It was very strange coming out of hospital. This time last week exactly, I was sitting on my bed, all my things packed up, waiting for my neighbour and ‘Japanese dad’, Mr Mitomi, to come and pick D and I up in his car and take us back to Kitakamakura after two months in my swaddled, beige cocoon. It was raining quite heavily, and I felt quite afraid as I had only ever walked outside once before that moment and was terrified of slipping over and having to start all over again.
I was leaving. And just wearing casual, realworld civilian clothes – jeans instead of those big, shapeless, pyjamas, felt like a big psychological step up: the staff see you differently. You are no longer theirs.
I said goodbye to the nurses, my surgeon; said goodbye to my physio: the lift doors closed, and we went downstairs to the entrance, me and my walking stick, as I leaned on D heavily and we figured out how to pack me, and my newfangled legs, into the front of Mr Mitomi’s car.
As we drove off, I felt queasy, seeing the institution I had been in so long get smaller and move away into the distance; the straggle of electicity lines and all the shops and buildings and cars and people emerging and disappearing as we entered the city of Yokosuka and real life; the sheer velocity and level of movement after being stationary or self-powered for so long disorientating. I am not one for car sickness, but I felt a bit dizzy, lost – while at the same time unencumbered and newly liberated.
We drove along the coast of Hayama: past the Imperial summer palace, where the guards stand year round to protect the emperor and his family outside the gates, as the rain slapped the windscreen and the sea opened up into vast vistas and the hospital suddenly seemed to me like the most claustrophobic place on earth. I felt as though I could hardly even breathe just remembering it, wheareas ten minutes previously it was all that I knew. I had been scared to leave it; unwilling, even, but now as we sped away from it and it came into a different, new focus, it was like a kaleidoscopic vision, a reversed telescope of myopic constriction in which I realized the full extent of my long, addled confinement, and the ceilings seemed miraculously tiny like a doll’s house; my room just a dot in the world in which I was stuck, but deluding myself that I was free and happy, when really I was just dealing with the day to day and suppressing all anxieties as much as I humanly could while in the very necessary, and lengthy process of healing.
Meandering along the coastline to Zushi, and then to Kamakura, former ancient capital and Zen centre of Japan, I was unexpectedly dazzled anew by its beauty, even though I have lived here for twenty years. When you have only had visual banality, and pastel pinks and creams, and sense-nulling hospital realities for so long, to see classical Japanese temples and traditional buildings, the boulevard of cherry trees in the rain; the umbrellas, the black, shining lacquer, the wood, the sheer refinement of it, I felt, almost, as if I were seeing it all for the first time.
The road up to Kita-Kamakura, the quieter, lusher, less tourist-infested area at the top of a mountain valley where we actually live, was joyously familiar to me but also so lush, green, dazzling – so wet and verdant and beautiful I felt almost alienated by it. The species of azalea that was flowering in one of the temples, a deep, dark venemous pink, looked so salacious and drenched with colour against the verdant backdrop as we drove past it looked like paradise.
When we got to our street I felt overwhelmed. It was difficult getting out of the car, and it was extremely hard getting up the steps and into the house. It was as if I had lost all the abilities I had developed in the hospital and were bungling each movement, stolidly stuck and hobbled and devoid of free movement (they had warned me about this: everyone finds it extremely challenging the first week back apparently; your body is completely unadjusted, and going from the space of the walking circuit and the physio room, having the freedom of the wheelchair to vent your frustrations and roam virtually inch of the hospital and the gardens as I did, to suddenly being reduced to a more cramped and unergonomic space – and our house is full to pieces with objets and curiosities and old Japanese furniture that get in your way, was perplexing to the joints and mental wiring and I practically had to be hoisted into the house and onto the new rental bed into the kitchen; the place I must stay and sleep and live for the next few months until my legs can make it up the stairs. My world has been reduced.
At first, on that first day, last Saturday, despite my great relief on the one hand that I was out, away from the clutches of the nurses and the food and the slowly exhausting hubbub of the ward, at the same time I almost felt panicked at being so closed in. In just one room. I was depressed at my knee situation, really tired, and as I lay on the bed, with the cold grey outside, I found myself actually missing the hospital. Confused. I didn’t know what I was feeling, and just wanted to sleep to block it all out.
From one perspective, it was quite interesting – I had some brief insight into how incarcerated, institutionalised inmates might feel leaving prison, a conflicting maelstrom of claustro and agoraphobia and not knowing where you belong or should be, but I didn’t like the sense of feeling so out of control, no longer the owner of my life. I just lay on the bed, staring at the ceiling.
But a long, long, sleep can cure many things. Eleven hours of the deepest sleep – both of us sleep so much better with the other in the room – was a sturdy, solid tunnel back to the other side. I finally had dreams again. Vivid ones, a nightmare, but I slept so well and profoundly and woke up in my own home. Back. Conscious. A sunny day – much happier, delighted to have my possessions around me and my perfumes (I asked for certain bottles and vials to be brought down from upstairs: PERFUME: just so decadent and full and delightful and practically evil in its sensuality compared to the anodyne, bland restraints of the hospital, where I tried, and failed, as you know, to fully restrain myself but nevertheless, did (for me, anyway). No. The entire time I was there I was ultra-sensitive and paranoid about smell, way too worried, and now, back home, it was time for me to bask. BASK. And slowly uncoil.
Playing music loud in the kitchen I just found that I was starting to spontaneously cry from the sheer pleasure. The total release of it. From being cooped up all that time, tamped down, wanting stimulation to get through the days but also always trying to be sensitive to others; watching films with headphones on, or with the sound turned down low with English subtitles so as not to disturb the patients in the room next door; of constantly being aware, basically; of all the other people coming in and out of my room; of being the ‘weird foreigner’ who refused to have the bright fluorescent lights in his room, and brought in his own lamps, like Colette.
Smells, perfume: I have had a week of leisure and beautifully brain-dead relaxation. Which is why I haven’t written anything, and haven’t wanted to. I have just wanted to absorb. And not think. To move beyond the hospital by means outside of myself, by other people’s words and actions. To be entertained. Re-Westernized. To be a couch potato, a bed slob. Immerse myself in easy pleasures.
I promised to myself that on leaving there I would do nothing but watch TV programmes on Netflix for a week in a marathon of binge viewing (there was no internet in my room in hospital; just RuPaul’s Drag race initially, and then I would perhaps, possibly, move on to something else. Initially, I watched 28 episodes over a few days, continuously,from morning until night: toxically or intoxicatingly gay depending on your perspective: outrageous, foul-mouthed, but soulful and real at the same time. I just needed camp and humour and ridiculousness and anything to dislodge me from the prim and properness of the hospital and the internalized Japaneseness. And I have loved it, actually – it has been fantastic therapy, just doing my exercises and trying to get used to walking around the kitchen while blasting out Madonna records and trying not to dance because it could be dangerous and EATING WHAT I WANT. All the fresh fruit. And D’s cooking. Oh lord how unbelievably good that Indian takeway was the other day. Heaven. I could hardly believe how delicious it tasted.
And I have just marinated myself totally in perfume. Layer upon layer. I didn’t shower for five days. Or was it six? I just didn’t feel like it. I didn’t care. I had to retreat and recalibrate myself from the inside, and lie on my dais inhaling scent and indulging my senses. A total sloth. Instead, I washed on occasion but covered myself and the bedspace with pure vetiver essential oil – so deep and decontaminating and deodorizing that my clothes hardly smelled at all when I finally decided to face the contortions of the shower ( a kind of nightmare of moving from chair to chair downwards with D holding on to me for dear life ), a coating of oils, both my own and from nature, that blended with all the perfumes next to my bed in a wonderful, self-deluding melange, just luxuriate, spray: spray, pour, dab, stink up the house – fuck it.
The first perfume I sprayed on was Caron’s Nocturnes. It was lavish and bliss. I have discovered that, contrary to what I would have expected, I really like tropical white flowers against a backdrop of vetiver. What seems anti-intuitive – that cool, deep, dry/wet, earthy, post-monsoon mystical masculine essence of roots, juxtaposed against the febrile fecundity of the most luscious white florals, might seem like a study in opposites, but when I used to always walk up the hill- and I hope to again, despite the terribly steep incline at the top – in the rainy season I would come home at night in the muggy steam of the mountain and smell the vetiver grass hidden in the shadows (it is used in Asia to stave off floods), so dark and deep you can almost feel yourself being dragged down into the soil; and, amidst the droplets of mist and moisture, jasmine, honeysuckle, and another white flower whose name I don’t know whose smell is positively indecent it is so animalic and single-minded in desiring to be pollinated, clammy almost, too much, certainly, but overpowering in a way that is positively delirium inducing, especially after a drink or two and the dull odours of the working day.
Nocturnes is not like this, but it does have vetiver and vanilla in the base, and the stephanotis/ jasmine/ mandarin aldehyde brightness of the top was the perfect start of my delicious nose mayhem, like a colouring book finally being being filled in, a monochrome man being doused upwardly in thick, redolent notes of flowers, fruits, spices, unguents and unsuitable bases.
Trying or wearing perfumes like this would have seemed just over the edge inside, hospitalized, but here I can just do what the hell I like, my homemade patchouli incense drifting over there by the window (inexpensive camphor Japanese o-koh sticks coated in the essential oil and left to dry….love it; clouds of the most sinuous patchouli smoke tinting the room’s surfaces as I indulge and see what is next); the thick, vetiver oil on my blankets and clothes drying down into tindered, Indonesian mellowness.
I reach out for Sin Garden, Boudoir’s flanker from 2007; a scent I was unaware of previously until recently (I love the original Boudoir and consider it genius; absolute knickerbocker naughtiness perfected; exactly the right balance of cheeky beauty and filth). And Sin Garden, in my hospital bed, an old bottle, from the nozzle, smelled extremely sinful indeed, in that context, like a woman’s armpit unwashed for weeks but still untowardly erotic and feral. I think this must have been the sandalwood musk of the base that had collected, during its time of unuse, in the last spray around the mouthpiece of the flacon, but was not representative of the scent as a whole which, when sprayed and allowed to breathe, was merely – but quite enjoyably – a precursor of the later, standard vanillic fare we have come to know so well in contemporary flower bomb perfumery. Also a successor, perhaps of Rochas’ quietly torrid Tocade from the early nineties. Heliotropic and gentle in the opening fusillade, vanilla and softness in the base, I have quite enjoyed it.
If you want ‘sin’, though, and sometimes I really do, then you truly can’t get very much more licentious and wanton than Ferre by Ferre, a nineties perfume I wrote a little about in hospital and which lay there in the drawer next to my bed like a tight, frightening hand grenade, but which is so sexfully ripe and bustiered Monica Bellucci it could practically turn a gay man straight. For me, this is the real flowerbomb and utterly seductive.
Another perfume I had hidden away, but which was quite reprehensible in a repetitive, uncoloured, clinical environment, is Attar by Parfums Isabell. A quiet shocker, this one, replete and of itself and kind of perfect, if you like your smells to be naughty. I think this was probably the first ever ‘dirty’ perfume I ever bought.
Long disappeared now and probably an obscure perfume to be talking about (although it wouldn’t surprise me if some readers remember it with some nostalgia), back in 1996, before ‘niche’ really took off as a concept, this range of flower-inspired perfumes by New York florist Robert Isabell was released, and I remember coming across the full range in a now-closed department store near where I worked in Kannai, and being curiously transfixed by this perfume in particular. Back then, I don’t think I could have identified this as being an spiced, animalic rose incense – to me, it simply smelled filthy and reprobate, but compelling and rounded at the same time, something that made you blush, like a lick across the face, the base compound composed probably of labdanum and civet, but which blended beautifully with the soukness of the savoury spice and the dust-pollened flowerheads of the top.
A friend of mine was so taken with this perfume when she stayed at our house for a period of time that I ended up giving it to her as a present (it ended up getting smashed at her house back in Dorset and drenching the carpet beneath in lust), and I hadn’t seen it again, until a couple of months ago – I found it on my ‘last night out’ before all this knee surgery nonsense – for almost two decades. Coming home here and wearing beastly amounts of the perfume was thus a great memory jolt. I wore it the other day, as I lay in my unwashed squalor, in large and obscene amounts on one of my arms and was still shocked by just how sticky and rude this perfume is. It lasted all day. It is insatiable. It is the scent of a sex addict.
Reve Indien by Fragonard is probably more my own kind of skin scent for the sheets, less overblown, and so nice to return to physicality again after the self-containment of the hospital ward. This kind of sink-into-you, balsam plumbed softness is definitely my kind of bag. Though overly alcoholic at the outset, it is a powdery vanilla amber opoponax blend that soon settles down to a delicious layer of kissable goodness: an unbothered Shalimar, without the pomp and circumstance and the carefully strategized accord gradation from citrus and orris to leather. Less complex (and clever), I find this Fragonard scent to be more just a simple, sensuous liquid you can trust.
My sample of Rose de Nuit, sent to me in hospital along with a whole selection of rose and orange blossom vials in a wonderful bubble-wrapped selection pack by Tora, I have found to be more problematic. Difficult. Purposefully forfending you against liking it too much. Unbalanced. And this is odd, because although I have only smelled this perfume once before – at the Serge Lutens shop at the Palais Royal in Paris over a decade ago, where I bought Sarrassins and Cuir Mauresque (when in fact I should probably have bought Tubereuse Criminelle and Fourreau Noir – an ambered lavender perfume I still crave), I remember smelling Rose de Nuit on the counter there and thinking ah yes, leather jacket, very 80’s, very Knowing: that neon red pink rose of a certain ilk that was in vogue at that time and which Serge Lutens was obviously still hankering after (his first scent for Shiseido, Nombre Noir, was not so very far away from that style either; all those plummy damascones and maquillaged,, lipsticked poses).
But something in this is off. Either it has turned, or it is one of the ‘remakes’ that the Lutens store is passing off as the originals. I have known about this first hand for a long time, from my own purchases of the standard line (Un Bois De Vanille was criminally changed, for example), but also realized this fact keenly last summer at my brother’s house in London, where Olivia took out some treasured Miel De Bois from her vast and very enviable niche collection and I was very excited to see the honeyed weirdness that I thought had been shelved from the permanent range. However, not only were the labels on the box completely different, but the scent inside was nothing like as shocking or amazing as the boxy honeyed urine of the original – probably Lutens’ most contentious and divisive scent (the friend I was writing about who loved Isabell’s unwashed morning after kiss, Attar also loved this; alongside Etat Libre d’Orange’s Jasmin et Cigarette, these are the only scents that she likes ie. DIRTY). Some scents are supposed to be that way, though. Something has happened chez l’oncle Serge, and Rose De Nuit to me just smells like a wrong amalgam of rose molecules, some animalics, and a nasty pepper that reminds me of a very difficult meal I once had at a Thai restaurant in Yokohama. The waitress kept assuring me that westerners were unlikely to enjoy one particular item on the menu, a pepper soup of some kind, but I assured her that I LOVED pepper in large quantities and it would be fine. She was of course right: although I usually enjoy everything there is at Thai restaurants, this was inedible, as though an entire pot of black pepper had been poured into some mysterious fish broth, just unpalatable and impossible to get down. The confusion of notes in this particular sample of Rose De Nuit definitely reminds me of that meal. It just doesn’t work for me. And in any case, when it comes to retro, I am not often convinced. I prefer to wear vintage originals or else something modern; not a throwback that doesn’t quite have all the necessary ingredients to pull off the effect. Give me Jean Marc Sinan instead for an eighties animalic rose. It reads more convincingly.
There are no such problems with Rose Musc. I wasn’t even sure who this perfume was by – which is quite good when approaching a scent unbiased and openminded and applying practically the entire contents to your person, but any rate, this is a gorgeous, rich, longlasting rose and musk scent, soft and pale pink in the opening, with a carnal labdanum and ambergris base that clings to the skin lovingly and potently all day. One can imagine it being part of an all-day tryst, mingling with sweat and sex and yet still maintaining its essential composure. At times almost suggestive of an updated and modernized Ombre Rose parfum by Brosseau, with its hints of pressed face powder and warm skin,this is an appealing, if in some ways simplistic scent that makes a perfect partner to the other rose I fell in love with in hospital by Sonoma Scent Studios, Velvet Rose. The two are like night and day, but complementary.
Blossom Love, the new perfume by Amouage, is another marshmallow potion for the sensual and openly amorous, based on rose, cherry blossom and an amaretto almond/vanilla theme that I naturally immediately take to. There are few flavours or smells on earth that I am more born to like more than bitter, sweet, lovely almond, be it in the form of annin dofu, the Chinese dessert based on apricot kernels and almond paste that forms the heart of Serge Lutens’ Louve ( I also like his Rahat Loukhoum – give me Turkish delight!), or a drink of Amaretto liqueur itself (straight, on ice, or mixed with milk). I have considered getting L’Artisan’s cherrytastic Traversee du Bosphore numerous times and still might (though I am always slightly troubled by the leather/apple/tulip ‘Istanbul’ish high accord you have to get through to get to the gourmand amande I am always searching for), and am immediately in favour of anything almondy to add to my more sometime sweet-toothed repertoire.
Arab perfumery uses this sweet, baklava like combination quite often in its female-oriented fragrances, and one of my favourites is the inexpensive, (and perfectly constructed) Bakhoor Al Arais by Swiss Arabian, which I have written about before. But I also once bought an even cheaper oil roll on in the Small Heath area of Birmingham, which has a large Arab/Pakistani community and shops hidden away where you can buy all the reekingest, strong, sweet, gorgeous middle-eastern/South East Asian perfumes you could possibly want for the price of a single high street brand name disaster. These perfumes usually pack a punch, but I remember an occasion when we walked down the hill from our house to the station one summer and I was wearing this particular scent and we were both loving it. Almondy, sweet and smooth and balanced as hell. Gorgeous.
For some reason I often really suit this kind of sweet, enveloping scent (so edible and suggestive on a warm late spring/early summer evening), and if I didn’t know about the existence of such cheap alternatives and this were the first time smelling this kind of smell in the Amouage, I would probably fall in love. It has all the stated ingredients – pink flowers, tonka bean, ylang ylang, amber, in finely rendered proportion and on first application is rather appealing, although in the base there is a Montale-ish synthetic oudh musk (the ‘suede’ note? )not mentioned in the listed notes that I find a tad flat and generic. The packaging is delightful- a cherry blossom pink on the box and the bottle that match the perfume inside perfectly, but at up to eighty times less expensive, I think I will personally wait until the next time I am back home in England and find myself fancying a foray into the Other Birmingham, where the perfumes, if not ‘sinful’, exactly, are equally enticing and pleasing on the skin, and can be gathered up for your pleasure, at a tiny fraction of the price.