There are mushrooms at the bottom of my garden. Not the fairy-friendly type of fungus, with neat spotted roofs on stalks – but fat white cancerous clumps pushing their way through the chippings of bark to the surface. They smell of damp and decay and they weren’t there before. You can’t turn your back for 5 minutes…
So I kneel on the ground and start pulling them up with a violence only a pensioner can possess, then hurl them into the bin, close the lid and go back in the house – but the scent of them clings to me….Still of woodland and of rain, but greener now and light, because where there’s one scent, there will follow another – and this one belongs to her.
Mitsouko, I think it was. Japanese for mystery: a blend of bergamot, moss and cypress. The square-shouldered bottle sat on a vanity table in our little flat. Smelling nice, she said, was as important as wearing clean knickers – in case you got run over by a bus – and as dressing well, in the best and worst of times. Like Marie Antoinette, on her way to the guillotine, in a new dress and cap as white as her hair. Legend has it the queen put a phial of her favourite fragrance of roses and violets inside the bodice. My mother was fond of extreme examples.
My own collection is kept as scents should be, like fine wines. Out of direct sunlight, in a cool, dry place – the closest I can get to a cellar, a shelf in the downstairs loo. White flowers, like lily of the valley, gardenia and orange blossom, with the odd splash of green tea or verbena. None of your black peppers, basil, vodka or tonka bean. Nothing to frighten the neighbours. Nothing too heady, musky or oriental, if it’s not a crime to say so.
Things get a little wilder upstairs. I’m glad she can’t see me dab drops of jasmine and frangipani essential oil into the cardboard tubes inside toilet rolls, as if the bathroom isn’t tropical enough. A palm beach-oasis-lemon grove, with coconut shampoo, cocoa body butter, anything with almond. But then scent is meant to take you somewhere else…..when it’s not keeping the home front fresh and free from invasion. That’s what the lavender bags and cedar balls in the bedroom are for, to fight the modern moth in the wardrobe, in the drawers….
My brave and fragrant mother didn’t live to be 52, let alone 60 or 70, so I don’t know what she’d make of a world where millions are spent on candles with their own class system, from the common Vanilla Cupcake to Cashmere and Fig. So many perfumed products to choose from! Even squirting liquid onto dirty plates offers an aloe vera and apple experience.
Her second commandment: Keep the Place Clean and Pleasant, isn’t hard to follow these days, especially here with no men’s smells to complicate the atmosphere. The first: Keep Yourself Tidy and Smelling Sweet, however, has acquired a wider and sharper edge. Getting old is one thing, smelling old quite another. When you hear, ‘old age has a smell’, what does it mean? Is it like a rotten bouquet, to be held at arm’s length? A scent of self-neglect or the carpet stains in a care home?
It’s a bit worrying, especially as you can’t really smell yourself, but before the trail takes a tragic turn, there’s always something you do. Like have an extra shower or two or scrub a little harder with the soap and water, any flavour. Or google Elderly Odours, if you must – but where would be the romance in all that?
A friend of mine, 80 something and still a fighter, won’t leave the house without a blast of Eau Sauvage. Vetiver,amber, rosemary. I like to spray something sparkling and floral into my path, make my own mist, then walk through it and feel it settle lightly on the skin. Like the divine Diorissimo. Or Je Reviens, which captures the poignancy of perfume, that once released, cannot last. Legendary, expensive scents – but not the only ones that make life larger and more beautiful. Some just happen.
Outside, the gardener’s been and gone. New-mown grass and earth after rain. Then an unmistakeable something in the air: the arrival of another autumn.
The fragrance that touched my face in the morning is as much of a memory as the mother it brought back to me. Once, she was all the world there was and I breathed her, as babies do. The first scent. The teenage me was just beginning to get to know her as a person, when time ran out – but a spirit like hers, strong and free, that lives in the heart, won’t fade away.