The Perfume Eater
By R. J. Astruc
16 July 2007
There is a deev on my garden chair.
Okay, technically it's not just my garden. The garden, which amounts to a square of brown lawn and three haggard rose bushes, belongs to all the poor bastards living here in the Wickley Street West tenements. We use it on a time-share basis: I get it every Friday night, when myself and a few work colleagues from Tesco's get wrecked on cheap booze (or, in my case, cheap air-fresheners); the foreign exchange student (Chu? Chung?) from 24D who's studying to be a doctor occupies it on Monday afternoon, so she can relax there after a weekly grilling from her university supervisor; and the latter half of every Tuesday belongs to BZM Tricky of 6D, because that's when he and his fellow drug-dealers like to kick back and talk shop with their 'hos' on moderately-neutral territory. Right now —Tuesday morning—the garden belongs to Mrs. Edwards from 32C, but she's been unwell with gall bladder problems and hasn't ventured outside for four days. So the garden is empty, except for the deev and the chair.
The chair isn't mine either. The chair belongs to Johnny Flannery from 12B, my next-door neighbour. He's twenty-four and has an excitable bodybuilder girlfriend who throws furniture to prove her points. The chair was a casualty of yesterday's domestic; I was coming up the road when I saw the thing fly out over Johnny's balcony, its clumsy trajectory accompanied by two familiar screams: hers, "You useless thieving bastard!", and his, "Heads up below!" Luckily for little Chu (or Chung) studying below, the chair was made of plastic—it landed with a muted thud, bounced once, and then settled upright on the very fringe of the brown lawn. (Chung, or Chu, was shocked, but not hurt. I think she finds Johnny and his girlfriend—and, indeed, all of us tenement-dwellers—very amusing.)
I'm sure Johnny intends to bring the chair back upstairs at some point, but as the body- builder girlfriend spent the night (after some very loud reconciliatory sex), he hasn't had a chance yet. He'd have a hard time getting it away from the deev, anyway. Deev don't like being told by mere mortals to stand up and move. They're stubborn like that.
I stand on my balcony for a few minutes watching the deev. It doesn't notice me, as far as I can tell. I'm walking back inside to fix myself a bottle of something—a hit of Pine-O-Kleen to soothe my nerves, maybe—when the door of my apartment opens and Johnny Flannery of 12B scuffles in. Our Johnny doesn't knock on doors, you see, not with the tricks he can work with a bent wire and a syringe. I've come home more than once to find him sitting in my house, flicking between the news and Coronation Street and scratching his balls like he owns the place. I'm not really complaining, mind. We live in that kind of neighbourhood, you see—if someone breaks in to watch your telly, not steal it, you should count your blessings.
"Zeeeeem," Johnny Flannery says by way of greeting, and rocks back on his heels for a second, his eyes round like he's drinking the room in. "Whiffy in here, ain't it. You hoarding cologne?"
This is something of a running joke between us. My house, out of basic gastronomical necessity, smells like a top-end perfumery on the best of days and a hospital cleaner's closet on the worst. "No more than usual, Johnny," I say, as casually as I can, trying to interpose myself between him and the balcony view.
"I can help you offload it if you want, little man. Hook you up with a mate of mine. Real trustworthy bloke. You'd like him."
"I'm fine, thanks, Johnny."
"You doing okay there, then, Zeem? No problems?"
He's being too affable. My voice comes out tight and musical, the way it gets when I'm uneasy. "None at all, Johnny. Did you need help with something?"
"Yeah, as it happens. You know what that's all about?" He cocks his thumb and his hip in the direction of the balcony and the deev below. "I wake up this morning, right, and I find this weird damn thing squatting on my chair outside. Don't get me wrong, Zeem, I ain't a racist," he adds, misunderstanding my expression. "Got no problems with Arabs. They got a right to be here, immigration's good for the country, I know, I know. Lots of my friends is Arabs. I talk to you, right, I never done you no harm. I'm okay with Arabs, I just got problems with guys with swords."
"It is a very large sword," I agree uncertainly.
"And that funny hat and gloves," says Johnny. "All those horns and spikes and fur."
"I think you'll find that's not a hat," I say. "Or gloves, either."
It surprises me that Johnny can see the deev—although it shouldn't, really, because he can see me perfectly well. It's rare to meet people who can't see me, nowadays. Of course there's still the odd person who picks the long supermarket queue, ignoring me waving and calling from my empty Tesco's checkout. But it's a blood thing, that—like how only the Irish can see banshees and how only Americans can find Jesus' face in their sandwich-meat. You can bet that if I moved a few suburbs east into Halal country, I'd have a heck of a time trying to get service.
Johnny's some kind of multicultural orgy of races, an Irish-Slovakian-Nigerian with a Mexican granny, so he's completely immune to my supernatural esotericism. He's gazing at me now in a probing fashion, eyes narrowed. Finally he says, "You know this guy?"
I've never been a good liar—it's not really something I was built to do. I sure can't fool a guy like Johnny, who lies like a reflex and can spot a fellow hustler a mile away. So I nod a guilty affirmative.
"He sure looks pissed, Zeem," Johnny observes. "What'd you do, ID him for fags?"
"It was something rather worse than that, I'm afr— oh!" I begin, aiming for off-handedness—only it comes out wrong, it comes out as a string of delicate, perfect notes, as an exquisite melody that causes the air to hum for a moment, the telly to blink out a cheerful rainbow of colour and Johnny Flannery of 12B to shift his hand automatically to cover his crotch.
"What in hell was that, mate?" Johnny says, after the echoes have died down. "This ain't no time for you to practice operatics. Geez, you gave me creepers all up my arm. . ." He scratches himself and shudders. "Seriously Zeem, what on earth is going on with you?"
I don't dare to speak again. I can feel my face tickle with pink.
"Fine," says Johnny, after a minute's needling silence. "When you want to talk about it, I'll be right here. And I mean right here—my telly's fizzed out again. But you better talk fast, 'cos my woman will be coming home in a few hours after she's worked off her roid-rage, and woe betide you if she finds your toothy friend has damaged our chair."
He slings his long body across my couch and starts flicking through my cable options, finally settling on repeats of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Nettled, I retreat to the kitchen. There's a can of air-freshener in there with my name on it. That, and half a litre of brandless stain-solvent that I nicked from the cleaner's closet on my nightshift—the kind of stuff that really puts hairs on your chest.
I am not in a people mood today.
Don't get me wrong: I love people. It's something innate and almost necessarily unrequited, written into the very cells of me. I just don't love people terribly much when there is a deev sitting on a plastic chair outside my apartment. I don't mean to sound condescending or patronizing, but in tricky situations like these, people tend to mess things up, and if they aren't messing things up, they're usually somehow getting in the way. For some reason people—bless them!—believe the desire to meddle is a positive trait. I watch my daytime talk-shows, I know their pop-psychology lingo: intervention, support group, counselling. Well, maybe I'm old-fashioned, but I like to keep my problems my problems.
Anyway, there's absolutely nothing Johnny Flannery of 12B can do about a deev.
Turns out my stain-solvent supplies have run dry but the air-freshener still has a few puffs of sustenance in it. Better yet, I've also got a pile of top-of-the-range colognes in a bucket under my sink that Klaus Sladhoven (15B) bought for me on eBay. I lick around the crusted edges of a Pour Homme nozzle and think of Persia.
I have history like some people have emotional baggage. Lives, loves, friends, deaths, betrayals, I can brush them off easy as you please, but it's the time itself that really gets to me. It takes on weight, you see—each day, each month, each year, each decade. Trying to winch a memory out from under all that built-up mental detritus—it's enough to give anyone a migraine. But I guess unfinished business follows its own rules of remembrance, because that deev is suddenly fresh in my mind.
Let's get this straight: I'm not the bad guy here. You might not believe it to look at me, but once upon a time I was a soldier. Oh, I was a very poor soldier, don't doubt it for a minute, but I was a soldier nonetheless. I was a soldier, and there was a war on, and things get very complicated during war and I did a lot of things then which I wouldn't necessarily do again now unless I was in a similar situation or I was really angry or it was self-defense which it was that time anyway. . . and you know it's very easy to look back on things and condemn them now but back then I was a hero and good grief it was only a deev and trapping one isn't really any different from trapping a wild animal. And they used to do it to us, too—they'd catch us and put us in iron cages and laugh and jab us—although we don't bleed.
Also, deev aren't human. Deev don't think the way people do. You can trap a deev in a cave for eleven hundred years without food or water and he won't get bored. Time means little to those who live forever—or as near to forever as makes no discernible difference. A deev can afford to waste a century or so in a jail, or in bed, or in a cave. Or trapped beneath several feet of rock-fall in a little desert cavern so very many miles from anywhere.
It used to be my party-piece, my war story. It wasn't glorious but when you're the underdog, when you're David facing down Goliath, survival itself is heroic. And of course I left out the less valiant parts of the tale, like the hours (days?) I ran barefoot through the desert, the huge bastard's breath hot and bestial on the back of my neck. Or the hours I crawled weeping through tunnels beneath New Persia's soil-skin, thinking only of iron cages and torture and the crude songs they'd make their captives sing.
In the end I was a poor soldier, but a lucky one. Or was a lucky one until I woke up to find a deev on Johnny's chair.
I start filling my pockets with cologne. In the living room Johnny switches off Buffy and mutters a curse word.
"Zeem? Hey, al Djinn? You better come out and see this."
It's BZM Tricky and his gang, swaggering out across the lawn. From my second-floor vantage, it looks like the Wickley Street hood are about to lay down a little West-side law on the deev. Either that, or they're going to see if they can flog some second-grade, cat-nip-cut marijuana to it. Neither option bodes well for the gang's immediate future.
"What do they think they're doing?"
Johnny shrugs. "It's Tuesday afternoon, kid. The garden is their turf now."
By the time Johnny and I get outside, Johnny's plastic chair and its unwelcome occupant are surrounded. Small-time crooks are circling the deev like wild dogs, sizing up its bony heels for a bite. And even from a distance of twenty metres I can smell the deev there, or rather smell its absence of smell. Beyond the potent cloud of cigarette smoke radiating off the hoods, beyond the too-familiar odours of dope and cheap aftershave and those fruit-flavoured condoms Tricky likes to pass out like party favours, there is a palpable nothingness.
Slouching back and forth between the hoods and the deev, BZM Tricky has adopted the mantle of speaker for the house. "What you doin' man? This our spot, big guy. We got it booked." He hisses out the last word with authority and a degree of pride. "Get out of here, yeah? You don't wanna mess with the brothers."
BZM Tricky's real name, incidentally, is Abram Ashkenazi. He is a tall, wiry kid with neon-green hair and a multitude of tattoos aimed at horrifying his Jewish Orthodox parents. I'm not precisely sure how he came from his middle-class, public-school educated roots to the Wickley Street West tenements, but rumour suggests it had something to do with his mother, his unsanctioned liaison with an East London shiksa, and his irreconcilable passion for the likes of Cypress Hill.
I like Tricky; I've helped him out on numerous occasions by opening his door to the police and answering all their questions in heavily accented, no-speakee-English-ese ("He no live here no more, that bad boy!"). I often wonder if Tricky wonders why the cops don't just push past me, like they'd do with any other immigrant they found blocking their path to a sweet narcotics bust. But I've found over the years that people rarely question their good fortune, especially when I'm involved.
"C'mon, git," Tricky insists, feeling reflexively for the gun he keeps down the front of his oversized pants in a ganger-style homage to Mae West.
"Maybe he don't speak English," suggests Tricky's girlfriend, a tall cool glass of iced chocolate who calls herself Alabama Sloane. "Maybe he only speaks some kinda foreign."
The deev says: "Esuw."
"Yeah," says Alabama, "that's foreign for Hello, innit."
Actually, esuw is foreign for foreign, or more specifically foreign human. The deev were never particularly cosmopolitan creatures, and I suspect that Tricky's green hair and Alabama's neon pink parachute tracksuit make them the most exotic-looking people it's ever come across.
"Wonder what he's doing here," she continues. "Maybe he's a refugee like those Nigerians from 29C. Or an escaped mental patient. Or one of those guys who live in the woods and make clothes out of animal skin. I saw one on Discovery channel, he had a knife n' all what he'd made himself out of a stone and a stick and a piece of—"
"He's a soldier," I say.
The hoods turn to stare at me and Alabama gives me twinkly-eyed wave.
"Zeem, how you doin'?" says Tricky, slapping me on the back. "You're some kind of Arab right—you know this guy?"
"Sure he does," says Johnny, who's obviously not out to win any popularity contests today. "Our Zeem's got hisself into a bit of trouble, and not just with me old lady. I reckon he's a secret war criminal." He taps the side of his nose. "I bet this other guy's come to kill him. Or demand money."
"Oh cool, you guys are like enemies?" says Alabama. "Like the Arab mafia. That's pretty tight, Zeem, I never knew you was like that. Hey, if your mafia man gives you any trouble, my Tricky don't mind shooting him for you."
"Can't kill them with bullets," I mutter. "Doesn't work like that."
Behind her the deev's eyes are quick and bright and intelligent, the way a rat's eyes are intelligent. Up close, I'm surprised at how small it seems—larger than a man, certainly, but not that much taller than a man. Long lanky Tricky would come up to its chin, and its shoulders aren't far broader than Johnny Flannery's (who works out, I suppose, to keep up with his girlfriend). Crouched forward in the plastic chair, its hands resting loosely on its thighs, it looks almost human. I'm struck suddenly with a sense of the ridiculous: Yesterday I was swiping groceries wearing a tag reading MY NAME IS KAZEEM and today I'm facing down my ancient adversary.
"The perfume-eater," says the deev. "The Peri."
"A perfume-eater," I murmur. "It's been a while since I've been called that. Peri, pari, fata, fee, fairy. Although not so loud on the last one, they tend to make jokes about that these days. How'd you get out?"
"The earth moved," says the deev.
I remember: there was an earthquake in Iran last week. Two days ago I overheard Misha Farsi, Tesco's favourite honey-in-a-hijab, cheerfully relating details of the tragedy over the phone to a school classmate: Sixteen dead. Not terrorists—just nature. Seven-point-five on the Richter. Ripped the earth apart. . .
I ask: "How did you find me?"
"I smelt you," says the deev. "The stench of your peri-flesh, your filthy perfumes. I could not forget it. I came here for you. Only to finish what went before."
"Yes. I know. It's just—"
The deev's expression is mercilessly serene. "It is just what?"
"Look, I completely understand where you're coming from, but it's all kind of different now," I say. "The war was over centuries ago. Everyone's moved on with their lives. We got careers, and cars, and flats now. I'm not a soldier any more. I work in a shop now selling groceries. I'm not really into, you know, having a great battle or anything right now. If that's okay with you. Things have changed."
I'm thankful we're speaking in a supernatural Persian dialect and not, say, a supra-modern English one, because all this sounds a lot better in Persian, believe it or not. Far less pathetic than the most immediate translation. For instance, the best Persian approximation I can think of for the word car is great steed of steel and fire, and as a substitute for flat I've gone with small, high palace with neighbours in close proximity. As for working in a shop selling groceries, I've promoted myself to merchant of fine produce in great bazaar.
What I can't express is the weight of those years it's lost in the earth. A weight greater, perhaps, than that of the rocks which trapped it so effectively in the cave-in. All that damnable time. And I want suddenly to touch the deev as if it were human, to reassure it, to comfort it, to make things better in any way I can—because I am a creature of love, first and foremost; I am a vessel of goodness, of harmony, of forgiveness, of kindness, of warmth, of tolerance, and not even ten years of chirping out, 'Have a nice day!' from behind my Tesco till has shaken that impulse from me.
Hug first, ask questions later. As I may have suggested before, we peri aren't really known for our great survival skills.
"Does this have to happen?" I ask. Stress has brought out the music in my voice again, and beneath my feet I feel the grass budding at the sound; distantly, birds sing. "Do you have to kill me?"
The deev nods. Rising, it draws its sword in a brisk no-nonsense motion, the same way I've seen Tricky pull his gun on dealers who "sample the product." It lurches onto its feet, and the penetrating non-stink of it drives me back a foot.
"I understand," I say. "Only not in front of them. Please."
As we've been talking, our crowd of spectators has grown. Chu (Chung?) has put in an appearance, despite the fact I know her major thesis is due in a week. There's Emma Copple from 27C, the seventeen year-old high school dropout Johnny bets will become a crazy cat lady before she's thirty. Jim and Bob, the middle-aged ex-hippie homosexuals from 5A, are standing next to Sally and Bernard Soo, the fundamentalist Christians from 9B, who are in turn rubbing shoulders with Mr. and Mrs. Singh, the Hindu couple who sell soft-porn Kama Sutra-inspired magazines on the internet. And there's Jack Garfield from 1B, the plumber, and Hannah Lithgow from 14B, the widow who has a crush on him, and Klaus Sladhoven from 15B, who writes Hannah the love letters she believes are from Jack. And there's others too—all my friends, the people I've lived amongst quietly for years, all of them silently watching me.
I've really screwed this up. Even if I manage to outwit the deev, things just won't be the same anymore in the Wickley Street West tenements. You can't expect to enjoy a nice normal working class life when you're seen publicly conversing with sixth century sword-wielding Persian demons. You can't expect to pass for human when your voice can induce orgasm and you sweat the kind of smells that Chanel could bottle and sell for millions. But I don't—I don't want to have to start again. I've done it before so many times, for so many years. . .
Alabama Sloane says, tentatively, "Zeem, are you okay—"
I take out the bottle of cologne I've been hiding in my jacket and hold it aloft. My hand is shaking. The deev's expression is quizzical. But of course spray-top nozzles, CFCs and the entire concept of aerosols are a few thousand generations after the deev's time. My tenement neighbours look equally confounded by my apparent attempts to fend off a demon with a bottle of Hym: For Men. Except for professional thief Johnny Flannery, who probably knows me a little too well for comfort. Who's picked things up as quickly as he can pick a lock. He's pulled a breath freshener out of the voluminous depths of his leather jacket and has its nozzle trained on the deev.
"I can't let you do this," I say. "Please, I don't want to hurt you—I don't want to hurt anyone—only —"
Taking her cue from Johnny, Alabama has taken out a bottle of Dark Goddess from her handbag. Hannah Lithgow has found a packet of Urge deodorant in hers. The Singhs, who've evidently just returned from a shopping trip, have patchouli oil and eucalyptus. And the rest of them are turning out their pockets and pulling out what they have—deodorant, perfume, air-spray, lip balms, even Tricky's scented shoe-soles. Eau de Revolution. There's a real I'm Spartacus! sensation radiating from the group and I can't help but feel proud.
Arrogantly, the deev raises the sword.
Smugly, we spray him.
Initially the problem of what do we do about the huge horned dead demon seemed impossible, but it turns out that BZM Tricky knows a guy who knows a guy who once had a 'thing' for Alabama Sloane and if he asks the guy's mate's nephew to repay the favour he's owed for talking Johnny Flannery into 'fixing' a few locks in Finchley back in '03, we won't have to worry about corpse disposal. Until then, Mr. Singh has kindly volunteered the boot of his Citroen.
"After all, Mr. al Djinn," he tells me, "you were so very helpful in fetching groceries when my wife and I were sick with the influenza."
What he really means is that I was so very helpful fetching the repeats on their prescription antibiotics when he and his wife were sick with the gonorrhea, but the sentiment still stands.
Hannah Lithgow and her two gentlemen help Tricky and Johnny stuff the deev into the Citroen. The rest of the group has meanwhile dispersed: the Soos to bible study, the hoods to finish their dealings in the privacy of Alabama's apartment, Emma Copple to court stray felines, Jim and Bob to tend to their new crop of marijuana, and every one else to, hell, wherever people go when the fun is over. Hannah gives me a hug before she leaves, arm in arm with her two men.
"I always knew what you was," Johnny explains, as we lug the plastic chair up to his apartment. "Me grandmum is big on that spiritual shit—she tole me straight first time she saw you. You fairy-types, you're meant to look after us humans, right? Well you done that plenty 'round here. What you got to understand now is that if you got our back, right, then we got yours. Goes both ways. Your problems, mate, are our problems." He wraps an arm over my shoulder. "Also, you got me my chair, and my woman'll be happy tonight."
I think: intervention, support group, counseling, but there's none of that. Just Johnny's simple little synopsis of Wickley Street West life.
"Catch you round, Zeem. Don't stink up your apartment too much, eh."
I leave him at the door of 12B and continue on into 12A, where I'm sure to find a celebratory cup of Morning Fresh with my name on it. And as I settle back on my couch to watch the re-runs of East Enders, feeling human-loved and deev-free, I can't help but think that, finally, a little bit of this neighbourhood belongs to me now.