By now I’m lying on my back in Shavasana, smelling my basement emanating through the floor.

I get up and melt butter in a pan. I add chopped pear and blueberries from the freezer, sprinkling in cinnamon and a pinch of salt to spoon over oatmeal, a late breakfast. Hopefully someone will smell the warmth in the kitchen.

Anything to replace eau de basement.