There has been a strange and rather lovely odour all around the house this week. Perhaps it’s me? But all I have worn in this warm close weather is Atelier Cologne’s Cedrat Enivrant. Now that’s a glorious greeny-gold glittering citrus; and what I can smell here is a deep woody floral; soft and pervasive and lulling. It seems to be everywhere, despite the open doors and windows. It was only intensified by my darling sister-in-law’s visit. She came over for lunch bearing two large bags of magazines dated 1952 and ’53: pristine souvenir numbers of The Sphere, The Illustrated London News and Picture Post commemorating variously the death of George VI and the Coronation of Elizabeth II. Amongst all the paperwork was a bar of amber and sandalwood soap: I wrapped it up in my clean underwear, like Betty Macdonald’s tubercular friend in The Plague and I¤. There were also two very old bottles of Floris room scent – Ormonde – the colour of old amber, slightly crusted, and smelling delicious. Rich, voluptuous and assured: the scent of country mansions, polished up with beeswax and filled with vases of stocks and sweet peas.
Barbara Cartland used to say that she knew from a strong fragrance of clove carnations manifesting in the house that her deceased brother Ronald was about the place. You wonder, don’t you? This morning, out and about at the shops, on the street and in the garden, all I can smell is a creamy sweet coconut, rather like gorse. But there is no gorse, and there were no coconuts. When I went down the aisle of Laundry Requisites at the supermarket – a well-known household name – the detergents assailed me like wasps. My face prickled all over as though from heat rash; a myriad invisible chemicals stimulating my skin, though apparently safely contained in their cardboard and plastic wrappers. Over-sensitive at the moment: very strange!
I have just finished a rather nasty but very gripping book of long short stories by Daphne du Maurier¤¤. She is good on scent and its implications. A bored Marquise plays with a scent stopper as she plays with people’s lives. A seductively brittle cinema usherette may be a phantom and is certainly a murderess. Contrary to usual fictional convention this ominous figure exudes the most delicious perfume to beglamour her garage mechanic suitor:
” I’m not a great one for liking scent. It’s too often cheap and nasty, but this was different. There was nothing stale about it, or stuffy, or strong; it was like the flowers they sell up in the West End…three bob a bloom sort of touch…and it was so darn good, the smell of it … that it nearly drove me mad”.
The title story is done with great subtlety – the death of a wife is swiftly followed by her haunting of her widower in the form of a deformed apple tree in the garden. The tale is told by the husband. We slowly realise that it is he – and not, as he would have us believe, the late wife – who is a monster of self-indulgence and misery. The barren tree flowers in a cascade of over-ripe, decaying blooms which repel rather than attract. “Instead of blossoming to life, to beauty, it had somehow, deep in nature, gone awry and turned a freak”. Or so the widower perceives the flowers¤¤¤. When a fallen branch of apple wood is sawn to feed the fire, the smell is not fresh and aromatic but “sweet, sickly…greenish…turning his stomach”.
We all know how sensitive animals can be to the Unseen. A lady told me the other day that whenever she sprays Etat Libre D’Orange’s Putain des Palaces her tom cat goes absolutely beserk. It’s like cat mint to him. He becomes skittish, roguish, even disconcertingly amorous. I know many horse owners who avoid wearing perfume when they visit their stables. Apparently our most august fancier of horseflesh, the Queen herself, is amongst them. Fragrance is said to unsettle, even arouse, the equine. Both Fracas and Chanel No 5 have been said to have had disturbing effects on stallions. Now, we at Les Senteurs are always happy to welcome a canine visitor, on the arm of his owner. But I always marvel at how calm dogs remain in our palace of 1,000 scents. When you think of the bombardment of smells on those little supersensitive snouts you’d think the animals would run half mad. I guess what it is, is this: in the interests of his own sanity, the dog remains involuntarily onosmic to odours that have no possible relevance to his needs. He picks up only what is needed for his comfort, feeding, preservation and – if in his natural state – his reproductive interest. Am I somewhere near the truth? Vets, please write in. Makes you wonder about Putain des Palaces though.
¤ “..’he brought me a whole roasted chicken and twelve chocolate eclairs and that’s all I’m gonna eat until next Thursday’. I asked how she managed to keep food in her stand as it was absolutely forbidden. She said, ‘Oh, I wrap it all up in my clean pyjamas.'”
¤¤ “The Apple Tree” first published by Victor Gollancz, 1952.
¤¤¤ We are reminded of the abundant and beautiful but sinister white roses which fill frame after frame of The Innocents, Jack Clayton’s 1961 film adaptation of The Turn of the Screw.