When I look back at my relationship with my mother, whom I still miss keenly 11 years on, there are many things I regret. I regret the fact that I didn't visit her more often in the last year of her life (if only I had known that that was the last year of her life - her sudden death caught even her doctors on the hop, as she died with, but not strictly of cancer). She was always so upbeat and independent that it was easy to forget how ill she really was, and carry on with your own life in a fairly normal way. Though perhaps that was how she wanted it...
This may explain why, for example, she banned all visitors on what turned out to be her last weekend - because she had drips up her nose and "didn't look dignified" ie "normal". We had an elderly cat who went off one morning, lay down in the raspberry canes, and died. He appeared to have opted for a discreet exit with minimal fuss or trouble to his owners. I sometimes think of Mother as having disappeared into the raspberry canes for similar reasons, and I regret not overruling her wish not to be seen looking her best at the end. And of course I regret the fact that I didn't just jump in the car on that final morning and drive to the hospital in Oxford, inferring from my many unanswered phone calls to the ward that something was seriously up. By the time a doctor picked up the phone, she had one minute left to live, and I was over 100 miles away.
So that is the big stuff I regret. But there are other, lesser things too: I am sorry now that I never took the time to learn more culinary skills from her (I can make a roux, but man shall not live by béchamel sauce alone), or to learn more about plant care. Or more about her colourful seafaring ancestors. I do know (for I have the tape of a BBC radio broadcast on the subject from 1968) that her great aunt and two male companions (one of them her husband) were the first people to circumnavigate Africa in a small boat - "at a time before such journeys in small boats were commonplace". Mistress of understatement, my mum.
And finally, finally, I regret giving her Rochas Byzance for Christmas once...
Yes, the perfumista person that I have become is a little ashamed of that. I had just started dating Mr Bonkers, and was self-absorbed and distracted. It was an ill-considered, selfish purchase. Selfish because it was the result of a one minute foray in Boots, something quickly grabbed from a heap of seasonal boxed sets. I had no idea what Byzance smelt like, or whether Mother would like it - or whether I would. Yes, to my shame, another motive for buying that particular set was the miniature bottle that was the Gift With Purchase, which I kept...
So it was a lazy and thoughtless gift, which my mother accepted with her usual good grace. But - and this is the $64,000 question - did she ever wear it? I don't know what became of the mini, but I acquired a decant of Byzance recently to remind myself of how this fragrance smells.
Well, on first impression it is a soapy floral number that is rather reminiscent of Rive Gauche - the soapiness creates a "cloudy" aura to it. And whilst not overtly soapy, other similarly cloudy perfumes to mention would be Fendi Palazzo (particularly Palazzo) and YSL Cinema. They envelop the wearer in a perfumey - yet diaphanous - fug. Now I don't mean a cloud of powder, or any kind of fuzzy, aldehydic whooshing geyser type of effect (though there are aldehydes in there), nor do I mean the type of aquatic, freshly vacated shower cubicle sort of cloud either, for which Issey Miyake's scents are noted. Why, they even have one called "L'Eau d'Issey Goutte d'une Nuage", though it was in and out of the shops quicker than the length of an average shower. No, Byzance is a non-powdery, non-water droplet sort of cloud, if that means anything at all to anyone (and it very may well not).
Without further ado, here are the notes for Byzance, which was launched in 1987, the year my mother moved into my old house in Wiltshire, which we co-owned until her death. The noses behind this fragrance are Nicolas Mamounas and Alberto Morillas. Morillas is a familiar name with a string of hit fragrances under his belt, but I had to look up Mamounas, to find he has only created four scents, all for Parfums Rochas. Byzance is variously described on the Interweb as a "floral chypre", a "sharp oriental" and a "semi-oriental". Given the busyness of the note list, I can see why there might be room for manoeuvre:
Top notes: aldehydes, spices, carnation, green notes, mandarin orange, basil, citruses, cardamom and lemon
Middle notes: tuberose, orris root, jasmine, turkish rose, ylang-ylang, lily-of-the-valley and anise
Base notes: sandalwood, amber, musk, vanilla, heliotrope and cedar.
Once the soapy cloud settles down, it isn't half bad actually, though by no means my usual thing. Interestingly, Luca Turin awards Byzance four stars in Perfumes: The Guide, and he too likens it to Rive Gauche, though I swear I noticed the resemblance myself before looking this one up!
"Rive Gauche with Indian ornaments, like a good French girl playing dress-up..."
He goes on to speak of its original "dreamy, liquid, heavy-limbed feeling" having been reduced through reformulation to "the damp shine of white bathrom tile". Oh look, he is in cloudy territory too, although he appears to lean to the water droplet variety!
So...... did I ever catch a whiff of sillage from my mother that smelt like this? No, I did not. The only other perfume I remember her wearing (by choice) when I was growing up was Lenthéric Tweed, which is a very different proposition. As I wrote of Tweed in a Mother's Day post on Cafleurebon back in May:
"(My mother) loved the West of Ireland, with its craggy landscapes, peat fires and palette of sludgy greys and browns, and a scent inspired by a rough fabric was the perfect choice for her."
Top notes: bergamot, cinnamon and geranium.
Middle notes: ylang-ylang, jasmine, lavender and orange flower.
Base notes: oakmoss, patchouli, sandalwood, benzoin, vanilla, vetiver.
Okay...so there is a bit of crossover there - sandalwood, vanilla and three of the floral notes - but my recollection of Tweed is of a more brisk, outdoorsy, woody kind of scent, while Byzance is the scent of the harem, or perhaps of Roja Dove's sumptuous cushion-stuffed boudoir at the Haute Parfumerie in Harrods.
So, you know, what was I thinking of, giving Mother Byzance? Well, that is just it - I wasn't thinking. How I would love to be able to pick out scents for her now, which I would do with loving care and a modicum of knowledge. Knowing that that will never happen saddens me too.
To sum up, while many perfumistas have written eloquently and touchingly before me about the scents they associate with their mothers, ie the scents their mothers WORE, Byzance is different. Byzance is the scent my mother DIDN'T WEAR. Yet it is inevitably one I will remember her by, because I gave it to her, however carelessly. It is a poignant reminder of all the things I didn't do for her while she was around.
Yes, what my mother really thought of this perfume I will never know. To call it a Byzantine riddle would perhaps be an overstatement, but I can see myself puzzling over the matter for the rest of my perfumista days.
PS Thoughts go out to Josephine of Notes from Josephine, who lost her mother earlier this year.
Photo of boxed set of Byzance from parfumuriok.com, photo of Tweed poster from Cafleurebon, photos of my mother from family albums.