My favourite smell is the smell of summer. It is a warm wind on a sun baked hillside, rich round yellowing chlorophyll, tangy with something herbal, and a whisper of minerality from the soil itself, cracked and dusty from many days of twelve hour sun. It’s a smell I’ve not really encountered here in the UK, simply because the days are not long enough or warm enough, because the undergrowth, around my way at least, is not quite wild enough, and so I am trying to resign myself to not encountering again for a while, not while the travel ban holds.
And maybe not ever. For, since catching Covid, I can’t really smell at all.
It was over Christmas, cinnamon and cloves and eggy nutmeg (nutmeg is not, in itself eggy, but the two are, if not married, then very old friends). Skeins of woodsmoke threading through night air, at once comforting and a rasp to the back of the throat. The booze fattened raisins that turn up in bloody everything. Marzipan.
My son was already self isolating when my husband began to cough, on the afternoon of December the eighteenth. There were white lights twinkling in the house opposite when the thermometer beeped and turned red, and we texted our friends, and shut the doors.
On the morning of the twentieth, my tea tasted muted, somehow, as though the thing that made it tea and not coffee, or simply hot water, had gone into hiding. As the day went on, I could feel taste slipping from me, a dial being turned down hour by hour. I thought even then that I should mourn our parting, but with two small children, a sick husband, and Christmas, there wasn’t time to think of anything more. Besides, my body didn’t seem concerned. The smell/ taste thing, in comparison to my rising temperature, the ache in my bones and my increasingly unhappy chest, was barely relevant. By the time I looked back, it had gone.
Christmas, without taste, is less strange than one might think, simply because the memories of what things should taste like hold the day in a grip of cranberry, cheap chocolate, and Doritos. The only time I knew things were wrong was when, halfway through a lunch of turkey and sprouts that neither of the adults much wanted, my toddler wiggled uncomfortably in his high chair. It turned out he had been sitting in a nappy full of shit, had done so for quite some time. None of us had noticed.
January, and we recovered. I like to swim outside, for the cold water, and for the huge sky, full of sun and rain and birds. When I went back, not quite well enough, but desperate for the jolt to my senses after so long wrapped in the thick fug of home, the water was still like a blade. But of the reeds, the algae, even the neoprene of my wetsuit: nothing.
To live without smell is to inhabit the world as a kind of stage set. Nothing feels quite real. Smell bypasses conscious thought, going straight to the frontal cortex. It’s why a particular bar of soap whisks us back to our grandparents’ houses forty years ago. And it is perhaps why my memories of the last few months feel tenuous and unreliable. Without smell to tie it down, 2021 has, for me, become unmoored. 2020 was the sharp slap of hand sanitizer, the ubiquitous sourdough, my breath in my new mask, hot and wet and mine.
Now, my city, my life, it’s familiar, and not. Stepping off the tube at Oxford Circus is like meeting an ex for whom one — unexpectedly — feels nothing. Everything is familiar, deeply and utterly, but love, love has departed.
We meet cooly, life and I. When I enter a bakery, indifferent, or walk along the seashore, I think of robots, learning to be human. Sometimes, I sit down on the beach, lifting handfuls of wet sand to my nose. Think, I say to my brain. You know this.
I do know it, still. But for how much longer? At some point, I know that smell will, quietly, become an abstract, as lost to me as my prepubescent self. I could Google to see whether blind people remember their children’s faces, but I don’t, because I am afraid.
People do recover. Some days, for no reason I can discern, I think, hope, it may be returning to me. Perhaps I should bombard myself with essential oils, but I don’t want to disturb it, this fleeting, delicate thing. Instead, I greet it as one might a wild animal. The door is open, I say. When you are ready, I am here.
My favourite smell is the back of my son’s neck.
My favourite smell is meat grilling over charcoal.
My favourite smell is the green that greets me when I get off the train in somewhere that is not-London.
My favourite smell is the beer-wine-damp-umbrella musk of a Fleet Street pub in mid November.
My favourite smell is the smell of my garden, this morning. It has been raining, the snails are out, each flower head is beaded and nodding. There will be tomatoes, soon, already I see the fattening domes of the pears. July. Summer. All of it together, right here, and I am standing in it, steeped in it, if only…
I close my eyes and reach. Jump through blank space, my brain lunging across the void, like a blundering trapeze artist, like a lost thing keening for home.
July is here, I draw it in. And I think, just maybe, I can smell it, now.