It’s funny how a perfume, even a relatively insignificant (for me at least) scent such as Gucci Rush 2, which I found the other day for next to nothing at a used goods centre in Fujisawa, can set off chains of memories and associations; plunge you back into periods of time and places you had recently forgotten about, both in the physical appearance of the bottle – jolting you into a different pocket of spatial experience, remembering it visually and rationally – as well as the scent itself and its more abstract, emotional content: : : : A far more watery, deeper, rabbit hole of remembrance.
For me, Rush 2 – a pleasant, subtle and unobtrusive green floral based tentatively on the original more vanillic/gardeniac/patchouli amalgam, Rush, that was a big hit in the 1990’s and more of a night bird – this being warier, sharper, hinting vaguely of that original perfume but with lighter flowers (freesia, narcissus) and dominantly green notes (palm leaf) – more reminiscent in fact of Gucci’s other successful scent from that period, the ubiquitous and verdant-as-stinging-nettles-Envy; for me this perfume is nothing but Taiwan. Taipei was where I first smelled it and experienced it, in the apartment of my Chinese Canadian friend Katherine, who had just bought the perfume for its lightness and unspoken chicness – a gently persuasive and understated smell that just perceptibly scented the rooms in which I found myself staying.
Taipei is a city that is underdiscussed, crushed under the weight of the mainland hegemony, the country not even recognised by the majority of the world, almost a secret metropolis that I found very engaging, easy to be in, safe and relaxed, yet tropical and humid in summer and early autumn, with a bird caged green fuchsia loveliness; long, trailing plants and liana-like tendrils hanging beyond the wet vicious cycle of air conditioners stacked up on balconies; night markets and fruit sellers hawking the most delicious mangoes I have ever experienced; the mangoest mango juice dripping down my face, a fraction of the cost of the extortionate fruit in Japan, imported and cosseted in cradling fruit nets to up the exclusivity; here they were everywhere, and pungent with green and orange mango-ness.
While Katherine was at work, I would wander the city at my leisure, noting the similarities with Japan but also the differences. The National Palace Museum, housing the biggest collection of Chinese art in the world – all smuggled out of China during the People’s Revolution – was cool and dark and utterly beguiling, with 5,000 year old exquisitely crafted ceramic animals, cups, pots; I completely lost myself within these other worlds, and the seraphic beauty of the contrastedly sunlit upper floor tea rooms where I wrote postcards and drank jasmine and looked out onto the ever stretching vistas of the murmuring metropolis.
I almost didn’t get there.
This was 2001, just after the September 11th attacks, the very same month, and the world was jittery, shocked within; afraid. There was a darkness, a pall, both inside and out ourselves, a profound disturbance, not only the humanitarian catastrophe of the World Trade Center destruction itself and the sheer sense of grief and disbelief, but also at the ramifications of what was to come, a sense that that was that; that everything would change irrevocably from now on,;that the world would react badly – wrongly- which it did; that there were almost premonitions palpable in the clouds, in the air; a schism.
The night before I was due to fly and spend this long weekend with a friend I had made at a language school – and who I have since completely lost touch with – we had also heard that Aaliyah, an R n B singer who both the D and I loved listening to in the hot summer months and who had a voice like an angel, had just died in a plane crash in the Bahamas, burnt to death in her seat after recording a pop video there just after it had taken off and we were very shocked: just 22, uncliched and fresh, her music had formed a soundtrack to recent times and we couldn’t believe that her life had just been severed in one horrifying moment. Flying, after the attacks in New York, had therefore taken on entirely new ramifications and feelings – you just didn’t want to. I almost cancelled, but had paid the money, and love to visit new places, and wanted to see Katherine, and so eventually decided to fly to Taipei as originally intended.
Already feeling deeply uneasy because of everything, at the airport, my passport was questioned, the ground staff insisting that I couldn’t get into Taipei on a standard British passport, that I needed a visa. They were refusing to let me board the plane, despite the fact that I had repeatedly checked beforehand to make sure of the visa and entry requirements, and, already rattled and nervous by the month of upsetting global events, as I stood there arguing with them at the check-in desk as passengers went on ahead before me, I was verging on a meltdown.
Suddenly, out of the blue, as if by miracle, and by unbelievable coincidence, I spotted a face that I recognized, in an airline company uniform – Shizuka! – a student I had taught at an international language school in London six years previously and who I had not seen in the interim period and who I had no idea was even working at Narita airport. Astonished, I beckoned her over, she equally surprised and pleased to see me, and breathlessly explained the situation, that the staff were mistaken about the visa, that I had to get to Taiwan, and within minutes she had talked me out of the problem and I was on board.
I love staying at other people’s apartments or houses, languidly taking a bath and soaking up the unfamiliar surroundings, especially when they have gone to work and you have the whole place to yourself and feel deliciously and irresponsibly cut off from reality. Gucci Rush 2 was the subtle scent of the air, the music the new Radiohead album of the time, Amnesiac, which I recorded from her CD onto cassette, and sprayed all over the tape card with the perfume to set the memories firmly in place (contrived; yes, but effective – for years the scent subtly lingered, even on the plastic of the music tape itself as I put it in the machine it would give off scent and I love that; I love the commingling of music and perfume, a double anchor of temporal marking, indeed a memory pod, a time capsule that can be unearthed when you least expect it – like suddenly coming across a bottle of the perfume in Japan, seventeen years later – seventeen years – that reality astonished me, can that much time have just slipped by so rapidly and unexpectedly? – a fusion of taste and of visual memories encapsuled within a simple, but precious, cassette case.
The heat and the unfamiliarity of Taipei wavered outside, while I lay languishing in the bath water, listening to the electronical miserabilia of England’s greatest nihilists, never my favourite music by a long shot, but still technically excellent; incisive – knife-like, cold as ice, this album more suited to my personal tastes than the anthemic guitars of the more popular earlier material, but crucially, crucially – an insurmountable barrier – my own experience of listening to this group had been tainted – no, fully traumatised, by a singularly awful experience I had had on a bleak day in November the year before, at my local train station in Kitakamakura, the sky grey and white and unforgiving, one of those days when life feels that it has completely lost its savour, the wind too cutting, the joy sucked out of existence.
I had walked down the hill to the station and on my headphones was listening to Radiohead’s previous and similarly desolate album release, Kid A, something of a masterpiece of its type, hinting at the loneliness and perhaps pointlessness at the heart of things, if you choose to look at life that way (I am a person who tends to listen to music that accentuates the mood or atmospheric conditions rather than alleviate them; on happy sunny days I blast out pop music that fills me with a heaven like ecstasy that the years can never dampen, I layer optimism with optimism, but for me the reverse is also true – on grim days I wallow in the dark, as it is soothing, somehow, and on that particular day, having no idea of what was about to come, I had intuitively chosen the Oxfordshire professors of doom as my music of the day.)
I was listening to the song National Anthem, a chaotic, sardonic rock track filled with a grinding guitar riff and maniacal brass, and had the music on so loud that it drowned out everything around me; I was entirely immersed in my world of grey as I sat down on a wooden bench at the station waiting for a train bound for Kamakura to see my friend Yoko for lunch, and was semi-nonplussed when the person next to me kept looking at me in a curious way as if to say how can you be listening to music at at moment like this? I carried on with it, unaware that the train across the tracks where I was sitting had stopped moving and that people seemed to be reacting to something terrible and dismaying.
Finally, my eyes strayed across the tracks, the music still pounding, and then I saw it. Or rather, her. A middle aged lady had jumped in front of the train and committed suicide, and her dead body was slumped against the wall, her eyes closed as if in the x shape of an extinguished anime character, but faced in my exact direction as if she was looking at me.
It was a moment of the purest horror. Thrusting off my earphones I stood up, wide-eyed, gasping, my hand across my mouth, the solemn passengers on the train staring out from the windows and seeing, but not seeing, my obvious reaction to what was lying beneath them on the tracks, as people at the station looked down not knowing what to do or where to place their eyes.
Quickly, and effectively, so as not to disturb the commuting of thousands of people, the Japan Railway staff came running, up and down the tracks looking for the body, even though she was staring me right in the face. I was numb with the hideousness of what I was witnessing, as they finally located her, and dragged her across the tracks, a severed limb coming loose as people screamed on the platform and she was placed, in a shroud, a a white sheet, stained with red, on the tracks and I suddenly started running.
Pure adrenaline, running, running, as fast as I could, I just had to get away from there, I couldn’t stand there watching it any longer, and I ran and ran until I got to Kamakura station, where my friend had been looking at the train boards and the fact that there had been an ‘accident’ and was worrying and wondering if I was alright.
As dreadful as this experience might have been, in fact, though you may be shocked to be reading all of the above, this is practically a daily occurrence in the Tokyo region, commuters jumping in front of trains a regular ‘nuisance’, but nevertheless one of the most popular ways to commit suicide. Scorned and reviled for the ‘inconvenience ‘ it causes pain to hundreds of thousands of commuters, as well as the financial burden it gives to the remaining relatives, who are forced to pay fines and give extortionate amounts of money for the ensuing ‘clean up’, I sometimes wonder if, the clear despair notwithstanding, it is all in fact just a big middle finger, a final fuck you to the establishment and a final act of notice me, willingly oblivious rebellion.
Rather than the tut tutting irritation of many passengers ,though, who consider such acts as the ultimate in selfishness, as I masochistically put back on the Kid A, perhaps to just swallow myself up in her death and not just brush it away, and one of the saddest songs of all time, How To Disappear Completely came on, I was just hit with the most profound sadness I had experienced in recent memory; sheer sympathy that that lady – well dressed, with her greying shoulder length hair, should have gone to such extremes. I remember tearing up on the train to work that evening, temporarily lost in an abyss of great sorrow and shock.
In Taiwan, hot, lush vegetation everywhere, with Katherine, who showed me her favourite Taiwanese restaurants, and took me to the coast where we walked along the promenade eating ‘stinky tofu’ in the sweltering late summer heat, going to cafes together and meeting her Taipei friends, wearing her green, delicate floral that permeated my days ; and even with the distinctive and unavoidable voice of Thom Yorke:: that follow up Radiohead album, more rich and layered and less skeletal than their previous creation, didn’t sadden me…….it was a new era, the incident at Kitakamakura station was something from two years before; and though each time I went there again initially I just couldn’t get the events out of my mind’s eye – I would move down to the end of the platform to get away as far as I could from it all and pretend it hadn’t happened – it was a new day, and hot, and I love summer and can hardly be depressed at that time of year no matter what has happened. I lose myself in that shimmering feeling, that to me feels like endlessness, even when you know that Autumn is soon approaching. It was just one long weekend, full of new cultural and personal stimulations, but it was very enjoyable, and although I only saw Katherine one or two times after that – she has since gone somewhere but I never got the address -I think I would like to go back to Taipei again.
I can never listen to Radiohead though any more. I do think that what happened to me while I was listening to their music (surely the ‘ultimate’ Radiohead experience; actually witnessing a suicide while having their music as the ‘soundtrack’ ) made it impossible for me to ever want to hear another song of theirs again as long as I live. Temporarily, in Taiwan, it had seemed ok – it was brand new music and I was so stimulated by my surroundings I didn’t care- but now, what I saw and heard on that horrible afternoon are so seared in my psyche that I have no desire to ever revisit it.
I had thought about none of all this for a very long time until I saw that ten dollar bottle of Rush 2 standing there on the shelf of the massive emporium among thousands and thousands of other goods for daily life; clothes, bric-a-brac, furniture, kitchenware the other day; I couldn’t even quite precisely remember now what it had smelled like: just that it had been green, and fresh, and that someone I had long ago spent time with – -Katherine, had once worn it.
I didn’t hesitate for a moment in buying the perfume, though, taking a work break on a sunny day in Fujisawa and killing time by just looking round the shops – this place once in a while yielding something interesting and cheap, the translucent pink bottle in the right pocket of my work coat, waiting for me to try it on me when I left in the evening. A blast from the past. A pleasant anomaly. For some strange reason I was quite excited to see it again.
But I am not sure that it is exactly as I remember it. It certainly smells different on a Chinese Canadian girl who only wore light florals and was kooky and intellectual and savagely ironic about everything she came into contact with : plus, we were also two decades younger. On me – well my skin is actually very male, it kills flowers and sprouts woods, which is why I cannot bear anything ‘woody’ or acrid -and so, amusingly, this perfume, while smelling delicately, intelligently feminine on a woman, almost strays too much into my dreaded zones of sports fragrance ‘manhood’, would you believe and yet, spritzed lightly over the head and settling in microscopic droplets on my hair and onto my work clothes it does, definitely, smell rather intriguing. Rather unexpected and suave ( perhaps from a slight hint of vetiver and oak moss in the base). Duncan thought so when he met me at the station, the big freeze that happened suddenly, yesterday, as the Tokyo region was blanketed with its biggest snow fall in years and most transport slowed down or came to a standstill, commuters lining up by the hundreds for taxis and buses as the winds howled and the big snowflakes came down and settled , as they stood shivering, on their heads. Snug in my multilayered clothing, the icy atmosphere surrounding me, the anti-intuitive choice of this more vernal, discontinued perfume somehow worked nicely; the leaves and imagined flowers could breathe uninhibitedly in the lung-piercing air, a very urban, and self-contained abstraction; as some of the thoughts I have just related to you swirled about me, like the snowflakes in my mind.