Fish Pie Makes You Cry/ Custard Drives You Mad

Odilon Redon - The Egg, 1885

Odilon Redon – The Egg, 1885

 

The 10th Earl of St Germans died on July 15th. His long and idiosyncratic obituary in The Times (July 19th) observed:

‘He led a full life and would present all his female companions with bottles of Fracas perfume.”

It’s nice to know, isn’t it? As Kay Walsh used to say.
And, aside from that, Mrs Lincoln, how did you enjoy the heat? It nearly did for me. As usual, I turned for empathetic comfort to that first chapter of ‘What Katy Did At School’, in which the highly-strung Elsie Carr goes nearly off her head during an especially hot and prolonged Ohio Indian summer. It’s a baking, dried-up October and Elsie begs to be sent out of town to stay with a family friend – Mrs Worrett – in the country. Alas! The experience turns out to be a nightmare, and there’s the moral: be careful what you wish for. Be wary of what you set your heart on: even if it’s a bottle of Fracas.

“Sometimes the truest kindness is in giving people their own unwise way.”

It all begins well with the journey out – “part of the road ran through woods…the dense shade kept off the sun, and there was a spicy smell of evergreens and sweet fern.” But as we all know, it is better to travel than to arrive, and Mrs Worrett’s stark pumpkin-coloured house is a dreary disappointment. “The spare chamber was just under the roof. It was very hot, and smelled as if the windows had never been opened since the house was built.” The food is worse. Susan Coolidge does not exactly describe its smell but she brings it right under our noses:

“..the room felt stiflingly warm, and the butter was so nearly melted that Mrs Worrett had to help it with a teaspoon. Buzzing flies hovered above the table, and gathered thick on the plate of cake….they sat in the dusk; Mr Worrett smoking his pipe and slapping mosquitoes outside the door…”.

Elsie is weepy and “her head ached violently”. By next morning she is in a state of prostration – we hear all about the horrors of a feather bed in a heat wave –  and is advised to “lie on the lounge in the best room, and amuse herself with a book”.

Can the sense of smell drive one mad I wonder? I think it might. If all the other senses can affect the mind adversely, then why not scent? Elsie’s experiences always remind me of a “true life” criminal case which took place in Fall River, Massachusetts, just twenty years  after ‘Katy’ was written.

I first heard about Lizzie Borden in an episode of The Munsters on TV when I was a tot. Grandpa Munster produced an axe from a trunk and muttered something about the Bordens, whereat my Victorian grandmother laughed uproariously. Lizzie was a large and rather attractive New England girl: a pillar of the community who lived with her sister, father and stepmother in a clapboard house in New England. One terrible and boiling hot August morning in 1892, while Lizzie claimed to be occupied with chores in the barn, her parents were horribly hacked to death in the house. Miss Borden was subsequently arrested, tried for their murder but acquitted.

What aroused much comment at the time – and continues to do so – was the curious life style of the Bordens. Despite it being an exceptionally hot week, the family – and the maid – had dined on the same boiling of mutton soup every day for a week. The house was full of flies and in the back kitchen were found soaking pails and tubs of “ladies’ unmentionables”. Everyone in the house – unsurprisingly – seemed to be suffering from gastric and other “upsets” at the time of the crime. At least one writer has wondered as to whether the appalling concomitant smell in the family home – especially of that mutton broth, perpetually on the simmer in sweltering temperatures – may have altered the balance of Lizzie’s mind, to the point of turning her homicidal.

We shall never know now; but the scent of certain plants has been said, at different times and in various cultures, to drive you crazy. Oleanders, daturas, cypresses and tuberoses all have their various effects. And think of Sherlock Holmes and that terrifying root-derived Devil’s Foot powder. I write this in a garden full of the evening perfumes of mint, tomato plants, lavender, marjoram – and, especially, lilies smelling of sweet lemon vanilla cream. All is perfection. But from time to time I get a particular scent on the brain, to an oppressive and infuriating extent. The key point is, that this is normally and nominally a pleasing fragrance: an odour I love. But something then short-circuits and renders it so grating, invasive and throbbingly insistent that I feel exactly like Sir John Gielgud at that famous Mozart operatic rehearsal: “O DO stop that TERRIBLE music!” Like an animal, I have to plunge into water to be rid of the smell, as a fox is said to escape his fleas.

The fox’s fleas sail off downstream on a hank of hair: likewise, by this time, the smell has become its own entity. I have written before in this column of once going after work to the swimming baths; doing a length; and then disconcertingly meeting a cloud of my own fragrance brooding above the waters as I made the return. “Meeting Myself Coming Back”.

There’s nowt so queer as folk – thank Heaven! Nor so strange and unpredictable as scent.’

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