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The Tube trip that reminded me some smells are scent-sational... and some aren't

By Kerry McLean

This week saw a McLean invasion of London. We hoofed it across to catch the fabulous Walking With Dinosaurs show, a tyrannosaurus-packed treat for the kids, before the summer holidays end, to do a little shopping and enjoy the sights and sounds.

It's strange going as a visitor to a city I know so well, a city I lived in for the best part of a decade. While I enjoy going back as a tourist, I only have to spend a moment or two on the city's streets, seeing the speedy, stressed-out commuters dashing here and there, scowl firmly planted on their chops, to remind me why I left and why you couldn't pay me to return full-time.

My old commute used to take me an hour-and-a-half each way, from north London out to Shepherd's Bush, on the over-packed, rickety Northern Line, stuffed in like sardines with not a hope of any personal space.

My worst memory of living there happened one August morning when, like now, London was experiencing scorching hot temperatures.

We all trotted on board, like a herd of sheep and stood, silently, trying our best not to make eye contact with the person squished up against us.

All very normal, until the moment the Tube came to a juddering halt and we were momentarily plunged into pitch black before the eerie, low-level, emergency lights kicked in. There had been a power failure and what followed were four of the most uncomfortable hours of my life. The Underground is hot at the best of times but without the relief of the breeze coming in through the windows as you travel along, it soon builds up to oven-like conditions.

The two young Spanish-speaking men beside me decided the best option to keep cool was to take off their shirts, leaving me brushing up against their sweaty torsos every time I moved.

Now, it's unpleasant enough to feel trickles of perspiration running down your forehead, but to see patches appear on your blouse, caused by sweat that isn't your own, that's a whole other level of horror.

We were finally led off the train, out into the sooty black tunnels, to walk along the track and back to the nearest station platform.

All the while I had visions of James Herbert's terrifying novel, The Rats, in my head.

If you've read it, you'll know what I'm talking about. If you haven't, don't, unless you've an iron stomach and a very forgiving attitude to vermin on public transport.

The memory of that morning, stuck beside those sweaty armpits, came back to me in a vivid flash as we boarded the downward escalator to the Tube platform, all thanks to the unique smell of the place that assaulted my nostrils, that weird mix of rotten cabbage and hot metal. It's funny how a smell can do that to you, transport you so completely to a moment decades previously.

The smell of bleach takes me off to my granny's house, where everything has always been scrubbed to within an inch of its life. It's a smell I associate with first thing in the morning, when she'd have us up on the sofa after Mum had dropped us off to go to work, tea and toast in our hands, blanket around our knees, as she set the fire and washed down the fireplace with boiling hot water and bleach.

The smell of black coffee takes me straight back to the early Eighties, sitting on my mum's knee as she studied for her degree, glasses pushed up on to her head to hold her massive, permed mane of hair out of her eyes. I honestly can't remember her during that time without a cup in her hand, replacing sleep with caffeine.

There's a certain brand of babywash that takes me back to those first few bliss-filled days when my babies were born, and I confess I keep a bottle of it in a cupboard, just for the occasional sniff and trip down memory lane. And that, unlike a trip on the Tube, is a journey I'd happily make again and again...

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