Make a point, but do so clearly. Those are the words of an old teacher, when I was a teenager. No doubt the advice isn’t original. She’d have been taught this by her elders. Miss B, as she will be called, never hesitated to call a spade a spade. Her words were, except once, never minced. We were the guinea pigs on whom she practised being ‘on point’. “Your hair looks like you’ve been rummaging through a dustbin. How long has it been since it was introduced to a comb?” I got asked this a lot, but I wasn’t in a minority. “If you insist on bathing in sweat and coming to class, well I’ll give you one piece of advice: Don’t bother!” We guys, who played cricket and football like it was the last game we were ever going to play, got told that a lot. With the addendum: “Any of the freshly-scented young ladies will tell you, it is disquieting and disgusting. Why? Because scent and sweat never did make a happy mix.” All my educative years were forged in coeducational confines which, elders assured me, was a good thing. “Girls have a stabilising influence on you young tearaways,” one uncle said, an uncle who’d never had the experience and was, consequently, so I was told by another armchair psychologist relative, very possessive of his wife after he married.
In one’s younger days, one never stops to question the statements of elders, or analyse them. If I had, I’d have spotted the flaws in that dose of armchair psychology. How can one exclusively blame the lack of coeducational experience on possessiveness?
Anyhow, back to Miss B. Her exhortation to us guys to appear better groomed and better presented didn’t go unnoticed. A lot of us, typical of the age, turned a deaf ear but Shanmugam, who sweated like a horse that had just run the Derby, took Miss B’s point seriously. He borrowed his older sister’s bottle of Kanta perfume (which a lot of the young ladies carried in their schoolbags) and applied liberal doses to his person before venturing into class after one sweaty lunch break.
Now there’s something to be said in favour of a nicely-perfumed person. There’s also something to be said against someone who looks like they’ve just emerged from a session under the sweat hose. But the mix of sweat and perfume on one person makes an altogether ‘other world’ combination that often cannot be put into words. It’s indescribable.
And it certainly caught Miss B off guard. Her usually sharp tongue went into freeze mode. It could have been because the reek of Kanta was emanating from a male.
And there, all the while, sat Shanmugam, smug in the knowledge that he was somehow making the effort not to offend Miss B’s olfactory sensibilities. In fact, through two-thirds of the lesson a lot of us guys — me, certainly — wondered if it mightn’t be a bad thing after all to carry a carefully-secreted bottle of Kanta, or something similar, in our bags and apply a quick dab or ten before plunging back into the classroom.
Luckily, that scenario didn’t eventuate. Midway through, I think even Miss B’s stoic resistance caved in. “Now, didn’t I say just the other day that scent and sweat do not make a happy mix? You can be one but not the other. You can be the May Queen twirling fragrantly around the maypole; or ... you can be the pole cat. To attempt to be both at the same time is farcical. And you know who I am talking about!” That was about as prevaricating as Miss B ever got. I think, bless her, she knew where to draw a line between being frank, and being insulting or hurtful.
Kevin Martin is a journalist based in Sydney, Australia.