Friday, 30 May 2014

Cats and Caron - Emma Blake

If you had asked Sally Blake which had been the most important event in her life in the early 1980s: from finding Mr Dwek’s shop, to getting a Saturday job with The Queen, to finding Tigger at the Battersea Dog’s Home, she would not have hesitated in choosing the latter.

Tigger, the little ginger cat, turned out to be the love of both our lives. With my brother, Adam, moved out into a squat, it was now just Sal and me. The great love of my young life, a black and white cat called Coogan who had walked in from the streets (just as Alfred Jingle had chosen my parents) and been with me since I was 8, had had to be put to sleep. He had cancer of the jaw. There was nothing to be done. Sally and I took him to the vet in taxi to be euthanised. She stayed in the waiting room, leaving this important moment to me, acknowledging this was something I needed to do alone. I watched in wonder as I actually saw his spirit leave him - like a cloud of pure white smoke that rose from his body, and disappeared in mid-air. Tears streaming down both our faces, we took him home again by bus. Adam came over, and we all helped bury him under the laurel bush in the communal front garden. 
Tigger with his favourite toy: a wooden duck on a bit of string.

My vet, a sympathetic Dubliner, with eyes "as blue as the lakes of Killarney" as Mummy put it (I had a massive crush on the poor man), had told me to get another cat immediately. He had recommended a “big tabby” he had seen up at The Cats Protection League branch in Archway, and with my heart in pieces, I had dutifully gone to see him. Jones was enormous. The size of a small sofa. He took one look at me, and although it was feeding time at the branch, he waited by my legs, ready to come with me. When I got him home to introduce him to my mother, she said she thought I had brought home a python. A huge mackerel striped creature, smelling faintly of fish oil, slowly uncoiled from the box, and wedged itself behind the Chesterfield in the Dining Room. He stayed there for hours. We left him to it, figuring he was acclimatising. He wasn’t. When I finally lost patience and pulled the sofa away from the wall, he stretched amiably and followed me to the kitchen. He had simply got stuck. Far be it from Jones, as we discovered, to complain, however. He had simply waited, patiently, for someone to assist.

He stayed with us for approximately six months before he decided to move on. He went out one night and simply never came back. Unwilling to believe he had been killed on the road, I chose to believe the neighbour who claimed she had seen him sunning himself across the road at a new address on the grand Nash designed Kent Terrace.

My mother blamed herself entirely. Just as I had given my heart to Jones, we had discovered he had quite the worst case of worms we had ever encountered. He was prescribed tablets. I was too feeble to administer them, so Mummy did it. Experienced with cats from a lifetime with them, she knew every trick to get a pill down a cat’s neck, but Jones was special. He could outlast even her patience as she held his mouth shut and massaged his throat to make him swallow. He would put up with it good naturedly for a good five minutes, swallow, then as soon as he was released, he would spit the pill across the room.

It was a battle of wits. One night, he meowed to go out, and Sally, distracted in conversation, let him out. He never came back. I was distraught. My poor ill grandmother, Despina, was staying with us at the time. In the midst of her violent Parkinson’s (brought on by the anti-hallucenogens she was forced to take to stop her ‘visions’) it seemed she had found her way into my room, and left her beloved plush toy tiger on my pillow. I had always coveted him. Ever since childhood. He had flourescent green eyes and made a low growling noise when pressed. She had got him in Amsterdam when she had gone to identify the body of her sister, the impossibly glamorous Stella who had left the heavy Dutch gas ring on in her apartment and fallen asleep. When I asked Dessie if she had got lost, and had left Tiger in my room, she managed to put the words together to tell me that he was mine now. “To make up for the loss of your little tiger.” I was blown away (I have him still).

Meanwhile, Sally pounded the neighbourhood, she put up posters, she made enquiries, all came back blank. She got on the bus and went as far as the Battersea Dog’s Home. She’d heard they had cats too. She’d heard that people sometimes handed in strays there. She searched the cages. She didn’t find Jones, but she came home with Tigger.

I arrived home from school to find the kitchen door shut, and my mother looking sheepish.

“Who’s in there, Mummy?” I asked, already knowing the answer. I knew it was a new cat.

“I’ve done something mad.” She said.

I gently opened the door, and went in on my own, closing it behind me. A neat marmalade striped person sat on the kitchen table like an Egyptian carving in a state of buddhahood. I sat down and put my head in my hands. Tigger waited. He moved to sit in front of me and concentrated on me. Motionless, long tail curled across his front toes. He began to purr. Eventually I looked up.

“Hello.” I said. “Who are you, then?”

That was it. The greatest love affair between two women and a cat had begun. He was quite simply the love of both our lives. Gingers, they say, are not like other cats. They’re people cats. Mummy would tell me for years to come, that he knew, five minutes before I would be home from wherever I was, and be waiting at the window for me. With my father up the road at the White House, and Adam living with his girlfriend in Bayswater, Tigger became our focus. “To love any animal” my mother would say, “is to understand that grief and pain is in the mail for you.”

Inspired by Paula Yates with her wonderful chatty writing style, her famous tattoo and her Antony Price dresses, I had decided I wanted to be a journalist. Whilst still at school, I sent articles off to all the magazines I admired, and to my delight, Tatler bit. Libby Purves, who was the Editor at the time, liked my style. She called me in for an interview, and promised me that as soon as I left school, she would put me to work. In the intervening period, she was sacked in favour of Mark Boxer who disagreed with most of her decisions, including the one about employing me. He said I was “too young” (but strangely, took on the 15-year-old Daisy Waugh instead), but by then I had the bug, and I got a job writing freelance for a music paper called Record Mirror, interviewing pop stars, whilst the hacks vied for my virtue. Meanwhile, my mother got a job at Buckingham Palace, working in the Queen’s Gallery, selling catalogues. My father had fought off another heart attack, and came to convalesce with us. With me now working, the maintenance payments had dwindled. Everyone had to work.

Working certainly meant that my mother had a few more pennies to spend on the odd luxury. Very odd, often discontinued Caron luxuries from old Mr Dwek in Soho, such as a couple of bottles of Narcisse Noir, a couple of Tabac Blonds (one of which she generously gave to me when I fell in love with it) including a tiny bottle of the extrait, several Nuit de Noels, and a Bellodgia parfum extrait. Mummy put a note in the box to say that it had been the perfume of choice for Vivien Leigh, and with great ceremony, let my father (who had idolised her all his life) sniff her.
Guilty pleasure - Forvil's "Les Anemones"

My mother was sadly still very much alone in her perfume obsession though. She had made friends with Barbara Jacquesson from the Press Office at Guerlain who occasionally came over for tea, but she still carried a certain guilt about her passion that meant she kept much of it to herself. Even though I never once so much as murmured anything approaching disapproval at the bottles she saved up her Palace pay to buy, she would keep such purchases to herself for a while, before (unnecessarily) confessing to me. One such was the incredible 1929 bottle of Forvil’s Les Anemones in its stunning Lalique flacon that she bought from Cobra & Bellamy on Sloane Street when they were still doing the occasional vintage objet, and which was hidden for a while before showing up on top of the piano. What she really needed was a similarly obsessed friend with whom to talk the sun from the sky about perfume.

She finally found that friend in Roja Dove.

Emma Blake
May 2014

Thursday, 29 May 2014

Guerlain - notes by Sally Blake

Les Parisiennes - a collection of re-editions of some of Guerlain's finest moments,
packaged up in their famous 'Bee' bottles
In one of his Master Classes, the great French cellist Paul Tortelier was attempting to convince his students that J. S. Bach’s 5th unaccompanied cello sonata symbolised the Creation of Man. With awesome emphasis, he drew his bow across the strings and proclaimed: “First, the Prophet! YOU MUST NOT! Then comes the thunder! (BOOM) Then, the lightning (CRASH), then the darkness...” Eyes blazing, eyebrows raised, he lowered his voice and continued: “Slowly, hesitantly, emerging from the sea...”

Overcome, he stopped and leaned forward, nostrils flaring: “The sea! It is the sea!” He breathed rapturously. “I can smell the salt!”

Turning again to the class, he demanded: “Can you not smell the salt?”

Totally mesmerised, his class sat, turned to stone. It did not seem that any one of them could smell the salt, even though one of them was also French, but he was extremely nervous and Tortelier was not only French, he was seen to be French.

Only a Frenchman could smell salt in a cello sonata. This is why the French dominate the perfume world.

Only France could have produced Paul Tortelier, and only a Frenchman could have named a perfume: Voila! Pourquoi J’amais Rosine!

Naturally, it was a Guerlain.

The Perfumes

Jicky – 1889
The one that started it all: Jicky

1889 was the year of the Great Universal Exhibition in Paris and the completion of the Eiffel Tower.

It was the year that Paul Gauguin painted his “Yellow Christ” and Henri de Toulouse de Lautrec painted “Au Bal de la Galette”; - it was also the year that the tormented Vincent van Gogh gave up the struggle and took his own life.

It was one year before the massacre of the Sioux tribe at Wounded Knee, and the year that Jean Cocteau was born. Whether by intent or coincidence, from early manhood until the day he died, Cocteau always wore Jicky.

With this scent, a pet-name for Jacques, Aime Guerlain created what was to prove the most beloved of all the Guerlain fragrances. Not perhaps the most famous, maybe not even the most stylish, but certainly the most fond.

Après L’Ondée - 1906
Guerlain’s sublime evocation of a rain-drenched summer garden came into being in the year which saw the deaths of both Ibsen and Cézanne.

It was the year of the San Francisco earthquake, and the year after earthquakes of another kind; when Einstein published his Theory of Relativity, and Freud his Theory of Sexuality.

Utrillo painted Paris seen from the Place Saint-Pierre, and Roualt painted the “Girl with a Mirror”. Meanwhile, Edvard Munch designed costumes for a production of Ibsen’s “Ghosts”, and Galsworthy published the first instalment of “The Forsyte Saga”.

In America, the Barrymores ruled the stage, Isadora Duncan had begun her dance, and if George M. Cohan was under the impression he would own Broadway forever, someone by the name of Florenz Ziegfeld was rehearsing his first Follies.

Après L’Ondée is not a scent for simpletons of either sex: deceptively innocent, extraordinarily subtle [and powdery], it will creep up behind you and bind you in silken threads so tight that you won’t even be able to open your mouth to cry help.

Vague Souvenir – 1912
Composition unknown
Surely one of the most evocative, tantalising names ever to grace a label, Vague Souvenir. What? One wonders. A memory? Of whom? Of where? Of what?

Was it just a momentary recollection, never fully recalled? A sad romance? A memory of childhood? Lost innocence?

One has this image: a self-assured woman, comfortably situated, well-dressed, elegant, serene. A delightful home, a charming husband and family. A busy and fulfilling social life. No worries, no fears, but perhaps regrets? Possibly...

Suddenly, into this total security and serenity something strikes a chord in her memory. Doors, long closed in her conscious mind, open briefly then close again. But for one fleeting moment, something she had forgotten, or tried to forget, has touched her again. Perhaps a man. More than probably.

Successful in his chosen field, respected by his colleagues, enjoying and enjoyed by a wide circle of friends, charming wife, delightful children, lovely home... stops off at the tobacconist on his way to the office, and a wisp of something in the air transports him in one split second to another time, another place, and to someone in particular who once meant so much...

Footfalls echo in the memory
Down the passage we did not take
To the door we never opened
Into the rose garden...

Perhaps those unbearably touching lines from Eliot are the key to Vague Souvenir, surely the saddest, most bittersweet name ever given to a perfume.

L’Heure Bleu – 1912
Cloves/Carnation/Woody Violet
1912 saw the Balkan Wars and the death of Strindberg. Picasso and Braque were presenting their first paper collages, Chagall painted “The Cattle Dealer”, Schönberg presented “Pierrot Lunaire”, and Anatole France was writing “Les Dieux ont Soif”.

The rage of Paris was “Le Grand Meaulnes”, the first and last book by a young man named Alain Fournier, destined to be killed in the Great War looming ahead.

With a certain synchronicity, Guerlain produced L’Heure Bleue which is to perfume what “Le Grand Meaulnes” is to literature: haunting, elusive, mysterious and eternal: the one destined to produce the other. Like many great men with nothing to prove and a nose for the divine, L’Heure Bleue was reputed to be favoured by Sir Laurence Olivier, whilst his wife, the equally divine Vivien Leigh, stayed true to Caron’s Bellodgia. A truly fragrant if doomed couple surely.

The most luxurious ocean liner ever built, the “unsinkable” Titanic, sank on her maiden voyage to New York with almost total loss of life, symbolising a way of life soon to disappear forever, with the world trembling on the brink of the most terrible war thus far experienced.

[The following musing on the Titanic was found on a separate sheet under the heading “L’Heure Bleue”]

On the floor of the ocean, the ballrooms are silent, the weeds wave, and the fishes swim between the marble pillars in green twilight, startling their own reflections in the mirrors.

In the restaurants, the damask tablecloths have fallen into lace, the crystal clouded, the porcelain dimmed. The ice-buckets have grown barnacles, and on the floor, the unopened champagne rolls gently, chilled and maturing beyond all expectation.

On the sun decks, pages of “Le Grand Meaulnes” dissolve with parasols under rugs, and on the dressing tables, bottles of L’Heure Bleue crust into still-life with the tarnished silver-backed hair brushes and hand-mirrors.

Mitsoukou – 1919
1919 saw the end of the War to end all Wars and the signing of the Treaty of Versailles. Hope once again triumphed over experience and set up the League of Nations. August Renoir survived the war, only to die at the end of it.

Dada groups formed in Cologne and Berlin, and the Bauhaus was founded in Weimar.

Meanwhile, Serge Diaghilev and his Ballet Russes staged “La Boutique Fantasque, Man Ray produced “Jazz”, Erik Satie produced “Socrates”, and Picasso designed the costumes for [productions of] “Le Tricorne” and “Pulcinella”.

Amadeo Modigliani’s daughter was born to a father with less than a year to live, her mother would wait only slightly longer before throwing herself of a Paris roof.

In America, the 18th Amendment to the Constitution was ratified, and Prohibition (of the sale of alcohol) became reality, bringing with it the birth of the bootlegger and the Speakeasy, and ensuring the future fortunes of Al Capone and his crew, whilst in India, a former attorney, Mohandas K. Gandhi, was preparing to launch his programme of Civil Disobedience against the British Raj.

1919 also saw the creation of two of the most outstanding and enduring perfumes in the history of perfumery: Mitsouko by the master, Jacques Guerlain, and Tabac Blond by Ernest Daltroff for Caron – but more of that in another chapter.

Diaghilev, who had originally favoured another Guerlain scent, L’Heure Bleu, immediate switched his allegiance to Mitsouko, which has been identified with him ever since. Defying analysis, you can sniff and search as much as you like, you will never pinpoint its elusive soul. Redolent, as so many perfumes of that time, of the Ballet Russes. Once, when wearing it, a taxi-driver refused my fare. “Not after how you’ve made my cab smell, love!” He said.

“Ah,” sighed my Parisien friend, Madeleine; “he was a poet...”

Shalimar – 1925

Sally Blake
The famous bottle with its Ceylon sapphire coloured glass stopper was designed by Raymond Guerlain in the same year that the Cloche hat came into fashion, Ravel wrote “L’Enfant et les Sortilèges”, Mondrian presented “The New Forms” and Thomas Mann published “The Magic Mountain”.

Emma Blake
In the popular HBO television series, “The Sopranos”, Shalimar is “Uncle Junior” Corrado Soprano’s weapon of choice when launching any assault on any new lady. She will be sent a bottle of the stuff, usually with an invitation to Atlantic City. The invitation may not always be accepted, but none of his “goomaras” has ever sent the bottle back. Such is the enduring power of this scent.

Habanita – 1921 (Molinard)
No, I know it’s not a Guerlain, it was in fact created by Molinard, but if Shalimar is the scent of the lady, then we are supposed to assume that Habanita is the scent of the “Cocotte”, and it not only deserves special mention, but an Access All Areas pass into the Guerlain chapter...

Habanita is simply one of the most loved fragrances of all time. If, to smell like a high-class chocolatier-cum-patisserie, warm, cuddly, and as appetizing as vanilla, is to smell like a “cocotte”, then can this really be so bad? Patchouli features, as it does in any good “cocotte’s” perfume, along with something like the smell of burning joss-sticks (of the best and most expensive kind of course).

There seems to be a little conflicting wisdom as to the true year of Habanita’s launch. My mother originally claimed 1934, yet The Perfume Handbook asserts 1924.

Neither, it was in fact 1921. The confusion arises from the fact it has been presented in several different flacons, the most famous being ‘Beauty’ by René Lalique et Cie, a black crystal bottle with a sculptured frieze of caryatids, but aso in a flacon named ‘Diamond’ made by Cristalleries de Baccarat in 1934

Liu – 1933
Powdery Jasmine

Named after the tragic character of the Chinese slave girl who sacrifices herself for love in Puccini’s opera “Turandot”, Guerlain produced Liu in a Baccarat flacon of deepest amethyst crystal in an “Odéon” box of black and gold.

Appropriately enough, the same year saw the Long March in China, Lorca wrote “Blood Wedding” (Bodas de Sangre), Franklin Delano Roosevelt presented The New Deal to his fellow Americans, and Prohibition ended.

Meanwhile, Adolf Hitler came to power in Germany, and his Nazi Party immediately put an end to the “decadent” activities of the Bauhaus.

General notes found in a folder:

An extremely penetrating, sweet and troubling perfume, very taking, very tempting, but not perhaps of the utterly disoignified good tast which is the final word of a great perfume. Coty’s Antique Amber and Idylle approach nearer Jacqueminot Rose was also a great sale.

“American women visit the establishment on the Faubourg S. Honoré just below the British Embassy for the historic associations. In front of the old.....
...........Hopper who, he says, earned him $80,000 last year.”

“Zina was chatting with the Master about ‘chemical odours’. The Perfume Princess knows perfectly that there is practically no ‘natural’ violet and that the most delicious product requires a mixture of aniline (coal tar) violet, and the violet drawn from what she said was Iris.

“Violet, the old true violet,” said the ‘Older’ Guerlain, “costs $2,600 a kilo...”

It was possible for him to be deceived by the raw material merchants.
“We buy flower essences from Grasse and Bulgaria.” Said Jacques.

“Undoubtedly there is some little... manipulation, I am convinced that no Bulgarian has ever brought to Paris the tiniest phial of perfect pure rose essense, but there is a limit to their little tricks.”

He mentioned various tests by which the perfumers protect themselves; polarisation of light, the evaporation test, and above all, the trained ‘Nose’.

A pure and simple coal tar perfume could not be foisted on a first class perfumer as a real flower essence. I know the Guerlain sons, Jacques and Pierre, spend whole afternoons personally taking the musk from the pouches, handling the rose ambergris, inspecting strips of Spanish leather, and arrivals of exotic woods. The Guerlain’s Sillage, a refined and lasting man’s perfume of the $3 series, has a basis of oriental odorous wood, growing in a certain limited district, discovered by their grandfather. Its importation is a secret. M. Guerlain Pére has frequently been heard to say that when the wood of that little district is used up, there will be no more Sillage.

“Mere names of perfumes give you no idea - You must smell them.”

For example, as many manufacturers, so there are as many different Chypres. Indeed, there is ideally no such perfume, Walter Scott mentions it, and in Houbigant’s Quintessences of 1775 – there is a Cipris. Guerlain has a Cyprisine. “Chypre” was a very successful mixture of Atkinson’s many years ago, and as he did not protect the name in France, all the perfumers took it, each making his own according to fancy. The Guerlain Chypre de Paris – I heard this in conversation from one of the sons (Guerlain), and not at all for publication – is a sum total of perfume value, distinction, strength, lasting qualities, which it would be practical......

.... customer. This invention of ‘personal’ odours is an expensive summit of the perfume craze. I shall not touch it because the true perfume amateur, as the Princess says, ‘is not content with one odour, five or ten’. She may have favourites, but is always seeing something new’. The ‘personal’ perfume is merely the mark of the vain woman, many attempt it, cheaply, by mixing. They make messes.

We stood in the famous shop on the Rue de la Paix. It also if of historic interest, by reason of the distinguished personages who have been among the clients of the firm. King Edward VII when Prince of Wales, was a regular customer. On the firm’s books appear the names of Queen Alexandra, the Queen of the Belgians, Czar Ferdinand of Bulgaria, and all the Grand Dukes. The Guerlains moved in about the year 1840 from a shop in the Hôtel Meurice, which had opened in 1828. Shortly, they will remove to the Avenue des Champs Elysees, while Côty opens his first retail shop in the Rue de la Paix.

They were talking about names.

“One must know what one wants.” Said the Perfume Princess. “Do you like a musked perfume? None of the great houses have been able to make a refined modern essence based on musk, but they are musked. If you do not like it, you might regret to tumble on Ai-Loë or Bon Vieux Temps, both strongly musked.”

“I like all perfumes,” continued fair Zina, “but if I had to make a choice, I’d take Kadine, and Rue De La Paix, and perhaps Purple Lilac

Kadine is an Iris, but so fragrant and lasting, so arranged and dressed up, that it seems a Queen of Odours.

Rue de la Paix is softly sweet, restful, nothing pungent, but haunting and even makes a crave. Both cost $5 the smallest bottle, of scarcely 70 grammes liquid...


Zina would appear to have been Mlle Zinda Brozia, the so-called Perfume Princess of Paris, and the quotes attributed to her to have come from an article in the The Times Democrat of New Orleans, Sunday, March 9, 1913.

Exposition International des Arts Decoratifs - 1925

The International Exhibition of Modern Decorative Arts was originally planned for 1915, so, having been designed some 10 years earlier, none of the pavilions were exactly ‘le dernier cri’.

Britain’s contribution was miniscule; America and Germany - home of the vastly influential and far-reaching Bauhaus – not represented at all.

The Eiffel Tower dominated the whole with a neon-lit advertisement for Citroën blazing down one side.

The main attraction was Cocteau’s barge, an extension of his nightclub: “Le Boeuf sur le Toit” moored on the quayside.

In a desperate and doomed attempt to turn public taste away from Chanel’s stark modernity back to the more comfortable realms of OTT, Paul Poiret had no fewer than three barges designed by Dufy; “Amour” – a nightclub and restaurant, “Delices” – a theatre, and “Orgue” for objets d’art.

One gets the definite impression that time has lent gloss to what seems to have been a distinctly tacky affair; not unlike the ridiculous Festival of Britain in 1951, and like all such events, far better to imagine than to have experienced.

Still, Raymond Guerlain did use it as an excuse to design the most famous scent bottle in the world for their superb Shalimar, so it can’t all have been bad.

Sally Blake
Date unknown

Monday, 26 May 2014

The Fringed Kimono - Sally Blake

Around the time that Sally found the wonderful chemist treasure trove in Soho, she also found a 1920s fringed kimono in a charity shop. When wearing Caron’s Narcisse Noir and trying on the garment, she got such a spooky feeling, she wrote the following, chilling, short story...
William Merritt Chase (1849 - 1916) - 'The Blue Kimono'

The Fringed Kimono
By Sally Blake

It was far too expensive, especially for a charity shop, but then prices had been getting way out of reach for some time. Ever since they’d got the design gurus in, and started to hang clothes on broomsticks suspended from the ceiling by fine twine.

The pleasurable days of rooting through jumble long gone, but £40! Surely that was expensive for cast-offs even in Marylebone. All right, it was silk, and had a fine fringe – so long in fact that it touched the floor when worn, but no-one possessed of any taste would ever have worn it. It was the sort of copy of a traditional Japanese kimono that a chorus girl would have worn long ago. Probably in the late ‘20’s or early ‘30’s.

You could almost smell the grease-paint and the hastily stubbed out cigarettes. There would have been a tin of “cremine” on the dressing table to remove the pancake make-up, and sticks of grease-paint covered with a cloth at night after the show was over in an attempt to deter the mice who found the brightly coloured crayons delicious.

So how had such a garment ended up in a north London charity shop? Perhaps the original owner had died, and whoever had been given the task of sorting through her things had decided to donate it. No-one in their right minds would have wanted to own such a piece of exotica, leave alone pay £40 for the privilege, but Sarah was a romantic. She took one look at it and had to have it. She knew she would never wear it. She was too short for a start, the fringe trailed on the shop floor as she tried it on. Whoever it had belonged to had been at least 5’7” and slender. Sarah knew it would never be of any constructive use whatsoever, but still she felt drawn to it somehow. She felt deep in her purse, paid the price, and took it home.

Sarah spent much of her life in charity shops, picking up beads and books and handbags and gloves. Up to a good third, or more, of her income was spent in this way. Her birth sign was that of the crab, and like a crab decorating its underwater cave, she hooked pretty things into her lair.

Every week, she pushed her daughter’s pushchair into the charity shops, and every week she returned with more artefacts.

Shoes, oh dear Lord, the shoes! There was some woman out there who took the same small size and didn’t apparently wait five minutes before getting rid of them. Beautiful shoes; shoes by Gucci, and Ravel, and Pinet, and Russell and Bromley and Ferragamo, still containing a fine powdering of biscuit crumbs in the seams.

“It’s my daughter,” sighed the shop manageress, “but what can I do?”

For some time after she got the kimono home, Sarah watched it from the kitchen table. She had latched it onto the hook on the back of the door, and the kimono bulged out over the top of the mass of carrier bags kept there for recycling. Sarah lit a cigarette and contemplated the life of the original owner of the garment. On closer inspection, she now felt it could even be older than she had at first suspected. Perhaps it had graced the back of a dressing room door as early as 1912. It could even have been around when the Titanic went down.

The thought excited Sarah. “Hands across time” she liked to call the link between objects and the people into whose care, or not, such things had passed over the years.

She began to speculate as to what sort of perfume the original owner might have worn. Leaving her cigarette in the ashtray, she got up from the table and although she knew it was ridiculous, buried her nose in the neck of the garment. She did not know what she had expected, but the smell of dust came as no surprise. Dust, and the distinct smell of the charity shop, a smell that had been the same in every second-hand clothing shop since time immemorial.

She sat back down and picked up her cigarette again. Nodding to herself, she decided that the dead showgirl had probably just worn something cheap. An oriental of some kind. Heady and seductive. Something in a showy bottle, undoubtedly left at the stage door by an admirer.

Then she thought again. Stage Door Johnnies were often high born gentlemen, swept away by long legs and false eyelashes and stage-lighting. Many was the stately home whose châtelaine had started off in the chorus at the Music Hall, she remembered with a smile. Perhaps this kimono’s owner had been given something more upmarket than a Phŭl Nana or Californian Poppy to win and keep her favour from others crowding around the back of the theatre after the show. After all, she had ended up with an address in Marylebone.

Then she remembered the scent her own grandmother had said she had worn to the races “before the war”. She had meant the Great War of 1914 of course. She was sure she had some of it somewhere.

Foolish, she knew, but she felt somehow the kimono would like to smell like it used to. Or at least something approximating it. Tamping out her cigarette, she scraped back her chair. She knew where it was. She had a box of old perfumes she had bought as a job-lot when the chemist in the High Street had given way to another coffee shop. She remembered how delighted she had been to see her grandmother’s scent had been among them.

Picking the kimono off the back of the door, and flinging it on with a flourish, she hurried to her bedroom and burrowed under her bed for the wicker suitcase in which she kept her best and prettiest things. There it was. In among the gloves, and scarves, and feathered fans. Still in its box. The cellophane wrapper merely opened at the top, but not removed to preserve the perfume as much as possible. The tiny bottle inside glinted as she raised it to the light. Its black glass stopper wedged in firmly, she had to tap it gently with a bottle of nail polish to get it to give; “glass on glass” – a neat trick.

Sarah smiled with satisfaction as she dabbed a little of the precious elixir carefully on her neck where it came into contact with the scuffed silk of the old gown and twirled in front of the full-length mirror at the foot of her bed to release the scent.


Iris couldn’t remember how long she had been asleep. It had been some night that was certain. She couldn’t quite see where she was as it seemed to be dusk already. She must have slept all day. She certainly didn’t seem to be at home. Strangely, she did not seem to be at Bertie’s either, although the last she remembered was a cab ride with him. She sighed and stretched her long limbs and breathed in the scent that was wafting towards her from somewhere.

Narcisse Noir. She savoured the words in her mouth, pulling out the “waaah” sound at the end of the “noir”. She giggled.  Strangely, she felt like she hadn’t smelled it in years. How it reminded her of the night Bertie had given a bottle of it to her. He had said he could still smell it on his pillow days later, which had been shocking but rather lovely.

She supposed she ought to get up, but it was so cold. She rolled her neck around a couple of times as her eyes focussed on the unfamiliar room. There seemed to be a long mirror, a dressing table, and a strange basket of assorted pretty items sitting on top of the bed. Iris shivered as lights danced from what must be her bottle of Narcisse Noir on the unfamiliar bedside table. Turning, she saw with delight, her old kimono seemingly suspended in front of the mirror.

Too woozy and cold to wonder how such a thing was possible, she reached out through the dim air... and put it on.

Sally Blake