When I tell people that I am fascinated by perfume, spend all my free time smelling the stuff, or reading and writing about it, I am often broadsided by the question: "So okay, then, what perfume am I wearing?" The gauntlet is thrown, a defiant and faintly sceptical smile playing around the mouth of my challenger. I shuffle a few steps nervously, shunting the gauntlet an inch or two, before picking it up gingerly between my forefinger and thumb, and holding it with outstretched arm at a safe distance from my body.
"Er...um...this is the bit I'm not very good at, actually."
I detect a flicker of a smirk from the other party.
"I mean I have smelled loads of perfumes, but it is harder to identify them from cold - you know, without anything to go on, apart from the smell, that is."
"Well......?" The question is accompanied by an interrogative eyebrow and a broad grin - or is it a rictus?
"Okay, then...I'll go for Coco Mademoiselle." (When olfactorily befuddled, pick a UK best seller with very short odds.)
"Noooo - it is Paloma Picasso/Light Blue/Daisy/Chanel No 5!/Ysatis!!" (Or substitute any other well known designer brand that also smells nothing like my wild stab.)
This is my Achilles heel, you see. I am absolutely rubbish at this, the most popular party trick of them all for any self-respecting perfumista...
Except in the case of Mr Bonkers' mother. I am sharp as mustard there. I know instantly if she is wearing Coco Chanel or Burberry Women. This is because she only owns two bottles of perfume, both of which I gave her. And yes, I suppose that is the scent decoding equivalent of shooting fish in a barrel...
Thus I was particularly proud of myself the other day in T K Maxx. I was peering at the shoe fixture, deciding whether to buy a pair of wedgey Mary Janes in an unknown brand. I couldn't make up my mind whether they had that "artisan/geek chic" look, or were just plain nerdy. I bought them, and today they went back, which I think answers the question.
Anyway, as I was inspecting ankle straps and T-bars and such like, I suddenly caught a whiff of something familiar wafting from the general direction of the shopper next to me: a lady of a certain age, with white hair and unremarkably dressed - what is known round here as a "tidy woman" - connoting someone unassuming and fairly conventional, who doesn't really stand out in any way. Apart from her scent: a bold, spicy oriental.
Before I could stop myself, I was in there like the proverbial ferret up a cardboard poster tube.
"Excuse me, but are you wearing Coco?"
"No, it's - what's that one called again...?"
(SEE, EVEN THE SCENT WEARER MAY FIND THIS IDENTIFICATION BUSINESS TRICKY!)
"Opium, that's it!" Adding helpfully, after a pause: "By Yves Saint Laurent."
"Aha!" I replied, bursting with glee: "Same general idea. They are both spicy orientals, you know."
"Right" replied the lady, with a humouring smile, before scooting hastily round to the aisle with the 6-7s. This may have been a ruse to avoid the random bonkers person who just accosted her. I prefer to think she had oddly sized feet.
Whatever, I was happy with my work. This was true "guessing in a vacuum", even if ballsy spicy orientals only count as entry level in this game of scent trail sudoku.
There is in fact an official term for something that enhances mood in this way: an SSRI. It stands for "Selective Sillage Recall & Intercept". It's a game I hope to play again, and maybe I will nail it next time...