There’s a saying that might appear familiar to readers of Terry Pratchett: “You can’t cross the same river twice”. If it wasn’t for the clue in his books that the obvious interpretation is not the intended one then I don’t think I’d have worked it out. I’m too literal a thinker to have realized, unaided, that the river here refers to the water rather than its course. I’m not going to take the metaphor too far and start considering the water cycle through evaporation and rainfall by which the same water molecules could be crossed again. For the purposes of this metaphor, once the water has flowed downstream it must be considered “lost” as different water flows down, replacing it. The river crossing in this instance is an event in space-time: the time coordinate is key to understanding.
So far, so what? Is any of this relevant? Well,… yes. You see, I sometimes get nostalgic. I recall places in terms of past events and some of those events evoke memories of happiness. I feel a longing to experience a particular event again that going back to the same place in the present can’t satisfy: it’s not the same river.
This unsatisfied longing to go back to an event – a situation – in the past can be so overwhelmingly powerful that I feel a profound sense of loss because there is no way to return, wind back the clock. This can be a problem when I find myself in the same place doing the same thing, whether it’s socializing, playing darts or watching a band. Association triggers memories of the historical event and I can be left feeling that there is something missing, some vital piece of the puzzle that would complete the picture.
So I’m left with my memories, replaying the experiences, going back in my mind instead of in time. Maybe I can’t cross that river again, but it will always be there.
Every now and again I get a flashback of some smell. I can’t explain it; I don’t know what triggers it, but it’s every bit as vivid as my visual memories. I get it with taste as well. It can be incredibly frustrating at times because I often can’t identify the smell or taste despite it being such a strong sensation, as if I were smelling or tasting whatever it is right at that moment.
In that respect it is different from my normal memories of smells or tastes – they are nothing like as involving. Normally, to recall the taste of something I have to imagine eating or drinking it, and the memory is but a dull echo of the reality. But with the involuntary sensation of a smell it really is as if I am experiencing it right there and then. I can draw a deep breath through my nose and it sets off my olfactory nerves like fireworks. Even though I’m not actually smelling anything – there’s no odour in the air.
The strange thing is that my senses of smell/taste are not very acute. I often have trouble differentiating smells, so most perfumes smell about the same to me and I can’t distinguish between wines, say, by the aroma. I even find it difficult to tell if milk has turned by sniffing it – the first indication is usually when my wife tastes it in her cup of tea. I once – years ago – made cups of coffee at work and only realised something was wrong with the milk when I spotted the curdled bits floating. So it’s a mystery to me why I should experience these illusory flashes on what are very much secondary senses to me.
I refer to them as flashbacks rather than hallucinations because they are familiar as sensations that I have experienced first-hand in the past, not inventions of my mind. It happened earlier today – the inspiration for this post – when out of the blue I smelled Apple Sourz. I know that I smelled it yesterday when I was cleaning an optic that had been used to dispense that drink at the pub. I only wish I knew why the memory of that smell suddenly surfaced so vividly.