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Sunday, 16 February 2014

Scent of a woman

I would love to be able to identify the perfume a woman is wearing instantly, the way Frank Slade does.

"Mmm, Fleur de Rocaille," I'd go and she'd be so impressed she would leave her husband, who makes millions in the bond market but neglects her needs, and come away with me to have my babies.

Unfortunately I have the same problem with perfume as I do with classical music. I recognise lots but the names elude me. There are only three scents I can identify with certainty. And one of them is engine oil.

It's what my dad smelled of, so I still like it. Then there's Chanel No 5, my mum's favourite fragrance. And Coco, also by Chanel, a spicy scent my sister used in her thirties.

So when I join my former colleague Gabrielle at the corner table in Café Andaluz, I am pretty sure the expensive perfume that wafts my way is Coco. But just as I'm about to do a Frank Slade and say so, the doubts assail me. 

What if it isn't? Instead of sounding sophisticated I'll just seem crass. Plus Gabrielle and I have never had the sort of sub-sexual relationship in which I complement her perfume and she likes my after-shave. What we have is entirely professional and based on mutual admiration. I admire her enormously and so does she.

I'm kidding. Gabrielle is a modest, soft-spoken, slightly-built sort of person, all of which is surprising for someone in her position. I always pictured newspaper editors as large, loud and abrasive - the sort of guys, if you came up short on a story, who would chew three legs off a chair before beating you to death with the fourth.

Gabrielle is nothing like that. Nor does she resemble my previous female boss, who survived in the hard male world of engineering by being extra smart and wearing tight, red skirts around an ample bum. If the brains didn't give her the upper hand at a tough meeting, the body would.

Gabrielle follows a third way. Her combination of charm, intelligence and hard work won everybody over. Except maybe me. She and I travelled the same road mostly but there were a couple of bumps along the way. In the end she used a word about me I couldn't forgive. She said I was sensitive.

See, in the West of Scotland it's fine for women to be sensitive. It means they like Dolly Parton songs and don't beat their men up more than once a week. But when it comes to guys, sensitive is a euphemism.

It means soft, effeminate and temperamental. Gabrielle let slip once that I was one of those writers who had to be "handled carefully". I guess she had a point. I blame Albert Einstein. 

I'll spare you too many details, but I wrote a piece about science education that included a footnote linking to an explanation of an aspect of relativity I'd written for young learners. It got praise and I was pleased with it. 

A few days later, faster than light neutrinos filled the media and folk were lining up to say relativity was busted. Gabrielle suggested deleting my footnote. I told her relativity was a bedrock of modern physics and had survived so many tests this one was almost certainly wrong. And even if it wasn't, = mc 2 would survive unscathed. 

But my footnote did not appear and when I emailed to ask why, she replied that someone on television had said something different to me. "Tough decision," she added, which I read as sarcasm and my head exploded. 

I seethed and simmered, called a meeting and asked why it was so obvious that the opinion of some random TV punter, filtered through her non-scientist ears, was much better than mine. The expression in her eyes, even before she spoke, told me I'd got it wrong. 

"It was a scientist from CERN," she said. "I really meant it was a tough decision. I never do sarcasm. Ever."

I believed her and apologised. But from then on I had a label on my forehead that said "Fragile, handle with care." 

You know what it's like when you've got it wrong with somebody. It makes you nervous. So I sit down, we order a selection of Andaluz tapas and I suppress the urge to mention her scent

And what do you know? She mentions mine. "It's Lynx, isn't it?" she says. "My son used to wear it when he was sixteen."

"You like it?" I say.

"It's lovely," she tells me.

Footnote. Another of Frank Slade's skills is dancing the tango. Here's me doing it, with my sensitive side showing, as seen by my niece.

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