I was going to write about how September has, so far, been a riveting month spent reclaiming quotidian experiences nixed by the pandemic, such as travelling on public transport for the first time since March (the Overground from Finchley Road to Shoreditch last Friday) and reclining in the cinema for the first time since I don’t remember when (Tenet on the gigantic BFI Imax screen on Saturday) but, with breaking news of an impending UK clamp down that will last who knows how long, these precious slash ordinary moments may once again be unavailable while we Don’t Kill Granny.  That said, Autumn gear changes ushered in by back-to-actual-school mean a quiet house and much less unpacking and repacking of the dishwasher, which in turn has freed up valuable thinking time.  Background processing if you will. So, in the spirit of a sharing, I’m going to disgorge my grey matter for your edification. The subject of this brain dump newsletter is my own personal WTF situation which I shall call: 

My Olfactory Hijinks

The story so far.

Let’s try to be dispassionate and scientific about this. I had coronavirus late March early April and it lasted about three weeks: headaches, body aches, extreme fatigue, bit of a cough. As the illness ran its course, I had the sudden and alarming symptom of complete loss of smell and taste, which lasted 10 days and only very, very tentatively returned.  During these sensory absences, lost in the hinterlands of anosmia, I could have swallowed vinegar, eaten the world’s hottest chilli or scoffed the dog’s hypoallergenic biscuits without a second thought. Nothing registered. Okay, so far, so normal. Loss of smell and taste is an official symptom of Covid19, this we know. But it’s the lasting, seemingly now permanent effects, that for me, are perplexing. There’s loss of aftertaste for starters. If, say, I ate something heavy on the garlic, salt and spices, for example, I wouldn’t have that cloying sensation on the tongue after the meal. When I brush my teeth there’s no lingering minty-ness.  Ditto, the after-sense of coffee – gone. There’s no flavour that seems willing to hang about, they pack up and depart without a backward glance. 

Perhaps you’re saying, why complain? Isn’t it, after all a kind of superpower. A liberation? You could serve me the world’s most pungent Baba Ganoush and I’d be able to gnash it down, smug in the knowledge that my burps would taste of nothing but air, that my tongue would remain calm and benign under the garlicky assault on my taste buds. I suppose any poor bastard I breathed Baba Ganoush breath on would tell a different story, but, hey, this is why we now have facemasks!  What I’m concerned about, I suppose, is the fact that I have some lasting kind of brain damage. That some receptors are blunt and will remain blunted. If we were given an aftertaste it must be useful from an evolutionary perspective and so I wouldn’t mind having mine returned.

But there is a more perplexing symptom. I shall try to explain and hopefully you won’t want to file my woes along with other such case studies in The Man Who Mistook His Wife For a Hat. During my recovery from corona, which involved months of a weird kind of insomnia and muscle aches, I was visited, one fateful evening, by what I can only describe as a phantom smell.  It entered my nostrils during a fever dream. During those febrile moments, thrashing in the sheets, it seemed to me that a rotten armchair inhabiting my dreamscape became real and directed a noxious scent towards my pillow. I could almost see the fumes wafting, cartoon style, tinged yellow and green, entering my nostrils and permeating my brain. Since that night, this smell has accompanied me throughout my daily existence, bothering and harassing me with its unfamiliarity. It co-mingles, for example, with the scent of coffee, which for me has always been my number one aroma. Coffee to me, now smells like tangy garbage, but peculiar garbage I have never smelled before; a garbage that consists of a thousand ground onions mixed with chemical residue from a textile factory and the underside of a bat’s wing. My most treasured face cream which I adored for its scent above its potential ability to renew my collagen now smells of… clay. Bolognaise smell of rusty nails. I could go on.

 When this olfactory haunting was at its peak, I could detect the signature phantom smell in specific places and began to make mental note of them. In gardens near certain flowers, in carparks, while cooking and within proximity to garbage cans and armchairs. I then began to wonder whether this curious smell I’ve never smelled before was actually linked to the sudden prevalence of hand sanitiser in our environment. Was it emanating from passing handbags and people’s palms? Or maybe it was intrinsically related to the thousands of disposable face masks in the near vicinity. When we were road tripping I wondered whether it was particular to France, or onions in French supermarkets, though I knew deep down that the smell had followed me from home and was now haunting my holiday.

So, I ask you. Is this problem onion related? Is the ‘onion region’ in my cerebral cortex, somehow blasted with Covid19 damage? Or has anosmia now left me with olfactory hallucinations? There may be silver lining attached to the loss of aftertaste, but the constant smell of an onion and hand sanitizer soaked rotting armchair seems, well, disturbing. At best.

I’m not sure what to make of it. I certainly haven’t read about severe olfactory dysfunction being a new symptom of anything and am not sure if I need a nasal spray or a lobotomy. But I’d be interested to hear your thoughts.

Hoping your senses remain intact. 

Hands, face, space.