Phantosmia by Freya Dean

[Phantom smell; also called an ‘olfactory hallucination’; smelling an odour that is not actually there.]

These were the first things I noticed about him: that he was very tall, and the way in which he held a cigarette – delicately, as if it were something that he had just conjured from air.

He smoked Camels and in time I discovered their perfume everywhere on him; his skin, hair, the collar of his coat.  A long, expensive coat that came from a tailor in Paris, where his parents lived and where he once met me beneath the clock at the Gare du Nord, so that this place too, though far away, became fused as an association.  It wasn’t an unpleasant, stale smell; but complicated, like musk.  Or perhaps it was an ugly smell, but I did not believe this because I was in love with him.

In time it settled on my body and my hair, the thin dresses and cardigans I wore at that time.  I would open a book and the scent of his cigarettes would present itself, layered between each page.  I began to leave these books in his apartment, on the windowsill or beside the bed; I would forget a scarf over the back of a chair – it was a question.

In return, he gave me a key.

These rooms were hidden, like a secret, in the centre of the city.  A college house above a newsagent.  Narrow stairwell, blue door that opened onto rooms that were light, but low ceilinged, the wallpaper heavy, embossed.  The first time he took me there it was June, early morning.  Strawberries in a jade green bowl on a small side table.  This was disorientating: a still-life from the adult world.

His friends impressed me.  They talked of everything – politics, literature, music – with indifference, as if they had already been long disappointed.  However their conversation also made me anxious, because of a need not to appear naïve.  At times the characters would change – someone would finish their studies and move away, or a girlfriend was discarded and replaced by another.  It was not something to which I gave any thought; until I was the one to leave.

I saw him twice afterwards.  The last time was on a street close to his apartment and he did not see me.  He was walking with his arm resting around the waist of an Argentinian girl.  I knew she was Argentinian because she was the sister of a friend of his; I had met them both at a party he’d thrown in the Spring.  She was older than me, with long black hair piled into a knot and large breasts; an easy womanliness which even then I was aware I would never achieve.  He was smoking, and then – he extended his arm and offered the cigarette to her.  For a moment I felt that the gift contained within this gesture had been stolen from me.  Then I realised that it was something I had taken from him and was unable, now, to return.

For months the scent of his cigarettes would surprise me.  I would be on a bus, or inside a cafe, in a different city altogether and be accosted by its perfume – though each time it proved to be a lapse, a ghost, a scent I only imagined to be there.  In this way the fabric of the everyday was compromised so that I became confused as to what else was real.  I lost confidence in my ability to determine the simple details of life: whether I had got up at 7AM or noon, if I had remembered to buy milk or if this was something that still needed to be done, whether I had returned a phone call from a friend.  This ambiguity was also a relief – to be uncertain whether even a person was present, or if they were not.

Freya Dean is the co-editor of Hinterland magazine. She graduated from the UEA’s Creative Writing NonFiction MA where she received the Lorna Sage award and, during the same year, was an Elizabeth Kostova Foundation Finalist. She is currently working on a book-length manuscript.

Photo credit: Natalie Vodegel