Patrick McGrath - The Smell

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There is a room in my house that, for reasons of my own, I've always kept locked. It is a downstairs room and was once I imagine, a dining room, though I use it now to store boxes containing items pertaining to my work. It has a large fireplace and windows facing the wall that surrounds my property. The windows are kept shuttered, and the few pieces of furniture in the room covered with sheets. Every few months I light a fire in the grate, but not this year, for the winter was mild. We observe Christmas with the solemnity appropriate to the holiday, and my wife prepared a festive meal. I do not permit decorations as they tend, in my opinion, to trivialise the occasion, though I do allow the exchanging of gifts, as this nurtures selflessness, provided of course that the gifts are either useful or educational, good books, for example.

For I have a family, I have a wife and children. There's also my wife's younger sister living at the house, rather a disorganised young woman, I'm afraid. I support these people through my work at the museum, work that demands my utter concentration, and this is why I insist on silence in the house during the early hours of the evening, five to seven. The children are permitted to make conversation at the dinner table, provided that it's of a serious nature, and the same applies to my wife, and her sister. A stern regime you may think, but I point out to you that such was the climate of my father's house, and I have not suffered as a result, the reverse in fact.

You will understand, my recent consternation then, when having refused to allow the children to keep a stray dog they'd found and begun to care for, several of them expressed feelings of resentment. What's more, my wife supported them, and so apparently, did her sister. I punished them, of course, and having punished them, I explained to them why I had punished them. Whether they appreciated this, I cannot say, and it was a few days after this that I first detected the smell. Now, what is so curious about all this, is that the work I do is the sort that appeals to scholarly, even pedantic minds, and requires little in the way of imagination, for it is with fragments that I work, incomplete pieces of ancient figures that must be identified and catalogued. Given, then that this is the type of mind I have, does it not strike you as perculiar that I, and I alone, should have detected the odour?

Actually, it began less as a smell, more of a sort of ineffable, vague, suggestion of sweetness in the air. I suspected at first some uncleaness in the kitchen, and had my wife's sister thoroughly scour the floors, ovens, cupboards, and pantry with carbolic, to no avail. It grew stronger. I had my wife's sister then scrub out all of the downstairs rooms, with the exeption of course, of the one I keep locked at all times, for reasons of my own. For who could have entered that room, shuttered, as it is, and I in sole possession of the key? I began, when this scouring failed to eliminate the corruption, to suspect that she, herself, might be responsible for the smell, in retaliation, perhaps, for what she perceived as the injustice of my position regarding the stray dog, and I interviewed her in my room. She did not respond to my enquiries with cander, and I punished her again, and the smell grew worse.

The smell grew worse, it made me think of fruit, ripe fruit, a bowl of plums, all gone soft and rotten and turning to slime. Was it any wonder that I began to spend so much time at the museum? Of course I did, I couldn't be in the house with that smell, though what really disturbed me, was this, the rest of them pretended it wasn't there. They stared at me blankly when I referred to it, and here's something else that disturbed me, that it came and went, and how do you explain that? It's coming and going like that. My authority began to crumble. The children were not openly insubordinate, rather there was a subtle hesitation in their manner that I found deeply impresionant, with my wife it was the same, and with her sister, in fact my wife's sister grew so bold, one day I discovered her rattling the doorknob of the room I keep locked. "If you think the smell's coming from in there", I told her, tartly, "you're wrong". She gave me a saucy look and walked off.

She would have to be punished, I would have to make an example of her, behaviour like this could not be tolerated, not in a man's own house, not from her, not from any of them. You do see that, don't you? You do see that I had to do it, even though they were my own family, and I loved them. I decided to begin with my wife's sister. I asked her to join me in that certain room after dinner, this gave me ample opportunity to prepare for her visit. The day passed with excruciating slowness, I could not concentrate on my work, and left the museum earlier than usual. After dinner, as I rose from my chair, I glanced at her, meaningfully, and went out of the room. A moment later she followed me, I crossed the hall, extracted from my trouser pocket the key, I unlocked the door and ushered her in, and at that moment, to my unutterable horror, I discovered that the foulness that had been so tormenting my senses, did originate in the locked room after all. It stank in there, my God, it stank, such a sick, sweet stink that I felt my gorge rise and a wave of nausea almost overwhelmed me.

I mastered myself, with some difficulty, and then became aware of something else in the room, some new abomination, it was liquid, dripping liquid. There was a sweet and viscous liquid dripping into the fireplace, oh viscosity. She turned to me and asked me why I'd brought her here, she appeared not to smell the smell. A light, cold, brickle of sweat broke out on my skin and I was barely able to control the impulse to wretch, though I did control it, I did. I told her to go and as she left the room, she barely troubled to conceal her contempt. I managed to lock the door from the inside, and then, with no little trepidation, I approached the fireplace. The smell was bad, oh it was very bad, indeed, there was little doubt in my mind that I discovered the source, somewhere up this chimney, somewhere not far above my head, was the thing that dripped and stank.

In a sudden frenzy of rage and frustration, I seized up a broom handle, intending to dislodge the foulness, but broom handles are stiff, and as the flue slope backward at an angle just above the fireplace, I was unable to get it to go up. I introduced instead, a length of wire, and with this, succeeded in negotiating the slope, and then thrust upward forcefully, a number of times. All that came down was a shower of dead leaves and soot, I spent the next hours in the room. I paced the floor, pondering the events of the evening, and what I couldn't get out of my mind, was the way my wife's sister had looked at me. The way she'd spoken to me, it had infuriated me, the picture of her flouncing out like that, with a sneer on her lips. That sneer. And it wasn't only her, they were all in on it, every single one of them, and I knew I couldn't delay it much longer. The situation was rapidly getting out of hand. They were alarmed now, they knew they'd gone too far.

My wife was most agitated when I sent for her, she stood before me fidgeting with great unease, and was completely unable to meet my eye. I was not easy on her, I was not easy on any of them, why should I be? After what they'd put me through, but despite my anger, I didn't raise a finger, I didn't even raise my voice. Dead of night. Punishment time. I left my room, I listened to the house. Silence. I'm a small-boned, agile man, slightly built, simian, in fact. I padded quickly and quietly up the stairs, two at a time and came to the door of my wife's sister's bedroom. I put my ear to the door. I could hear nothing. I crossed the landing and entered another bedroom, a sleeping child, sprawled on the bed, with sheet and bed clothes tangled about its limbs. Then I heard coughing, and I went down the passage to a room where two of the younger children slept. I would start here.

I went in, and closed the door behind me. I was feeling an immense sadness, oh that it should come to this, two sleeping children, little fragments, delicate, unfinished things, but no less guilty for that. Then the anger came, and I experienced the familiar sensation, the milky feeling, how else to describe it, the sudden loss of clarity, the rapid shift into a sort of pale, sunless, liquid mist. The numbness, watching the horror from somewhere outside one's own body, and when it had passed, when it was over, finding myself once more out in the passage, and again the sadness, again the intense, almost overwhelming sense of sorrow, though something had changed. For now, there was something that was stronger even than the sorrow. Even from upstairs I could tell it had grown worse, much worse.

Rapidly I descended the stairs and unlocked the room, and almost gagged, it was so strong, the wave of foulness that hit me, but in I came and covering nose and mouth with my arm, stumbled to the fireplace and this time ducked my head under the mantelpiece, and stood upright, and the foul sooty blackness, I couldn't help myself. Above my head, bricks projected every three feet, it was stepped, so grasping a brick, I began blindy to clamber up the inside of the fireplace, to the sloping section, there it became more difficult, for the opening was narrow, but I managed to squirm myself up and along my front until I reached the passage of the chimney proper, where I somehow turned myself over in the feted blackness so I could press my back against the one wall of the chimney, get the soles of my shoes hard against the other, legs bent double, and wedged tight like this, start poking upward with the wire.

But to my horror, I'd wedged myself so tight, I couldn't move. I couldn't move. Slowly, the blind, hysterical compulsion that had seized me, faded. Slowly, I began to understand where I was, and what I'd done. The effort then, to suppress panic and terror, and the nausea born of an almost overwhelming stench of putrefying flesh, as a voice inside my own brain whispered "You're suffocating, you're going to die, you're going to die, you're going to die in this putrid chimney." and then the thought "So is it me? Is it me who makes the smell? Am I the thing that drips and stinks?". At last I saw it, at last I saw the ghastly gallows humour of it all. For I was indeed the source, I the smell, I the thing that dripped and stank. Behind the locked door I could still hear her laughing, while I slowly suffocated, stuffed up my chimney like a dirty cork in a bottle of rancid milk.

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