The day The Smell came

I woke up to The Smell. It was thick and gluey. Naturally, I thought I was either having a stroke or the house was filling with inexplicable leaked noxiousness. 

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“No, no, no. Absolutely don’t send an ambulance,” I plead, “No really don’t. Don’t. Don’t.”

In my clearly very sheltered life, this is my first ever 999 call. And it’s about a smell.

I casually mention to the dispatcher that The Smell is making me feel a bit lightheaded. Tip: never express a symptom to the emergency services woman (I like to think there’s just the one: a living motion blur of efficiency). My light-headedness, it transpires at the speed of light, may require an ambulance.

I’m in so deep. I feel like I just called a girl to ask her out (like people did in the Nineties, I guess) and now she’s asking me whether I’d prefer a sperm donor or adoption. Why did I even mention my lightheadedness? Maybe my lightheadedness made me mention my lightheadedness. A surge of panic draws my attention to the pure… nonsense of this whole situation.

I woke up to The Smell. It was thick and gluey. Naturally, I thought I was either having a stroke or the house was filling with inexplicable leaked noxiousness. Whether the source of The Smell is internal or external, death is imminent. Probably. So I do what anyone on the brink of suffocation followed by eternal nothingness would do: call the council.

OK, to give myself some credit, I check that no one in my block of flats is doing DIY or cooking meth, before calling the council. They aren’t. This is the first time I’ve spoken to most of my neighbours, all of whom I just assumed were arseholes. But they aren’t. There’s a shy Russian woman whose four-year-old son offers me a leaf he picked up. And an always-frowning man in his late sixties who turns out to be perfectly sweet and helpful. It’s like that film Crash, but just with white people. And there’s no better way of getting to know those you walk past every day, without a single word, than telling them you think a smell might be killing you, and subsequently them. Always tell people if you’re concerned they might die. They’ll appreciate your concern.

Your local council, on the other hand, doesn’t care if you or anyone else is dying. It’s already dead. A woman in the environmental health department tells me to go to the doctor. I’m not sure how booking an appointment with my GP will remove whatever poisonous gas is so rudely invading my house. I thought she’d send People. I don’t know what sort of People. Council People. Council People with clipboards who fix things. Council People who would come around, smell The Smell and say, “Ah yes you’ve got a hoboxide leak. We’ll send over a floor reader this afternoon. Your floors need reading.”  

The environmental health woman who, in all fairness, seems to be doing her best also tells me to call the fire brigade’s help desk. The help desk tells me to call 999. And here I am, on the phone to a zealot, crumbling like very worried feta.

Ten minutes later, I hear a siren. In London, it’s quite easy to ignore sirens. But this is my siren.

“WHY ARE YOU THE WAY YOU ARE?,” it shrieks.

A real life fire engine pulls up. I don’t know what I was expecting the fire brigade to send, but somehow this isn’t it. Why does a smell (even The Smell) require a whole fire engine? I’m sitting on a wall outside my flat, watching the morning turn into a hammy educational video about poorly judged emergency service usage. My latest nervous tic is wildly running my fingers through my hair. As a result, I look like Einstein.  A fireman alights the excessive vehicle and walks towards me. He looks like Droopy. I explain The Smell, then take him to it. Two more firemen follow Droopy and me, Einstein, into the flat. I apologise 57 times.

The firemen mill around, speaking an impenetrable combination of jargon and banter. Some more men appear at the door.

“Oh my god, you’re the police,” I say to them, because they are.

Never have I felt so absent, and yet so present. I don’t know why The Smell is a police matter so, in a hundred sentences, including at least thirty false starts, I ask them. They say something about making sure The Smell isn’t a meth lab. I live in Richmond. I can’t tell if they’re joking. In an attempt to make conversation, I mention the flat in my grandma’s block that recently got raided for growing, and these were my exact words, “a shitload of cannabis”. Their uniforms made me say “cannabis” rather than “weed” and yet didn’t stop me from saying “shitload”. So absent. So present.

The firemen tell me some more people (more people) are coming to “test the air”. I’m ushered out of the flat. I sit back on the wall. At least 15 more fire fighters have emerged. What have I created? A woman who appears to be in charge asks me some basic questions that all merge into a single “how?” because I think I’m in love with her. She’s in her forties and has this wry “I can’t with your bullshit” smile that makes me stare at my shoes.

The air testers show up. They’re wearing gas masks and laden with anonymous equipment. My block of flats is starting to look like something off The News. I linger in the periphery, unaware on any level whatsoever how much I’m supposed to involve myself in the action. I continue to stare at my shoes. Something begins to dawn on me. Something dark. Something that turns my stomach into an aching void quickly filling with spiders. In my room, there is a drawer. In that drawer there is a bottle of poppers. Next to the drawer is a space heater. The space heater was on all night, because I fell asleep before turning it off. What if The Smell is hot poppers? What if, any second now, the in-charge woman with the wry smile is going to emerge from my flat and dangle the poppers before my clammy beetroot face? What’s more, the popper drawer also happens to be my vibrator drawer. Twenty men and one cool woman, I realise, may be about to see my vibrator.   

On the verge of complete emotional collapse, I find myself surrounded by what seems like the entire London Fire Brigade. Droopy tells me they’re all done. The air testers didn’t find anything toxic. It is unlikely that I’ll die today. They still don’t know where The Smell is coming from, but they’ve opened all the windows and say that it’s mostly gone now. No poppers. No vibrator. No slow, suffocating death.

The fire engine grumbles and leaves. I wonder what just happened. Hours have passed. I’ve missed a therapy session. I return to my non-toxic flat and sit on the sofa, running my fingers through my hair, trying to reinstate normality.

The Smell is gone. 

Eleanor Margolis is a freelance journalist.