I have a hatred of powder. The touch of soft, dusty things: chalk (which makes it quite hard as a teacher); peaches, even velvet; icing sugar, dried concrete. The ashes of incense: : : : horror to the touch. Dried mud – I have an image of myself as a first year student at university, running in from a rainstorm with the mud starting to cake and dry on my hands and seeing myself – my face captured in a mirror in the hallway – as I ran desperately towards the sink to wash it off, and I saw in the reflection a madman, such was my instinctive repulsion to this particular texture that I cannot; cannot abide; the silky dry feeling of hands on an umbrella when the rain has evaporated, the shudder and panicked reaching for the vaseline, always stored on my person, scented, as you know; essential; but worst, by far the most unbearable; the feeling of flour, my bête noire of all bête noires which I cannot touch and could not touch even if you paid me and which is probably my Orwellian Room 101.
It is also my sister’s. She cannot abide it. Strange – I have never really come across another person with my particular neurosis. Many people find softness, and dryness, soothing: sand on the beach and the softening aspect between your toes as you sit on the promenade and swing your feet together in the summer air; something pleasant for them; something I can relate to intellectually but not in personal practice (inside, in my case, I am screaming at the clemency of the salt-gone moisture, the papery, strokey skin that makes me just want to plunge my feet back hysterically, immediately into the sea water, or smother my whole body with sun lotion – viscous, sticky, sheer relief).
We were there, somewhere on holiday together in the south of England as a teenager and a child, in the sun on the pier and one of us, I can’t remember which, suddenly said that they detested the feeling of the powdery sand, that it was intolerable, and the other was totally amazed that their sibling understood exactly the feeling that had never been spoken out aloud before (the almost hilarity when you discover that you are not alone in your foibles, that another person gets it, that you can laugh about it, detail the particulars, no matter how weird or unusual it may be to the rest of the world). She, also, cannot tolerate any form of powdered texture whatsoever, nor any other similarly feeling material, and in fact was as a teenager forced to even go into hypnotherapy when her horror of toilet paper – the dryness, the smoothness….I also really don’t like the really ‘high quality’ satiny, tissues that make me cringe and shiver slightly, the snail-like crunch of cotton wool (ugh!!!!!!!!!!!!!), but the rougher varieties of paper are okay for me, fortunately, and I never had to go this far. In my sister’s case, however, this phobia of certain textures was getting in the way of her living and at the time we happened to be living across the road from a doctor and hypnotherapist who got rid of her terror with a couple of sessions under suggested unconsciousness, enough to allow her to live normally, even if she still, like me, abhors, and will always abhor, the feeling of flour between the fingers. This is torture.
I have no real idea of the causes of this phobia. There was never any trauma related to powder as children, as far as I remember, save possibly the big Christmas family parties we used to have with our aunts and uncles and cousins and grandparents when they were all alive, and we would have party games: a raucous, happy time that I remember quite fondly as Queen, everyone’s favourite, would rock on in the background: musical chairs – hilarious and thrilling, some strange game involving floppy hats; but then the flour cake game, a kind of jenga of the powder horror, where a cake made solely of tightly-packed flour granules would have a coin placed on it right in the middle, and you went round in turns taking slices out of the cake with a large knife, getting more and more precarious, the woahs and well-meaning terror increasing, the coin balancing periously on the precipice until the white cliffs of dover would come crumbling down in an avalanche of the finest, tooth-clutching powder, and the unlucky person who had caused the snowfall would have to thrust his or her face into the ‘hilarious’, knee-trembling powder cloud and retrieve the cold, metallic, flour-covered coin with their mouth. I could no more do this now than chew the head off a live snake, but I know that I did then, and just writing about it now is making me writhe on the sofa where I sit, daub my hands liberally with my three orange hand balm and rub them all over as a crucial, wettening, antidote.
My sister, to my knowledge, never participated in this game, so her own loathing of powdery textures is something of a mystery. I know for sure that we were both startled to learn of each other’s abnormality down on the beach: that was a revelation. I know that most people are directly the opposite; they loathe slime, or the stickiness of an apple, whereas I could delve my hands into a jar of honey and not give a damn; I would just lick it off. But talcy, chalky substances make my organs clinch – I could lose my mind. In the classroom I have learned to deal with the holding of a piece of chalk, as it scrapes on the board, even if the gradually amassing powder around me (and the brush of half blunt pencils on paper scratching all around me – revolting )– means I sometimes have to leave and wash my hands or else reach for my citrus scented goo to counter it. One time, though, on a school summer camp, probably about fifteen years ago, I was outed. Embarrassed. For the majority of the trip I think I had looked to the students more like a super hero: making boats with them, swimming and pulling them out in the lake, building fires, hiking for miles, singing in the moonlight, but it all came undone one day when we had to walk into a cave underground (I couldn’t – I am claustrophobic, but fortunately each team had two leaders), and then of course there was the afternoon team activity where we had to learn to make some kind of local noodles, instructed by locals who were known for their mastery of the regional speciality and were taking us through it all, step by doughy step. I tried to overcome my utter revulsion of the huge tub of beckoning flour, for the sake of the kids, feeling my innards contract at the thought of it, and did gamely actually dip a finger or two into the choking, moistureless, morass, but then felt so intuitely repulsed by its touch that I think I might have actually screamed. Everyone looked at me amazed. I simply couldn’t help the kids with making the soba for the competition; I was no longer a leader, it was an impossibility, and I had to just stand by helplessly as we came in last position for our undercooked strips of moingy, still dusty, inedible flour ribbons.
The irony of all this of course, this poudrephobie, is that, when it comes to perfume, I truly do love and adore powdery fragrances. Possibly more than any other type. What is simply suggested in perfume, the glow and the tactility of the pulverous, veil of powdered notes, a hint of the texture of the actualized, physical powder but without the literalness of its repugnant touch, for me creates an aura, almost a halo, of impenetrability, a snuggling comfort. There is a grandeur, a callow pompousness in dressing freshly washed skin with ambery, caressing poudres: in recent weeks I have felt like imperial lounge lizard at the perruqued court of Marie Antoinette as I go outside in my winter coats, deliciously swathed in a number of rich, granular indulgences worn together: Fragonard’s delectable Rêve Indien in parfum, a glowworm of Shalimar-like resonances without the Johnson’s baby’s bottom – more male; insistent; taut; and on my blood wine coloured cashmere red scarf, lashings and copious sprays of the original Hermès Rouge eau de toilette with its rose powder; naughty base unguents and lipstick smeared hyacinths: when I walk out into the cold I feel emboldened and outrageous, but also more serene: enwrapped, swaddled; cocooned.
Yesterday, I walked down the hill from where we live to the station for the first time in over a year and a half. Finally. A very steep incline at the top, enough to make people coming to our house huff and puff and complain about how uphill it is, and which was actually quite difficult, and painful, for me to navigate – I held onto Duncan for the first part and then managed when it gradually became more straight and easier to walk along and was, in truth, disappointed that it hadn’t been easier. But how wonderful to even have done it, and then to have walked about the whole day sans stick; how pleasing to inhale the cold, blood-stirring air and see the winter light glinting through the trees while simultaneously enjoying the hints of all my recently worn perfumes still lingering on my clothes: a new old bottle of Cartier Must that I found in an antique shop in Yokohama: vanillic, dense, and yes powdery, but cut through with galbanum; edible, like the vintage parfum of Vol De Nuit I also got yesterday and had set my heart on when I saw it in the window but couldn’t afford to buy until pay day, yesterday, when I also acquired a beautiful old bottle of Coty’s golden and spiced powder L’Origan in vintage eau de toilette, and to cap it all off a vintage eau de cologne bottle of Jean Charles Brosseau’s Ombre Rose, in my opinion the finest format of this perfume, all crepuscular, shadowed roses with an almost saline powderiness like the sweat of skin; so beautifully Japanese, like the sachets of incense that are tucked by ladies, still, into kimono in Kyoto, where clandestine pouches of pulverized incense are hidden in drawers and the folds of clothes and hair, and where a puff of invisible powder has all the suggestibility and eroticism of a hinted at love affair. Look. Inhale: but do not touch.