Read an Excerpt
The Perfume Garden
By Kate Lord Brown
St. Martin's Press Copyright © 2015 Kate Lord Brown
All rights reserved.
LONDON, SEPTEMBER 11, 2001
You see, Em, the trouble is they—the doctors that is—said it will give me "closure" (what a ghastly word), to leave a letter for you. I said, "Do you really think I can distill a lifetime's worth of experience into a single letter? Can I say everything I want to my daughter on a few sheets of paper?" I cannot. You know me, I never did stop rabbiting on, did I, darling?
An image of Liberty came to Emma then—her mother sitting on the kitchen table in her grandmother Freya's house. It must have been the late 1970s, because, against the morning sun, Liberty's hair was a chestnut halo of Kate Bush crimping, and Blondie was on the radio. She was flapping her arms as she talked, and Freya was doubled over laughing. Emma was curled up in the dog basket by the stove, eating toast as she cuddled Charles's new pug puppy. That's what she remembered—the certain smell of home, of coffee percolating, fresh toast, the dry biscuit smell of the dog as he pawed at the green enamel "Head Girl" badge pinned to her woolen sweater. Some people's memories lie in images or songs, but for Emma it was always fragrance. Liberty had taught her well, and even as a child she instinctively detected the harmonious notes of the scent accord that to her conjured "home."
"Emma, do get up, darling," Freya had said. "Look at you, your school uniform is covered with hair." Emma remembered the warmth of the dog, the delicious fawn belly wriggling in her small hands. She remembered how Liberty had tickled her until they were both on the floor giggling, the puppy leaping around them. As her mother hugged her, Emma breathed in the scent of her perfume. Roses—Liberty always smelled like a rose garden in full bloom to her: warm, sunlit, a pure soliflore.
As you'll see, I got a bit carried away. I've left you a whole box of letters, one for every occasion I can think of. And I've enclosed my last notebook. I like to think of you picking up where I left off, Em. Promise me you'll carry on. Use it. Fill it with wonderful things.
Emma leaned her elbow on the suitcase at her side. She had been traveling for months, but as the number 22 Routemaster bus lurched through the lunchtime traffic along the King's Road, she felt the days fall away. It was a typical cool, gray London morning, a light autumn breeze scurrying leaves along the pavements. Nothing had changed, except her. The nausea that had dogged her for months welled up again, and she rummaged through her pocket for a mint. The lining had torn, and as she read Liberty's note, she wriggled her index finger down to the hem, searching in vain.
She had turned to the last page in her mother's notebook a hundred times, pen poised, and frozen, unable to pick up where Liberty had left off. Nothing seemed wonderful enough. Emma scanned the note one last time. It was the only one she had taken with her on her travels, and she had read it so many times the paper was falling apart along the folds. The letters were waiting for her, unopened, in a black lacquer box in Liberty's studio.
After her mother's will had been read, and Joe had left, Emma had sat looking at the box for hours as dawn light filtered through the sloping glass roof. She had placed it in the middle of Liberty's desk—a specially built perfumer's "organ" surrounded by tiered shelves of bottles, each one containing a note of fragrance. That was how Liberty had taught her their craft—to think of each essence as a musical note, each bottle on the organ as a key. This was where Liberty had composed all of her masterpieces, where Emma had played as a child. It was the place she still felt her mother's presence most.
The sound of milk bottles being delivered on the street below had roused her finally, and she had lifted off the lid of the box. She wasn't quite sure what she was expecting from Liberty—an explosion of confetti, a coiled paper snake to leap out. She laughed with relief when she saw her mother had simply painted the interior bright orange—her favorite color. Her hand trembled as she lifted the loose sheet of paper on top. Beneath was a parcel of letters tied with cerise velvet ribbon, and the small black notebook. The first envelope was marked "On Family." As Emma read her mother's accompanying note, tears filled her eyes.
I love you, Em. I am so terribly proud of the woman you have become. I can't bear the thought of leaving you, but know my love goes with you, will always be with you. I know that love lives on.
She had been tempted to rip open all the envelopes that morning, to gorge hungrily on Liberty's words. Just reading the note over and over brought her closer. But she waited. When she told Freya she had decided to leave the letters in London while she traveled, Freya had laughed.
"It's up to you, Em," she said. "You always did save your treats, even as a child. I've never known anyone who could make a bar of chocolate last so long."
* * *
Emma took a deep breath, and gazed out of the bus window. It was almost her stop. Perhaps it's time to stop saving the best till last, she thought. She folded the note and slipped it into her mother's Moleskine notebook on her lap, flicking on through the pages illuminated with Liberty's flamboyant handwriting. Words leaped out at her—"neroli," "duende," "passion." Her mother had pasted in cuttings alongside the notes and formulas for the new perfume she had been working on—pictures of orange groves, searing blue skies, a yellowed newspaper advert for a Robert Capa exhibition. It was the famous "falling soldier" picture. Emma traced her finger over the soldier's face, wondered what he was thinking at the moment when death caught him running down that hill. She wondered what he saw as he fell. As she touched the paper, she felt the contours of something beneath. She flipped to the next page and laid her hand on the smallest envelope Liberty had left in the box with the letters. On it, her mother had written an address: Villa del Valle, La Pobla, Valencia, Spain. Inside, there was just an old key. I must ask Freya if she knows anything about this, she thought. Emma had lain awake the night she opened that envelope, turning the key over in her hand, her mind full of possibilities. Typical Mum, she thought, remembering all the magical mystery tours Liberty had taken her on as a child, the trails of clues she had laid for Emma to follow to hidden presents. The chase, the anticipation, was always more fun than the present itself.
Emma turned the pages, glimpsed the melancholy, serene face of a Madonna, a photo of a whitewashed wall with flaming bougainvillea spilling over it. The notes became sparser, the hand less sure toward the end. She sensed Liberty had been looking back, as well as forward. Next to a pasted label from Chérie Farouche, the perfume Liberty had created for Emma on her eighteenth birthday, she had written: "Some perfumes are, like children, innocent, as sweet as oboes, green as meadow sward—Baudelaire." It was still Emma's signature scent. On her it smelled like rain in a garden at first, fresh and intoxicating; then as the green top notes evaporated Emma always thought of the earth, of picking flowers in a forest with her mother. The heart note of lily of the valley and jasmine melded perfectly with the base of sandalwood and musk. Liberty always said the scent was like her—shy but surprisingly fierce. A photograph of Liberty with Emma as a baby was tucked into that page. She flicked on, unbearable longing piercing her as she looked at her mother's beautiful, open smile. Emma paused at her mother's final sketch of a new Liberty Temple perfume bottle, her hurried scrawl: "Jasmine? Orange blossom, yes!"
Then came the poignant empty spaces. The blank pages her mother had left her to fill. Emma blinked quickly as she touched the gold filigree locket around her neck. She hadn't expected to feel so upset returning home. For months, she had convinced herself that she was coping as she sleepwalked through endless meetings. Countries and hotel rooms kaleidoscoped in her mind. Her hand instinctively fell to the gentle swell of her stomach. Something wonderful, she thought. She pulled a pen from her bag, smoothed her hand over the first clean page, then wrote: "Spain."CHAPTER 2
SPAIN, SEPTEMBER 1936
Freya huddled in the back of the truck as it bumped along the road toward Madrid, a purple dressing gown tied over her head against the wind.
"Damn," she said under her breath as they hit another pothole and her pen skittered across the page. She hunched over her dog-eared copy of Gone with the Wind, the pages flapping in the breeze.
Spain is quite beautiful as you know, Charles, she wrote to her brother on the blank back page.
You simply must come. Thank you for the fruitcake by the way. It is a boost to get your letters. It seems like a lifetime since people showered us with flowers at Victoria Station as we left—was it only last month? The drive down from the Spanish border was exhilarating. We had the truck loaded up with toffees and liquorice for the children. At every village we passed, they would come running to us. Women pressed oranges and melons on us—Charles you would not believe the bliss of cold melon when your throat is tight and dry from hours on the road.
We are desperately short of everything in the hospitals. The nurses are exhausted and hungry all the time, and the winter will be worse, but we mustn't grumble. You would not believe how brave and marvelous the people I am working with are. This poor country. I cannot bear it that this civil war is tearing it in two.
Come, as soon as you can. For the first time, there is only one choice for us. We cannot let the fascists crush democracy here. This is our war too, dear brother—every freedom we hold dear is in peril, and we cannot look away for today the fight is in Spain, but tomorrow it could be on our own doorstep.
The truck shuddered to a halt at the first checkpoint outside the city, and Freya looked up. Vehicles streamed past, and she heard a babble of voices, a phone ringing nonstop in the guardhouse. Freya signed the note quickly and tore out the page, stuffing it in an envelope she had ready to send. She untied the arms of the dressing gown from under her chin, and shook out her bobbed blond hair.
"Salud, compañero!" she called to one of the guards. "The post?"
"He comes soon." The soldier motioned for her to pass him the letter. As the truck pulled away, she thrust it into his outstretched hand.
"De nada. You're welcome."
Freya sat back among the other nurses, and looked toward Madrid as they drove on toward the city. She had heard that fifty churches had been set ablaze, and acrid smoke still hung in the sky, dark and sulphurous. This is it, she thought, suddenly aware that they were driving right into the heart of the battle. Freya glanced at the pale faces of the nurses around her and saw her fear reflected there. Pull yourself together, she told herself. Her eyes smarted with the dusty wind buffeting her face. Freya's guts coiled with adrenaline as beyond the crashing noise of the trucks she heard in the distance the first thunderous boom and explosion of war.
* * *
In Cambridge, the last punts of the year drifted along the Backs on the River Cam, autumn leaves swirling in their wake. Charles tucked the letter from his sister Freya into the breast pocket of his tweed jacket, and settled back, his hands laced behind his head.
"How is she?" the fair-haired boy at the stern asked, heaving down on the pole.
"Freya? It sounds ghastly in Spain, to be honest."
"Shall we go or not?"
Charles thought of the copy of Vu he had seen the night before, of Robert Capa's photographs of the war. One of the students from King's had stood on a chair in the pub, thrust the magazine into the air, shouting above the noise of the bar that anyone in their right mind had to join the International Brigades and fight fascism in Spain. Charles was haunted by the photograph of the falling soldier he had seen, could almost feel the impact of the bullet, the thud of the body as it hit the ground.
"Sorry, Hugo. I was just thinking."
"Thinking?" Hugo laughed. "A student of lepidoptery thinking instead of wasting time chasing butterflies, whatever next?"
Charles dipped his hand into the river and splashed water at him. "Hugo, you are my dearest friend, but I'd rather spend my days hunting butterflies than mucking around with those modernist daubs you call paintings—"
"Come on, Charles!" Hugo interrupted. "This matters—we can make a real difference in Spain. I heard there's a chap in Paris sneaking people down on the railway, or over the Pyrenees. I have an address on the Rue Lafayette that we can go to. There's a train of volunteers leaving in a couple of days from the Gare d'Austerlitz. Your friend Cornford said we could be at the training camp in Albacete in a few days."
Charles thought of the Movietone News headline he had seen the night before as the fug of cigarette smoke in the cinema joined the leaping black-and-white flames on the screen: "Civil War follows fascist revolt in unhappy country. All is turmoil." Ever since General Franco's rebel Nationalist forces had staged a coup against the democratically elected Republican government in Spain in July, the students had talked of little else but joining the International Brigades to fight the rebels. This is just the beginning, he had thought, watching the scenes of carnage in the cinema. If they take Spain, fascism will spread across Europe, perhaps the world.
"Charles, let's go tomorrow—"
"I haven't squared everything with Crozier at the Manchester Guardian yet. If there's no job for us ..."
"Then we shall just be common soldiers like the rest of them," Hugo said, laughing. "It would serve you right for spending your savings on that ridiculously expensive camera. You could have bought a car, Charles. Personally I shall just be taking a pencil and notebook."
"Photography is the future, Hugo. If people see a photo, or a film, they believe it, mark my words." He paused. "Still, perhaps it was a bit rash. If we don't get this job I can't afford my ticket down."
"You could always take wedding portraits if you don't make it as a photojournalist."
Charles scowled at him as he stood and took the pole. "Shut up, Hugo. For goodness sake, sit down. You'll tip the ruddy thing over." Clouds scudded across the sky, reflected in the windows of King's Chapel like a bridal train sweeping by. Rain began to pepper the smooth surface of the river.
"At least in Spain we might make a difference. Look at what is going on in my country, what Hitler is doing." Hugo's face fell for a moment. "I can't just hide away here in an ivory tower, much as it would please my parents. It's the first chance we've had to fight back. If we don't, Hitler, Mussolini, Franco ... well, they'll take the whole of Europe." He lit a cigarette, flicked the match into the river. "Besides, it's a beautiful country. I can't bear to think of it being torn to pieces."
"I told you we came back too soon," Charles said. As the rain pattered down on his face, Charles remembered the shimmering June heat of the southern Spanish hillsides near his friend's old house in Yegen, the swish of the dry long grass against his legs, the scent of rosemary and lavender crushed underfoot as he hunted down butterflies. He thought of the snow on the Sierra Nevada, the stars that seemed to glow with unusual brilliance there. "Do you remember how beautiful it is? I can't believe the country is eating itself alive."
"Well, that's civil war." Hugo exhaled a plume of smoke. "The Spanish are a bloodthirsty lot. Bullfights and flamenco, peasants on mules—it's like the Middle Ages still."
"Perhaps it's better than all this," Charles said, idly watching a woman in a beige gabardine mackintosh who was walking a wheezing Labrador along the bank. "There's still passion. They look death square in the eye, see it as the ultimate, culminating moment of existence." He leaned toward Hugo. "The cemetery is the tierra de la verdad, their moment of truth. To the Spanish, all life is an illusion."
Excerpted from The Perfume Garden by Kate Lord Brown. Copyright © 2015 Kate Lord Brown. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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