Burning butter. I sniff again. Yes, absolutely. Sweet and rich, but with a black vein of smoke. This smell means nothing to me. I’m sure of it. Then why do I know exactly what it is, without hesitation? The burning of butter carries no significance for me, there is no connective tissue, no memory comes, immediate, borne on wings. Then why is there a horrible chill in my collarbone, in my knuckles?
What’s he smelling?
Hard to say. It has manifested in a number of ways; petrol, the forest, a damp and sticky floor of a cinema. Body odour is common. We’ve had plenty of those.
Listen, if you boys are suggesting we use… smells in the field – I’ve laid in the mud, do you understand? Crawled through the soil of piss-stained villages; in Kuwait I spent months outrunning men who didn’t bathe.
I understand, sir, but please, observe.
Burning still, near burnt. Smells will slip out from under your thoughts and cut straight to your body. The sudden rush. The smell of a changing room, chlorine and sweat, will always make me ever so slightly aroused, stiff, breathless. Chlorine, sweat and soap, and Kevin’s wet flesh pressing me against a locker, kissing me. But burning butter means nothing to me. Nothing whatsoever lives with it, appears to me. Then why is it getting hard to breathe. Why am I afraid?
Christ, look at that heart rate. How much did you pump in there?
A single spray, General. About 3 millilitres of the compound.
Diluted by a factor of 6.
Christ. A drop. A damned drop.
Even seen a drop of ink in a glass of water, General?
It persists. And its tendrils spread.
Burning butter. I don’t know why I’m afraid. My fists hurt, my nails are digging into my palms my breath – I – The smell of dusty carpet makes me instantly sad. My face becomes younger, and pressed against the carpet, listening to the muffled sound of a birthday party downstairs, which I’m too shy and contrary and shy to attend, but my ear is pressed against the carpet scanning the spiderweb of voices for traces of my name, waiting, hoping to be missed. “What’s wrong with you?” says my mother, whenever she would beat the carpet in her tiny garden. “You’re so quiet.” Burning butter. It has something to do with her. Of course it does. Mother, cooking in her plastic blue apron. Burning the butter. Oh god, I need to say something. I need to wave at the mirror, get their attention and say “sorry, no.” I can’t
What’s happening now?
It’s attacking his limbic system. The olfactory receptors, the electrical impulses in the brain, it’s all very crowded in there, shared pathways, jostle jostle. Smell stimulates parts of the anterior lobe, home also to the amygdala, the hippocampus, the roots of memory, emotion.
But what is actually doing in there, to his mind?
The boys downstairs vary in their terms, General. Some say corruption, some say persuasion.
And what would you say? What term would you use?
Me, sir? Pregnancy.
I need to tell them that I lied. I wasn’t suitable. Not at all. I’m fucked up, I’m a weak, selfish little boy again. “What that hell is that little prick doing in there? You said he was a good man.” But I can’t speak, my mouth won’t make words because I’m falling. My eyes are shut fast but I’m falling, I can feel it in my stomach and if I try to speak or move or even open my eyes I’ll land. She’s in the kitchen and my father’s dead. But my father’s always been dead. Always. He’s never been at all, to me at least. Never. But why is he in the kitchen? Is this is this is is this this is why she’s of course it’s why she’s burning the butter. Stop.
What did he just say?
Playback. Amplify and loop, 2.25 to 2.27.
Father Father Father Father Father Father
Ah yes, a familiar player. Fathers create some of the most vivid memories, don’t you find, General?
I … have found that. For better or worse.
Curious for the current subject though.
Father died when he was two. Heart attack I believe. Delightful.
My head is swimming, the table in front of me is smearing in and out of focus and it’s making me sick, its all making me sick I want to vomit, puke up and have it out, spit it all out of me, purge it. Smoke is rising from the pan. Please I need to lie down and curl up. My brain needs to stop, to shred itself, curl up, I just want to go away to not be here or anywhere just be gone for now, away and buried so that no one has to see this. He’s in the kitchen and he’s shouting and there’s a huge shining knife in his fist
Don’t think of it as a virus in normal terms, General, of one’s body, or of one’s mind. You can immunise against those, you see. But what about your memory? How do you immunise yourself from trauma? You see, the compound is a virus. It’s a virus of one’s past.
But what about the clean enemy, those without a trauma?
We all have secrets, General. The compound guarantees it.
“This is for you, you dirty faggot” big shining knife in his fist “You’ve killed us all” and he pushes it into his soft belly, to the hilt and pulls it this way and that way. The pan is left on the flame as mother rushes to him, the sizzling stops and all that’s left is the reek the stink the horrible smoky charcoal burn. “This was you!” she shouts, and the blood, the red apron the father that I’ve never remembered but there he is and of course it was my fault, how could I, everything I am, everything I’ve done there’s nothing I can do to fix it I’m broken I can I can help help me HELP ME please I need to be on the floor no no no no no no no no smoke burning, the smoke in the kitchen
We’re calling it Pre Traumatic Stress Disorder. The boys down-
Call it off, for God’s sake, he’s going into shock!
He always happened this always happened this way and it’s always been my fault
Very well, sir. Vent the room.
I I one there gone it’s gone now not not at all I haaa haaa ha. Breathe. Breathe.
That was damn ugly.
The compound manifests in many ways. Imagine, General, an entire settlement, each enemy combatant suffering their own personalised traumatic episode. How do you prepare your soldiers for that, guard against years and years of memories, ready to turn traitor at the littlest trigger? The tiniest stray odour.
Damn ugly way to do business.
That was – I can breathe again. It’s passing slowly. The pain in my head, the turning of my stomach, and my skin has stopped shifting. I sit up, wipe my forehead, and my hand comes away soaked. I have a stitch in my side from the tension and I breathe through the dull pains.
Are you alright in there?
Yes. Yes I think so. I – I’m sorry.
Not at all, take your time.
It’s just, and I’m sorry I truly am, I think there was something I should have … divulged when I applied.
Oh yes? What’s that.
It’s just – My father died when I was young.
We already know that, yes.
It’s just … I never told you how. It’s rather unpleasant. Suddenly thought it might be relevant.
Go on, dear boy. The General and I, we would be very interested to hear. Very interested indeed.