Michael Harding: How I cracked the mystery of the smelly feet

I got out of bed and checked the laundry basket, pressing my nose into each sock and assuring myself that the smell was definitely not coming from there

Photograph: iStock

Photograph: iStock

 

There was a full moon recently, and I couldn’t sleep. I thought the moonlight was the problem, but then I was assaulted by a smell. It’s amazing how imaginative the nose can be.

At first I thought it might be cat poo. Or some weird plant outside the window exuding a strange fragrance.

I was sniffing around for ages before I realised it was feet, which surprised me, because I can never smell my own feet.

Nevertheless I got out of bed and checked the laundry basket, pressing my nose into each sock and assuring myself that the smell was definitely not coming from there. The only other explanation seemed to be chicken syndrome.

I had a friend who was tormented for months by a mysterious smell of chicken. No matter where he went, it followed him. In restaurants, or on the train, or in a friend’s house, the same smell of cooked chicken enveloped him. No matter how he searched, he could never find the source.

“I can’t bear this any longer,” he cried to the wife in the middle of the night.

“You have a low threshold for pain,” she snapped, “if you are overwhelmed by a smell.”

“But you don’t know what it is like,” he protested. “It’s like being in a novel by Milan Kundera. It comes everywhere with me. I think I’m going mad.”

“Go to the doctor in the morning,” his wife suggested.

“Yes,” he agreed. “Perhaps the doctor might give me tablets.”

“You don’t need tablets,” she said. “Just get him to look up your nose.”

Chicken gristle

That seemed crazy, but she was right. The following day the doctor shone a light up his nose and poked with a hard metal instrument until eventually a tiny piece of chicken gristle emerged on the tip of the doctors instrument. It had been lodged in his flesh for months.

“Perhaps you sneezed at someone’s dinner table and up it went from your tongue and into your skull,” the doctor suggested.

I suppose it’s possible that the same thing happened me, although I would find it difficult to account for having a piece of foot in my mouth or on my tongue. Unless, of course, I had sneezed while French kissing some stranger’s toes in recent days. And that certainly didn’t happen, because I have grown too old for such gymnastics.

Admittedly there were times in my younger days when I found myself under various tables at dinner parties, examining the buckles and straps around the delicate ankles of strangers, but certainly not last week in Bantry, where I attended the West Cork Literary Festival.

The only moment in Bantry when I teetered on the verge of ecstasy was in the company of a wonderful poet from London. She had long, black hair and we drank Guinness in Ma Murphy’s shaded bar on a Friday afternoon at the end of the festival. But she was rushing to catch a flight from Cork, so I had neither the time nor opportunity to make a disgrace of myself under any table, even if I had the inclination.

As I sat in the moonlight on the side of the bed, I finally gave up trying to solve the puzzle of the smell. I lay down and tucked the duvet under my chin and hoped for sleep. But just at that moment the smell intensified again and suddenly I realised what the problem was.

Earlier in the day I had stripped the bed for the purpose of washing the linen. But I got distracted by a phone call, and so the duvet cover remained on the bedroom floor all evening. When I was going to bed, I was too tired to bother remaking it, so I simply replaced the dirty cover on the duvet and threw the duvet back on the bare mattress. By accident I tossed the side that buttons up towards the pillows. So the bottom was at the top and the top was at the bottom. The feet end of the cover was under my nose.

I was delighted with this discovery and I instantly fetched fresh linen from the hot press, remade the bed with an entire set of new sheets, pillowcases and a fresh duvet cover. It was 4am. The moon had set and only my phone glowed in the dark. The London number and the poet’s name and the time her call ended remained on the screen. I resolved to call her back the following morning. And then I fell fast asleep between the lovely sheets.

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