Everyone’s throwing themselves into the New Year with abandon. It’s good to see. It’s a fine thing to be alive. We are planning various sprees at Les Senteurs. Out in the wider world, folk are getting fit and fleet. Each year, directly after Christmas, you see a great hatch-out of runners pounding the pavements – all resplendent and glowing in brand new fluorescent togs. Many of them (somewhat shy) emerge only under the cover of the kindly darkness. As the weeks of January fly by, the runners seem to fade away.
Others have already managed to lose weight, even when sedentary. A colleague of my youngest brother was recruited to play Father Christmas at the office party. By the end of the evening – underneath all the red velveteen, cotton wool and spirit gum – he’d sweated off five pounds.
So this got us all at the shop thinking and reflecting. We pondered on how many little kids (some adults too) get the horrors at the sight of Santa and have to be taken out, shrieking. I remember saying to my father on Christmas Eve, “please let Santa come…..but not while I’m awake!” Pa said, “don’t worry. That will never happen!”
I’d just had a shock in our local toy shop. All I remember now is the smell of hot linoleum on a walkway around an atrium; and a dreadful blaze of spot-lit, roaring, guffawing crimson at the end of an enfilade. It was Father Christmas – in his Grotto – but it might as well have been the Devil. I had to be taken out.
Now we had this little pow-wow as I say, and one of our dear customers – a very perspicacious and sophisticated gentleman – suggested that it might be the smell of Santa that upsets some children so terribly. The smell of a grubby hot hired costume, and of the perspiring stressed creature inside. Especially if the secret Santa were not over fond of regular hot water and soap. Very likely on his uppers, career-wise, Mr Claus might well emit a rank and feral odour to catch unthinking and instinctive infants at their most vulnerable; a most pungent plangent scent of unfamiliar danger.
Perhaps this might also account for panic attacks at the circus, too. The reek of the ring, the sawdust, the detritus, the canvas, the hysterical audience, the wild beasts. The performers, above all, exuding their own tensions and fears through their paws and pores. I was taken out – once again – aged about three. There was something about the entry of a troupe of poodles dancing on their hind legs which set me off. This led in turn to a series of nightmares which lasted for years. These dreams featured blue dogs bearing basins, their entry into my bedroom inevitably heralded in sleep by a spectral drum roll.
Maybe the smell of “lovely rice pudding for dinner again” is what made Mary Jane scream so wildly. Hallucinogenic nutmeg, the aroma of boiled milk and the brown baked mackintosh topping does make some people queasy. Surely there can be few things more disturbing than having a foodstuff that the nose rejects pushed into your mouth with a cold and remorseless metal spoon. Almost five years ago I discussed rice pudding in this column. I mentioned then the phantom farinaceous smell that used to hang over a certain quarter of Leicester. Was the nose of my younger self trying to send me a message? It is very odd. I now discover that a set of relatives of whom I then knew nothing once lived there. Since to me this nursery dessert has such a homely comforting fragrance, I can only suppose that like was calling to like.