Every scent lover has perfumes that conjure back important events in his or her life, perfumes that can make you wince with emotional remembrance, jolts of pain, or pleasure, that stand like monuments to your past, encapsulating whole periods of your existence: an identity you may not now relate to, but which you know still stands stacked inside your soul like a barely concealed nest of experiential Russian dolls, memories that are merely a cerebral membrane away; that with perfume, smelled once more, can be revived: re-examined.
Although I don’t think of myself as an especially nostalgic person, though I may be deluding myself in that regard having just reread this, I also know that for me, in some ways, the past has always been more important than the future; by which I mean that I have come to have a philosophy of life that very much lives in the now: a full, sensorial experience that when it does become the past, which it obviously always does, is then a life fully lived. You are what you have done before, I believe: we are those years; your past is your oeuvre. We are all different, but for me, those that spend their entire time consumed with plans, working working working for money for the sake of some unnamable future, blinkered to the beauty of the here and now, sometimes end up, ultimately, with a more hollow form of existence: partially blinded to the present, thinking constantly of finances, of the banal concrete realities of material possession and daily life, they end up in a strange state of nothingness, with neither a fulfilling life in the now, nor decent past experiences to look back on when it is all behind them.
And time is always slipping away.
The future, for me, must always be hazy. I have to have something to be looking forward to, always, and a vague idea of the direction I am going in, a six to twelve month plan, but that is enough. I know I could die tomorrow, as we all could, and I just don’t believe that excessive obsession with future plans is worth it. Not for me in any case. And, in relation to this way of thinking, it is possible that my cabinets of perfumes in some ways exist on several existential planes: mostly for the immediate pleasure they give me on a daily basis, with no emotive ties or associations (though I am also aware that some of them will probably be heart-jerkers someday in the future for that very reason: I am very much enjoying this stage in my life and who knows? Perfumes that remind me of my forties could be the ones that kill me the most when I am old, decrepit and on the way out): I am unconsciously making my perfume memories now, all the time, even as we speak…
There are also perfumes that I keep in my collection that remind me of other people but that I would never wear myself; that are almost like a long distance hug, like apparitions momentarily standing before me. Certain family members and friends, and most definitely Duncan, are almost available to me, thus, in liquid form; their essence, or what my brain perceives as their essence (this is what was so devastating about Solaris: the piercing realization that we can never truly know everything about another person, that our understanding of them is always skewed, biased, un-full…), whatever it is, I reach into the cabinet, unstopper a bottle; breathe in, and my loved ones are there, in unbodied, ghostly form, right with me.
Then there are many other scents, of course, that represent me alone. I am in the middle of writing something, actually, about a very disturbing Japanese scent I bought when I first came here to Japan, and that one is almost unbearable for me to smell now as it just brings back – vividly – waves of isolation and depression. And yet I would never get rid of it. It is time, bottled – me at 26. I have to be feeling peculiarly masochistic to sit down with that one, though: and yet the very fact that such strong emotions are possible from the mere inhaling of a bouquet of molecules is intensely thrilling to me: it could almost make me believe in eternity.
Others in my collection, most of my perfumes in fact, merely represent particular episodes in my life as lived thus far. Serge Lutens’ Vitriol D’Oeillet reminds me of certain Christmas a few years ago; my Montales just make me think of a liberating, hot and sexy summer in Berlin. Kouros of me as a young man; Calèche of myself in a particular wistful, Sunday mood; Bal A Versailles parfum as me full stop.
But, strangely, there are two perfumes, not my holy grails, but ones that I love very much nevertheless, that can fit into all the above categories, yet that can transcend thoses boundaries; time and space; and thus have a unique position in my pantheon: Ysatis and Givenchy Gentleman. These, in vintage, unadulterated form (they have both been unacceptably reformulated as I am sure you can imagine) not only represent extremely important events in my life but also were worn by its key figures: the turning point in terms of sexuality; my mother, my father; but also myself. They are also both scents that I can happily wear now, despite their seemingly gendered disparities – I feel perfectly at ease in both, like them equally. There are days when some Ysatis parfum, layered with a coconut scent like Yves Rocher Noix De Coco, are utterly delightful ( I wore buckets of it for some reason the last time I went to get my visa renewed at Yokohama immigration: I’m surprised they even stamped my passport…)
Gentleman I wear when I want to feel manly, together, hairy and assertive : I have a collection of vintage bottles that I have come across at flea markets, and although it is not a scent I wear that often, I need to always have some in my collection. When I think about it, there aren’t any other scents I own that have this quality, that exist on the level of symbol and representation and strange captivations of youth, gender, and sexuality, but which I can also still wear quite happily now as beautifully made perfumes that suit me even in my current form of more experienced, older existence.
And with that rather portentous opening over with I will now go back to the mid-eighties.
Looking back I can see that there was never a shortage of good perfume in our house. While neither of my parents are particularly interested in fragrance as a topic of conversation, nor especially eager to buy truckloads of it the way I am, like most British people who spray on something or other before going out the door, there were always fragrances standing on bedside tables or dressers that were worn on a daily basis: my dad always wearing ‘aftershave’ for work and particularly when going out anywhere in the evening, my mum exactly the same. Dolled up for her shop assistant job at Jaeger, or for a night out on the town with ‘the girls’, there would never be any doubt that the air on the upstairs landing would be pungent with their combined scent choices, the very atmosphere changed irrevocably by the exotic flowers and animal extracts that happily clogged my senses. They both smelled great, and in retrospect I see that they had very good taste. My dad fortunately eschewed the nightmareishly male, harsh braggadoccio scents like Tsar, Drakkar or Jazz, which I loathe, and loathed, and instead went for the more open-to-interpretation scents such as Chanel Pour Monsieur, which in the après rasage format was so indescribably beautiful; so head-changingly optimistic and elegant, and a scent I would use on a regular basis ( you wouldn’t believe how quickly his collection went down – I used to get into quite a lot of trouble). He also wore Eau Sauvage, Aramis, and Paco Rabanne, all excellent masculines, and a beautiful thing I discovered by the side of his bed one day called Givenchy Gentleman, which in some ways was the most unusual of his collection, and one that I was peculiarly drawn to with its tender lingering of citric freshness, old rose and refined patchouli.
My mother, on her side of the bedroom, had a fairly large rotation of perfumes. Working in a department store I suppose she was exposed quite a regular basis to whichever new releases were coming out, and in any case she tended to get bored of her scents quite quickly, preferring to try something new once a bottle got fully used up, which was great for me as an incipient perfume obsessive. The only perfumes I can think of that were bought again and again were First – her signature, and the perfume that suits her best – and perhaps Rive Gauche. There was Nº19 in eau de toilette (she never had any parfums, preferring to spray), but she didn’t restrict herself to elegant aldehydics: Oscar De La Renta was a favourite, and it suited her perfectly, as did Samsara, though, as on anyone, it was always just that bit too much (that is a perfume that will fill an entire house with just one spray). I never felt that Opium was quite right on my mum (and smelling it on Duncan’s mother Daphne I now realize that you have to be the right person to carry that one off – she smells amazing in it). I remember, also, that Youth Dew also was just a bit too witchy, somehow, particularly when worn with fur coat, but then that was also kind of exhilarating as well, one’s own mother as vamp.
When I think back on all the perfumes that my mother had, however, I don’t think, in truth, that any was ever as exciting as Ysatis, the ‘new perfume by Givenchy’ that she bought the moment it came out and which I swooned over continually, with its tropical flowers, spice, coconut and animalics, a scintillating diamond of a scent that I personally think of even now as something of an overlooked masterpiece.
While I wore all of my dad’s aftershaves on a regular basis to school and sixth form college (the utter joy of being seventeen!! Walking through Brueton park on a spring morning, young, skinny, fresh-complexioned, with Chanel Pour Monsieur or Eau Sauvage emanating from me, a song in my head, and focusing my steps with poetic vigour; the jolly cosiness of Paco Rabanne, a huggable and trustworthy male scent if ever there was one), I would also, of course, surreptiously go upstairs and try on my mother’s, though I would never have entertained the idea of wearing one outside the house – budding sexuality is a delicate, nervous thing, you don’t want to push it- but I can see myself, post-bath in towelling bathrobe, secretly smelling Oscar on the back of my hand – that alien, creamy American glamour (it didn’t work), or the latter, death-by-sandalwood stages of Samsara. And, of course, Ysatis. But no, I would never have worn Ysatis outside of the house. The mere idea of it at that time would have been unthinkable.
I didn’t need to, anyway, as the perfume soon came to me in the form of a girl. Although I had tried so desperately hard to be turned on sexually by the female of the species, forcing myself at night to have fantasies in a vain attempt to be something that I knew deep down in my DNA I was not, this never, strangely, stopped me from having girlfriends, who I could kiss happily enough at school discos or on the sofa at student parties – though it never went further – and whose character, or prettiness, or yes, sexiness, could induce me to pretend to myself for a while that I wasn’t what I feared I might be. So the girlfriends came and went, anyway, always breaking up fairly amicably, and, finally, at the age of 18 came the last, but most memorable, of my schoolday missies – Natasha. Hilarious, intelligent, free-spirited and gorgeous, we were more like a flirtatious brother and sister, really, but Natasha was always exciting to be with and she always smelled lovely. Really lovely (was I, in fact, dating a perfume?)
Curiously, when we first got together I found that she was wearing Cacharel Pour Homme, a harsh, nutmeg masculine that I love but which was a very eccentric, and actually rather bold choice now I look back on it; she would wear it with a tweed jacket, her long hair falling down her back, and this taut smell of citrus and nutmegs, faintly intimidating, would surround her. It was enigmatic, certainly, but I always found it slightly jarring, somehow, probably because I just loved how fantastic she smelled in her other choice of scent – Ysatis. Sigh. Just to think of it: this perfume needs someone lissome, smooth, sexy, and she had exactly the right skin to pull it off. It is a perfume that glints and swoons from the wearer: the ylang ylang, the tuberose, the coconut, all underlaid with the civet, vanilla and musk; the narcissus, the leather, the citrus top notes, it all just hovers in the air in a sly fantasia of sexual confidence but not boastery: it is rich, it is extravagant, but it never, somehow, goes over the edge. On Tash it was monstrously appealing (her subsequent boyfriend, someone I was in love with as well, would just bury his head in her neck with pleasure he loved how she smelled in it so much). It was as though the perfume had been created specifically for her. Ysatis is Natasha .
It wasn’t to last though, obviously: the girl had adult desires and I wasn’t the one to fulfil them. And in any case, my burgeoning sense of not being able to bear ‘it’ any longer no matter what the consequences, was growing rapidly along with my excited studies of literature and languages; that beautiful rush of brain freshening consciousness you have as a late adolescent when the world is opening up to you and you are joyously leaving childhood behind: that wonderful sense that you are becoming yourself. I often think of seventeen/eighteen as being one of the most wonderful ages, which is why I enjoy teaching kids of that age now; you can see the fervour in their eyes, the excitement that they are finding themselves and learning what they want to be in life, but still with the uncertainty of not being entirely sure of anything. There is a tremulous beauty. It is an age when you can feel your strength rising, your physical and mental prowess, your independence, your life, and it is emphatically not a time to be pretending to be something that you are not, no matter how dire the results of your potential revelations might be. Essentially, for me that time, exciting though it was, truly felt like do or die.
To be honest, I was desperate. I was lusting after workmen on the roadside coming home from school, lost in hormonal ragings that had no outlet, feeling that I was about to explode. And then I saw Merchant & Ivory’s ‘Maurice’ and that was it. The beauty of Rupert Graves, who played Scudder; the country estate lovers’ subterfuge, and the whole beautiful Cambridge fantasy meant that I finally had something to strive for, and so I put all my energies into getting into that prestigious institution, even though I had hardly been aware of its existence previously. I wanted the dreaming spires, to be resting in the arms of a floppy haired boy, to be punting down the river with him drinking champagne, the whole shebang, and so I did some work for once, went through the horror of the interview process, and to my great delight (and Natasha’s too – she also got in) passed and began the next, ultra-intense stage of my life (Cambridge was just a beautiful whirl of stress and exquisite yearnings: I have extraordinary memories of that time, and feel very privileged to have been there, but it is a time that I could never bear to go back to: the unhinged breathlessness of that time was very nearly nerve-breaking).
Before all that, however, I had to go through the pain and heartbreak of my first real relationship. It is hard for me to overstate how momentous that first kiss in the park, at night, was for me, how mind-blowing and explosive, as though my life had been dynamited into action and reality : a heart-beating secret; a revelation. It is also hard for anyone of the current generation, difficult though it still might be, to imagine how illicit it felt for two seventeen year old boys to be kissing out there in the moonlight, how illegal feeling, and thus even more so disorientatingly, headily thrilling.
A love triangle of sorts had emerged between my close friend Sarah, her ex-boyfriend Darren, and myself. Sarah and I had part time jobs working at an Italian restaurant, and it was in the broiling kitchen at Da Corrado, washing dishes one Friday night, that I finally allowed some words, in carefully ambiguous form in case they were thrown back in my face, to surface from my throat like overladen thieves from a vault, weighed down with guilt, fear, shame, and tension. To my inexpressible relief she understood without stating anything explicitly, and then came the revelation: Darren had told her the same thing, and now apparently had a crush on me. The level of head-spinning euphoria I experienced I will leave to your imagination, but I know I was a different person when I came home that night, going up to my room and staring at the ceiling in the dark, knowing that my parents were downstairs but that they didn’t have a clue what was going on in my head; that their son, basically, was about to be reborn.
At this time I was wearing Givenchy Gentleman all the time. Although in some ways it is an older man’s scent, a fresh patchouli-rose-leather perfume of great complexity and construction (throwing off beautiful top notes of lemon and tarragon alongside the aromatic vetiver and animalic patchouli), in the after shave format, it was lighter and I felt that it fitted me like a glove. It had an aura about it that dad’s other perfumes didn’t, although I suppose that by this point I may have graduated to my own bottle in any case. I loved it. And it was this scent that I can vividly remember wearing on that night of my first male kiss. I can see myself, on a warm early summer evening, in white polo shirt and this scent (he smelled of outside and bonfires); that moment, now, that June night of stark starry skies and shadows in shrubs, that is now thus enshrined for me forever in the glorious aroma of Givenchy.
He turned out to be an idiot, full of pretences and academic affectations, and wasn’t very nice to me either. I was besotted however, and though we had become college superstars as the first homosexual couple ever to exist in the entire world and not give a damn what anyone thought, our very chaste liaison, which didn’t really go any further than my previous relationship with Natasha except that the kissing was perhaps rather more passionate, soon ended in tears and melodrama, me famously flinging myself on the floor at the base of an oaktree and literally begging for him not to finish with me on the day that the whole world seemed to go up in flames and the tears were hot and heavy. Oh the joys of young love. The dapper, swaggering fool’s mind was made up though; he was confused; more bisexual than I was, and in any case was more interested in the world of dungeons and dragons and all that puerile fantasy shit that I myself have never had one iota of interest in, and for whatever dull other reasons, it was just not to be.
God how I pined. How I pored over messages he had written to me on small pieces of paper during lessons while listening to the Pet Shop Boys (it was all about the Pet Shop Boys, the music we had rolled about to upstairs at full volume as I was supposed to be babysitting my sister). Left To My Own Devices was our song, and to this day it gives me fantastically mixed feelings of sadness and joy, as does One More Chance, whose bridge: “You’re so extreme, I want to take you home with me” Darren sang to me and which remains perhaps the most seductive thing anyone has ever said. But I was dying. And because I couldn’t tell my parents what was wrong, fearing horrendous repercussions if I did, they were at their wit’s end trying to work out what was wrong, why their formerly readily communicative son had become so mute and sullen. I was on drugs. I had made my cousin pregnant. I had committed a crime. They were tearing their hair out, but I was still upstairs crying, splashing Givenchy all over myself and dancing around my room in a indulgent stupor of heartbreak and obsession.
It wasn’t until later in the year when another crush began, one that also involved Natasha, incidentally – she ended up marrying him – and the beginning of university, with all its intense changes and overwhelming emotions, that the pain of that first break-up started to abate. In reality, as there had never really been much to it to begin with, it was more the fact of my finally having emerged from my cocoon, tasted the beauty of truth, then having it cruelly taken away from me that was causing the ‘agony’ – it could have been almost anyone, probably. Soon, other things took over, I practically forgot about Darren (I didn’t, not really, especially whenever I came back home for the holidays), but in any case the mourning and self-pitying subsided; other experiences took over; and it all just became part of my history like anyone else’s.
Except that having had such an intense experience while wearing Givenchy; the severing of my past with my future; between repression and expression; between one seemingly preordained destiny and another, far more natural one, one that made my exhilarated eighteen year old self finally emerge as a real person after all those long, long years of hiding and feeling scared, really did sear that scent’s particular orchestration into my mind, eternally, as the real me: ‘my first kiss’, if you like: cherished; much as Ysatis, if I think about it, in some ways, was my last.