I have always had a problem with petitgrain. Extracted from the leaves and green twigs of the bitter orange tree, like basil and aniseed, the essential oil of petitgrain pierces straight to the headache centre of my brain and brings pain. If neroli is the bride, and orange blossom the dream, then petitgrain is the cortex; the bark: the gnarled and chlorophylled life at the heart of the being (sometimes I have so much of this power I don’t know what to do with it – and the pithing exuberance of petitgrain represents this).
Used in perfumes, though, in well-judged pinches, petitgrain, not diluted, but distributed through other citruses and herbs and woods, can be utilised to deliciously crisp and snap-gathering effect to the senses. Agua Fresca, by the Spanish designer Adolfo Dominguez, is one such scent: I picked it up eight years ago or so in Barcelona, where we had gone for a weekend with Duncan’s parents in a blanketing, sweltering heat wave.
I love the traditional European perfumeries, the profumerias; little corner shops painted white with glass cabinets stacked high with all kinds of perfumes, old and new – those places where you suddenly espy a scent from your youth tucked away in a top right hand corner slightly dusting in its cellophane box waiting patiently for use. We had wandered aimlessly down some stoned, shadow-canopied street escaping the heat and chanced upon one such premises: as I love random and spontaneous holiday scent purchases, those that douse your perfumes in experience – when I saw the word ‘fresca’, and realized that this was a clear, and convincing modern cologne I could happily wear, with one spritz on the back of the hand I was immediately sold. If crispness is a virtue, then Agua Fresca is a saint.
You will know already that I hate men’s fragrances: and yet there are days when I want a scent that nips things in the bud: no flouncing or olfactory flamboyance, no drama – just some pleasingly constructed discretion. Agua Fresca is one such scent. The initial spray is always bracing, though not sharp: petitgrain in profusion and at the centre, with other citruses – bergamot, mandarin, tightened with small doses of herbaceous reverie in the form of leaves of marjoram, juniper berries, rosemary, artemisia, and pine (but only scattered like miniature, verdant seasonings throughout the liquid of the scent – not the lothario herbariums of more bolstered, classically Don Juan offerings): rather, a Greek chorus centered around a column of light – softened, for a more diffuse harmony, by gentle murmurings in the base of vetiver, cedar wood and coriander, the whole having nothing more than a clean, no strings attached, lemon-scented benevolence.
I used up all of that first bottle on that weekend, fusing the scent irreparably with my memories of us sitting in a basilica square at night, in red tapas bars covered from floor to ceiling with framed pictures and hams; or strolling with thousands of others down Las Ramblas and up to the celebrated fountains and fireworks at night. This was a scent that could fit into my pocket and that I could spritz continually for those mood-binding top notes and the cleanliness they instantly bestowed, but also, equally (and rarely), enjoy the entirety of the base in its no-nonsense, no fuss, cold cream simplicity.
Waking up yesterday I had one of those sudden, arbitrary, olfactive turnabouts when you realise you want a totally different scent model for the day and evening. I had a hospital appointment in the morning in Oguchi, Yokohama, but later in the afternoon was planning to do some record shop scouring and some perfume reconnaissance before going to a barbecue party in the evening at the house of a well-to-do Tokyo society friend of Duncan and Yukiro’s who invites all the art crowd and fly by night types and models, dancers, who last week lent us some spaces (for a wild day of filming – my goodness), While apprehensive about what to wear from my jumble sale heap of a creased and unlookedafter clothes wardrobe, I thought I might at least smell good – I was planning to later in the day go to a sento or public bath, and then change clothes and scent completely – like Clark Kent – and had settled, eventually, on Les Parfums de Rosine Roseberry, a green wine-lees and blackcurrant rose scent that always garners good reactions from people when I wear it; again, that crispness that for some reason I was craving yesterday, but with some romantic, Bulgarian rose flourishes that would bring people I didn’t know closer. Agua Fresca would have been way too ordinary, too male, too prosaic.
It was perfect, though, for the hospital ( I suddenly remembered, or noticed, in one of my cabinets, that I had found a bottle again of this perfume last year or so ago at a Tokyo recycle boutique but it had somehow slipped my memory). A specialist had recommended this place – I need to have a stubbornly lodged left kidney stone lasered: it is causing no trouble, but is growing and needs to be got rid of, so I had travelled up to the clinic to schedule an operation – just a morning procedure – in the summer holidays when I can just relax at home and drink water and not worry about classroom excruciations (I have a terrible fear of being floored and humiliated by a random decision on the part of the stone to just exit itself while in front of the students – I have yet to experience this renal mortification – touch wood – which is why I am determined to get rid of the damn thing before that happens). Naively, I had optimistically anticipated a wait of an hour or two at most, before my journey up to Tokyo.
It is the rainy season here in Japan right now, and god is it gloomy. Almost no sunlight; intermittent torrential rains (parts of the country evacuated; floods widespread); sometimes, in these parts, it just pours downs for hours in huge, glassy raindrops, but most of the time it is just grey; white clouds and oppressive humidity: unmoving. Then it suddenly feels cold, then pressured again- all the rooms dark, or just white sky through glass, through blinds, like in the hospital waiting room, where I ended up yesterday finally spending seven hours waiting to see the specialist, and being moved around the wards of the building for various x-rays and tests.
Some alligators, those that live in places where the rivers run dry and turn to desert, have the ability to burrow down right through the sands to a cool space of temporary dwelling and slow down their heart rates to about three beats a minute – for months – in a state of extreme hibernation, or torpor, almost resembling death- until once again the rains come again and they retreat, slowly and vertically, back to the surface, in order to rehydrate; open their eyes again, wallow; bask.
I am not very good in administrative, rigmarole situations. Hell, for me is a bank, a post office, an immigration centre: I too have to control my own heart beat and breathing, so as not to go loopy, the suppression I feel in such places so great ; psychically hibernate in order to deal with all the people facing forward with their public expressions in close proximity: waiting, self-consciously blinking: mutually frustrating, palpitating; dummy.
I was very glad for perfume. It astonishes me quite frequently how many people seem to just not care how they smell to others, yawning and stretching like warm, musted old camemberts…………to me it is insulting. There were several such people there yesterday, consciousless slobs out of autonomic control, but at least I was all dressed up for the occasion (if dressed down – Agua Fresca is very subtle); a citrus and shampoo-soaped shower early in the morning; my lemon hand balm I always make myself with essential oils; the air conditioning too fierce, snuggling into a jacket in various seats in the blank space of a room as I was called up and sent to one place or another – but all along, my scent accompanying me nicely, like an invisible friend. If the compressed light through the wan, frosted window panes slowly filtering through this drab suburban neighbourhood of Yokohama was mournfully lacking in life, it also allowed a strangely comforting, cushioning escape into the self that was offset by my shell of Iberian petitgrain and herbs; a delicate, if assertive virility, that made the process of waiting, and waiting, less objectionable.
The television was on throughout. I hate television. J-pop, banal variety shows, concert performances, opera – without it I suppose, the audience in the waiting room would have soured to pulp – catatonically bored out of their minds; for me, also, it was sometimes occasionally diverting, to puncture the non-ticking continuation of the out of sight clock, but essentially, as it always is for me in its sheer stupidity, as the hours went by, slowly, it became intoxicatingly maddening; invasive.
Fortunately, in my bag I had brought along with me Territory Of Light, the novel by Yuko Tsushima, which I had found at the Kinokuniya book store in Shinjuku two weeks ago while looking for my own book there (it was out of stock, but had graced the same shelf) – and like eggshells within eggshells, I read almost the entire book – strange, interior, the dream-like diary of a woman trying to keep it together when her husband leaves her, or she leaves him, trapped in her dreams and nightmares- while sitting and occupying my own space, the edges of my consciousness dimmed, distanced, but also contoured cleanly – with the galvanizing scent of bitter orange leaves.