“What the hell is that smell?”
“I know, it’s totally disgusting. Like someone rubbed cheese all over themselves and hasn’t had a wash in over a week!”
They sat there, giggling over their iced coffees, oblivious to the light June breeze that carried their voices over the empty shopping arcade towards me. I’ve heard similar comments many times. At first, they were only in my mind, a figment of my paranoia, but now? Those critical comments and sly remarks are real. They follow me everywhere, like the smell I carry with me. It’s beyond the comprehension of most people and I’ve grown used to the recoils and lowered gazes as people struggle with the musky scent I’ve cultivated. I’ve grown used to it. It comforts me. But I’ve never heard the cheese comment before – that’s definitely new.
The wind shifts, pulling the words across the arcade and into the street. Although I can no longer discern the exact words, I can tell I’m still the subject of their conversation. They’re probably wondering why I don’t take more care of myself. So do I, sometimes. I certainly used to. I’d shave and scrub and smooth and slather myself with an array of potions and lotions and creams, enjoying the velvet touch of my smooth skin that smelled of Provencal meadows or fresh ocean spray. But that was then. Now, I’d rather carry my own smell, wrapped round me like my favourite blanket. Like I’m always home.
I don’t blame them, really. I’ve grown used to it. I wouldn’t blame you either. Of course, that doesn’t mean it doesn’t hurt. But now, it’s more like a scratch or a graze. Almost unnoticed. Bearable. Heals quickly without leaving a scar. I know what I must look like. A real ragamuffin, Ben would have said. There was a time when I wouldn’t have been seen dead in socks and sandals, but that was before I realised that it was madness to force my feet into uncomfortable shoes just because the weather is slightly cooler. And yes, the sandals are old, but they are moulded to my feet, supporting every undulation of my sole. Maybe that’s where they’re getting the scent of cheese from…
Something my psychologist used to say to me, when I started on the endless roundabout of therapies all those years ago was “describe the scene, Sylvia. What do you think others see when they look at you?” Oh, Dr Randall. How things have changed between then and now.
An unkempt older woman hunched over on a metallic seat outside a coffee shop in a shopping arcade, hunched almost double over an interior design magazine. She’s wearing a salmon pink padded jacket. In places, the polyester has worn thin and the white stuffing pokes through. Her curly grey hair is wiry, like coils of oily springs. Her grey jersey sweatpants are stained and worn on her thighs. She wipes her hands on them after eating her crisps, transferring the grease. On her feet, large woollen socks are jammed into old fabric sandals. She furtively glances around and then begins eating something from her pocket, stuffing the food into her face, barely pausing to swallow before bringing the next fistful to her mouth.
Hardly a contender for any beauty awards, that’s for sure. Not so much a sight for sore eyes as just an absolute sight. ‘Look at the state of you,’ Ben would say if he could see me now.
But, one of the benefits of looking so dishevelled means that usually people give you a wide berth. As if the smell is contagious… The waitresses here tend to ignore me – and my contraband snacks. As long as I’m outside and it’s not busy, they turn a blind eye. Which is kind of them, I suppose. There are plenty of people in the world who almost seem to take pleasure in shooing me away like some sort of pigeon or unwanted vermin. But to others, you’re almost invisible. They feel guilty that they exist in a world where the homeless exist. Which is almost as bad. But of course, I’m not homeless. Let’s get that straight. Far from it. Would a homeless lady sit at a café reading interior design magazines? Of course not.
This month’s edition is all about the Danish concept of ‘hygge’. It seems to me they’ve just rebranded the word ‘homely’ and made it fancy with some expensive rugs and a few strategically positioned tea lights and floor lamps. Apparently, the Danes are so happy because they ‘focus on the good things in life, like friends and family and good food.’ It’s not as if they invited this notion – if you take a look at history, you’ll find all myths and legends revolve around the banquet and the gatherings around long tables groaning with food. It always amazes me how people can repackage common sense and make a fortune from it. Take the new obsession with ‘upcycling’, for example. Back in the day, repurposing old furniture was just called ‘making do’, if it was called anything at all. Page after page of ‘hygge’ this month – muted colour palates and minimalist décor. No flair or sense of personality in these homes. Everything is safe. Balanced. Neutral. Uninspired.
The bells of the local church ring out six o’clock. Tea time. Time to get back. I’ve had my two hours out and about. Time to head home. I gulp down the last dregs of the now cold coffee, spilling it down my jacket in my rush, creating a stain like the outline of Scotland. What a wonderful place. It’s where we went on our honeymoon, Ben and I, all those years ago. A week in the Highlands. It was all so exciting – the sleeper train from Euston to Mallaig. I’ll never forget that first morning, lying there in each others’ arms watching the gun-metal sky glow rosy with the morning light as the craggy peaks and mossy meadows whizzed past as we trundled further and further north. Lying there on that tiny single bed, muscles cramping with the effort of not falling onto the ground but reluctant to move and break the magic, I was happy. Ben’s arms were wrapped around me and I just lay there, feeling the movement of his chest as he breathed and the steady rhythm of his heartbeat. It was a morning full of promise. Little did we know then, of course, how quickly things would change.
I’m not as steady on my feet as I used to be. The chair falls backwards with a loud clang, echoing across the concourse. People turn to look and I catch their pity as they avert their gazes. Pity is something I’m used to. Sometimes the air is so thick with it I feel that I could almost put my hand out and touch it or catch it in a net like a dying moth. The texture of the air changes slightly. Becomes just that like bit heavier. Rain is on the way. I’d better rush if I’m to get home before it starts properly.
I’ve always enjoyed the walk home, especially at this time of the evening when people are just coming home from work. It’s that period when the streets seem to cast off their day time somnambulance ready for the buzz of evening activity. The houses in this part of town are Victorian. Terraced, with little gardens out the front. Well, they used to be gardens. Now, they seem to be mainly paved car parking spaces. Time was, walking along these streets, especially at this time of year, the air would be fragrant with the delicate scent of honeysuckle and the sweet smell of wild roses, but now it’s petrol fumes that take precedence, choking anyone foolish enough to try and enjoy their front garden. I remember how we used to sit, Ben and I, in our front garden, catching the last heat of the sun amongst the rhodedendrons, him reading the evening edition of the paper and me finishing off the schoolbooks I’d brought home with me. More often than not, Mr and Mrs Smith from number 58 would be doing the same thing and soon both books and paper would be forgotten as we’d chat across the hedgerows until Kate would pop into her little garden with little Simon and we’d watch and coo over him playing with whatever new toy he had. But that was a long time ago. It’s strange how quickly the decades fly in and people move away – Mrs Smith sold up after poor Mr Smith had that heart attack. He wasn’t even sixty. And Kate and Will moved up North when he got that new job. Of course, we stayed in touch for a while, but that always stops, doesn’t it? Cards at Christmas, that’s about it. Little Simon is probably away at University now. Funny how the time just goes, isn’t it? Now, most of the houses have been divided up into flats and people seem to come and go a lot. There’s no sense of community spirit. There are still one or two young families living on the street, but they like to keep to themselves. You certainly never hear the children out playing in the street. No wonder, with the amount of cars – it wouldn’t be safe. There was an article in the local news bulletin about a ‘fun day’ for the kids on a street not far from here. They got rid of all the cars and the kids had free reign – it looked like great fun. Reminded me of why we chose to live in this neighbourhood – I remember the flush on Ben’s cheeks as he hinted that it might be “nice to move into an area full of young children.” Of course, that was before everything went wrong and the very notion of having a family disappeared, along with the rest of our dreams.
The next door neighbours have forgotten the bin day again and left their bins out too late. Every fortnight they do exactly the same thing. The binmen arrive between 7.30am and 8am on a Thursday. Without fail. So how can they fail to put the bin out at the right time? And they always leave it partly blocking my gate so I have to squeeze past it to get in my own home. I wouldn’t mind, but they’ll leave it there now until next Thursday, attracting foxes and rats. And it’s not as if I can say anything to them. Not after the last time.
Breathe, Sylvia. It’s not that serious a problem. Nothing to get worked up about. I try to remember the doctor’s advice and take a few deep breaths as I struggle with the front door, trying to head off the panic before it takes a firm hold. I want tonight to be a good night, not one spent cowering in the corner of the living room under a blanket. On the exhale, I push the door open and step inside.
The interior of my home would be a shock to most people. In fact, sometimes it is a shock to me that I was capable of living like this, in such luxury/harmony. And so the rituals begin. Carefully, I ease off the sandals and place them in the teak sideboard in the entrance hall. It used to be that I’d struggle to fit my shoes in, what with all the heels and boots and brogues, but now, there is plenty of space. Gripping the cabinet for balance, I swap the sandals for a pair of beaten and torn house slippers before padding up the stairs towards the bathroom. It’s actually my second favourite room in the house. It always reminds me of the seaside, with its turquoise walls and driftwood furniture. Ben made the cabinets himself with some wood we found on a beach in Devon. I run the bath – Victorian, of course, and pour in the last of the jasmine bubble bath I’ve been saving for special occasions. The smell has faded over the years, but there’s still the faintest trace left, its exoticism filling the room, transporting me back to Anadalucian hill top village adventure all those years ago.
As I wait for the tub to fill, I potter downstairs, through the living room and into the kitchen. This is my favourite room. When we first bought the house, we decided to have a large extension fitted, so now the room is flooded with sunlight. In fact, I’m used to telling the time of day by the light. Pre-noon, it’s a sort of creamy glow. Mid day until late afternoon, the room glows green as the light reflects off the bushes outside and dapples and dances through the glass and against the walls. In the late evening as dusk starts to fall, the light glows a rose gold, gilding everything within like Midas himself had trailed his fingers along the surfaces. The garden is a lot wilder than it used to be. Ironic how it’s called husbandry, isn’t it? Since it was always Ben who looked after things. I just let them be free. Out in the garden, I breathe in the smell of roses. The next door neighbours have their back door open. I duck out of sight. Too embarrassing after the last argument. They caught me unscrewing their back gate. But the squeak – it was too much. Going through my brain. I couldn’t let it just be. I had to do something about it. That in itself wouldn’t have been too bad, but it came off the back of them finding me asleep in the hedgerow. I thought there was a mouse or a rat, you see and I was looking around. But then I just got so comfortable, I forgot myself and fell asleep. Which would’ve been fine if it hadn’t been in their garden. I know it must have been a bit of a shock, but they had just moved in, so of course they called the police. That was pretty embarrassing.
Anyway, I’m not going to let any of that distract me now. I can hear the bath running upstairs. By the sounds of it, the tub is half full. About another ten minutes left. I shuffle over to the sofa and sink into it with a sigh. I’ve spent so many hours curled up in its arms that it has moulded itself to my shape. The living room is full of memories: the walnut antique table from Provence that Ben insisted on buying as a memento on our first holiday together. What a palaver trying to get it shipped over. The burnished bronze mirror over the mantelpiece that was bought in the souks of Marrakech. The photographer from Home Interiors had been very impressed with the collection of items – like a souvenir tapestry. But that was a long time ago, that photo shoot. Really just a favour from an old friend. She knew how much I loved design and thought it would be fun to get my home featured. Started a whole new craze – ordinary people in their extraordinary homes.
But they are just things. It’s the memories that will stay. The fountain in the hidden square in Aix on whose walls we spent a blissful summer afternoon. Getting lost and stumbling into the tanneries. The smells. The disorientating bright lights. Of course, it was Morocco that it all started. The trembling hands. The rising fear. I’d just put it down to a difficult year at school, but when September came around again, I just couldn’t go back. Physically couldn’t get a foot over the door. Of course, everyone was very understanding and patient. Up to a point. After the first year, Ben suggested I look at employment elsewhere. Apply my skills elsewhere. Learn something new. I tried. I really, really tried. But nothing seemed to work. Everything I touched seemed to crumble to dust in my hands. Of course, there was no way I could even think about starting a family in this state, so that got put on the back burner. I could barely stand the feel of Ben’s touch as it was, so dark was my despair. Another year passed, and I was just plunging deeper and deeper into the jungle of my own mind. People stopped calling round as my irrational paranoia began to drive them away.
But I could cope. Just about. Clinging on with my fingertips to the ledge. Until the day Ben didn’t come back. Looking back at it, I don’t really blame him. He’d always wanted children and it was clear he wasn’t going to get them with me. I could see the toll looking after me was taking on him – it was etched on his face. So one day after work, he just stayed away. He hadn’t cheated on me – he just put his future children first. That’s why I fell in love with him, after all. I’d known then what a great Dad he would be, so I shouldn’t have been surprised when he sacrificed me for his imaginary children. Which he now has, by the way. He lived in the city for a while, met a nice girl at work, settled down in a lovely Victorian terrace just like this and soon the babies arrived. A boy, then a girl. They moved away a couple of years ago. There’d been a court case, but I’d just not been able to keep away. His happiness gnawed at me, ripping me apart. I tortured myself with his joy. So, one cold February morning, he’d come round to tell me he was going. There was no anger, just sadness. And then they went. The little home he’d built for himself was divided up into flats and all those roses and honeysuckle he’d tended were burned down and turned into a paved parking space.
That’s probably what will happen here. I have to leave, you see. They’ll be here in the morning, the bailiffs. The money ran out. And although I’m only fifty-two, the council have offered me a place in a residential home for the elderly. On account of my “mental health needs”. They’ve assured me that I’ll be happy there and that I’m very lucky to get a place – even if it means leaving most of my belongings behind. Space is at a premium, they say. Not enough room for my furniture. So tomorrow, I will leave this all behind. But first, I have a final bath to take.