The Yellow Circle By Sam Szanto

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I introduced Anthony to Eau Sauvage on his birthday. Wearing it would perfect him; make him elegant, smooth his edges. He could wear it with a suit. In my dreams, it would make him speak with a French accent.

On the day, I took Anthony for dinner at Le Salon Privè. He suggested a drink at a pub afterwards, but we had to go straight home for the present-giving, I said. He obviously thought his luck was in, kissing my neck in the Uber.

We sat side by side, and I took out the gift-wrapped present. I had to force myself to hand it over, like a child playing Pass the Parcel. He unwrapped it, had a cursory glance, thanked me and laid it on the bed.

‘Put it on now, please,’ I said. ‘Sauvage Parfum is the latest version of Eau Sauvage, and that was my… it’s just such a special scent.’

For two years, I had mulled over whether Anthony was ready to receive a bottle of Sauvage from me. It wasn’t just a scent. Sauvage was transporting, exalting. It was a yellow circle into which I could step and it would close around me, protectively.

Anthony twisted off the magnetic cap; pressed the atomiser against his wrist. The citrus notes, the spicy lavender and the woody base made me shiver.

‘It’s nice,’ he said: still in his Estuary accent.

‘Nice?’

‘Very nice,’ he clarified, stroking my cheek.

Anthony put the bottle of Sauvage on the bedside table. I stroked the label to reassure it of its importance.

‘So, want to give me another birthday present?’ My boyfriend moved closer.

‘I’ve got my period.’

We got ready for bed in silence. Anthony was soon snoring. I put my head under the duvet and sniffed his wrist. He stirred and moved away.

Deep in the night I opened the window, a smell of oil and metal coming in on the wind. The Sauvage on the dresser caught my eye. I sprayed it into the air, inhaling deeply. Then I lay with it on the bed and ran my fingers along the ribbed pattern on the bottle until I felt soothed enough to sink into a light sleep. I woke holding it.

In May, Anthony got the PhD for which he had spent the past five years working. Recently, he had been spending so much time on it, I had hardly seen him. I said we should go on holiday to celebrate. He said he needed to focus on getting a job; he didn’t have the money to go away. I’ll pay, I said. I suggested Calabria, in Italy. It was where the bergamot that went into the Sauvage Parfum was picked. Due to recurrent earthquakes, it wasn’t too touristy; it was somewhat wild, but with beautiful beaches and landscapes.

We spent a week there and on one of the heady days of extravagant drunkenness, under an ozone blue sky, the warm Ionian Sea whispering words of love, the smell of bergamot drifting over, we got engaged. The next day, we were both so hungover we couldn’t get out of bed but a fiancée was a fiancée. I changed my Facebook status to ‘Engaged’ and waited for my mother to see it.

Back home, we didn’t make plans for a wedding. But my mother asked to meet him, and she and Anthony were as unimpressed by each other as I had expected. ‘Are you sure about this, Katie? You don’t seem besotted with each other,’ she muttered as we washed up the meal I’d cooked; Anthony was on his laptop in the next room, applying for jobs. When she’d gone, he said: ‘She didn’t ask a single question.’

Things went on as they were. And then summer came to England with a green brilliance. At first going outside was a warm hug; then the heat was pressing and exhausting. It stayed and stayed. The smells of suntan lotion, barbeques and Lynx Africa were omnipresent. My small terraced house, which trapped the heat, had a stale odour even when the windows were open. When Anthony was out, as he was increasingly often, I sprayed Sauvage until I used up the bottle, and he didn’t comment. I replaced it with another bottle, and he didn’t comment.

Our relationship died with the autumn leaves that came early because of the hot weather. There had been more and more pointless, unresolved arguments: as if we were flies trapped in a room, banging against the windows. Yet I didn’t expect it when he said he couldn’t take this – take me – anymore. I asked what the problem was, and he looked at me as if I were dense.

‘You’re obsessive,’ he said.

‘What?’

‘You know what I mean. What is with you and smells, Katie?’ he demanded.

‘You’re dumping me because I’d like you to wear aftershave?’

‘I’ve done research. You may have pica, or a mineral deficiency. You should get referred for therapy.’

‘I thought pica is when people want to eat coins and soil,’ I said, but he wasn’t listening. It was as if he’d been keeping these words in a stoppered-up bottle and they were gushing out.

‘I’m not surprised you’ve got issues, considering your relationship with your mother, and what happened with your dad, but I can’t help you anymore. It’s over, Katie, I’m sorry.’

I told him to pack, right now, and left the house, which belonged to me, while he did. I skulked round a corner until he came out with two suitcases and a rucksack, head down. A few minutes later, he texted: Call if you want to talk, I didn’t want us to end like this x. I blocked his number.

Anthony left the Sauvage behind. A parting gift, I supposed. I sprayed the scent in every room, the way someone else may have listened to a love song on repeat. The next day, I went to buy another bottle. I dressed in a faux-fur coat, stuck on feathery eyelashes, painted my lips a deep red. The woman behind the counter at Boots asked if the Sauvage was for my boyfriend.

‘It’s for my fiancée,’ I said. ‘He can’t get enough of it. It’s so important, scent, don’t you think? Did you know that in ancient Greece, adulterers were punished by having their noses amputated?’

On the way home, my hands shook with the desire to be alone with the bottle. Perhaps Anthony was right about my smell obsession, but I had never told him why Sauvage meant so much to me. It was the aftershave my dad had worn. After he had gone, the bottle stayed on his dresser for a year. Then I took it into my room and sprayed it on the pillow, put the bottle in the wardrobe. One day it was gone; my mother must have thrown it away.

A month after splitting up with Anthony, I told Mum. She said she was sorry, but not surprised, and had I considered Tinder? She had met a lovely man on there.

One day at work, I saw an unfamiliar man. He was walking down the corridor carrying a plate of sandwiches. He was olive-skinned, with dark curls that cuddled-up at his neck. I stared as he walked closer closer closer, mouth twitching in a smile that got wider wider wider. As he passed, I caught the smell of bergamot. He wore Sauvage.

I rushed to my desk, searched on the Intranet for new starters. I found a photo. He was Jean Sentir. Jean – my dad’s name was Johnny.

Before I could work out a way to introduce myself to this heaven-scented man, my boss asked for a meeting. Her office was a fug of coffee. She sent for more coffee, leaned back in her big chair and asked if I wanted to talk about anything. No, I said. But she did. She was concerned about me: I was frequently late, missing deadlines, irritable with colleagues.

‘If you want time off to see your GP, to get a referral, that’s fine.’

I replied that I had recently ended an engagement, so wasn’t feeling myself; I would look into private counselling. That’s good, she said, and it seemed like the best idea to put me on desk duties while I was sorting myself out.

I couldn’t find a therapist I liked the look of online, so tried to seem perky and conscientious at work in order that my boss wouldn’t find a sneaky way to fire me. It wasn’t a problem socially, as I wasn’t socialising. Mum phoned every other Sunday, and we spoke for as short a time as possible. A few other friends WhatsApp’d sporadically, but for the past two years I had been mainly going out with Anthony’s friends. They were still Anthony’s friends.

With the coming of winter, things worsened. The season was always bad but having Anthony had helped. Alone, I spiralled. At home I noticed a sulphurous odour, and spent hours cleaning then spraying with Sauvage until the air vibrated and it was necessary to go outside to stop coughing. I vacuumed every inch of carpet and soft furnishing, washed bed linen at ninety degrees, took out the bins daily, poured bleach on every surface. Still the stink remained, insidious as an unspoken grievance. The smell was worst in the hallway, so that my skin felt as if it were popping, and I scratched incessantly. I stopped cooking, as food tasted cold and dead, and spent evenings in the bath.

In the small hours, I stared out of the window at the sky lightening and the clouds racing. Sometimes, when the smells and thoughts got too much, the dark too narrow, I roamed in the bitter white wind.

I hadn’t seen Jean, who was in another department at work, again, and he had glided out of my daydreams. But on Christmas Eve I saw him with a colleague on the high street. His hair curled insouciantly. I got close, brain misting at his smell. I was gulping in his odour like an asthmatic using an inhaler when he spun around. His colleague turned too.

Jean said, in a glossy French accent: ‘Are you alright?’

Lines barred his forehead, but his look was of compassion.

‘Do I know you?’ he persisted.

I shook my head; walked away. I found myself in Boots. Even given my mental state, as I said in the interview, what happened next was out of character.

Over to the scent counter I went, and there was Anthony. He was wearing a furry parka the purple colour of a bruise. A girl with frothy blonde curls and shiny ballet pumps was with him. She wasn’t close enough to smell, but I suspected she would use Marc Jacobs’ Daisy. My stomach clenched.

I moved to the shelves nearest the scent counter, picked up a shampoo bottle and bent over as if I were studying it, willing them to leave. I was low on money, but the woman behind the counter would let me have a spray of Sauvage. If I did that in every pharmacy in town, I would feel better by the end of the day.

‘I love that Eau Sauvage,’ the girl was saying loudly.

Oh savidge, she pronounced it; I gave her a mark as black as soot.

‘I’ll get you that for Christmas, shall I?’ she asked Anthony; I almost laughed. Almost.

‘Oh, that’s a gorgeous smell,’ the woman behind the counter, who I saw so often she felt like a friend, said. ‘We’ve had one lady buying a bottle at least once a week. She must have a swimming pool-full. This is the last one; hope she doesn’t come in!’

She laughed gaily, and the girl joined in; Anthony didn’t.

‘You know what,’ he said, ‘there are lots of nice aftershaves, this one does remind me of my ex….’

‘Your psycho ex?’ the girl asked disdainfully. ‘This is such a lovely smell, let me buy it for you, sweetie.’

She handed over banknotes and was given the Sauvage, my Sauvage, in return. She slung the box into her bag. Then she walked off, holding Anthony’s hand.

I was practised at following people. I moved behind Anthony and his girlfriend. They paused before a café window. Anthony said something that made the girl turn to him. They kissed, and she put down her shoulder bag in order to loop her arms around his neck.

I grabbed the bag and ran. There was shouting. I ran on. I was fit, had to be for my job when not on desk duties, so it was easy to run until the shouting had stopped. I slipped into a park. It had a public toilet, and I locked myself in. Then I opened the bag, ripped the cellophane from the box, tore the cardboard and took big gulping breaths. Sauvage: my love.

But the scent wouldn’t stick in the air, dissipating like a dream. It disappeared like the memories of my dad’s face.

It was twilight when I left the park. The shops and cafes glowed with decorations; a row of mini-Christmas trees protruding above them. Merrymakers were congregating.

I had taken the Sauvage home but left the bag, containing a purse and phone and travel-card, in the toilet. I could have tried to get it back to the girl, who I now knew was called Collette, apologising profusely, appealing to Anthony, but I didn’t want to. On some level, I wanted this to be the act that changed things. I wasn’t sure why. Possibly it was that Christmas Eve was the anniversary of my dad’s death. I had found him hanging in the hallway. I’d phoned for an ambulance, and held his hand until it came, breathing in all that was left of him: the smell of Sauvage. Strange to put on aftershave when you’re about to kill yourself. Maybe it was a hallucination. Or had he put on the aftershave for Mum, out at her Christmas party while he was putting the sheet around his neck and moving the chair from the dining room? I’d gone with him in the ambulance. My mother arrived at the hospital three hours later: she hadn’t looked at her phone. By the time she wobbled over in her heels, smelling of booze, her mascara and lipstick smudged, I was in a private room holding a coffee that a nurse had brought me. I’d only had one sip, the astringency gripping the sides of my tongue, but kept holding it.

Fourteen years later, I crept along the streets like a secret. I looked into lit windows that made me think of aquariums, families beached on sofas staring at screens. One man was on a treadmill, going nowhere fast as I was going nowhere slowly, and that made me laugh a high laugh. I walked until the curtains closed, until the dew came. Then I went home, gait clumsy from tiredness.

The stench had gone; the house just smelled tired. I lay and stared at the pale ceiling. Maybe this was how Dad felt, unable to fit into his life, like a tiny sticker lost inside a big envelope with no one willing to reach in and pull it out. Who knew? He hadn’t left a note.

I went to bed, abandoned myself to exhaustion. In my dreams, I heard the church bells that had rung during Dad’s funeral. I woke and the doorbell was ringing. Then the knocking began. I had done the same, numerous times. I thought about not letting them in but the hall light was on. Besides, they would come back.

It was him: that was a surprise. Jean Sentir. His dark eyes had a sorrowful expression, or it may have been embarrassment now he knew who I was. We never like nabbing our own.

‘Police Sergeant Katherine Miris?’ he said, for form’s sake, and I assented to make his life easier. He explained why he was there and what would happen next, the familiar words whirling thickly like snow. As he gently led me away, I breathed in his smell and the yellow circle closed around me.

glasses

Sam Szanto

Sam Szanto lives in Durham, England. She has had 25 stories and poems published and listed in competitions. In 2021, her short story ‘Rubbish’ was highly commended in the Glittery Literary Summer Competition and published in Glittery Literary Anthology Volume 2; and ‘Don’t Refuse Me’ was listed in the Parracombe Prize Short Story Competition and published in their anthology. In 2020, her short story ‘Inaccrochable’ was published in the Storgy Literary Journal; ‘125’ was a finalist in the 2020 Literary Taxidermy Competition and published in the Regulus Press anthology 124 Beloved; ‘Ferhana’ was published by Momaya Press in their Short Story Review 2020 and ‘Phil in Real Life’ was published in the Secret Attic Booklet #6. ‘Making Memories’ was highly commended in the Michael Terence Publishing Winter Short Story Competition 2019 and published in the anthology The Forgotten. Also in 2020, she had stories shortlisted in the Writers Forum Competition, the 2020 Exeter Literary Festival Short Story Competition, the Doris Gooderson Short Story Competition and the 2020 Pennine Ink Writing Competition; and longlisted for the Flash 500 2020 Quarter One and the October 2020 Cranked Anvil Short Story Competition.

In 2019, she won second prize in the Doris Gooderson Short Story Competition with her story ‘Letting Go’, which is published in the 2019 Chairman’s Challenges Anthology. Also in 2019, one of her stories was shortlisted in the Henshaw Press December Short Story Competition. Her flash fiction story, ‘The Things that he Gave Me’ was published in Gold Dust magazine.

Sam also writes poetry, and was the winner of the 2020 Charroux Prize for Poetry with ‘My Son’s Life Story Book’, and the winner of the Twelfth First Writers International Poetry Competition with ‘Night-light’, published online and in Issue #25 of First Writer Magazine. She won second prize in the Hammond House International Poetry Competition 2019; and was shortlisted for the Grist Poetry Prize.

@sam_szanto

Facebook https://www.facebook.com/sam.szanto

Instagram samszantowriter

Image by S. Hermann & F. Richter on Pixabay

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