Bad Smell - A Short Story
I’m not entirely sure when I first noticed it, the Bad Smell, although it was most likely towards the back end of July, around the same time the dog went missing. I recall being somewhat aware that things had started to taste differently, that certain favourites had lost their pop, which I dismissed as a change in the manufacturer’s recipe or a broken hygienic seal somewhere down the line. This must have gone on for a few weeks, possibly even a couple of months, until that point in the summer when I started asking questions, increasingly aware of an unpleasant background odour of burning electricals that grew in stature over time.
Tell me more.
Once you lock onto a bad smell it’s almost impossible to ignore. Although like hiccups you never really remember when it stopped. That’s the theory at least, but in my case it only got worse and more distracting to the point where it was all I could think about. But not at first. At first it was more of a subtle transition you know, like the frog sitting in a pan of water that is slowly rising to a boil, the frog blissfully unaware of its predicament until its eyes milk over and its flesh starts to peel away.
Only in my case I knew the water was boiling.
I worried that it might be a consequence of spending too much time in the darkroom, my face hovering over dishes of photographic developers and exotic nitrates, my sensory neurones seared to a crisp. Some of the chems can be quite astringent and I don’t like to use extractors because of the dust, so I just assumed that if I took a break things would go back to normal.
You said that it grew worse over time.
I mentioned it to my wife, Alalia, who thought it might be stress, what with all the recent deadlines and everything, the dog having wandered off, which she also blamed me for.
She blamed you for that?
She was convinced that I had left the gate open “accidentally on purpose” you know. I didn’t though, and have no idea how it got out, but I wouldn’t let the dog to come to any harm, not on purpose anyway.
And the smell was getting worse?
Yes. Every day it seemed to go up a notch, even after I took a break from developing. Imagine that, but for weeks at a time. An inescapable sensory violence. Even my body odour changed and began to emit - is that the right word? - the same terrible smell, no matter how often I showered, which made me paranoid that I was the source of the Bad Smell. The house reeked, my clothes reeked, and everywhere I went it only ever to seemed to grow stronger.
What else did you do?
Like most people dealing with a Bad Smell I searched the house for its origin. A piece of rotting food perhaps, or a network of varicose veins of black mould climbing the wall behind the washing machine. I would stand at the intersection between rooms with my eyes shut feeling out into the darkness with my imagination, sniffing the air like a Doberman in the hope of tracing its origin, but it was equally as bad everywhere, even with the windows and doors wide open. Carpets were deep cleaned and household detergents were upgraded to name brands. I spent an entire weekend disinfecting the drains, and when this also failed I called the council to enquire about any issues with the sewers. Everything was fine, they said, and that nobody else in the area had complained.
Worse, I realised that the Bad Smell wasn’t restricted to the house and extended for miles in every direction no matter how far I drove in search of relief. By this time Alalia had grown concerned. No matter how insistent I was about the Bad Smell, she claimed that she couldn’t smell anything. Her initial lukewarm support quickly turned to a friendly sort of mockery before tipping over into concern and flashes of irritation. “Why don’t you go see the doctor?” she said, worried that the Bad Smell might be symptomatic of something more serious. “You need to speak to a doctor.”
How did that make you feel?
Pissed off of course, and little unsettled if I’m honest. Nobody wants to think that they have something wrong with them, and I was convinced that it wasn’t “all in my head” as she said. I went to see the doctor, more to shut her up than anything else, but it was a waste of time. After a cursory examination he said that it was either a simple case of the body getting older, which is what he always says, or something called anosmia, which he said was a kind of “nose blindness.” When I said that I wasn’t nose blind but the complete opposite - overwhelmed by a Bad Smell, he just clicked around on his computer screen and suggested that I must have had the flu or something, and that it would probably sort itself out in a month or two, and if not, I should come back and see him again. As I say, it was a total waste of time.
What did Alalia make of this diagnosis?
It was hardly a diagnosis, more an admission of ignorance on his part really, which Alalia obviously took as further evidence that it was all in my head and nothing to worry about. She was actually more concerned about the dog I think. And she didn’t have to live with the stink. I even wondered if she might have slipped me something in my food.
You mean poison?
Maybe. I don’t know. You know like that thing where someone poisons a child just a little bit every day to make them sick so they can collect the benefits, but not to the point where they will die.
Munchausen by proxy?
Yeah, that’s the one, like in The Sixth Sense.
I believe what you are describing is called “fabricated or induced illness by Carers.” Do you think your wife was inducing illness?
Well, no, not exactly. It was just a thought that I had. I’m not saying that she was making me sick, just that it was a thought that occurred, and I did wonder if someone was doing this to me on purpose, you know, and we had been arguing a lot as I said.
What happened next?
I started searching the web for more information. There were a few so called home remedies for anosmia, all equally useless of course, all equally stupid, but I tried them anyway. Eating raw onion before bed, Manuka honey, that sort of thing. I learned that stress is thought to be a major factor in some cases, and I found that lining my nostrils with Vaseline helped a little bit. I started breathing with my mouth open, taking short sips of air rather than the normal rhythms. Alalia said it was annoying and that she couldn’t stand to watch me eat, since I had to eat with my mouth open.
Did you seek a second medical opinion?
Work had started to become a problem. When the Bad Smell started to get really bad I had rescheduled as much as I could, but most of my income comes from wedding shoots, and once you start cancelling on people word gets round and people start to see you as unreliable. So much of my business is generated through word of mouth. Alalia kept pushing me to get back out there, but I just couldn’t concentrate and when I did go out on a job I wasn’t focused and made mistakes. One client demanded a refund and then another, so I decided to take a break.
That must have been difficult. Tell me more about that.
By November things hadn’t improved. A return visit to the doctor was equally pointless. There were some additional tests which came back negative, and like Alalia the doctor was now also suggesting that this was stress related or psychosomatic or some shit like that, and that a referral into some kind of therapy might be the best way forward. I hated the way everybody jumped to that conclusion.
You didn’t like the idea of therapy?
Not at all since the Bad Smell wasn’t in my head, it was real, so there was no use in speaking to a therapist. This is when I decided I needed to get serious about air filtration and installed the first set of industrial air purifiers.
How did Alalia respond to this change in tactic?
Well, it was an expense we could have done without, especially with me out of work, but by this time I was exhausted, and honestly, I would have given every last penny just to be rid of the smell. We were arguing almost constantly, she demanding that I make an appointment with a therapist and me arguing that she needed to believe me. When things got really heated she said that I was exaggerating and just looking for attention, and that if I really loved her I would go get help and stop pushing her away. When the truth was that I couldn’t stand the smell of her, or anybody else for that matter, and had started sleeping – or trying to sleep - in the attic where the noise of the air purifiers wouldn’t keep her awake.
So things were getting worse between you?
I think she put up with the incense burners and face masks for a while, but after I fitted purifiers she started to grow cold towards me. I’d lost interest in food by this point and was basically just eating whenever I remembered to, which didn’t help with the communal living thing. Everything got a lot worse once I met Joshua.
Tell me about Joshua.
I’d been spending a lot of time on the Web as I said, and now that I could only sleep for short periods I was on the laptop at all hours looking for answers.
What kind of answers?
It didn’t seem possible that I was the only person in the world to be experiencing the Bad Smell, so that’s where I had started back when I first detected it. I had learned about the Great Stink of 1858, Edwin Chadwick, Joseph Priestley and those guys who wondered if bad smells were indicators of disease. I read about the Subway Bread smell conspiracy, chemtrails and how poltergeists and certain demons are thought to smell like rotten eggs.
You mean sulphur?
That’s right. There’s loads of stuff on the internet about it. About eighty percent of what we taste is actually smell, and there are loads of other senses we never talk about, like the sense of balance and the way you can tell when someone is looking at you from across crowded room. It’s all connected.
How does Joshua fit into this?
It was while I was going down this rabbit hole that I discovered an online forum, MetaMatter, that had a thread about how the population of a small US town had started complaining about a funny metallic taste in their drinking water and falling ill. The local government carried out various tests and said that whatever was causing the illness it wasn’t the water, but the townspeople didn’t believe them and clubbed together to pay for an independent investigation that showed that a local paper mill had leaked thousands of gallons of contaminated effluent into the river system and that local councillors had covered it up. Eventually a whistle blower blew the lid off the whole thing, but not before a lot of people got really sick. One of the symptoms was a permanent loss of taste and smell, although this only affected about one percent of the population.
So you do think that you have been poisoned?
Well yes and no. It was while I was researching this story that I started chatting with Joshua, one of the MetaMatter admins who had also posted several articles about other spills and cover ups. I told Joshua my story and he directed me to a piece about cell sites, or what we call mobile phone towers in the UK.
Help me see the connection here.
Like a lot of people, I had heard various rumours about the dangers of cell towers, especially when they are erected close to suburban areas, which they almost always are. One of the articles Josh shared revealed that the more densely populated the area, the more powerful the cell towers, and in those areas with multiple or more powerful towers there was a higher incidence of EMF fatigue and wireless radiation. It’s totally scientific. You can look it up for yourself.
Say more about this, please.
I showed the articles to Alalia. One of them listed a number of symptoms associated with EMF which included depression and dysesthesia, which is when you have an itch that you just can’t scratch. When I first read about that it blew my mind. Here was vindication I thought.
EMF can affect people’s memory and cause insomnia. Check. There are even cases of severe personality change, just like you sometimes see with head traumas, and two cases of people who had lost their sense of smell and taste. Check. Check.
And what did Alalia make of all this?
She said that I really needed to speak to a professional, by which she meant a therapist, although she did agree to read the articles, most of which she dismissed as crackpot conspiracy theories.
Some of the papers were published by reputable academic presses, so she couldn’t really reject them out of hand, even though I could tell she wanted to. There was even one by the World Health Organisation.
This is what I’ve got! I told her, but she didn’t seem to want to listen and just kept saying that I needed to get help and that all the internet research wasn’t going to help. She thought I was crazy and said that if I didn’t get serious help she was going to move back home. Even her friends started to warn me that if I didn’t sort myself out then I was going to lose her, possibly forever.
How did you respond?
I started to search for EMF towers close to my village, which is when I discovered SemaCO.
They’re a smallish factory located on the outskirts of the village. I can see their chimneystack from my home office window and until the Bad Smell arrived I hadn’t given them a second thought. For some reason I always thought they manufactured car components and things like that, but they are an electronics company linked to the mobile industry. I had no idea.
No idea about what?
About what they made there. It’s also a much bigger site than I first imagined and stretches over several acres of scrubland behind a chain link fence that I had always assumed was waste land, which I now discovered was a testing area for the towers they make there. There’s big holes in the fence and people walk their dogs there all the time and nobody cares, so there was no reason to ever suspect they were doing something untoward. Until the Bad Smell, that is. When my interest in EMF pointed me to SemaCO I knew it couldn’t be a coincidence.
How did this make you feel?
I remembered that the factory had caught fire back in 2008, after which a foul smelling cloud fell on the village. I was working in the darkroom that day and got a phone call telling me to close my windows and stay inside until the all clear was sounded. I’d completely forgotten about it until I read about SemaCO and remembered the awful smell that had infiltrated our homes that day.
You thought these events were connected?
Are connected. It’s not a question of if or maybe. As I looked into the company I discovered that amongst others things they produce the core components of cell towers and are responsible for maintaining infrastructure across the East Midlands. I called them and asked for a meeting with someone in charge.
What did they say when you called?
At first they were professional and asked who I wanted to speak to and about what. The usual sort of thing. I’d run my own business for years and had was confident in chasing down the right people. That said, I didn’t want to tip them off, so I said that I was a freelance journalist working on an industry article about the environmental impact of cell towers. While I wasn’t being entirely truthful about my motives, I wasn’t totally misleading them either, and I reckoned that the prospect of a favourable article might at least put me in touch with someone higher up, if only for a brief conversation.
And you got to meet with someone from SemaCO?
Not exactly. After a few rounds of questions with various receptionists I managed to get through to Anthony McGuire, who worked off-site in the marketing department. I asked about environmental impact studies and the company’s green credentials, that sort of thing, just buying some time and goodwill before asking my real questions. McGuire was nice enough and pointed me to various company webpages where I could find out more, but when I finally asked about EMF he went quiet, and when pressed he reiterated that I could find all of the information I was looking for on the company website and then hung up.
Did that satisfy your curiosity?
On the contrary, it made me more suspicious. I knew a couple of people from the village who worked at the plant. Well, sort of knew, friend of a friend kind of thing, so I asked them if they knew anything about EMF or whether there been any leaks at the plant, but they said the same thing as MsGuire. Almost exactly the same thing, if you know what I mean?
Tell me more about this?
It was like they were reading from a script or something, like a politician trying not to answer a question on live TV. I told Alalia about this but she wasn’t buying it, and she was pretty out of the door by that time.
She was leaving you?
Pretty much, yeah. Her sister came round one night not long after I had started pursuing SemaCO and gave me an ultimatum. The same ultimatum I heard from Alalia a bunch of times already - either snap out of it and get help or I was going to be left on my own. When I told her sister about the Bad Smell, SemaCO and my research she said that I was being unfair to Alalia and that I sounded like a crazy person.
In her tone she sounded a lot like the SemaCO guys I had spoken to.
You think they were working together? Some kind of plot against you?
I know how crazy it sounds, but I came to realise that however this thing had started I was now being targeted. Like Fox Mulder and Deep Throat, you know? How else can you explain why nobody else could smell it, and the SemaCO connection? It didn’t make any sense to them, but it made perfect sense to me, it was just that nobody else could see it.
After Alalia left I went back to SemaCO and demanded to speak to the director or whoever was in charge. I made a scene and had to be escorted off the property by two security officers. They said that if I persisted, they would contact the police and that it would be best if I went through the proper channels.
What happened next?
Nothing at first. Then the dog came back.
And how did that make you feel?
It was good to see her again after all that time, and I remember texting Alalia the good news, saying that if she wanted to, she could come by and collect her. I left a few messages in fact, but she never responded.
And how was the dog?
The dog was fine. A bit underfed perhaps, but otherwise healthy, and it was nice to have some company. I took her with me on my surveillance walks. It felt nice to have a compatriot.
What do you mean?
Well it’s a lonely sort of life. Joshua calls it “being on the other side of the wire” and dogs don’t judge you the way people do.
Can you say more about that?
The dog was Alalia’s idea. A rescue, something to get her, us, out of the house and that sort of thing. I didn’t mind having a dog, it just wasn’t something I was overly interested in. When she went missing Alalia was really upset and we spent night after night knocking on doors, calling out her name, and putting up posters. When she came back I decided that I would try to be a better dog owner this time, and besides, she barks whenever someone approaches the house and would bring some additional security to the place.
Were you concerned about security?
They’re pretty amazing, you know. Dogs I mean. Did you know that their sense of smell is something like one hundred thousand times better than ours? They have something like three hundred million smell receptors and some breeds can follow a scent trail stretching over many miles, even in the rain.
Are you saying that the dog could detect the Bad Smell?
She knew it was there. That’s why she ran away. How else can you explain it?
Then why did she come home?
I have no idea. I like to think it is because she wanted to warn me about something, but she was probably just off living with another family who got sick of feeding someone else’s dog. Either that or she genuinely got lost and only then managed to find her way home.
You didn’t attach any significance to her return?
I wouldn’t say that. Not long after she returned, we started going for night walks to avoid running into any other people. Neighbours had been giving me dirty looks for months so it was easier just to avoid them as much as possible. If the conditions were okay we would take a path through the woods behind the house that brings you out behind the SemaCO loading bay just out of sight of the CCTV. If anyone was to stop me and ask what I was doing, even at that late hour, I could say that I was a shift worker and just got off work and was out walking my dog. From there you can easily slip through the fence into the waste ground.
Is this when you started to make your plan?
I’d been exploring for a couple of weeks when I found what I initially thought was the remains of rail track, just smaller, as if it was used to haul something heavy. I took some pictures and showed them to Joshua who said that they were part of a secret ground level transmitter array used by the military and that they could stretch for miles either on top of the ground or underneath it. All of this confirmed my worst fears.
That there was a sinister force at work poisoning our minds, and that I was the only person who knew what they were up to. I tried to call Alalia at her parent’s place but her father picked up the phone and said that if I didn’t desist they would take out a restraining order. I told him that I had proof that I had been attacked, and that it was a national scandal, but he just swore at me and hung up.
I knew then, as I had always known, that I was alone. Joshua was in the States and couldn’t offer anything more that moral support. I told him of my plan and he tried to talk me down, saying that I shouldn’t do anything rash and that it was better to build a case, but by this time it had been almost a year and I was sure that if I didn’t something I might actually lose my mind.
You decided to act on impulse?
I made preparations, knowing that it was likely that I would be arrested or disappeared. Who can really say for sure with these people. I knew that the SemaCO plant shut down on Sundays, so that was my opening. I also learned that the loading bay had a side door that wasn’t very secure, so that was to be my point of entry.
So this was, in fact, a premeditated attack?
I had no other choice. If people only knew how much damage you can do with a can of petrol and the proper motivation places like SemaCO wouldn’t even be able to exist.
And what about the two security officers who were killed in the fire? Do you feel any remorse or regret for your part in their deaths?
I didn’t know that they were in there at the time and that they would try to extinguish the fire themselves. I didn’t know that, so I can’t be held responsible for what I didn’t know. I heard their screams not long after I started it, the fire, that is. They must have been in the warehouse, somewhere towards the back and cut off from the exit.
You don’t feel any remorse at all?
It’s the smell I can't forget. That God awful smell. Burning plastic and meat. Like burning electricals.