It is a holiday ritual. As the plane levels off and the sign lights up allowing passengers to unbuckle their seat belts, my wife, Val, will lean forward to begin a silent conversation with me. A conversation that requires minimal lip reading skills.
“Is that you?” She mouths.
“What?” I mouth back playfully, knowing full well where this is leading.
Exasperated, Val cuts to the chase. “Have you farted?”
“No, it’s not me!” I terminate the conversation, knowing my protestations will fall on deaf ears, read my book and sip a gin and tonic. If it was me the oxygen masks would be deployed.
This is not the first time in my life that I have been falsely accused of creating a stink. In 1956, as a six year old pupil at Lasswade Primary School, I was humiliatingly assumed to be responsible for a smell, a dreadful smell, in the classroom. It was not me.
Still coming to terms with primary school life I sat, seeking anonymity, somewhere in the middle of the classroom at a wooden desk, one in a regimented sea of desks. The sun is streaming in the large window, the room was warm and my mind probably elsewhere; mulling over the latest exploits of Davy Crockett or Quatermass, a scary science fiction TV film which surprisingly my dad had allowed me to watch at the impressionable age of six.
The class, in a state of mild excitement, was about to go to the music lesson to be held in a large room at the other end of the school where I would wield a triangle, the extreme limit of my musical talents.
My day unravelled with an unexpected and uncontrolled fart; loud enough for the teacher Mrs Blair, a tall, middle aged lady, to give me a disapproving look and the girl sat next to me to snigger. No longer anonymous I was the centre of attention.
The moment passed and I slipped back into my default daydreaming mode. But this hiatus didn’t last. I slowly become aware, along with the teacher and my fellow pupils, that the room was slowly being blanketed with the smell of poo mingling with the ever present chemical odour, wafting from the paper mill on the far side of the River Esk. My recent fart had placed me firmly in the frame as the source of the smell. The teacher, suspicious that I had suffered a catastrophic ‘follow through’ told me to sit at the front of the class in an attempt to isolate the problem.
Even at the age of six I recall feeling victimised; surely the teacher couldn’t believe that the sheer volume and persistence of the smell could possibly have seeped from my small body.
Much later in my life my mother would often announce, to my extreme embarrassment, in her lilting, but loud Scottish voice, that when I was a child Doctor Sommerville had remarked that I had very large bowels; the chatter and clatter in restaurants would be suspended at this revelation.
But, back to my childhood. I am sat, probably red faced at the front of the class with the teacher taking frequent smell readings over me with her nose. Things were about to get worse.
The class was marshalled into a column of pairs, a miniature military column, girls and boys holding hands to start the long march down the main corridor of the school. We set off, travelling in a cloud of poo smell. I was holding hands with teacher, my classmates smirking at my discomfiture as Mrs Blair stopped at intervals to bend over, and with fabric between thumb and forefinger, lifted up the leg of my shorts and sniff; a chef lifting the lid of a saucepan, uncertain of the contents.
This final humiliation was intense but short lived. Suddenly, a girl in the column burst into into uncontrollable tears. Thankfully the humiliation was transferred from me to the distressed girl as Mrs Blair gingerly lifted her skirt to reveal a memorably large poo slung in her knickers.
The unfortunate girl was led away. I replaced her in the column holding the limp, reluctant hand of her erstwhile companion. In the music room, at the back of the small orchestra, I again became anonymous, pondering on the recent indignity while striking the metal triangle vaguely in beat with the music.