The Unguent Cupboard
There are always locks when we are young.
They may be machined locks, impenetrable to adults and almost boring to us. They may be combinations, seemingly a teaching aid, containing as they do the numbers one to nine, the first we learn, and the only ones we need. I think that we wonder where the others are hiding. Sometimes the locks are simpler, more alien, a lid that won’t turn, a interior muscle not yet plump enough to pop the seal. If we were to train hard, we could remove the child safeties before our time. But we never did.
These locks were forgotten about. The perseverance of children in books does not translate into real life. But they stay with us, in a way. Many of them led to rooms that were not configured to our clumsiness. Others led to the Unguent Cupboard.
The Unguent Cupboard held liquids most often, and sometimes solids, though there is something more mysterious about a potion than a sheer block of stuff. It catches the light better, unless it is a precious metal, and then there is a whole other curiosity which we are encouraged to sate. The curiosity of young princes.
We knew that those liquids would poison us if we drank them. We had been told enough times that they were for killing other beings of varying sizes, that Mum and Dad did not like to kill but had to, to keep us safe. Red and yellow and darkness were things to keep away from. White powder on the ground was not seasoning. It would not taste good.
These liquids fulfilled purposes that were so sacred that they were only brought out for ceremonies – when Dad would sit at the kitchen table outside of mealtimes, his shoes laid before him, or when the floor was slick with oil. Only life’s big accidents called for the unlocking of the Unguent Cupboard; the water would flow from the tap, but would not disappear again. This was unacceptable, and had to be fixed. Mum would unroll the leather, Dad would clap the bristles, and work would begin. We would have to stay back; “dangerous fumes, son, one gasp and you’re done.” But the smell would rise, a smell that wasn’t earth, snot, gravy or other people, the only smells we had really smelt until then. This smelt of miles underground, of factories, of a great distance from us. We had been allowed snorts of it at petrol stations, but it was forbidden, a smell that was laid over the brain like a glass, or a pie case. It was wonderful.
Part of one’s training to be an adult is to learn where all the Unguent Cupboards are, and what they are for. I think that we are disappointed to learn that most are for cleaning, for maintaining what we have. Very few of them change our possessions into something better, or ourselves into others that we would prefer to be. But it is hard not to prize your access. You now know that one to nine are not the only numbers, that combined they are more powerful and useful. That it was not muscle needed to open those caps, but a push and twist, an ability to turn your mind sideways. And that a clean pair of shoes, and a clear sink, are compounds greater than true love or a handsome face.