Saturday, November 05, 2005

The Smell

The rat, if that's what it was, must have been dead for a week before he noticed the smell. It was a faint whisper of a smell at first, thin as the November cold, but there was a hint of finality in it, an insolence, like the eyes of a hardened criminal. The smell, it seemed to say, was here to stay.

At first he simply ignored it. Those first two, three days it was slight enough so he could pretend he was imagining it, pretend it was coming from outside. He brewed copious cups of coffee to fill the room with the dark, seductive fragrance of caffeine; he cursed the neighbours, the janitor, the garbage collectors. It was only when the fourth day came around and the smell, instead of fading away as he'd expected, had actually grown stronger, that he admitted that he had to do something about it.

But what? The first thing, of course, was to try to figure out where it was coming from. Gingerly, nose extended, he felt for the thin thread of the smell, letting it seep into his nostrils, acknowledging its full presence the way a clerk, looking up from his desk, meets the stare of a man who has been waiting patiently before him. But no, he could not find a direction to it, it seemed dissolved, ubiquitous. Perhaps if he let it get stronger? With the full richness of that odour still in his nostrils, the thought nauseated him, spurred him on. Recklessly he started to pull furniture aside, expose the hidden corners of his apartment. As he worked, feverishly and out of breath, he felt a strange sort of negative happiness, the sublime rage of a man tearing his own house apart. There was an obscure liberation in this. It was as though the house were a woman he was forcing to stand before him naked, forcing to expose herself to his harsh, seeking glare.

He found nothing. The corners of his house were innocent, the guilt lay elsewhere. As he pushed his things back into their usual places, he could feel the adrenalin seeping out of him. What now? Perhaps it was the drains. Yes, that must be it. He went to the market, bought himself a bottle of acid. He knew acid was bad for drains, but surely this was a special case. He felt guilty anyway. He entered his building clutching the bottle under his coat like a murderer concealing a knife.

When he poured the acid into the drain there was a satisfying hiss, and a vague intimation of something burning. Tiny wisps of smoke rose up from the drain, like spirits released from captivity. He felt strong, decisive. Goodbye, rat smell.

For a day or two it did in fact feel as though the smell had gone away, but this, he realised later, was more a triumph of hope than anything else. Three days later he had to admit that the odour was no better - rather it was fast developing into a stench. Day after day he charted its progress with the avidity of a weatherman watching a hurricane develop, knowing that his home lies directly in its path. He made another scan of the apartment, did a few desultory searches on the Net, but in his heart he knew he was defeated already. The smell would simply have to run its course.

But how long was that course going to be? It had already been a little over a week since it first started. How long could it take for a rat to decompose? The stench was unbearable now. He bought deodorants, air fresheners, incense sticks, scattered them around the apartment. He bought a small exhaust fan and left it running all day. And still the smell was always there, a squat, leering presence in the centre of the room, a djinn that could not be exorcised.

He began to stay out late to avoid it. He figured if came in late and left early he would avoid the bulk of it (it seemed to get worse in the middle of the day) and besides, he would be too exhausted to really notice. He would stay back in office, working late, getting home way past midnight. At that hour, the streets were empty, deserted, the streetlights were eyes, watching him with suspicion. This was a side of the city he'd never seen before, the cold skeleton of its physical structure, without the flesh of crowds to hide it.

People at work couldn't understand what had come over him. His boss called him into his office, questioned him. He was concerned he said, but there was a note of sly approval in his voice. Co-workers bitched about how some people would do anything to get ahead. With anyone who asked he was evasive, deliberately vague. It was just a little extra work, he said, just temporary.

Meanwhile, the conviction was beginning to grow upon him that this was more serious than a dead rat. It had been over two weeks now and the stench was still getting stronger. Something deeper, more fundamental had gone wrong. He wondered if he should call his landlord. But what could the landlord do? What could maintenance (except charge him a pretty packet for doing nothing)? It was beyond human intervention now. What cannot be cured, must be endured.

By now it felt like he carried the smell with him everywhere he went. Like a second cologne, like a part of his skin. Every time his hands came near his nose, he could smell it; the fug of it saturated his clothes. He kept waiting for someone else to notice, to comment. But no one did. Was it all just in his head then? Was he imagining the whole thing? No, no, he pushed the thought away.

Day by day he grew more desperate. He had quit smoking three years ago, but he started again - 12, 15 cigarettes a day. It wasn't just that his nerves needed it, it was more that by drowning himself in the smell of smoke, by placing the tang of nicotine deep in his lungs, he hoped to gain a respite from that other, more depraved reek. He began to frequent bars, finding the ones that were open till two or three in the morning, waiting for the bartender to throw him out before he staggered his way home, too drunk (he hoped) to notice the swampy smell of his apartment.

One of these drunken evenings (but early, before the whisky had got to him) he fell into a conversation with a young woman. She was alone. She was hot. She wasn't uninterested. Carefully, with the painstaking precision of two hands pressed against spinning clay, they put a certain emphasis on the night, sculpted it into a certain shape. It was only as they were getting ready to leave that he remembered about the smell. A wave of horror passed over him. How could he take her home with the stench lurking in wait? Should he suggest her place, maybe a hotel? But how would he explain that? At the door of the bar he shook hands with her, asked her if he could get her a taxi. She looked bewildered, hurt. Taking advantage of her surprise, he bundled her into a taxi, sent her home.

By now the stench at home was so dense that to walk into the house was to enter a thick jungle of sticky, suffocating undergrowth. One had to hack one's way through it to breathe. He took to wearing a surgical mask at home, sprinkling it with aftershave to keep from smelling the air. He wondered why the neighbours hadn't noticed, why no one had complained. Did they not smell it at all? Or had they also resigned themselves to its presence, were they also sitting in their houses, a handkerchief clasped over their nose, trying not to breathe?

He began to worry about his health. Winter was just around the corner, but he decided he would go for walks in the park, morning and night, just to treat himself to some fresh air. He knew the park wasn't supposed to be safe at night, but the smell was so bad by now that even the prospect of being mugged did not seem to frighten him. One night he even fell asleep, right there on a park bench. When he woke the sparrows were chirping in the trees and the sun was just coming out. His bones ached from the night spent on the hard bench, his neck was a vise of pain, but he could feel the clear morning air singing in his lungs, and he was happy.

When the smell had gone on for a month, he sought out a realtor in desperation. He needed a new apartment, he told the agent, his current place didn't suit him anymore. He wanted to move. As soon as possible. He could pay, he had money. Three days later the agent had a list of apartments for him to see.

The first two apartments didn't appeal to him - they were too gloomy, too cramped. The third was beautiful though - high windows, a glorious view of the skyline, wide, breathing rooms. He was just about to tell the agent that this was the one he wanted, when he smelt it. The smell! No, it couldn't be, not here, not halfway across the city! He had turned pale, he could see the agent looking at him anxiously. He sniffed the air again, more cautiously this time, but with the determination of a detective who must know all the facts. Yes, the odour was unmistakable. Others might have been fooled (it was faint after all, barely noticeable) but how could he, who had slept with it by his side like a faithful wife all these nights, not recognise it. So. The smell had found him out, had announced its intention of following him wherever he went. There was really no point seeing any more apartments. He thanked the agent, made some excuse - an appointment remembered, an urgent matter, very grateful, would be in touch. He hurried home to his own stifling house.

Another week and it was clear to him that he couldn't go on this way if he wished to keep his sanity. One night he woke up screaming, shouting "What do you want from me?" at the smell, as if a smell could answer (though a smell has ears, of course, a smell listens). Another night, trying to burn scented wood chips in a brazier, he set off the fire alarm. As he stood on the fire escape, watching the other residents of the building stagger sleepily out in their pyjamas, he didn't feel the least bit guilty, instead he felt a warmth in their companionship. Why should they sleep easy when he was being tortured so? He was glad they were getting a taste of his life.

No, this couldn't go on. Someone in office mentioned a position in a different country. A two year posting. Four days later, he was on the plane, sinking into the scented warmth of his seatback, his old life (and, dare he say it? Its smell) firmly behind him.

At first he was afraid that the smell might follow him here as well, that there would be no escaping it, even with the Atlantic between them, but a few anxious sniffs told him it was okay. He had made it. The air here was sterile, safe.

Later, lying awake in his hotel room in a strange city, he felt restive, incomplete. It's probably the jet lag, he thought, burrowing gratefully into the crisp fragrance of the fresh linen, it'll take me a day or two to adjust.

Two nights later he still couldn't sleep. Could it be that the Time of the Smell (for that was how he jokingly thought of it now, like something out of a Marquez novel) had done lasting damage to his sleep cycle? He'd heard of things like this - people who lost the ability to sleep for more than 3-4 hours at a stretch. Why, oh why hadn't he got out of that apartment earlier?

By the end of the week, he was forced to admit the terrible truth - he missed the smell. That was why he was restless in bed, that was why he couldn't sleep. The memory of it haunted him, in its absence his bed seemed alien, disconnected. He was addicted to the stench.

Three days after he moved into his new apartment, well past midnight, he emerged from his building. His jaw was set in a sort of resigned determination, his eyes held the guilt of defeat. There was a light drizzle. He had turned up the collar of his raincoat and lowered the brim of his hat to hide his face. In his hand he clutched a black polythene bag.

Cautiously, carefully scanning the area around him, he crossed the street, entered the alley on the other side. It was dark here, there were no streetlights, and the lights in the houses around had been turned off because their inhabitants were asleep. Warily, his muscles alert, he checked the alley to make sure no one was lying in wait for him. Then he began to search, letting his nose roam the fetid landscape of the alley like an unleashed dog. Somewhere, in some dumpster, behind some trash can, there had to be a dead rat.


Mrudula said...

Good piece of writing.

Cheshire Cat said...

Interesting. Seen comedic treatments ("Three Men in a Boat", Seinfeld), but here the persecution's played straight. Literalism of the imagination, a la Kafka...

Falstaff said...

Mru: Thanks.

Cat: Thanks. The other major inspiration for this story, is, Saadat Hasan Manto's 'Boo'- spectacular short story by a writer I can only compare to Chekhov.

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Eileen said...

Oh my, I am suffering from something dead under my floor boards that I can't get too. Your words make me laugh when I just want to cry. I can't escape!