The narrator, Stephen Wheatley, begins the story in the third week of June. It is that time of the year again when he smells an “embarrassingly familiar” scent (later identified as privet) in the air, a scent that is both sweet and disturbing because it takes him back to a memory of when he was a child. The smell, he describes, “is something quite harsh and coarse,” and it unsettlingly conjures up an array of feelings: restlessness, homesickness, and “a kind of sexual urgency.” The smell is moving enough for Stephen to try booking plane tickets back to the place of his childhood, “that far-off nearby land,” but he does not follow through with this plan.
The specific smell of privet is enough to elicit an emotional response within Stephen that viscerally brings him back to his childhood. Thus Frayn immediately suggests the way memory is stored not only as a record of what happened when and where, but also as a series of associations between the emotions and senses that were felt and perceived at the time. This also echoes a famous scene from Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, in which the narrator tastes a certain flavor and is brought back to vivid memories of his childhood.
One day Stephen notices the same smell as he is walking his daughter and two granddaughters to the car. When he asks his daughter to identify the smell’s source, she guesses that the “vulgar smell” must be “liguster” (German for privet), a dull-looking shrub found commonly in parks. At night, the narrator is pondering over the word “liguster” when he finally looks it up in the dictionary to find out that it is not even English. He laughs at himself, a professional translator, for not realizing this sooner.
This episode becomes even more meaningful after Stephen reveals his German origins at the end of the story, but from the very beginning, Frayn hints at Stephen’s German and English roots. It is significant that he is a professional translator because he metaphorically straddles that line between English and German in much the same way that he does not seem to fit in in his childhood in England.
Suddenly, the word starts to bring up more memories and Stephen recalls specific visions: his friend Keith’s mother laughing, and then weeping; “A shower of sparks . . . A feeling of shame . . . Someone unseen coughing,” and a jug. He even remembers the six exact words that Keith had said, the words that “changed everything.” Stephen then decides that he wants to make sense of the unresolved past and its still-uncovered secrets, to “establish some order in it all.” He tells his children that he is going to London for a few days, and hides the fact that he is following the privet hedges and their unsettling scent.
This particular selection of recollective images offers a more detailed picture of the way memories are formed. Stephen recalls a spectacle of sparks, an emotional response, and an auditory sample of coughing. These are all different types of memories, but it is specifically the way Stephen understands them that provides their meaning and significance, and essentially the content of this novel.