The scent

A Short Story

By Ibtisaam Ahmed


It’s been over a month that I haven’t been able to smell or taste. My doctor is a Spaniard, a sort of medical Sherlock Holmes who loves solving the puzzles of what ails us. He’s done an investigation, using secrets from leather bound books that surround him as he sits behind his wooden desk. He tells me it’s fine. I should be relieved, he’s the kind of doctor that never minces words. But it doesn’t really feel fine. 

I missed out on the smell of oud wafting through every hotel corridor on a recent trip to the Middle East. Not to mention the oils worn by men in white thobes as they stride past at the airport. Half of any Arabian experience is the heady intoxication of burning coals and high quality sandalwood and rose and a certain scent you can never quite figure out. 

It also means I don’t smell the weird mix of detergent and sweat in public places like the traffic department, where the stress of waiting in an endless queue comes out of everyone’s pores. So that’s a mercy, given the high temperatures that cannot be eased by a fan or A/C because Eskom is playing games.

But perhaps the most unsettling part is dwelling in this state of imposed neutrality. A place where there are neither foul nor sweet smells. It is most unnatural, this purgatory of the nasal variety. It’s also a place where I’ve lost some friends. Virtual friends that is – my buddies from online fragrance groups I joined in order to buy and swap perfumes. Initially I joined them in order to sell a bottle of Guerlain famed for being the best grapefruit-based perfume in the world. I loved the detail on the bottle and the name – Pampleleune – but on my skin it smelled like cat pee. I no longer feel connected to the fragrance discussions anymore and it doesn’t matter what my #scentoftheday is. 

I haven’t properly eaten in a month – or at least that’s how it feels. I can taste coffee – but that could just be my brain manipulating me in the way that our minds so often do. I can bite into a peach or slice of watermelon with delight, but maybe I am tasting memories of childhood summers. 

Sweet. Spicy. Bitter. Those tastes I know I can differentiate. But I have no idea if something is salty or not, so you’ll have to excuse my food if it lacks the necessary salt. At this rate, I’ll make a poor wife indeed.  “Husbands are very particular about salt” says every brown aunty in history, and who I am to argue with them? 

The real salt I miss is the smell of the ocean. Capturing the waves with my eyes, I know what I should be inhaling – a mix of salt and icy freshness that enters the nose first before spreading through the entire body.  I can no longer be submerged in that scent, not matter how long I stand at the shore. These days I have to imagine.