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What smell?

It must have a summer Saturday afternoon in 1995 or 96. Temperatures were sky high and Nick and I thought we’d pop across to the Isle of Sheppey, a short distance from Sittingbourne where we then lived. The plan was to do one of our favourite walks from Harty Church across the nature reserve to Shellness, loop inland  past Muswell Manor and back to the car through the hare sanctuary area.

It wasn’t to be. Every inhabitant of North Kent (it seemed) was heading for the beach at Sheerness and the very long, slow queue for the bridge onto the island put us off. So we peeled off to the left and headed for another favourite walk which starts and finishes at Upchurch.

We had the car windows wide open because it was hot and air conditioning was not standard then. Along the lane we passed, a few feet away, a glorious field of flax in full, bright, azure blossom its sweet, floral scent almost overpowering “What a fabulous smell!” I said.

“What smell?” asked Nick. I could hardly believe it. In fact I thought he was winding me up. When I’d got my incredulity under control he added “Actually I don’t think I can smell much at all now. I’ve been noticing it for some time. And it means I can’t taste much either”

“Well” I said flippantly. “If you have to lose a sense I suppose it’s better than sight or hearing”. I was more amused and exasperated by it than anything else. But from then on it was a problem, albeit a fairly minor one.  A few months later I got home from work to find the kitchen stinking of burning. When questioned Nick, explained that he’d made toast for lunch. The slice of bread got stuck in the toaster but he hadn’t noticed it until he saw smoke. Blimey. Put smoke alarms in pronto.

Nick’s grandfather – who lived lucidly into his 80s and died of bowel cancer – lost his sense of smell too so we assumed it was hereditary and I don’t think it was ever mentioned to a doctor.

If, these days, anyone mentions anosmia – the medical term for loss of sense of smell and taste – my heart plummets because it’s a recognised early symptom of Alzheimer’s (as well as being, coincidentally associated with Covid19.) Of course, back in the mid 1990s I knew none of this and just thought it was a bit of an inconvenience.  Would it have helped Nick (or me) to have had this information 25 years ago? No. There is no cure for this disease. As it was, he had the certain knowledge he had a terminal illness for only 28 months which is preferable to a couple of decades, I think.

On the other hand, there is a lot of talk about, and research into, early intervention these days. But I’m still not convinced that it would do the patient’s mental health any good. So If I hear of, or meet anyone, with anosmia, I say nothing.

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Susan Elkin Susan Elkin is an education journalist, author and former secondary teacher of English. She was Education and Training Editor at The Stage from 2005 - 2016
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