Story- The Scent of a Lady

The Scent of a Lady

by Glynda Shaw

“If you must do this,” Bethany said crossly, “do you have to pour on that chintzy perfume?”

“I didn’t!” I protested. “Soap, shampoo, both herbal. Nothing more.” Beth made a nonbelieving noise as near to a snort as she allows herself.

“Fine,” she said.

Then I smelled it too.

I’d never been to Victoria this late in October and though chilly, perhaps eight or nine degrees C, there was a clearness and what I’d call a kind of ‘psychic sparkle’ about Halloween. Keeping hold on Beth’s elbow I negotiated the steps up to the Bedford Hotel where my sister had been staying for the last few days. A sudden gust of wind caused me to draw my recently purchased Killarney shawl closer about my shoulders (A hundred and sixty-five bucks for a Halloween costume!) Beth had chided me. Well, it seemed to go with the Value village ball gown I’d picked up for twelve-fifty.

From across the street erupted “No, nay, never… (clap-clap, clap-clap-clap) No, nay, never no more! Shall I play the wild rover… No never, no more!” In spite of the sudden chill I’d have stayed to listen a bit but Beth was hurrying to get inside.

“Whew,” she said. “I’d best go upstairs for a warmer wrap.” The perfume smell had gone as quickly as it had come.

“I’ll stay down here,” I said. Something had drawn my attention and I wanted some time alone in the lobby to see if I could start another argument.

“Okay then,” Beth said. “Don’t get lost or something.” When her heels had click-clack-thunked into the elevator I made my way toward the desk, holding my cane diagonally across my front, the tip just a little ahead of my left foot. A knot of low-conversing persons seemed to be forming here. I heard the words Ghost Tour and Haunted Walk repeated several times. My professional interest piqued, I identified the voice of the desk clerk and with minimal cane sweeps and a few murmured excuse me’s located the tail of the line.

“Can you tell me please,” I said, when I’d gained the Formica countertop, “something about this ghost tour?” It being Halloween I didn’t concern myself overmuch with her judgment of me should be, so took no special pains with my voice. If she judged me a guy than I’d be dressed as a girl. If a girl, then I was a well-to-do Irish lass, faith and begorrah!

“Victoria is a very haunted city,” she told me somewhat smugly. “We have guided ghost tours throughout the year, but it being Halloween tonight, we’re having several tours?” She said it with the upward lilt at the end of her sentence that Canadian women often employ, making everything sound like a question?

“What’s the price?” I asked.

“Twelve fifty.” she said. “That’d be ten dollars American?” I slapped down a credit card on the counter.

“You take Visa?” I inquired, imitating her lilt but not adding ‘Eh.’

“Oh, no,” she said, “We prefer cash.” This time no question mark and she said it like I’d laid down something scraped from the bottom of my shoe in front of her.

“You prefer cash,” I temporized easily, “But what else can I use if I haven’t cash?”

“We prefer cash?” she said again.

“I heard you?” I responded. “You’re telling me then that if I haven’t any cash, I can’t go on the tour?”

“Yes.” she replied. “That would be essentially true?” This time the snottiness was plain enough for even a remedial freshman to read and I was on the sheer verge of telling her she could be after screwing herself altogether then; but a hiss in my ear deflected me briefly.

“You’re not causing trouble again?!”

“Again? Of course not.”

“Hmmm.” Beth said. “Do you need money or something?”

“I didn’t bring any,” I said, retrieving my card. “Isn’t it you who’s always on about two girls traveling alone and muggers behind every bush?”

Beth snapped open her purse. “How much?” She said in that After This You Had Better Give Me No More Trouble, voice.

“Sure and there’s no need,” I said airily, letting the Irish flow into my speech. “I’m thinking there’s something much more amusing we could be after.” I stepped out of line. To tell the truth, the double Bushmills I’d recently quaffed was sitting dangerously on my nearly empty stomach and I so love to needle charlatans that I didn’t trust myself, Irish bitch or no, to tag along with the group itself.

“Alright then,” My elder sister demanded when we’d once more gained the broad lobby steps. “What is it that’s so much fun and why does it seem I always get into trouble when I decide to spend a little time with my Little Brother?”

Choosing not to confront directly I observed “This appears to be right where we came in, and now who is it who’s wearing too much perfume.”

“I never,” Bethany protested.

“Not even a little just for payback?” I demanded in my turn. “Unfair and erroneous that might be.”

“Not even a little,” she denied. “Do you think I’m that childish?”

“Do you want that answered?” I asked. “Do you smell that?” Beth’s shoulder moved against mine in the way that indicates she’s nodding.

“Someone must’ve taken a bath in it and passed out right ahead of us.”

“And I’m about to pass out,” I agreed. but I didn’t quite agree with her analysis. While it’s true that someone wearing perfume or a heavy cologne will leave a scent trail followable perhaps five minutes later, this didn’t appear to be such an aftermath. The smell had structure if you will.

I’m synethesic with smells and shapes. Synesthesia is a condition most common among women, characterized by a close association between one sense and another, consistently imagining a particular color when a given name is uttered for instance or in my case, noting shapes, patterns, structure when a given odor is sensed. This smell was definitely the same one we’d noted on entering the Bedford, but it couldn’t truly be described as “cheap”. It was striking sure enough and it was definitely businesslike in nature with a coiling ropy interior and a billowy roundness on the outside, with little knife points of sharpness here and there. A combination worn by a professional woman I’d judge, one whose profession would likely belong to a seamier part of this city, not here on Government Street; but it was Halloween. I heard voices issuing from an exit a little further along, so I decided I’d accept my sister’s theory of a recent passerby, which shows how sloppy even someone who makes a living sensing things and integrating facts can sometimes be.

The musicians from the Irish Way, the pub across the street from where we stood, had now broken into ‘Raggle Taggle Gypsio.’ The crowd, both those within and those standing out on the walk, were shouting along and whistling piercingly as I strained to catch the rather subdued tones of schooled pedantry which was leading a collection of shoes from that far entrance. “This way,” I said, tugged on Beth’s elbow “Let’s keep back a bit.”

“Oh really Chris, isn’t this rather sophomoric, just to save a few bucks?”

“Stipulated,” I said. “by the way, I’m in costume. I’m Steph.”

It isn’t as if I don’t believe in ghosts. In fact I’ve known quite a few personally. Back in Grad school at Western, I took a bus ride dressed as a woman, this being an integral part of my thesis topic in Gender studies. I’d fell into conversation with my seat mate, another young female who invited me to her apartment for the night. I needed to stay in Seattle for a conference. At least that’s how the trip had begun. Norma walked with me through a bus change downtown, and into one of the more derelict areas of Seattle’s Capital Hill. All the time I’d been chattering away with her, so far as anyone else could see; I was talking to a void, or more likely, to myself. Norma walked me right through her own death and out the other side.

No, I don’t know if my blindness is a factor in spirits being attracted to me. The assumption generally made when a blind person shows empathy, compassion, understanding, is that these traits exist because the person is blind, as if there’d be no option to be otherwise. While I think that I am empathetic and I do a very special kind of nurturing in my capacity as a psychic investigator, I have no idea how much my lack of Outer Vision (as I like to call it) affects these traits.

A tendency of mine to appear in female apparel, passing generally I think, does have something to do with my relative success in the work I do. Spirits read cues just as the rest of us and gender is an important factor for them as well as for living folks. Most of the victims I am hired to find and in somewise to guide when I can, are wounded females. The clothes, the speech, the style of conversation is at the least useful and very possibly essential.

At this moment however, I wasn’t aiming to find or guide anyone, save Beth perhaps, into some mischief. This was Halloween, which has no more to do with ghosts in fact than any other time of the year and the only thing I intended to find was some fun. I was finding the notion of ghosts standing as exhibits for a horde of gawking tourists to be very amusing!

“Come on,” I told Beth again as the crowd of maybe a score of group members moving off down the street with their clipped-speaking guide.

“He’s really quite something,” Beth spoke to my ear over the traffic noise. “Dark suit, kind of funereal looking I guess, Bowler hat, walking cane with a skeleton head on it.”

(‘When the trees still bloom in November, When blossoms still grow from each tree, When the leaves are still green in December, it’s then that our land shall be free.’)

We turned the corner and the female vocalist receded as distance grew between us and the pub. The group paused near a traffic light and I strained to hear what that guide was saying. It appeared that a love triangle had led to a murder in a building nearby.

“You haven’t been smoking a cigar have you?” Beth demanded.

“No. Have you?” I replied. “What is this, pick on your kid sister night!?” Beth elbowed me in the ribs. “I just smell it so strongly,” she complained.

“Me too.” We moved off across the street, Beth and I missing the light, not wishing to appear too obvious. We visited a store called Seeing is Believing, now a sort of joke store, once the national bank. In snatches I heard about a young teacher living in an upstairs room, troubled by a grimly staring face across the street from her window and the subsequent police inquiry which yielded only locked store rooms clogged with old furniture and windows so grimed that no one would be able to see through it let alone use it to peek at a nervous school marm. (Typical!) “toward the end of our walk,” our guide said, “I’ll tell you the rest of the story.”

“Paul Harvey, eh?” I whispered to Beth. She snickered and picked up the pace as we turned toward Roger’s chocolates, a venerable manufactory and dispensary of admittedly first rate confections and heard a rather messy tale of spiritual stompings of newfangled candies into the downstairs carpet.

“This is kind of interesting,” Beth opined. “I wonder if I could just go give him the money and–.”

“Bite your tongue, young woman!”

“Why not?”

“Matter of principle,” I said. “Now shut up so’s I can eavesdrop.”

“Now we approached the Maritime museum which had once been the town jail and location of the gallows as well as burial site for unclaimed criminals. “Oldest elevator in North America,” The guide declaimed. “Called ‘The Bird Cage,’ many apparitions experienced in the cage itself and even more in the courtroom upstairs.”

“Has anyone been following us?” I inquired as we moved on about what would obviously be a circuit bound back to our starting point. A wind whooshed up suddenly billowing my skirts and chilling my legs, clad only in their tights, clear to the thigh.

“No,” Beth said. “Why?”

“Cigar smell again,”

“Me too.” another street crossing. South wind blew back scraps of commentary.

“Businesses in this area… basements dug into soil near graves… most shopkeepers report apparitions…” A china shop we were breasting just now, was a site of rather decorous hauntings it seemed. Saucers and cups rearranged, rejected items piled neatly the floor. Women claiming to have been supported in mid fall on the cellar stairs while burdened with heavy boxes.

Beth inquired “He was going to tell us the end of that story wasn’t he, that one about the teacher and the threatening figure staring at her from the window across the street?”

“Yeah I agreed. “The grimy windows and the locked store rooms?”

“Right,” she said. “You know, it was the creepiest feeling. When we were standing there it seemed like someone was staring at us from that same window. Nobody else seemed to notice anything.”

“One out of five people are able to perceive ghosts,” I said, quoting an earlier comment of our guide.

“I’ve just got to know the end of the story.”

“We’ll find out,” I told her.

“No we won’t! I’m damned sure he’ll end up behind closed doors and shut us out. I’m going to go get a ticket.”

“Fine” I agreed. “I’m having fun on the cash free tourist plan. You go ahead.”

“You’re staying out here by yourself?!” Beth demanded in that way she has.

“Sure,” I said. “What could happen? You double back and wait for them, I’ll track them the rest of the way around. We’ll meet up back at The Ponderosa.” Beth started to argue but it was safe enough after all. Victoria has charming little chirpy-tweety noise makers at important intersections and Canadian drivers actually stop at crosswalks!

“Okay,” she sighed and the click-click of her heels receded until lost in the noise of the energetic Halloween landscape. I had lost track by then, of our group. Well, it couldn’t have wandered far off. I’d just follow the direction they’d been heading and bend toward the next leg of the rough square we had so far described. I should find them on the next block over.

Some minutes of walking failed to produce the self-assured sounding little man (He’d also sounded little,) with his gaggle of ghostateers, but the evening though brisk was fine and my shawl was warm in a motherly sort of way. As long as I continued the square I shouldn’t drift too far and after all, there should be another tour yet this evening. The singing had stopped by the time I regained the front stairs of the Bedford. I wasn’t wearing a watch and wondered how long we’d spent on my admittedly rather adolescent spying expedition. No Beth but she’d had known where I’d be, so perhaps she’d gone upstairs for still more wraps, or perhaps to use the loo since she has a horror of public bathrooms.

I put my cane into diagonal and ascended the steps of our hotel. The left-hand door swung open and someone held it for me. I murmured thanks then made my way into the lobby. No particular bustle at the counter and since I’d been pretty rude to the poor desk clerk I decided to steer clear of that area. From the left I heard a sort of echoey emptiness which might suggest a flight of down stairs. I veered in that direction to investigate a bit since I’d thought the lobby gave off only to corridors and elevators, I having been here only a few hours.

Sure enough, it was a flight leading down to the basement most probably, cement or perhaps stone, quite steep. From the bottom the clinking of glassware and a middle of voices with the occasional inebriated shout.

“Hi, c’mon!” Someone shouted to someone else. Just now it seemed a good enough idea with the continued and conspicuous lack of Bethany. Everyone else seemed to have departed the lobby for more exciting times elsewhere, so why not Stephanie McSweeny Carlson, her mother’s daughter?!

With my cane handle I located the pipe railing of the stair well and began my descent, treading carefully in my flat but narrow evening shoes. Cigar smoke again. While smoking bans were breaking out all over The States it seemed that North of the Border cigar smoking must be enjoying a renaissance. I judged this to be an artifact of the ventilation system for the lower levels of the establishment. Since I was certain nobody else was in here with me. I reached a landing and turned on the switchback to continue downward. Stepping off the first riser I felt glass crunch under my heel and close at hand a muffled groan, gurgling and terrible.

“Who’s there?” I demanded and passed my free hand down toward where the noise had come from. I contacted wool I thought, a man’s suit perhaps, but slick with blood. The smell of recently extinguished cigar was overpowering. I went to my knees besides the person whoever he was, and lowered my ear toward his face to catch what he was trying to say.

“Oh God,” the voice, brogue-rich and agonized choked out. how I loved her. I loved her but she’s sliced me up. Aye, broken a bottle and she’s done for me!”

“Who has?” I asked not too usefully.

“The Lady,” he said as if this should be sufficient to know her by. At this point I recovered from my shock and called “Hold on Sir,” I jumped to my feet. Ignoring the slick of blood he’d evidently brought with him up the stairs I ran downward, hanging to the rail. “Help!” I screamed disregarding whatever suspicions my voice might occasion. “There’s a man stabbed there, dying!” As I reached the bottom of the stairs I felt a body hurtle past me, then another.

“Lay quiet Brady,” I heard a coarse but gentle voice directing. Then another, higher in pitch and a bit more nasal.

“He’ll lay quiet alright. There’s nothing more anyone can do for him now.” A choked down sob then and a kindly, very diffident voice at my elbow.

“May I help you Miss?”

I fell to shaking then and heard my own weeping as if from someone else far away. The room began to revolve about me and a hand took my arm, leading me to a table. A chair was pulled out; no matter how often these things happen one never gets accustomed.

“You’ll be better in a little,” the barman declared softly. Then, as he moved away, he murmured “Poor Brady.”

I’m not much for cosmetics having been raised by an ex-hippie mom who taught organic gardening, whole foods, and take care of your skin along with the ABCs and the rhymes of Mother Goose. This being Halloween though, I’d applied both lipstick and mascara rather liberally and I’m sure I was blackening down both sides of my face.

“Have you are,” my benefactor again at my elbow, placed in my hand a cool glass. “This’ll prop you up a bit.” He said then, “what a gawdawful thing to have to come across, rest his soul.” I began to protest that I had no money, but “On the house,” he assured me. “If you need anything else Miss, just call out Jake!”

I sipped at the glass and found it to be a rather robust red wine. I suppose I needed no more liquor but need it or not I was glad enough of it. Staying stone sober as I’d become by now wasn’t calming the shakes. I remembered to take lady like sips but plied quickly and often and soon had the glass drained. It was refilled and I treated that offering as the first.

“You’ve blood on your dress.” A muzzily affected voice spoke from my left hand. I hadn’t heard anyone draw up a chair but could literally feel the redolence of claret and the enveloping sphere of that perfume about us, waving the swaying in the minor breezes of the tap room. I touched my dress front where the shawl had fallen open and ran my fingers south of my padded bosom.

“Here” she said. Icy fingers took my hand and moved it to a spot where the fabric clung to my skin. Instinctively I snatched the hand away, wiping it on the bottom of the table. Without evident offense my companion added “And you could use help with your eye make-up, Love. Shall I show you to the Ladies’?” She in drew a breath suddenly as if suddenly astonished and “It’s true you can’t see?”

“It’s true,” I said. With the shock still in me and two glasses of Merlot it struck me that a low-at-heels pub room was perhaps not the best place for me in my present condition and guise. If accompanied to the ladies’ room perhaps I’d withstand at least casual scrutiny. I got onto my wobbly pins and slid the chair back under the table. Reaching out my hand rather automatically to take her arm then stopped myself, “may I take your elbow?”

“Certainly.” she extended a satin clad arm and the scent of perfume increased. This sort of thing is supposed to be universal in the States though it’s still misunderstood. Come to think of it I’d never been walking with a stranger in Canada before and wasn’t sure what was customary if anything for leading blind people. Holding a person’s hand leaves too much uncertainty as to her body movements and she needs to lead one literally like a child. Holding a shoulder causes one to step in too close and tread on heels. Holding the elbow allows easy communication of what the sighted person is doing and she can walk naturally at her own gait with a practiced blind person following easily and with no need for complex instructions.

I caught the powder room door as The Lady passed before me. Suddenly I realized I needed the loo for more than just a place to repair face paint. I excused myself, availed and reemerged. I do carry a purse but had left it back in our room since this had been an impulsive foray out in the evening air, a lark as it were.

“Here dear,” my new friend said, “Come over to the sink then. I’ve a wipe here.” Waiting for me to finish washing my hands she hand me a towel and herself plied the tissue to my face, dabbing at my cheeks, my eyes. “Tis a bit better,” she pronounced. “Now turn this way let me get at that stain.” With several applications of wet then dry paper towels I was judged good enough to make it up to my room perhaps, “though change as soon as you get there,” she admonished. then “What’s your name Dear?”

“Stephanie,” I told her, and since this had been a very Irish night I added “Stephanie McSweeny.”

“And you have another name too,” No question mark, no upward lilt.

“Yes,” I told her.

“And I,” said she “Am called The Lady Churchill.”

“Meaning,” I said “That you’d be having another name as well?”

“That I do,” she replied “But nobody knows what it is. I’m just the Lady Churchill.” It was then that she began to wail.

“A horrible awful fit,” she said when she once more could get words out. “Awful jealousy. But he made me so desperately jealous and I loved him so much! Poor Brady!”

“Yes,” I said “I know.” I put out my arms. This is a tricky business, touching, embracing an apparition for by now I’d pretty much figured out where I must be and with what I was dealing. I sometimes think that ghostly appearances have more to do with the not quite straight flowings of time, the doublings back and the whirlpooling that occurs in any extensive river system. Like dreams ghosts are apt to vanish when touched too closely, but she did not, just now. I later learned from the Good Mr. Adams that Vancouver Island on which Victoria stands, appears to be fraught with ghostly activities, having, he thinks, to do with the underlying bedrock and the mineral makeup of the place.

Lady Churchill wept on and on and I continued to hold her, wetting my dress front all over again. At last, I found the dispenser of towels and wetting several, applied them in my turn to her face, which felt plenty solid beneath my probing fingers.

Fully under control once more, she inquired “You’re looking for the other girl with whom you were walking?”

“My sister?” I said. “Yes.”

“I’ll lead you to her” she said, and giving me her arm, she led me out of the washroom and now out some side exit, into the night air. “What place is this?” I asked.

“The Churchill,” she said. and was gone.

“Where have you been!” Beth’s alarmed voice now appeared right at my elbow. “I was about to call the RCMP or something!” I guess she hadn’t yet time to look at my face. “You’ll never guess who it was staring back at the school teacher from the abandoned storerooms with the grimed over windows!” she enthused. Then she told me what poet it was, but I’ll not tell you because it is worth $10, $12.50 Canadian just then; to the Good John Adams, he of the bowler and the skull head cane. “I got in on the end of the tour. He’s really a remarkable little man. Fascinating stuff. And,” she lowered her voice, “I’m sure he never needs to wear dresses.”

It’s then I suppose that she first got a look at me, perhaps in a street light. “My God, what happened to you?” “What’s that on the front of your gown?”

“Is it blood?” I asked.

“No,” she gasped. “Should it be?”

“No,” I said, “I suppose not.” (That was then, this is now.)

“It looks though,” she said, “as if someone’s been crying all over the front of you.” The cloud of scent enveloped us once again and at the edges the acrid tinge of the spent cigar.

“He loves you too,” I said, off toward my left elbow where the perfume seemed the most intense.

“Who are you talking to!” Beth demanded. “My God it creeps me out when you do things like that!”

“The Lady Churchill,” I told her.

“How did you know about her?” she demanded. “Did you catch up with the tour again?”

“Rather,” I told her.

“What an evening,” said Beth. “Though I think I’ve had enough of ghost hunting for one Halloween.”

I smiled, ruefully I thought.

“The hotel we’re staying in used to be called The Churchill.” Beth, not to be knocked off her stride, began again. “It was the scene of a particularly bloody murther,” back in the 20s or 30s!”

“Yes, I know.”

Across the street the tavern folk were still in full voice though the evening seemed to be growing toward melancholy and remembrance.

‘If I had money enough to spend and leisure time to sit awhile

There is a fair maid in this town who sorely has me heart beguiled

Her rosy cheeks and ruby lips

I own she has me heart in that’ral!

So fill to me the parting glass

Good night and joy be with you all!’

I wrapped my shawl about me and reached for Bethany’s elbow. “I love you Sis,” I said “And I owe you ten dollars.”

“What’s that about? You screwball!” She said and wrapped an arm about me. “Why, you’re trembling!”