Two summers ago we spent a couple of weeks in a cottage on the Iveragh Penisula in County Kerry. For the first week the rain was relentless. Out on the side of a mountain with two young spaniels who needed exercise, I lost my footing in driving rain and fell into a boghole. Flailing around in the half light in water up to my chest, I made contact with something bubbling and putrid and mostly submerged. I was sharing the bog hole with the rotting remnants of a long dead sheep.
Unlike the sheep, I managed to crawl from the hole, then stumbled back down the mountain into a steaming hot bath. My clothes went into the washing machine, came out, went in. Again and again and again. There'd been a scummy slick on the bog water, a skim of greyish bubbles and strands of old wool. It must have been the oils from the animal's body. Now, I couldn't get the death-smell out of my clothes, now matter how often I washed them. Nor out of my skin though I scrubbed it with sweet-smelling soap.
I became obsessively conscious of it. I would sit at my table in the rented house, unable to work. There were spreading brown stains on the plastered wall beside me that came from the heat of the huge old chimney flue behind the wall. I imagined the warmth of the room was increasing the smell and drawing it from my skin. I moved downstairs but it was no better.
A few days later we went to a friend's for dinner, a house on the edge of the sea. I sat in a room full of books and talk and food, a life far removed from the bog and moor and silence of the mountains. Self-conscious, I put my arm behind my back, but an arm is attached to the body and can't be altogether dispensed with. The smell came slinking out into the room and licked itself round me. Convinced that it was rank and authentic, I began to explain to the woman I was talking to. She said she had a wonderful nose and demanded a sniff at my arm. I held it out.
"Imagination," she pronounced decisively.
I thought at the time that it must have been a neurotic reaction. I have since been surprised at the number of people who confirmed the experience and spoke of a similar obsession with smell following contact with something dead.
Perhaps, like death itself, the smell stays in the nostrils long after the actual occasion has passed. Perhaps the body holds onto the smell of another body's demise, even if the body isn't human. Worse, if it's human: war diaries all record being overwhelmed by smell. Presumably it's the shock of premonition: the recognition [End Page 9] by the body of its own mortality, its terror at the unavoidable abandonment that is coming.
A young woman whose father was killed in a car crash told me of her inability to manage her life for a long time after the event. As well as the grief that overwhelmed her in the immediate aftermath, she described its unpredictable reappearance in the most unlikely times and situations. She also spoke of making stupid mistakes, of confusion in managing the simplest transactions, of losing words in company.
She said that fifty years ago she'd have slipped a black armband onto her sleeve every morning for a year before she left the house. She talked of how, in modern Celtic Tiger Ireland, she had longed for an armband because it would have explained her situation, have been like the red light flashing on the car that drives ahead of a vehicle that's too long or too wide or too slow for the road that it's traveling.
Look out. Here comes grief.
Everyone stops or pulls into the side and makes allowances.
That's completely gone now. We still do "the death thing"—the wake, the vigil, the removal and the funeral. It's very communal, very intense. But when all that's done...