An expert on perfume composition is known in the fragrance industry, with striking originality, as the perfumer. They are also sometimes referred to affectionately as a ‘nez’ (French for nose) due to their fine sense of smell and skill in smell composition, and if I’d had a nez in surgery with me this morning, his head would have been blown off, his delicate senses in overload, because Joe let out a belch of unimaginable pungency; if stinkiness was rock, you could have carved huge rose-red cities out of it.
Over the years, I’ve become quite the connoisseur of smells myself; one sniff, and I could detect raw onions (a lot of raw onions), roast beef, eggs and tomatoes, all of which had been mercilessly fried (to get rid of any vitamins).
‘That’s pure rank,’ said Joe, with a hint of pride. ‘It’s disgusting, isn’t it?’
‘I’m a doctor, Joe,’ I said, ‘It’s my job not to show disgust; but rest assured, inside I’m screaming like a little girl.’
He belched again, an equally fruitful effort, as a kind of lap of honour, reminding me of Browning’s wise thrush: ‘Who sings each song twice over/Lest you think he never could recapture/That first fine careless rapture.’
The room was getting progressively steamy; however, I resisted the temptation to puke or to open a window. This was partly because I didn’t want to betray weakness, but much more importantly, because a bad smell is like the emotion of love; it is something to use, not to fall into, like quicksand.
Smell is different from all our other senses in that it can time-travel, and I surmised this stinky ghost would endure through the rest of the surgery. We doctors are battle-hardened by years of exposure to smegma, intertrigo, the caseous stuff from sebaceous cysts, stale urine and sweat, steatorrhoea, drug rep’s after-shave etc etc.
But our patients are new recruits to the trenches, mere cannon-fodder on this olfactory battle-field. Subsequent patients, I knew, would be so nauseated and so busy looking around for the dead and decomposing cat that they’d forget all about why they came in the first place, and the rest of the surgery would be a breeze.
‘Give me one more for the road, Joe,’ I said.