The roses in Preston Park are nearly all gone, and I feel slightly bereft. I only found out what roses smell like a couple of months ago, you see, and I’m still dizzy with joy, high on their heady sweetness. I grew up in a family of keen gardeners; when they talked about the unmistakable perfume of roses, I had no idea what they were referring to – but now I know, and there’s no going back. I can’t walk past a still-blooming rose without burying my face in it, fat velvety petals that look weighty enough to support a cherub, but they’re getting fewer and fewer, and soon there’ll be none until next year.
I’ve had a poor sense of smell for as long as I can remember. It’s not wholly absent, but there seems to be a chunk of the scent spectrum that doesn’t reach my nose. Hormones seem to have an effect; I get closest to what I imagine a “normal” sense of smell must be just before my period, and just before and during a migraine. I can, for instance, clearly recall wanting to throw up on a train on the way back from a festival years ago, because a post-party migraine had struck and someone near me was eating cheese and onion crisps. On a regular, non-migrainous day, I would have minded such antisocial behaviour far less.
Obviously having a feeble sense of smell most of the time has its uses – on public transport, for example, and when I have really good cheese in the fridge (though even I am able to marvel at the way Camembert seems overpower every other foodstuff) – but mostly I feel I’m missing out. I don’t know why a certain sensitivity seems to be creeping in; it’s not a dramatic change at all, but I am glad of it. Dog walks have become even more enjoyable – when trees and plants waft their fragrances towards me, it’s enough to stop me in my tracks. Weeks ago, I walked past a shrub with small white flowers and was so transfixed by its scent I had to look up what it was. It turned out to be Korean spice viburnum, and when it stopped flowering, I missed it. It reminded me a little of Philadelphus (‘mock orange’) – Gran had one right outside her French doors. In late spring and early summer, you’d take one step into the garden and be hit by this incredible scent, rich as double cream, with the faintest hint of spice.
As is probably evident, having this weakened sense means I really notice the things that do cut through. I can romanticise perfume at length, because it’s such an unreliable pleasure, and unreliable pleasures are of course the most addictive. I’m drawn to masculine scents, with base notes of tobacco or musk; I need clout. Splashy, clean-laundry scents do nothing for me. Vetiver is a beloved ingredient – it’s a grass that has a woody, earthy undertone overlaid with a green freshness. It’s boyish but clean; it’s Tom Hardy but fresh out the shower. I’m currently wearing a ginger, amber and tobacco fragrance; ordinarily it would be one for autumn/winter, to be worn under wool and leather, and accessorised with red wine in pubs with open fireplaces. It jars deliciously with summer dresses. A dear favourite remains the original fragrance for women by Michael Kors; it’s probably the most feminine scent I’d wear, but look at those notes – sweetness and spice layered over a base of musk, wood and vetiver. I put this on and suddenly I’m on holiday, I’ve showered the sand and salt away and I’m walking to dinner in the hot, still evening.
But there are a number of more quotidian fragrances I treasure. At the start of lockdown, I bought bar soap for the first time in ages, possibly ever. And not just any old bar soap: Imperial Leather, stalwart of my grandmother’s bathroom, the scent of safety. The first boy I properly, properly loved must have used something – a shower gel, a moisturiser – that had a vaguely similar scent; being close to him felt like coming home. For a while, anyway.
Other less nostalgic but no less important smells that delight me are: onions frying (savoury joy!), butter and dark chocolate melted together ready to be made into brownies, chorizo warming in a pan, just starting to relinquish its smoky sweetness. The cocoa-darkness of an early morning coffee, even the dry ashiness of cigarette smoke – but only after a couple of drinks. Tomatoes in a greenhouse. The fruitcake smell of haylage (baled like hay but not completely dried out, and fed to horses in colder months). The gentle animal warmth of my dog’s fur.
I used to half-joke that having a poor sense of smell saved the boy who felt like home from ever having to buy me flowers, but he rarely seemed to want to anyway. And that’s not to say I expect to be bought anything, ever, but some people know the power of giving a friend or lover a bunch of flowers every so often, and some people only discover it late in life. I can buy my own flowers, and sometimes I do, but now I’m always bowled over when someone arrives with an armful of blooms. My brother and his girlfriend came to visit last week, and she presented me with a bunch of purple stocks. I added some supermarket roses, and the jug of lilac and pink and green threw out a gardeny scent and gave me nothing but joy for several days.
It’s such a tiny thing, finally being able to literally stop and smell the roses. But it’s also a belief I hold in every cell of my being: we have to keep looking for joy in the small things. It makes the hard work of being alive that little bit easier.