Next time you are amongst a group of women, sniff. Not a delicate little whuffle, man; a big, snorting lungful of shared air. That noxious blend, my friend, that clash of chypre and sweat, citrus and skin, patchouli and blocked pores, is the smell of one of the oldest struggles of womankind. Suck it in.
In the left corner, we have Nature, limbering up in her 100% organic fair-trade cotton shift, stretching out her bristling calves and flashing a mocking, crooked smile across the battlefield of female life. In the right corner, we have Artifice, struggling to summon a scowl from the frozen wastelands of her Botoxed brow, scornfully tossing her glossy locks and flicking a manicured finger. In the middle, glancing from one to the other, unsure whether to provoke or placate, wavers our heroine: Perfume.
When it comes to the perfect perfume, we’re deeply confused. We don’t want to be Helen Memel, embracing our most fetid secretions with glee; but nor do we want to turn into Jean-Baptiste Grenouille, obsessed with bland virginal purity. Part of us wants to smell like woman, but part of us wants to smell like girl; and age thirteen, standing in the school changing rooms, we suddenly find ourselves atop a pungent precipice. Do we retreat back to the safety of sweet-skinned childhood? Or do we rush headlong into the pheromone-drenched adult world?
I initially opted for the latter, diving for my mother’s Shalimar in the belief that it would broadcast my raw, dangerous femininity in a way my flat chest and navy gym knickers never could. Legions of women have embraced musks and leathers, ambers and woods, in the hope that a bitch-on-heat-rubbing-her-civet-sac-up-against-a-cedar-while-smoking-a-pipe bouquet will mark her out as queen of the jungle. Many of them end up smelling like rotting handbags; others, like my adolescent self, simply disappear under the odoriferous weight. So, age nineteen, my inner Paltrow suggested that I might instead become a shiny immortal wafting intangible Elysian residue in my wake. I sought out Eternity and Pleasures, sea breezes and lemons, water lilies and newly-washed sheets. I was Liz, I was Liv, I was a white-clad lass in a pantyliner ad who pisses prosecco. Once again, I was definitely not me.
But when I finally found the perfume which smelt intensely personal, utterly made for me, I was shocked by its ubiquity. I hate the fact that my signature scent isn’t a single-note unisex masterpiece crafted by Hermès’ Jean-Claude Ellena, or a special edition by Frederic Mallee. Nope, I smell of Stella – and not even her latest, the scandal-ridden Nude, but the marketed-to-death original. However, once the first whiff had transported me back to a garden twenty years ago – squatting with soil on my arse, pulping petals into tiny bottles of water and touting the resulting slime on the hot, sticky summer road to startled drivers-by – I knew it was the one for me.
Rose. Tarmac. Youth. Decay.
Sitting in Holborn, typing, hunching, pausing, I breathe it in.