The three worst things I’ve ever smelled

A recent conversation about what can be donated to homeless charities prompted the memory that inspired this list of terrible smells.

3: Rat

Everything starts to smell when it’s been dead for a while, but nothing is quite like a dead rat. An absolutely, unbelievably vile hideous odour as all decaying meat tends to be, just a thousand times worse where rats are concerned.

A smell capable of remaining up the nose for the rest of the day and onto the next; so potent, I once opened the door to a huge swimming pool treatment room only to know instantly a dead rat awaited me in there somewhere.

All that said, if you don’t believe the ability to go ‘nose blind’ is a thing, get a job in pest control and think again. Towards the end of my time as a technician, a customer opened their front door and announced having a dead rat somewhere in the kitchen.

Stepping into her flat, I detected not an untoward scent in the slightest, and given in entirety it was miniscule when compared to the above mentioned, confidently announced that there was no dead rat in the kitchen.

The customer was convinced, but even stood in the kitchen, I maintained my nose to be expert in the matter; okay, so I wasn’t going to claim to have smelled more dead rats than she’d had hot dinners, but if anyone should now how to smell a rat . . .

But, as it turned out, she was right; there was a dead one behind the fridge. I looked a right idiot!

2: Fish

Not just any old fish, but a specific type and style that I can’t specify name beyond it being dried and salty; really salty. Another encounter from pest control, it was one of the most bizarre cases I dealt with; for rats, as well as being really smelly when dead, are also incredible creatures to observe in the wild.

The customer was a huge food warehouse/wholesaler in Brixton, the most part of which being devoted to foods hard to get in the average super-market, hence the fish, the smell of which was a whole other level to how bad raw fish normally is. I’d had a fish wholesaler on a previous patch, and it, while not exactly a bunch of roses, was a walk in the park by comparison, and in that place the fish were everywhere, while in Brixton just on a couple of pallets.

In a warehouse with two floors at the back and high with shelves everywhere else, the rats would only eat the fish that stunk to high heaven. The customer even took to putting the fish pallets on a forklift and lifting it in the air to keep it safe overnight. But the rats still found a way of getting to it, climbing up the surrounding shelving to then leap across onto the raised area, ignoring all the other perfectly good food in the process.

If you’ve ever seen the little pest control boxes for mice everywhere and wondered why they don’t just have one big one, rodents apparently have an instinct for eating from numerous food sources instead of taking their fill from just one; something that protects them from accidentally eating only from a contaminated food source . . . like one that’s been poisoned.

Rats climbing shelves of perfectly good food to jump across a deathly chasm made no sense in any respects to their principles of self preservation. Making it stranger still, a nest was found on the raised area at the back of the warehouse; not only were they also quite happy to scurry the length of the place passing numerous other foods along the way, they’d made the nest in a pallet of food that only showed signs of being used as bedding material, not eaten.

To top it off, all the salt gave the rats an incredible thirst that apparently could only be quenched by Ribena, something that is high in sugar and the wholesaler stocked the little cartons of; the rats going to town on the pallets of those too; I can vividly recall the guy who owned the place literally tearing his hair out—of all the things he stocked, a brand like that can’t have been cheap—while despairingly trying to understand what is was about the Ribena in particular that enthused them so.

When first putting the fish up on a fork lift, the Ribena had gone with it. When the rats reached the top (it’s starting to sound a lot like tourist attraction) it was Heaven that they found. The irate customer, who to his absolute credit only ever got annoyed with the rat’s ingenuity, not our—who he paid a substantial amount of money to, btw—inability to counter it, had put the Ribena on a different forklift and moved it elsewhere.

As far as the Ribena was concerned, that should have been the end of it. The rats would always know where the fish was due to the smell. But no, somehow they worked out where it was and took a second unnecessary jump to get at it too.

That’s the power of addiction.

1: Aftershave

The last two aren’t in order of worst. If this list was that way inclined, then the dead rat would’ve been considered far more so for sure. But this list can’t be that way for sometimes the reasons for a bad smell can be as much about the circumstances, how it came to be, as the repugnance of the stench itself.

My first job was working for a company that provided temporary accommodation to homeless people. It was rarely temporary; apart from a few here and there, the majority of our residents lived permanently in what was effectively bed and breakfast accommodation. Addiction was prevalent. We had residents on heroin—one dying with the needle still sticking out their arm; others on the game to get their fix (we were located in Streatham too, at the time and maybe still, a thriving red-light district)—glue sniffing was big at the time, and, of course, there was alcohol, lots of alcohol. All the other addictions put together would not equal the number of residents whose desperate situation had had them succumb to alcoholism 

The recent conversation I had involved someone talking about giving bulk amounts of unused products to homeless charities and having to be careful about anything containing alcohol. It reminded me of one of the residents, whose name and face I can recall like yesterday, the glaze over his eyes, that slant and softening to his face when pissed-up, one of the nicest people really—especially given the circumstances—you could ever want to meet; and who very likely has long since passed from this realm.

He was stood thoroughly steaming on the other side of the office door. You know what I mean by that? I’m not sure the term has made it much beyond the UK. Scottish in origin, it for me has always meant that sort of drunk where a person smiles while closing their eyes and somehow its like invisible steam comes out their ears and nose.

He was telling me—and I wasn’t interrogating him or anything like that btw, he was pleased as punch about the situation—about how he’d shoplifted a couple of bottles of Denim aftershave from a Superdrug on Streatham High Street, before managing to sneak into the likewise located Odeon cinema, where he’d watched a film for free while necking the stolen goods.

A quick look online and I can’t ascertain the alcoholic content of Denim per se; for aftershaves in general it’s given as between 60 and 90%. I like beer, but don’t particularly enjoy the smell of someone who’s had a few when I haven’t. Smell is a by-product where beer’s concerned, whereas for aftershave all and everything . . . The smell of someone drunk on a couple of bottles of what’s meant to be splashed liberally on the outside of the body, the peculiar warmth the smell obtains from being on the inside . . . steaming out of him as he stood there smiling, unsteady on feet, hardly able to keep eyes open or words straight, truly having reached the bottom of the barrel, but seeing the whole thing as some sort of small victory.

Never underestimate the power of addiction.

Thanks for reading 🙂

N. P. Ryan

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My thanks to Flick R for the image of a cat sniffing lavender, a smell that I also don’t like, finding it far too reminiscent of the old types that tend to use it most. Instead of ‘sincerely’ or ‘kind regards’, I used to finish letters ‘don’t smell the lavender’ such is my hatred for its scent (whereas I love the colour).

Likewise thanks to: Rat; Shashank Kumawat / Fish; Kyaw Tun / Aftershave; Ashley Byrd