The Smell of Oil
There were only two types of oil when I was younger. Two types that I would have recognised by the blue or the yellow lids in the shops, a litre of each that when you took home you’d put at the back of the counter against the tiled wall, sometimes on a piece of kitchen paper folded twice in half to stop the drip-down. The two types would always be difficult to hold without getting your hand covered in a greasy sheen. Vegetable, or sunflower oil. I couldn’t tell which was which, but I knew them. I don’t think my mum had a preference to which she used. What was better, a vegetable or a sunflower? You fried your food in them. I wasn’t allowed to do it myself, because I was too young. But I liked to watch my mum fry eggs, or pour the frozen chips into the pan which was always kept full on the back burner of the cooker. My dad didn’t cook, two of my older brothers and my older sister had moved out, and my other older brother only used the microwave, so I would only get to watch my mum use the oil. There were two types.
There was also the dark oil that dad had on his hands and clothes after work or when he went under the van in the drive, but that wasn’t the same as the oil mum cooked with. It was called oil, but it wasn’t the same. I got that other type of oil on myself too when I played with tyres in the garden. My sister had said something about tanning oil once, but mum had told her to use the cooking oil, so I guessed that tanning oil was just cooking oil by another name.
I liked to watch my mum cook the eggs. She would get the silver coloured frying pan and cover the bottom with the cooking oil. I liked the way the oil spread as if it was being smoothed out by a hand. When I was old enough to try frying an egg my mum told me that I hadn’t used enough oil, which was why my egg had stuck to the pan. It would sizzle and be cooked very quickly and the house would smell good like in a cafe. I like to watch my mum cook the chips too. She would have the oil in the back pan which was completely full with the oil at all times. It would be there from the last time she cooked the chips. It might even have a small piece or two of old hard chip that she hadn’t managed to get out of the pan before, and when she fried it again you might get it on your plate and it would be really crunchy and it would taste like McDonalds. It smelled really good when she cooked the chips and made everyone in the house excited. It smelled better when she cooked the chips than the eggs because the oil had longer to fill the air with its smell.
Our back garden was quite big, but it was really messy. It had a small bit of concrete near the back door and round the side of the house, and then it rose up to higher grassed ground which was clear for a little while and eventually gave way to weeds that dad didn’t have the time to clear away. I asked if we could put a mini football pitch at the back and he said yes, but I didn’t know when we would do it because we had to clear the weeds away first. Most of the time I was happy to just kick the ball against the side of the house, or against the wall in the street out the front. I would do it while I waited for mum to cook the dinner. The dust would rise up as the ball hit the ground on its way back to me after hitting the wall. This was when I was round the side of the house on the concrete, where you couldn’t see me when I was kicking the ball, but you could hear it bouncing against the wall, and if you were me you could smell the chips inside cooking and you knew that soon you could go inside to eat.
I had been playing football on the concrete with Bill who was my older brother. We were just doing short passes together, which was a good way of practicing your control, because you had to try and do it quickly and with not much space it meant you didn’t have a long time to react. We did this a lot, but he wasn’t very interested in it today. He was ten years older than me and I sometimes wondered why he hadn’t moved out as well, because he was nearly twenty. I didn’t want him to move out, because he was fun and I thought that if it was just me living with mum and dad on my own it’d be too quiet and I’d get bored. My other older siblings all had children of their own and it was fun when they brought them over, but eventually they’d go home, and then it would seem like it was more quiet than it had been before. Bill asked if I minded playing alone for a while. I told him that was fine, and that mum would be making chips for lunch soon anyway. I kicked the ball against the wall on my own, and watched as Bill went round to the back of the house and sat on the small wall that separated the concrete from the garden. He started to cry and I wondered how anybody could be so sad on a sunny day in the summer holidays.
After kicking the ball I noticed that mum had come outside to speak to Bill. She must be wondering why he was crying. I could smell the chips cooking inside, so I knew we wouldn’t have to wait long for lunch. I looked at them from round the side of the house. I wasn’t well hidden but neither of them seemed to look at me. Mum started crying too. I wondered where dad was. He had never cried, so I was worried what he would do if he saw so much crying. I wanted to ask them why they were crying but I was afraid, although I didn’t know why I was so afraid. Mum had her arms around Bill’s shoulders and I heard him say that he can’t do anything. I wanted to go and tell him that he was very good at football, so what he said wasn’t true, but I stayed where I was and watched. His face had gone very pink in the sun. I heard mum say you’re not useless and I was confused because I didn’t know what uses people were supposed to have and I wondered if Bill was useless then maybe I was too, because he seemed to be a lot better at helping out with things in the house and with DIY than I was. I was watching them without hiding myself now. The smell of the chips was very nice but what I was seeing was making me sad. I didn’t know why they were sad. I thought if we just had chips they might both feel better. There seemed to be a sudden change in the mood. Everything had been bright and easy, but at that moment, the smell of chips began to grow smoky and bitter, and a heaviness seemed to push down on me.
I stepped out nearer to them and looked into the open door to the kitchen. The black smoke from the chip pan was rising up the wall and billowing out against the ceiling. The wall had been turned black by the smoke which I didn’t know could happen. There weren’t as many flames as I thought would be part of a fire, but they were there at the bottom, which is how I knew it was a fire and not just a different way of cooking chips. The smell wasn’t nice like it usually was, and it made me feel strange. It was like how when you are given chocolate but it’s that dark chocolate that doesn’t make you feel happy. I looked closer at the chip pan and saw that there were still chips in there but they were all black and like sticks.
Even though I wasn’t worried about it I ran outside and called to mum and Bill to tell them that there was a fire, because I knew that after they had dealt with that, although we wouldn’t have chips, and the nasty smell of burned oil would still be around, they wouldn’t be crying anymore.
When I was thirteen we went away for our first ever holiday to a different country. I don’t remember feeling excited before the holiday because I was too nervous. I didn’t know what to expect from a holiday, and what I would be expected to do, so I didn’t know how to prepare myself for one. I was only slightly nervous about going on a plane for the first time, but I would be with Bill for his first holiday too. I would also be with Ron, another of my older brothers, and his wife Maria. Simon and Ed, my nephews from my oldest brother Joe were also coming, but without Joe and his wife because they couldn’t afford it. My parents didn’t come because they didn’t have passports. Only Ron and Maria had been on a plane before, and Ron had only been on a plane once, but they were able to help the rest of us with our varying levels of fear. We were going to a place called Crete, which I found out was a Greek island, and it would probably be the hottest weather I’d ever experienced in my life. It would also be the first time I’d been in an outside swimming pool. The new experiences made me nervous, as if I didn’t know why we were putting ourselves through it.
Mum and Dad were happy to let me go with Ron, because they trusted Maria. I wanted them to come with us, but as well as not having passports, neither of them seemed to want to go.
When we arrived and had got outside the airport we waited for a taxi. Even in the shade from the airport roof it was warmer than I had expected. There was no breeze, but the air carried a smell that made me hungry and tired. I couldn’t believe that other people – Greeks – lived here all of the time. They had this good smelling air all to themselves. I felt like my skin was going leathery and brown just while I sat in the back of the taxi. Maria tried to talk to the driver who was taking us to our hotel, but the rest of us sat looking out of the open windows, trying to see how the roads were different here, and what the people were doing out in the fields off at the side. The warm air that came at me from the window felt real. I realised that back at home I didn’t spend that much time outside, but it seemed that here you would want to be outside. Everything I saw looked more real and authentic than what we had in England. Nothing was shiny and new, and it looked a lot less cold because of that.
We got to go into the sea on the first day. I’d never been in the sea before without shivering and being in the water, with it so warm, felt like a luxury, and I think everybody was a little confused with how we should act. Ron, Maria and Bill ordered beer in plastic cups and sat in their sun-loungers, and they blended in with all the other people at the beach. When I got out of the water I felt sad because I knew that it was going to end, even though we still had six days left. It was like how I could never be happy on Sundays, because even though I was off school, it was only tomorrow that I had to go back. And when we got sunny days in England I was always worried that it wouldn’t last, so I rarely tried to plan anything. It seemed better to avoid taking the risk that you’d be disappointed.
I had never had feta cheese. I had never had grilled fish, or any fish that hadn’t been battered and deep fried or cut into finger shapes. I had never had an oil that came in a glass bottle.
At a restaurant on the second day most of us weren’t adventurous with what we chose. I had a burger, as did Simon and Ed, Bill got a pizza. Ron ordered some kind of lamb, and Maria got grilled fish. This was something that we all thought only girls ate, so we weren’t surprised. The restaurant was by a main road and overlooked a busy shopping street, but it was just high enough that over the tops of the houses you could see the sea. It was the same blue as the sky, and the haze over the top of it I imagined was rising salt. The air tasted of it. When our food came, each plate had some salad. There were small pieces of feta cheese in some, and in olives in others. Each of them had leaves, cucumber and quartered pale red tomatoes.
Ed asked, “what’s this on the leaves?” but nobody seemed to know, other than Maria.
“It’s olive oil. They put it on everything here.”
Now that it had been given a name, I could smell it. It was a smell like the salt-water, and the mud in which the tomatoes had grown. It was the sun on the hills in the background. I didn’t like the sound of it.
“Is it good?” I asked her.
She nodded, and put more oil on her salad, pouring from the small glass bottle I had assumed was malt vinegar that was on the table. I liked Maria. She was pretty, and I wanted to impress her, so I put some on mine. I could see some of the boys’ eyes darting to my plate as I did it, but nobody else took the bottle after me. I didn’t understand why you would put oil on your food other than for cooking. It looked appetising though, and I didn’t expect that. It made the tomatoes light up and you could see the cloudless sky in the cucumbers. I took a bite. It smelled even stronger after I had it in my mouth. In flashes I saw the fire from the pizza oven at the back of the restaurant, the fish sprinkled with rock salt being charred on the grill at the side. The olive oil was making something happen inside me. It smelled like the earth, and it tasted like it too. It was bitter, and dull, and it made my mouth itch as it coated my tongue. I couldn’t smell the burnt slab of beef in the burger in front of me. I could only smell the salad, and the olive oil. I shut my eyes and the smell was stronger. I could see olives growing on bushes on scorched hillsides. I’d never even eaten a piece of cucumber before.
A year later I was at a friend’s house for a barbecue in late summer. Since the holiday I had pretended that when the weather was nice I lived in Crete, in the land of the hard, light brown earth and the men who sat in sweaty t-shirts under trees. It was nice to pretend, but it was always spoiled when the wind or rain came, or when we got a day with snow in April. The barbecue was in this friend’s big garden, there was maybe 100 metres from the conservatory to the back fence, which cut the house off from a large field on a local farm. We were all crowded round the patio area, and some of the younger children had jumped in the pool. There was probably fifty or so people at the barbecue, all ages, since it was to celebrate the dad of my friend’s early retirement. I was invited, along with a few other friends. Despite the large number of people they seemed to be ready to cater. The dad was wearing a tacky apron and had positioned himself in front of the barbecue, firing away burgers and sausages. He laughed in a way I hadn’t seen my dad laugh before. The smell of meat and coal wafted into the fields around.
The mother of my friend had been entertaining the guests, telling people where the drinks fridge was, where the jugs of Pimms she had put together were, and telling the children where they could find the toilets, so that they didn’t pee in her pool. She had also prepared a salad which most of the people my age were ignoring. A few of the others got some, but I thought it was mainly to be polite. I had a burger on my plate and I walked past the salad table.
Tomatoes. Cucumbers. Olives. Leaves. I saw them all. The tomatoes had been quartered, and you could make out where the juice oozed out of them, syrupy and sweet looking, carrying the seeds into the salad mix.
“Balsamic?” I heard the mum ask somebody.
The tomatoes were a deep red, almost translucent purple. I hadn’t had any salad, barely any vegetables since the salad in Crete, but I knew I had to get some. I went and stood by the table. I looked at the salad and then off to the side, nervously holding my plate. My awkwardness at not knowing what to do must have been easily spotted. My friend’s mum handed me a bowl, “help yourself” she said. I scooped two scoops worth of salad into the bowl.
“Do you want balsamic?” she asked me. I didn’t know what that was.
“Do you have any olive oil?” I asked. She indicated a bottle to my right.
I took the bottle, it was dark green, so I couldn’t see what colour was inside. It looked expensive. I took off the cap and the smell filled my nostrils. I deliberately flared them, getting more of that fresh, earthy smell inside. I was back in Crete. My head filled with air that was as warm and as pleasant as that which came in off the Mediterranean. I swirled some of the liquid inside over my salad, watching it come out like honey dripping from a spoon. It was clear and gold. It seemed too good to eat.
While I was eating it, alone near the fence at the side of the garden, the mother of my friend came over.
“Do you like it?”
I nodded, shy. “It’s great. I love olive oil.”
“I’m afraid it’s not a particularly good oil, but the shop had run out of our usual.”
I nodded again. It was great. The oil tasted as good as anything I’d ever eaten. I couldn’t imagine that there was better oil out there than this. My mouth watered at the thought of it. I asked her what the usual oil she used was, and made a mental note of it. I would see if I could find that in the supermarket next time I was there with mum and dad. I hadn’t thought of salad or olive oil in a year and now here I was again, as if I’d just tried it for the first time. I felt reinvigorated, and happy.
The mum could see how much I was enjoying the salad. “Do you cook a lot then?” She asked.
“Never,” I replied, “I’ve never cooked.”
I spent the rest of my life thinking about food.
I kept a mental note of that olive oil my friend’s mum had told me about, and when I next went to the supermarket with mum and dad I looked for it. While mum went off to get the vegetable or the sunflower oil, I saw the price of the bottle I wanted. It was eight pounds. This was eight times as much as the oil mum was buying and you only got half the amount. I picked the bottle up and held it in my hands, and imagined the value associated with the weight I was holding. It had won awards. I wondered who would be at award ceremonies like that. It was in a black bottle and the glass seemed thicker than usual glass. The writing on the bottle was in a different language, and that just made it more appealing to me. The bottle contained a new world that I hadn’t been to, and I wanted more than anything to peel back the gold foil around the lid and smell what was inside. I didn’t ask for it, and I didn’t have any money to buy it for myself, not that I would have. Asking for it was out of the question. It was out of the realms of even the wildest possibilities that my parents would have bought this for me. They didn’t know what it would mean to me, and I didn’t really know if I could explain it. Even if I had the money myself, they would think I was stupid for wasting it.
“Eight quid, bloody hell.” Dad came up behind me, while mum went looking for some multipack offers.
“I know,” I said, “I can’t believe that there’s something so expensive here.”
He took the bottle and looked at it. Then he gave it back to me: “foreign muck.”
Over the years that followed my weight rose and fell, and rose and fell, and I went through puberty and, most devastatingly of all, I forgot the name of the oil. I didn’t want to keep looking at it in the supermarket, because then it would reveal my secret desire. I had olive oil rarely, but thought about it at each meal time. I tried smelling the cooking oil my mum used, but it just smelled like chips. On the rare occasions we went out for meals I would always get something that came with a side salad, on the pretence of wanting to lose weight. I asked my mum to make us more vegetables with dinner, and she was happy, but I knew they wouldn’t be as good without my expensive secret ingredient.
Eventually I went to university and bought myself a bottle of olive oil. It was one of the cheaper ones in the aisle at the supermarket, but I used it for everything. I had a Spanish friend who told me that what I was using wasn’t even olive oil. I had other friends who said that you shouldn’t cook with it, but only use it for dressing. Other friends, and online recipes, said the opposite. I knew it wasn’t as good as the olive oils I had before, but it said it on the label and for the time being, that had been enough. It didn’t smell of much though, which was disappointing. I sometimes went to the supermarket on my own and looked at the aisle of oil, and picked out a few that interested me, read where they were from, and looked at their ridiculous prices. There was one that had the word ‘cold’ on the label, and it was cloudy, but it was seven pounds. I decided to stick with my cheap bottle until I could afford something better. I used to daydream about all the good food I’d be able to get when I was older and had a good job. When my mum visited me at university once she had seen the bottle, and said it was fancy. She had only wanted to check that I was eating enough, and hadn’t meant anything by her comment, but it felt like I was doing something wrong, like me having it was me trying to distance myself from her.
Every time I thought about that I felt bad, like I was splitting into two people. One of which was trying to be better than where I had come from. I thought that’s what my family would think, but I also knew my family, and knew that they wanted me to succeed. I treated myself at the end of my first year to a five pound bottle of oil, and wondered what my brothers and my dad would say if they saw me wasting money on something so frivolous, when they struggled to pay bills. I knew other parents who were like mine, and they all prided themselves on their cheap food bills. But there were different luxury items, I decided. My parents could buy cigarettes, and I could buy olive oil. I felt conflicted, and that I should try ti be like them, but it seemed so much easier to justify my choice.
My mum came again after university to visit me in my flat-share. For the first time I cooked for her, and told her afterwards that I was really into food. She was pleased, and loved what I had cooked. She could see me getting visibly excited when I told her about the oil I bought, and I asked her to smell it. The smell was too strong, but she nodded. She never questioned the choice I had made, and I knew nobody else I knew would care. It was just that they wouldn’t understand. There was something fundamental about me, that they wouldn’t be able to understand. I wasn’t a food-snob and would still eat McDonalds or frozen chips, but I just liked this too.
Sometimes I was in supermarkets and I had a basket of oil, prawns and asparagus. Or something along those lines. It was cheaper than a big mac meal, but I was worried that people would judge me.
After graduating I got a reasonable job – though not as good as I and all my family had been expecting. I also got a girlfriend who liked to travel and liked food as much as I did. We went on holidays as often as we could, to Spain, Greece, Italy, Portugal and anywhere else that took our fancy. My parents loved her almost as much as I did. When we travelled we did it on a very small budget, but made sure that there was always enough money to try the local foods, and I often came back from these trips with a bottle of local oil. Even though my degree, which all my family supported, had trained me to work in an office instead of with my hands, I just felt that this was one more way in which I was becoming different from them. I wondered if it was all in my head, as we still shared lots of the same interests and had a good time together. But it was just that I saw my life heading on a trajectory that had been different to theirs, one that had been denied them. I often felt that any successes I would have would seem, if only to me, also like small failures. The less I struggled financially, the more I struggled with this.
I managed to get a scholarship for a PhD due to my background, and my mum had always wanted me to be a doctor, so she was overjoyed when I took it. When I graduated I went to Madrid to celebrate. Mum was very proud, and dad was too. I still felt that I got more of a reaction from him when I talked about the DIY I had done, but he was happy that I wouldn’t have to worry about money.
As bad as it is, when you tell somebody you’re a doctor, or a professor, there’s a different set of images that come into their minds than if you tell them you’re a decorator. I still went to the same old local pubs with my brothers, but I felt jealousy of the way that they seemed to fit so easily into the environment, a jealousy I hadn’t felt back when I was eighteen. I had to remember to take off the posher voice that I had to put on to fit in at the university where I worked. Even though I had a good time with both sets of people, I felt like I didn’t really fit in with either of them – like class wasn’t dead, only hiding. I sometimes thought about what would have happened if I hadn’t taken that deep inhalation of the oil that second night in Crete. I might have been working in the family painting and decorating company, or as a taxi driver like Ron. I was no smarter than my brothers, and felt guilt at what luxuries I had somehow managed to find myself with. I thought a lot about Crete, but I never went back. I thought about the air, the salt, and the oil. The deep folds in tanned foreheads.
Still though, I managed to enjoy the things I enjoyed. I don’t talk about it with my family, because I don’t want them thinking I’m that different to them. I want to be part of their culture, but I also want the things that they don’t care about. When I do mention something like that I often get a jokey remark, my older brothers taking the piss out of me. They don’t mean what they say, but it hurts still because its truer than they think.
Sometimes when it’s nice outside, I like to take a bottle of olive oil and leave it open in the kitchen for half an hour before I start cooking. I take a small glass of red wine outside onto the patio and maybe nibble at a cheese or two. Then I go back into the kitchen and am overwhelmed by the smell of the oil, it fills my head up like a helium balloon. It makes me hungry just thinking about how it will look on the food I make. I tell you, if you came into my kitchen on a warm day like that, and closed your eyes, you wouldn’t think you were in England. You’d be alone with smell and flavour that people worked for hundreds of years to perfect. That should be enough for me.