My youngest sister mentioned, in passing, that she had no sense of smell – never had had. How could I have shared the world with her, albeit somewhat distantly, for so many years and not known something that fundamental? I think the answer is that she herself never thought it significant enough to mention: she does not miss what she has never had. This would explain why she was so blasé about changing nappies whereas the one time I was forced to undergo this ultimate feminine rite (with her baby) I all but fainted. How could anybody endure that foul, foul stench, over and over again? And now I find it hard to look my thirty-something niece in the eye.
I’m probably over-sensitive to smells. Maybe I got my sister’s share. Commanded to peel a kidney in Cookery, I was soon on the way to sickroom, wilting and green and supported by two classmates. My one attempt at colouring my hair nearly killed me since – as I discovered – even in minute quantities ammonia stops me from drawing breath at all. When you have cats and are indoors with them most of the time your nose becomes immune to any (delicate) ‘catty’ aromas. However, I can tell whether one of the litter trays needs changing well in advance because I start cough, cough, coughing. Avoiding that cough costs me a small fortune in wood-based cat litter.
I inherited from my paternal grandfather an allergy to the smell of most commercial paints; luckily not to artists’ oil paints or my marriage to Ex would have been unbearable for yet another reason. I don’t mean I don’t like the smell of paint – though I don’t – I mean my tongue goes numb and swells up, I feel dizzy and sick and my head starts to pound. I once worked in an office where they were always repainting walls and corridors. I used to take those days off, if given any warning, but often there was none.
Anyway – probably far too much information. What am I telling you all this for?
I was thinking – hackneyed thought, I know – how smells can bring back memories. I expect everyone’s got their own ‘memory’ scents. Most people seem to loathe the smell of creosote but I rather like it. It reminds me of one hot summer’s afternoon when my father was painting the lattice-work fence that divided the garden in half (before the fence lawn; after the fence fruit and veg). He had taken his shirt off and I remember being amused by the way a ruddy neck and suntanned face could grow out of a milk-white chest. He was a racing cyclist in his spare time – I suppose those were the bits the sun caught. For some reason that afternoon he was in a good mood and I wasn’t frightened of him. He even chatted to me. Maybe it was the sunshine.
I also like the smell of fresh fish, even though I’m a vegetarian and dislike the idea of fish being caught and killed. I think that one’s because of the Dunks’ the fish shop in Station Road. The briny smell used to hit you in the nose on the way up and follow you down the street on the way down. The shop was at the end of a terrace and on the gable end wall, in faded shrimp-pink capitals, the motto WET DRY FRIED FISH. (Even as a child the lack of commas, and the fact that it wasn’t a proper sentence, worried me.) Dunks’ also did fish and chips: it was rumoured that Granny Dunks was confined to a room behind the shop where her sole occupation, day in and day out, was to peel potatoes and cut chips into a series of watery pails.
Lilies – can’t abide them them. They make me cough too. Loathed them even before I discovered their pollen was deadly poisonous to cats. I believe they have the disgusting things in funeral parlours to cover up the smell of the corpses. I’d prefer corpses. Conversely, freesias – I like them. What is it about freesias? Possibly they remind me of the Avon Lady calling to see Mum. In those days everything Avon seemed to smell of either freesia or lily-of-the-valley.
Evening in Paris (Borjois). When I was a very little child I used to dig in the garden and one day I dug up a little blue bottle. The stopper opened, the most beautiful perfume-genie came out; the most beautiful thing I had ever smelt. Mum said Evening in Paris was “a bit Woolworths” but to me it was pure delight, which reminds me of my Devon aunt, who told me I was not to buy a bottle of Devon Violets. To me it smelt like parma violets, those tiny lilac sweeties, but Devon aunt said it would make me smell like a Whore’s Handbag or Lady of The Brook! Apparently, in the twenties or thirties, The Brook in Chatham was the road where ladies of easy virtue strolled in the hope of picking up a sailor. My aunt hadn’t been back for a while. Nowadays it’s where the Job Centre is, and a whole lot of buses.
Chanel No 5 – it’s been a long time since I possessed a bottle of this magical stuff. We used to get trips to Le Touquet in a light aircraft piloted by a friend of Ex. Duty free Chanel No 5. Ah, those were the days!
What is your favourite, or least favourite smell, and why?
“Were you truly wafted here from paradise?”
“No – Luton airport.”
Featured Image: Serge Bloch