Sexual intercourse began / In 1963
— Philip Larkin

OK, more like 1961. So it couldn’t have occurred between the end of the Chatterley ban and the Beatles’ first LP. It would not have been sexual in the “intercourse” sense anyway. But it was sex of some kind, a provocation and “come-on,” you might say, that would affect me, instruct me, for decades afterward.

Big Lisa had dived below the bottom cot of the bunkbed she shared with her sister Monique. Her shiny black Mary Janes stuck out, squirming for a few seconds as she rooted among the debris — storybooks, rain boots, dolls, board games, keychains, snow globes, Gumbys, Pokeys, pick-up-stix, lunch boxes, snorkels, schoolyard balls, mittens, plastic horses, Nancy Drew Fan Club stickers, stuffed animals, and ink stamps from the carpet showroom where her father, Barn, worked as a salesman. (Barn? Maybe it was short for Barney.)


Eventually, while still underneath the bed, she executed a crawling U-turn, then wriggled back into the light bearing a special gift — for me. It was a pair of underpants of which she seemed particularly proud: decorating the front of the elastic waistband was a tiny bow, stitched on, permanently knotted to perfection.

She held her arm straight out. “You can keep this,” she said. “For smelling.” Which I did, possibly for weeks, possibly for months.

While scent may evoke memory, it doesn’t really work the other way round. To recall the past is almost never to recall, in turn, its odors. This being childhood, I can only assume that her prized undergarment must have retained a cloacal reek rather than something more delicate and girly, more pudendal. I can’t remember for certain. Would the subtler notes — truffle, olive, cumin — of the latter have pleased me more, at that age, than the excretory funk of the former? In adult life I’ve never been a panty-sniffer. Fine if you are, absolutely fine — just not my thing.