A few summers ago in London, I had an extraordinarily traumatic experience in which I thought I was about to go to the house of someone very close to me and find her dead. The night before had been awful, I had had almost no sleep, and was in a state of dread and apprehension as I prized myself off the mattress at the house round the corner I was staying in, priming myself to expect the very worst.

If things were as I feared they might be, ahead would be a nightmareish day of tremendous grief, upset and extensive meetings with the police and ambulance services, family calls…..in other words, grim. And in many ways, time was of the essence, even though I couldn’t actually get in to the house as it would require banging on doors to make other tenants to let me enter (the person in question, in the flat on the top floor, had been subdued by eight police officers during the night when becoming violent and hallucinating under the heavy influence of alcohol and put in the recovery position, so there was no way at all of getting into the house to check on her as she was unconscious; her phone smashed on the pavement outside; nor could I call up the police). In my exhausted, panicked, dazed state, I simply didn’t know what to do.

What shocked me more, when I woke up, after about 45 minutes of sleep in the early dawn, was my own callous and distancing coldheartedness.

Something inside me said fuck it – you know what, if this is really what the day has in store, then I am definitely not going out the house looking or smelling like this.

I am going to take a shower first (even if the clock is ticking).

And then I am going to put on some perfume.

And then I will face whatever it is that I have to face.

But this is what I am doing.

And so that was exactly what I did: I took a hot shower, and then, because I knew that she wouldn’t mind, I stole quietly into the room where the friend I was staying with kept her astonishing collection of perfumes; looked over what was there, and settled on Nahéma. Yes, that will do, I thought. That is perfect. The vintage parfum in the square bottle. A few lavish sprays of that one will suffice nicely. It will see me through. For a start, it is perfection in itself – the segue of powdery rose peach and hyacinth over that Guerlinade base: it is very beautiful.

But it also had a tightness; a hermetically closed pristine greenness in the beginning that felt like innocence; an inviolability; a sense of refuge and of elegance that I knew would help me over the coming hours in whatever contacts I was going to have with whatever people.

Before bracing myself to face the possible inevitable, on a cold but brilliantly bright sunny August morning in North London, I sat down at an outside table at a cafe on the town square that had just opened; ordered a latte, and then called up the Samaritans for advice. On how to proceed. Stating the problem, clearly, my voice breaking, I still managed to regain some composure, listening carefully to the calm and collected volunteer’s cautions and suggestions, all the while getting secret, surreptitious pleasure from the scent that was emanating upwards and making me feel wholer ; sturdier.

(This memory just flashed back to me now as I get ready to go out to Kamakura to meet D and a Japanese friend back from London for a week as I tried to decide what to wear.)

Waking up the other day, I suddenly, out of the blue, also found myself craving Nahéma, even if the vintage parfum de toilette (pictured) I have is compromised in the top notes and it doesn’t smell quite right when I spray it on skin. On a cashmere scarf though……mama mia. I don’t care if it smells feminine – to me it just feels timeless; borderless. And though this classic Guerlain doesn’t suit me in the way that say, Shalimar or Vol De Nuit do (ie perfectly), it is still quite soothing and calm; unerotic but that’s fine you know sometimes when you just want to float. And on fabric, the essential interior of the perfume is kept lingering and intact; velvet but fresh – truly stunning. I am going to wear it today.

As for that hideous, hideous day (and night) in London : as it turned out, after waiting outside for what felt like an eternity and then finally banging on the door of her apartment, having been very cautiously let in and forced to show ID to nervous and understandably suspicious co-inhabitants at the earliest time I thought I could do realistically so, when I pounded up the stairs and she eventually roused herself and came to the door, she didn’t even remember anything – had no recollection whatsoever of what had happened the night before. Oblivious. I was horrified, furious, but also unspeakably relieved and happy at the same time, even if directly after this I was to go up to my parents house by train to celebrate Christmas dinner (they were giving me a ‘summer edition’ as I always miss it being here in Japan). Pleased and moved though I was, I was so tired and upset I could hardly even speak.

That perfume ‘incident’, though. It still haunts my conscience.

Like a condemnation.

Re-remembering it today, I wonder what it actually means. That I could be so chillingly decisive in ‘preparing myself’, even in circumstances that amounted to a real emergency.

The steely resolve I experienced so strongly in that desperate moment of self-preservation first : : : come-to-the-rescue second.


Filed under Flowers


  1. Nahema turns to a very musky rose on me, the sandalwood gets a bit outrageous too.
    Spraying perfume on drapes is another way I enjoy perfumes that are ill suited to my skin.

  2. carole

    Do you remember Serge Leutens’ quote, about perfume as armour? I think that’s what you were doing. That sounds like a nightmare of a day-I’m glad it turned out ok. I think sometimes I use fragrance to help me remember to breathe properly. Plus it focuses my mind for a second. I wore Nahema the Christmas before my mom died-I remember vacuuming up tree needles, and smelling something fantastic-roses and osmanthus and sandalwood. I find it impossible to wear now-even the memory sends me right back to that particular moment in time.

    I’m glad you and your friend were alright.


    • Thank you. And funny that we both used this particular scent in such difficult circumstances: I think that when you are a dire situation there can be no messing around with half-heartedly successful perfumes – you need a masterpiece for emotional grounding.

  3. Do you think it’s possible that deep down, something instinctive told you that either things would turn out alright, or that you couldn’t have changed anything even if you had rushed there? The gut feeling is a powerful thing even when your head thinks you truly don’t know what to do.

    • Thank you so much for saying this because in retrospect I think it was EXACTLY this: you have intuited the situation perfectly.

      When I woke up, after about 45 minutes sleep in total after an extremely harrowing night from hell, the reality was: the person in question is still undoubtedly comatose; she doesn’t have her phone; I can’t get into the house nor call the police because they were the ones that subdued her and put her to bed (I was utterly terrified that she might have choked on her own vomit though….my god it was terrible); the only thing I could do was bang on the door and beg the other tenants to let me into the house so that I could get up to the upstairs apartment.

      Possibly, part of me thought, as you said, that everything would be alright. I also thought that if she was dead, what difference would fifteen minutes make when being half presentable and not stinking of sweat fear would definitely, just for me personally, make a huge one in terms of how I would get through the miserable day.

      It’s also possible that I was overreacting (it isn’t at all, actually), but the other friendsI was staying with didn’t get up with me as they were also thoroughly exhausted from the goings on (and one of them had been physically attacked so didn’t care what happened to the person in question); I had to get up and go it alone.

      I don’t know. In either case, sometimes, when you are about to face something truly horrifiying, maybe you do funny and weird things that are unexpected. Maybe you sing a song or laugh to yourself in some weird way or else retreat into clockwork mode and chop vegetables or spread butter on a piece of bread with no cognition because your overall psyche just can’t take it: I think my own mind was just trying to take it all in and cope; and the first thing that I could think of to do that was to at least feel fragrant, as I knew that it would help…

  4. Goodness, that sounds like such a harrowing experience. It is interesting that you prepared yourself that day, and “suited up” with Nahema, which is such an unique composition. It is a rose scent, but it is serious, and it means business. Nothing frilly about it.
    I am very lucky that all fragrances that I adore, love me back and wear beautifully on my skin. So I have never perfumed my clothing, but I know so many people that do, and swear that the scentscsmell better that way.
    I’m really so glad things turned out well that long ago day.

  5. Robin

    I relate to this thoroughly, Neil. Something similar happened to me, and I did a similar thing. Got my sh*t together completely before facing a serious situation. It was instinctive, a kind of solid and practical self-preservation, perfume part of the package, so that I had as much fortitude to bring to whatever the fallout was going to be involving the other person.

    It was Ric, and it was a very serious health crisis of his, several years ago now. I have had times where I’ve felt guilty for leaving him at the hospital in order to get some sleep, not knowing how serious his condition was, but knowing the doctors were there and I was not going to be useful to anyone with zero sleep. At the time it wasn’t even a choice. I simply could not go on.

    How is she doing now? How has her life been since? From the outside looking in, this could have been some kind of wake-up call . . . Or just another day in the life, a life that would continue to be a concern to those close to her.

    • She is much better, thanks for asking : this crisis came after the breakup of a long term relationship, losing her house and job, on top of other things, so I think she snapped and lost it for a minute.

      Such things are not rare in my UK life though – I often come back here emotionally battered.

      This was quite a grave post in a way, but I am pleased you relate – the hospital ordeal sounds like a real wrench – but I know you are extremely loyal and just being rational for the best

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