The Smell

The Smell

A Story by Georgina V Solly

A self-destructive woman who puts cleanliness first, becomes obsessed with a mysterious, persistent smell, involving the whole family and the maid.


























The house always smelled foul. Nobody knew where the smell came from but it always smelled. As soon as Anna got up in the morning she opened the windows to let the air from the street enter, never minding the weather outside. Every spring, summer, autumn and winter Anna always opened the windows. On the windiest days she kept them shut much against her will, to go later on all over the flat armed with air freshener as if it were a machine gun and the smell was the enemy that had to be killed.

The furniture shone from so much cleaning, nowhere did there exist lamps, or ornaments so free from dust. There was no place for cobwebs nor the smallest speck of dust to escape to after the thorough cleaning that Anna carried out daily, nevertheless, the smell remained as if it were trapped in the actual construction. When the smell began, a plumber was called who spent a week investigating the kitchen and bathroom pipes. He told them that sincerely he really didn’t know where the smell came from. Yes, he could smell it but it didn’t come from any one special place, it was all over the house.

When Anna and Thomas had bought the flat and put their furniture in, it only smelled of new paint and new furniture. The smell had entered the flat little by little; the more Anna cleaned the more it smelled. The first years the couple had two daughters. Anna blamed the girls but Thomas said that it was a stupidity to say that. Their neighbours were more than fed up with the problems of the smell, saying that something must have happened during the construction that nobody remembered. A dead rat perhaps? But where?

The floors were of beige parquet and resembled an ice-skating rink. Every year, two men went to the flat to varnish and polish the floors, just in case the fault was in the floor. The walls were painted white in August when the family was on holiday so that when they returned home it smelled of fresh paint and clean floors.

A lady went three times a week to help in the thorough cleaning. This meant taking all the clothes out of the cupboards and cleaning the silver and passing the vacuum cleaner over curtains and carpets and in the deepest dark corners of the flat, Anna did not permit any part of the flat escape. The curtains were washed and put back up without having been up long enough to get dirty. The carpets were cleaned with a brush and ammonia as if they hid something dirty, that was invisible to Anna’s eyes. With the passing of the years this mania showed up stronger and stronger in Anna’s character.

One day on getting up Anna, instead of standing up as usual, dragged herself to the window. Her husband no longer criticised  her for cleaning so much anyway, he was unable to tell her anything apart from not to do so much. But Anna continued in her fight against her number one enemy - dirt. Her daughters were so used to the constant complaints they left home running away every day, to avoid a morning confrontation with their mother. Anna felt all alone. She went to the kitchen made herself some coffee and toast but she didn’t have either of them. She collapsed onto the floor.

The maid arrived half an hour later. As soon as she saw the coffee spilt all over the place and the toast still in the toaster and her mistress lying on the floor she rang the husband. “Please come home, Sir, your wife is unconscious on the floor and there’s coffee everywhere.”

She then rang the family doctor, tidied up the essential and stayed by her mistress’s side until the doctor and the husband arrived. The two men agreed that Anna would not like the fact that they had seen a dirty kitchen. Her husband in all their years of marriage had ever seen such untidiness, which surprised him but only for a moment. The doctor took Anna’s pulse and told her attentive husband to ring for an ambulance.

“What do you think it is?” asked the confused husband.

“I think it’s a heart attack, I want her in hospital where I can observe her better and where she can rest.” The doctor looked around him and realized how immaculate the house was and then he returned his eyes to Anna covered by a blanket. During the journey to the hospital Anna appeared to be regaining consciousness and when she was at last in a bed she was breathing more easily, accompanied by a slightly better colour in her face.

Once Anna’s daughters had been informed about what had happened, they organised everything in the house in their own way but with a certain fear, as if the patient from her hospital bed was able to observe everything that went on in her house during her absence.

Her husband only visited her in the hospital in the afternoons, just after finishing work. He then gave an update of how the patient was progressing. Every day Thomas had to go through an interrogation: had the windows been opened, had they been cleaned, had the floors been vacuumed, and not to smoke in the living-room. Thomas entered the hospital with the look of the distressed husband who missed his wife. However, during the hour he spent with Anna he didn’t listen to anything. His face was opposite Anna’s but his mind was far away in another place. Thomas simply put up with the visits.

The doctor in charge of the case said that it had been a light heart attack, a warning, in fact due to anxiety and too much work and that she should not be allowed to get upset or to get worried. In other words she was to have her own way, in order to keep her alive and calm. Thomas said OK to Anna and OK to the doctor, but on leaving the hospital Thomas  put aside the complacent husband act in order to be himself again. This change lead him to stretch out on the sofa while watching television, eat and drink in the sacred living-room. Thomas thought many times while eating a sandwich and drinking a beer watching a football match on television that if Anna knew what was going on she would have another heart attack. If he told her, she would not believe it.

Anna’s heart attack had occurred on a Tuesday but it wasn’t till Saturday when they were at home that they noticed what a change there was in the atmosphere. The girls were helping the maid with the cleaning. The windows were open to the sun and the sheets were piled up ready for their weekly wash in the washing-machine. In Anna’s house washing clothes was more like a purification against the enemy ‘dirt’. In this, as in all the rest, Anna was afraid of the smell and the dirt and the rot. With the newly made beds and the bedrooms smelling of the perfume of cleanliness as if everything had gone through a sterilization, one of the daughters said, “Just a moment, hasn’t anyone noticed anything strange here?”

The maid, who had nothing else in her head except to go home, was irritated fearing the worst, remained standing still in the centre of the kitchen staring at the girl. Nobody dared to say anything, but the one who had spoken added, “There’s not such a strong smell.” The three went out of the kitchen and from room to room sniffing everything, like cats. Both daughters said, “Mummy, will be so happy when we tell her this afternoon. At least she won’t be able to tell us off for not having cleaned the home as she likes it.” The maid relaxed. The lady of the house would have no reason to shout at her on returning home.

That afternoon, Thomas was accompanied by his daughters to see their mother. The four days in hospital with imposed rest had given Anna a less intense air about her, her face no longer reflected anxiety. Nevertheless, Anna’s eyes still had the look of a lynx about them. From her place in the bed Anna launched on them a prolonged look from top to bottom: the hair, the clothes, the shoes, to make sure that everything was in order. They were still under her control, the days spent without her hadn’t done them any harm. Seated at her bedside they went through an interrogation.

Suddenly, “There’s something that smells bad here. Haven’t you noticed, Mummy?”  Anna sat upright in bed, “Yes, it’s true and I’ve complained to the cleaning ladies and to the nurses about it. They don’t take any notice of me and say it’s my imagination. That proves it! It’s not my imagination if you have smelled it too.”

The four spoke about silly things for the next hour and the other daughter said to her sister, “Why didn’t you tell Mummy about the smell having gone from the house?”

“So as to give her a surprise when she arrives home.”

On Sunday they went to see Anna, still in bed, and stayed all afternoon. “Daddy, when is Mummy going to come back home?”

Thomas hadn’t noticed, but understood from the tone of his daughter’s voice that it was a real nuisance having to visit the hospital every day.

“On Monday I’ll ask the doctor and see what he has to say.”

The doctor said that if Anna could be kept quiet and rested, she could go home the following Saturday. When Thomas told Anna this piece of news she said, “About time, too. I’m sick of being here, I’m longing to get home, and see if you’ve managed to keep it just as I told you.”

Thomas said, “You’ve no need to worry about the house, there’s nothing to worry about. It’s as clean as if you were there.”

He shouldn’t have said that, but it was already too late.

“I don’t believe that, you can never get the house the same as when I’m in it. As soon as I get home I’m going to give it a good inspection. The maid is probably taking advantage of you while I’m here. Well, that’s it finished with. Warn her that I’m coming out on Saturday, and nothing must be out of place, and not one particle of dirt.”

“Yes, dear.” Thomas gave her a light kiss on her forehead and left the room.

The girls received the news with mixed emotions.

On Saturday Anna returned to her temple dedicated to cleaning. Her daughters kissed her and the maid greeted her and said she was happy to see her back. Thomas said, “You’ve got to rest, you mustn’t do anything, so just relax and we’ll do everything. Would you like something to eat or drink?”

Anna looked around her and wondered what they were up to, “I’d like to take a look around my home, if you don’t mind.”

The four walked behind her. Thomas opened the doors, Anna lifted up the carpets and ran her fingers over table-tops, lamps, and books, in an intent to discover the secret they were keeping from her. Anna frowned, surprised that she couldn’t find anything wrong. Everything was in its place and well-cleaned. Then what was it? Anna got to the kitchen, the last place she was in before the heart attack. What memories were floating around in her head? Even in the kitchen, everything was tidy.

“Mummy, your dream’s come true.”

“What dream are you talking about?”

“The smell has gone.”

Anna couldn’t believe her ears.

“Don’t say silly things. The smell is still here, it was the first familiar thing I noticed as soon as I came in. So don’t say daft things to me, and least of all now, when I’m not a hundred per cent well.”

Thomas took her by an arm and they sat down in the living-room.

“You shouldn’t think about the house or us, you should be concentrating on resting and getting stronger. The housework is our responsibility, not yours.”

Anna felt useless and said so. But Thomas wrapped a blanket round her saying that later he would bring her some food. On Sunday Thomas watched over her and their daughters took her breakfast in bed, deaf to her insistence that she was fine and wasn’t an invalid. If Anna’s family took no notice of her it was because the doctor had told them that she needed rest and if possible far away from home. Thomas had made up his mind to take them all to the country as soon as Anna was stronger and till then she had to do as she was told. Anna seeing that till a more propitious moment she could do nothing, did what Thomas told her to do. She ate and slept without any complaints or allusions to the matter of the smell, that of course was much stronger than before. What had her daughter meant by saying that the smell had gone!

Monday came and with it the start of the working week, a breather after so much attention. The family had left to go about their respective occupations. After giving instructions to the maid, who was cooking in the kitchen, Anna got up and opened her bedroom window. The effort she needed was tremendous but she just moved forward and went from room to room opening all the windows. The maid heard her and came out of the kitchen saying that Anna’s husband had given orders to keep an eye on his wife and make sure that she didn’t leave her bedroom. Anna was furious and said, “This is my house and I see that while I wasn’t here you took advantage, and got attached to my husband.”

“Not at all, Madam, I’ve simply got certain instructions from him, that’s all.”

“Well, I’m going to give you others. Have you switched on the washing-machine? As you know today is Monday and after the weekend there’s a lot to do.”

The maid nodded and did what Anna had ordered her to do, thinking “The boss doesn’t have to be with her all day but I do.”

And with this attitude the maid obeyed Anna’s orders and forgot all about what Thomas had told her. Anna began by dusting all the shelves, the books, all the time complaining about the smell. At half-past twelve Anna bathed and went to bed with the door left open so that she could keep an eye on the maid. Little by little she fell asleep and the maid, once she knew that Anna wasn’t going to wake up for a while, prepared the food and sat down in the kitchen for a well-deserved rest. But this wasn’t so easy because suddenly she heard Anna’s strident voice.

“Bring me some toast and a cup of tea.”

The maid prepared the order and took it to Anna in the bedroom.

“Put it down over there on the bedside table and return to the kitchen.”

The maid’s thoughts towards her boss were not at all friendly. “If she carries on like this I’ll look for another house and she’ll have to make do without me.”

“Don’t forget to use the air freshener all over the house, it seems to me that no one has done so during my stay in hospital. This house smells really bad.”

In order to satisfy Anna the maid went from one room to another, spraying air freshener till the house had the suffocating smell of canned flowers.

The daughters didn’t escape either when they arrived home from school.

“Take off your shoes, wash your hands, and do your homework.”

From Monday to Friday the picture didn’t change, Anna from the sofa or from her bedroom, giving out orders to everyone. Friday and the maid told Thomas that she didn’t want to work any longer in that house, and as soon as Anna was back on her feet she would go.

Thomas tried to talk to Anna about her stubbornness in not leaving the maid alone to get on with her work. He said that, because, to be honest, the maid had done everything very well while Anna was in hospital. Anna was furious. “Now I see it. You two are ganging up on me. If she’s so clean, then why isn’t she capable of getting rid of the smell in this house?”

Thomas didn’t reply and went to see his daughters who were doing their homework. Thomas stayed with his daughters till very late that night and then began reading a book, afraid of turning on the television in case Anna woke up. The next few weeks went by in much the same way. One day when the weather was better, Thomas took his family to the beach. Anna  sat down under a sunshade and Thomas and the girls played in the sea. They ate in a restaurant that was chosen by Thomas more for its hygienic appearance than for the food, so as to please Anna.

Thomas had parked in an empty space at the end of a street that gave onto the beach. At six o’clock in the afternoon when they went to get the car to go home, where before it had been empty was now overflowing with cars. Thomas didn’t dare look at Anna’s face who had started to shout at him, “Don’t get upset, you know what the doctor said.”

“Do you think I like getting upset, is that what you’re insinuating?”

Thomas just got into the car and got the girls to help him get the car out. After some complicated manoeuvres accompanied by Anna’s complaints Thomas managed to get to the street that eventually got to the main road. It was already eight o’clock when they arrived home and on opening the front door Anna said, “This house smells awful, what’s happened here?”

Nothing had happened, everything was in its place. Anna wasn’t convinced and hurriedly ran throughout the house looking for the origin of the smell, but without success. The others stared at her anxiously, and Thomas tried to make her sit down. Anna in a brusque movement opened the living-room window. Thomas caught her as she clutched at her chest with a grimace of pain on her face. The two girls were flabbergasted.

“Call the doctor,.” Thomas said to them.

This time it was very serious and Anna was admitted to intensive care.

“Frankly,” the doctor said, “I don’t have much hope. I don’t understand why she is here, if she had followed my instructions she wouldn’t have had another heart attack.”

During the following days Anna’s family took turns to watch her. On the fourth day when it looked as if all was going well, Anna died. It was an easy death on her part, without any drama. None of the members of her family were able to talk to her in the last days of her life. The younger daughter had commented to Thomas after having seen her mother through the glass wall, “This reminds of the airport when we went to say goodbye to our uncle last year, we could see him but we couldn’t speak to him.”

Thomas didn’t answer, he knew that the journey that Anna had begun had no return.

Her body was taken to the funeral parlour. The funeral was fixed for a few days later.

The two mortuary attendants wondered when the deceased had died. They saw from the papers that she had died that morning, but she smelled as if she had been dead for a long time. The two men did their work rapidly, and in record time they had Anna’s coffin nailed down. When this was done they went outside to breath fresh air and get away from the suffocating, foul-smelling atmosphere.

Apart from the nearest family members and a few close friends Thomas had not informed anyone else of Anna’s death. Thomas had always been a discreet man even in the most troubled times, so the ceremony was short and simple. Each of the two daughters gently placed a red rose on top of the coffin. As soon as the coffin had been lowered into the grave, Thomas made a sign to his daughters that it was time to leave.

The father with his two daughters sat down on the sofa in silence. The older daughter was gazing at the curtains that were moving in a slight breeze as if they had a life of their own, and then she observed that the plants were greener than ever and appeared to be sprouting new leaves. She was the first one to break the silence, “Have you noticed? The house doesn’t smell any more.”

© 2015 Georgina V Solly

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Added on November 20, 2011
Last Updated on February 18, 2015
Tags: obsession, smell, cleaning, tension


Georgina V Solly
Georgina V Solly

Valencia, Spain

First of all, I write to entertain myself and hope people who read my stories are also entertained. I do appreciate your loyalty very much. more..