I have very strong instincts.
Recently after work one Friday night, instead of the Japanese restaurant we were planning to go to, out of the blue I remembered a Latin bar I had once gone to and not even particularly liked for its cool, sullen, vibe but suddenly felt like revisiting and walked into a disco of people of all ages letting loose and having an unpretentious good time; to be able to dance to When Doves Cry, from school to club in five minutes, was like a dream come true. Somehow I had sniffed it out.
Thursday night I found myself thinking and wondering about a friend of ours for no particular reason and then I came home saw a letter from him there on the table; last week some ex-students of mine who I had always had a very good relationship with but who I hadn’t had a chance to congratulate on their passing top level universities suddenly appeared after work, when I had been thinking to myself earlier how sad it was I might not see them again – these kind of occurrences do happen to me quite frequently. I even assumed there would be another earthquake yesterday morning and there was, just like last Monday.
Saturday, we were speeding through the winding streets of Nakameguro when I saw, in the distance, an intriguing- looking antiques shop that sparked off something in my chest, even though by the time we had set off in its direction after getting off at the station we were caught in a torrential downpour ( the rain has been extraordinarily heavy recently ), the kind of rain that is so outrageous it makes you laugh: rivulets down your back, umbrellas useless, the only option to stand in a random doorway and wait.
Eventually arriving at the chandelier emporium you can see in the picture above, exorbitantly priced pieces of Europeana handled by morbidly silent dealers who didn’t even look up from their computers ( maybe they just saw us with their third eye ), we finally ended up on the fourth floor of neverending, if beguiling and reflectively hypnotic, crystals and mirrors and ash trays and trinkets; when I suddenly saw framed pictures of old Guerlain and Patou adverts and I knew I had found my floor. Suddenly before me were stunning vintage cabinets full of rare, giant bottles of Chant D’Aromes, Caron French Cancan, Crepe De Chine parfum, things to make your eyes pop out, your tongue loll, your wallet wilt- but the strangely unbecoming and resistant youngish woman there had already forbidden photography so I wasn’t able to paparazzo any more for you than I managed to here. I succeeded in buttering her up a bit with a mention of my book and she prized up her safe full of perfumes; her folders of vintage magazine advertisements for Chanel and Nina Ricci, though I was personally taken with a beautiful Surrealist ad for Schiaparelli’s Sleeping ( what a great name for a perfume : have any of you ever smelled it?).
I bought a tiny bottle of Guerlain’s Nahema perfume
– partly because that box is just something that will give me great visual pleasure for years, because I love that perfume and have not been satisfied with the modern edp I got a couple of birthdays ago, and partly to show I was serious and would be back – not just some random gaijin tourist who had wandered in off the street.
As it turns out, the extrait ( for which I paid too much, and think : 1ml of boxed pure parfum used to be given out as a free sample, such was the luxury and generosity of haute parfumerie back in the day); it has turned, slightly, and does not have that to die for clotted rose peach that brooks no resistance to its hyacinthine, powdered embrace), but adding a little edp to the bottle has brightened it and made it bedtime-wrist- usable; and the shop, a treasure trove of precious old perfume in spectacular, glassed, myriad-faceted surroundings, was worth the trip in itself. With the bubble-wrapped box tucked tightly into my trouser pocket we headed back out into the rain and down random streets, meeting friends for a cult classic Japanese film from the 70’s at a local cinema and dinner, and then the train back home – a fantastic way to spend a Saturday.
The next day I woke up intending to write this – or something like it. ( Recently, I have not been in the mood for ‘latest release ‘ type reports ( not that I ever really was ), or perfume reviews at all for that matter, unless they directly pertain to something in my life or of those around me or, the scent is just too good not to write about, simply because I so taken up with the summer term, helping D with his film ( he is constantly sewing and stitching, location hunting and gathering people and meeting up with his co-director), and in any case I have still been in constant post-London dream mode- self absorbed and trying to reconcile myself with reality)).
The day before we discovered the Tokyo Versailles of Vintage Perfumery I had suddenly had a very strong feeling that I should – no, must – finally send an email to my friend Gerry in New Zealand.
You know when you you know you have to do something and it gnaws at you but you ignore it or push it aside because you have other layers of reality and things on your mind that you are prioritizing instead, but then the low grade guilt pulsates dully from within one of your vital organs and your heart sinks for a moment and you think ah yes, I really must do that next – well there has been so much to say – she had her book to do, I had mine, and it took over everything, my mind and my world, from the initial message saying I had got a deal to seeing it in the book shop one year later after a year of ultra pressurized hysteria in between ; I am not sure I had entirely taken in what she was telling me in her emails from last year when I was skimming them – I could barely even think straight.
Thinking about it now, I am not entirely sure whether I sent the email to Gerry on Friday night or on Saturday morning, but in any case, after I had got up and had coffee and took my new old Nahema to the computer in the other room to possibly write something, there was a reply from Gerry’s account in my inbox – except it was from her best friend in New Zealand who was contacting me to say that unfortunately, Gerry had died the day before – peacefully, in her sleep.
Somehow I had felt this, and at the very last moment when it was physically possible for me to do so, sent her a message saying that I was so pleased that her translation of Yuko Tsushima’s Territory Of Light, which she had been talking about for many years and which had been her life’s work, her pride and joy, really, had not only received stunning reviews in everything from The Guardian to The New Yorker, but also won a prestigious literary translation prize. A fierce, proud and very hardworking woman, I know how much this would all have meant to her – I just now wish that she could have heard it from me personally : her friend told me that she had been in a rapid decline for weeks and would already have been unconscious by the time I finally got in contact.
I first met Gerry on a Sunday at a book fair in the grounds of the Great Buddha in Kamakura, fifteen or so years ago I think. I had seen her around: at our local station and other places, and we got chatting, finding that we had several things in common – an interest in Italy ( we both spoke Italian : she had been going up to to the Italian Institute in Tokyo to do a degree in the language and culture as a way of breaking up the solitude that is the bane of a desk-trapped literary person ; as the assistant English-to-Japanese translator of the entire Harry Potter series , by the time she was contracted to do the enormously long Deathly Hallows she was aching for anything else, and we met on occasion for dinner at a favored local Italian restaurant, and for a few years had a tradition of going to the Italian Film Festival held every year in Ginza during Golden Week; it was after one of these evenings on the train back home together to Kamakura that she told me that she was not well.
Socially awkward – I preferred tetes a tetes or just the three of us – but extremely earnest and intelligent, Gerry had a fascinating life story : D and I always enjoyed listening to her stories of being immersed in the feminist underground of the Tokyo 70’s, her obsession with opera and her travels in Sicily, at her house overlooking one of the most extravagantly gorgeous cherry blossom trees in Kitakamakura. We liked wine; I sometimes played the piano for her : she liked the fact that we didn’t avoid mentions of her illness, which we knew was terminal, even though she had done incredibly well and for a very long time, but just accepted as a part of her, sometimes even with a certain gallows humour – a shared gay sensibility, if you will.
We didn’t meet that often. The last time I saw her was the summer of two years ago when I was still on the rental bed in the kitchen just after my operation and she came round for dinner. I had been unable to help Duncan pack up her things to be sent to New Zealand, a country she had not lived in for decades, but which everyone felt was the best option for her remaining time. Duncan made lunch, she even had some red, and I was able to make it outside to see her off in her taxi, all of us thinking the same thing, but smiling nevertheless.
She didn’t wear perfume because she was extremely sensitive and allergic to so many things, but I remember the look on her face when she tried some Courreges In Blue parfum on the back of her hand and the associations of an era that it brought back for her; G was also one of the first people to encourage me in my writing: she even gave a copy of some of my reviews to a Japanese publishing friend of hers, and we all met for tea at a fancy hotel near the Guerlain boutique in Hibiya. The lady, whose name I have forgotten, gave me a nod of approval and encouraged me to take it further ( this was before I even started The Black Narcissus ), which led to my getting an agent in London. I know she did read this blog on occasion, though she never commented, and it gives me comfort to know that even though we were not in direct contact this last year, probably at times she tuned in to see what was happening with me and D in our indulgent and hedonistic life here in Japan. I do regret not having contacted her earlier, though, I really do. It is one thing to use your instincts to lead you to pleasure palaces and seek out glorious perfume, it is another to ignore them when it comes to a friend. Having now looked up her final translation work, the aforementioned Territory Of Light, and realized quite what a monumental achievement it was to produce something of such calibre in her situation, I salute you Geraldine Harcourt. I just wish I could have read it earlier, when you were still alive, and then told you my feelings about it in person.