The Smell of the Attic


An attic can have a specific smell to it. It’s the odour that memories emit, while they slowly fade. Attics can be museums, but they can be torture chambers, too. The protagonist of today’s story is finally brave enough to face his memories – maybe one last time.

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Thank you for your attention, yours truly, Mr. Wunderlich

Read the transcript

Our house has a trapdoor on the first floor, leading to the attic. You can use a stick with a hook to open it. It will produce a tired squeaking. When you open it, the smell of the attic will flow over your body.

A ladder is screwed to the trap door. You can pull that out. But it is a fight: You have to wobble patiently back and forth until the spring snaps in. Now you can climb to the attic.

Four steps up the ladder it’s possible to risk a first glance. From the perspective of a mouse I peek into the room. I haven’t been here for years. I remember the many boxes, the suitcases and the objects left to forget.

In the gable is a small, circular window sending light beams into the whirlpools of dust that I have stirred up. This room is full of our memories. I wouldn’t be surprised if the dust would form your face. With a smile, I imagine.

There, to the right, is the pram we bought when our daughter was born. A classic design, from the 50s maybe. It had to endure our son as well.

And here on the left the doll’s house, which we tinkered ourselves because we had no money for a „real“ one. I manifactured all the furniture out of cardboard, paper-mâché and a lot of glue. And you took care of the carpets, curtains, the wallpapers and the painting.

We even did install electric light! The old 9V block battery has probably completely dried out in twenty years. Now our children have children who already are too old for this dollhouse.

I’ll just stand her, on the ladder and wait for the air to clear. So I can make a quick getaway. Because this is a torture chamber. Every object reminds me of you. I can’t part with any of them, but I can’t stand their presence either.

Lately I’ve been having nightmares that reminded me of you, Milli. I hear your voice whispering to me. Usually they start with a picnic in Milli-style. I lie back on the white blanket, in the grass of a sunny clearing, somewhere in a fairy tale forest.

But I can’t relax because you’re not there. You should be lying next to me, but you’re not! Where are you? I’m trying hard to remember why you’re not there until the sun goes down. Black clouds are gathering, the temperature is dropping, I can see my breath.

I look around for you, desparate. Suddenly I can hear you. I hear your voice calling my name. It is very quiet and I do not know from which direction it comes.

Where are you? Then you scream at me! I have immediately to come to you! But where are you? I can’t see! Then I wake up.

Now I’m standing in our attic. The air is hot and dry. It smells of old wood, mould protection paint and forgetting. When we can’t part with something, we lock it away and wait for the memories to die. It can take months or years or it never happens, but attics are there to fade the memory. Finally.

I have the feeling you wanted me to be here. I think you’re trying to demonstrate something you can’t show me in my dreams. That’s why I’m standing here now, Milli. For you. I am afraid to be here. I should not come here. I’m not ready to come here. Yet.

I’m walking towards a box. You wrote „miscellaneous“ on it in your beautiful handwriting. As you did on most of the boxes – I remember being very irritated by that.

I open the box and I find the expected chaos inside. Blindly I reach in and feel my way around until I feel the smooth surface of a photo. It is a faded Polaroid. Orange, light blue, grey.

It’s the two of us. A picnic. One of your fancy picnics, perfectly planned. White blanket, English cucumber sandwiches, grapes, champagne and your laugh. Full of warmth.

In the background you see – a stark contrast – my old rusty car parked in the meadow.

It’s a photo made on the day you answered „yes“ to my questions. Yes, you could imagine having children with me. Yeah, you could imagine being with me forever.

Funny picture, I can’t remember who took it.

I hear your voice in my head again. I think it is the wind that blows through the roof shingles and gets lost in the insulation.

I keep digging in the box, looking for surviving memories. There are enough. There’s that tacky brooch I gave you. A brightly colored butterfly with fake rhinestones. I can still see your face in front of me: You are trying so hard to be happy – but this thing is just too ugly. It is valuable, because we laughed so hard about it.

And there is a shoe. A single, worn-out tennis shoe. I have no memory of the significance of that. And my red T-shirt with the „Make Peace, Not War“ print. Funny, I thought it was dark blue.

How memory plays tricks on us.

I reach into the box, down to the bottom. I feel it. The ring. Your ring. Your wedding ring, in the middle of all the forgotten memories. That’s what I was afraid of. It makes me sick. It’s been so many years, but I still can’t get over it. I breathe into my hands, because I feel the panic is gathering power in my stomach.

Then I hear the sound, the beeping. I hold my breath. It is a penetrating sound, like an alarm. Surely there can’t be anything here that still has working batteries?

It was definitely coming from behind me. From that corner. There’s this one little box. I’m gonna find the beeper thing, I declare out loud. The anger at the beeper is a welcome distraction from the panic.

I go to the little box, rip off its lid, turn it upside down and shake it. Everything should be visible at one glance. Now I can face the danger!

But there’s only one electrical device in there, as big as a cigarette box. Black plastic, with a digital display. Three buttons on one long side. A white plastic tube on the other. With a replaceable mouthpiece.

During my examination the thing starts beeping again. I’m so scared – I drop it!

I feel dizzy, I’ve felt dizzy for so long! Images shoot through my mind. Fragments of memories, strobe light flashes, smells, excitement, laughter, the taste of champagne, the gas pedal and my car so fast and me so slow! So slow!

With a clack the trap door snaps shut behind me. The ladder somehow retracted by its own. The big steel spring has closed the trap door and is now locked in place.

I have no idea how to open it. It’s not designed to be opened from the inside. I knwo: If I can’t get out of here, it’ll be all over. I hear the whistling in the shindles and feel this one ice-cold certainty: If I don’t get out of here now, I’ll never get out of here again!

But from the inside there is no way out. Why should there be?

The memories are meant to stay locked up here. So they can fade away.

I told them your eyelids are moving. But they said it’s just a muscle spasm. Then I told them that you keep nesting on the covers of your bed. But they said this is typical. It doesn’t mean anything.

They said it doesn’t mean that you’re awake in there. That you could hear me when I talk to you. Or that you could understand what I’m saying.

It doesn’t mean that you’re still here.

They say it’s just reflexes, not consciousness. You’re just a body machine that can’t die because we won’t let it.

They’ve been saying that for a long time, but now I believe it too.

Now, after five years, I believe it too.

They’re going to shut down the machines now. They also said I don’t have to stay around when they do. But I will. As long as you’re still moving, I’m staying.

I will never forget you. And I will never take this ring off.

I will always wear our wedding ring.