I was thinking about smells this morning. It was a constant mystery to me as a child, and an ongoing source of curiosity, that other people’s houses smelled differently to mine, and to each other. Once I had noticed this, it became faintly worrying: what did my house smell like? Not all smells are created equal.
I felt that it would be okay if my house (and I) smelled like my school-friend S________’s house, because hers smelled like warmth and fresh baked buns.
But it wouldn’t be okay if it smelled like street-friend J________’s house, which had a strong odour of curry and dog. Not that I disliked curry or dog: I had never tasted curry, because it was Ireland and it was the eighties, and we were eating the same minced meat and potato-based dinners over and over, with not a spice in sight (unless you count Oxtail soup from a packet, or table salt). And we had a dog ourselves, that I liked well enough, but who was confined to the garden, and who in retrospect I neglected horribly. (No wonder he ran away.)
I was fifteen when I met the man who would later become my husband. His home had a sturdy, not unpleasant, but unidentifiable smell. It was the odour of six people all living together in a small space, all of whom thankfully had good hygiene habits, plus the regular smells of smoking, laundry, cooking and living. When he hugged me I would breathe deeply from his t-shirt, which smelled strongly of the home smell, and it became a smell that represented safety and love and really good fun. But then we grew up and got married and had our own home, and now he smells different. He smells like us and our home, which of course, neither of us can smell at all. I suspect our flat (and selves) smells like Yankee candles, fabric softener and smoked bacon. Occasional farts. A treat for any guest.
Around the same time that I met my husband, I began working in a small pub near my home, clearing glasses from tables and delivering drinks and toasted cheese sandwiches to cheerful patrons. It was a great job where the only real downside was the unwanted attention from older men who would slide their phone number over to you on a faded receipt from their purchase of vodka and red lemonade. The tips were great and kept me in bell-bottom jeans and cinema trips on a regular basis. The uniform was a black skirt and a white blouse. I would come home at 1am and hang up the work outfit which, provided I had managed not to spill beer on myself, was usually still looking pretty good. By morning it would have transformed into a yellowed, cigarette ash-stinking corpse of an outfit, which made my room smell like a chain-smoker’s breath.
Double my young life, and about the time when I was turning thirty, I worked in a prison for a few years. The prison had a strong and distinctive smell that I can only describe as soapy. Not good soap, full of fruit oil extracts and exfoliating sand from the beaches of the Dead Sea, but the bland, white kind that goes grey with use and eventually becomes full of dark cracks. I loved to be in the prison but when I left, I hated that soap stink lingering on my clothes. It smelled like misery and oppression. There was nothing for it but to wash them every time – something I resent as, as I’ve implied, I like to get several wears out of an outfit before laundering, lazy mare that I am. Thankfully the husband I have acquired has taken it upon himself to do all of our laundry, so I am regularly treated to the pleasant smell of freshly washed bed linen and knickers, and I live in the fantasy-world of which I presume new mothers dream, where soiled garments mindlessly dumped in wash baskets are silently, invisibly altered into ironed glory-gowns hanging in the wardrobe barely before you’ve had enough time to miss them.