A few years ago I took out a couple of seats in the local concert hall. They were very expensive, but I liked the idea of treating myself and my wife every two to three weeks like that. I well remember the first time we went. There was a rush of pleasant anticipation in the crowd around us as we found our way to our seats. They were indeed very good; not right at the front where viewing was limited, but a little way back from the stage and on the left, so that when great pianists came to perform, we could see their hands. The gong had been sounding for some time and the ushers were closing the auditorium doors when Mr Smelly made his first appearance (or what would the olfactory equivalent of that be?). He was a large, overweight man. He wore shaded glasses. His hair was greasy. He wore a crumpled jacket (with a vaguely blue-and-yellow check) and grey trousers and scuffed shoes. Luckily, he didn't sit right beside us but, rather, at the end of the row. He was near enough, though.
That first night we were going to listen to Dvorjak. The conductor and the orchestra were internationally acclaimed. The conductor soaked up the applause in that wonderfully immodestly modest way they all have, then turned to the orchestra and raised his hands. It was then, as he was just about to bring his hands flutteringly down, that the most extraordinary smell assailed my nostrils. I looked at my wife. Fortunately for her, she had a handkerchief in her handbag and this she had already grabbed and raised to her nose. Like everybody else, I wondered what the smell could be, and started to look around as discreetly as possible. It did not take me long to spot Mr Smelly. The poor lady next to him was leaning away to the left and was trying both to turn her head and to watch the orchestra simultaneously. I read somewhere that the strength of strong smells is gradually reduced by our brains, and certainly the Mr Smelly smell seemed to diminish as the symphony went on. But after the entre'acte it was there again, like an out-of-tune instrument ruining an orchestra's harmony. The music was wonderful, the performance masterful and the applause long and loud. When it had stopped, we noticed that Mr Smelly had already left.
We talked about Mr Smelly in the car on the way back home. We could laugh about it by then. I voiced the idea that his presence was a one-off. Perhaps he was a tramp who had found the ticket on the ground? In any case, we soon forgot about Mr Smelly – that is, until the next concert, when the same scenario repeated itself. One moment we were gazing in pleasant anticipation at the conductor's preparatory movements, and the next we were gagging on quite the smelliest smell I have ever smelt. At the next concert, the poor lady, his next door neighbour, as it were, wasn't there. I felt very sorry for her. She must have paid a similar fortune for her seat. We, on the other hand, were just far enough away to be able to survive. We brought perfumed handkerchiefs with us and put them to our noses when Mr Smelly arrived, which was always just as the last door was closing on latecomers. He timed it to perfection each time.
Who was this Mr Smelly, I wondered? What did he do? Why did he stink? I thought I'd found the answer one day after the concert season was over when I was walking from the railway station to the bus station in the centre of town. The two were connected by a dank passageway which was used a lot by down-and-outs as a sort of night shelter. On that day, as I walked through the passageway, I smelt a familiar smell. Usually I looked the other way as I walked past the dossers, since establishing eye contact could be dangerous. But now I turned my head towards them, convinced that I would see Mr Smelly sitting there in his crumpled jacket. There was no Mr Smelly. But there was Mr Smelly's smell. I deduced that Mr Smelly was a down-and-out of some sort. I kept my eyes peeled thereafter, but I never saw Mr Smelly, though I was sure he dossed down somewhere in the city with the other poor souls.
At first, I'd resented Mr Smelly's presence. I estimated that he reduced the value of my tickets and our enjoyment by about fifteen per cent, if not more. Later, though, I saw the humour in the situation. I giggled inwardly every time I saw my fellow concert-goers blanch and lean away from him. After I'd encountered his smell in that underground passageway I became intrigued by him. I couldn't wait for the new concert season to get underway, for I'd resolved to follow him when he slipped out at the end and see where he went. Bizarrely, I started looking forward more to this potential discovery than to the wonderful music on which our ears would soon be feasting.
That first night was to be Debussy. Debussy and Ravel. I adored them both and read through the programme notes with excited anticipation. But my eyes kept wandering to the empty seat at the end of the row. Would Mr Smelly turn up? The pianist made his appearance, and I was momentarily distracted by the applause and the excitement. He finally sat down, theatrically flinging his tails out behind the stool. His hands hovered above the keyboards and then… and then the smell hit us. Mr Smelly was back in all his malodorous splendour.
Debussy's wonderfully lyrical piano music always transported me to higher planes but on this particular night I found my mind wandering back and down to lower delights, for I had become so intrigued by Mr Smelly's smell that my nose and mind had started to deconstruct it. Indeed, I identified three principle themes.
The first was the odour of the seriously unwashed; an unwashed body and unwashed clothes. In a trice I was in the playground with Teresa McDonagh. Teresa McDonagh; she of the tiny 'half house' at the top of Sycamore Drive and the dustman dad. I cringe at the memory of how awful we were to her. I can still see her in the shit brown uniform we were all obliged to wear, and us boys – bastard boys! – taking off our plimsolls, sticking them over our noses and shouting 'gas masks on!' Thinking back, I admire the way she walked past us so scornfully, notwithstanding the fact that she stank and had fleas – and I mean fleas, not lice; we all had lice.
The second odour was feet, seriously smelly feet, Eamon Keogh's seriously smelly feet, to be precise. Poor Eamon; number six of thirteen children, living in a two-up, two-down. How on earth did they manage? I couldn't imagine them queuing up outside the bathroom in the morning. And then there were his shoes which, clearly, were not his shoes originally. He had to take them off for gym and, of course, we boys – bastard boys! – would scatter, gagging and retching theatrically. But one day I saw his feet and I saw the toes doubled over each other and realised that he risked becoming a cripple. But what could we have expected? His father was a navvy. How could he even begin to afford thirteen pairs of shoes?
The third odour was breath, foul rotting breath, and I remembered Dan Smiley; he of the harelip operation gone wrong and the mysterious condition that left his gums bleeding. For us boys – bastard boys! – he was our secret weapon in our playground battles. We would turn him on the enemy army and it was enough for him to breathe on a Martian or a Cyborg or whoever our enemies happened to be that day for them to die on the spot. Poor Dan. And he went along with it. I can see why now. It was the only way to be accepted.
Before I realised it, the Debussy was over, dying applause was ringing in my ears, the pianist had made his retreat and the concertgoers were rushing for the bar. Mr Smelly always stayed in his seat at the entre'acte. As you'll understand, we always went out for a breath of fresh air, but as we left I looked at him in a different light. My deconstruction of his smell, my recognition of its component parts, had convinced me that the origin of his problem was poverty – crushing poverty. I'd been there. I knew about that. Poor Mr Smelly. I couldn't wait for the end of the concert. It came soon enough. The sublime Pavane was followed by Miroirs and the pianist again brilliantly transported his audience to higher planes. But not me. I was still wondering about Mr Smelly. I kept my eyes firmly on him as the concert drew to a close.
We had a brave first clapper in our audience. I always admired the first clapper – you had to be so sure of yourself to do it before the artist had given you a hint that his performance was indeed over. Our first clapper was particularly brave. It didn't matter what the music was. He (for I assumed it was a he) would clap microseconds after the performance had ended and I had noticed that this first clap, like a starter's pistol, was Mr Smelly's signal. This day was no different. No sooner had the first clap sounded out than Mr Smelly got up and waddled to the exit. I stood up and, making my excuses, picked my way past our neighbours. Fortunately, the pianist had earned himself a standing ovation, so I was soon out into the hallway; soon enough to see Mr Smelly's retreating form at the top of the stairs. I ran after him – yes, I ran after him and caught up with him just as he was pushing through the swing doors at the entrance to the concert hall. Where would he go, I wondered? Which direction would he take?
But Mr Smelly stood still on the pavement and waited. Seconds later, a large, black Rolls Royce silently coasted up to the entrance. A uniformed chauffeur got out, walked smartly around to the nearside and opened the door. I looked behind me to see who was coming. There was nobody. When I looked back, Mr Smelly had disappeared into the limousine and the chauffeur was heading back to his seat. And it was only then, as the Rolls Royce glided away up the hill, that the penny finally dropped.