The winter comes in early and hard to these northern ports where France ends suddenly and the blank-faced Atlantic begins.
In storm surges sideways rain slams the little parade of quayside shops. At night all are battened down except for M. Caron’s, the red cedar stained exterior lit by one lamp. It casts its beam across the familiar sign ‘bar-tabac-bierres blondes’ and Pelforth’s pelican looking on.
Inside, cutting a swathe through the thick sweet cloud to reach a table, the scent is not of the acrid shavings smoked by sailors, stokers and stevedores but of the honeyed, clove-infused, golden hued stuff of the officers’ mess. Imbibed through pipes not papers.
Defying the sign you order a bierre brune: dark amber in a glass, brewed from English yeast brought over to the conjure comfort of home for soldiers on their return from the front.
Long stemmed carnations in clear glass carafes have been commandeered by amorous sea captains eager for female attention.
For their part, the women ranged against the creme Anglaise coloured walls, dresses polka dotted pinks, blues and violets smell sweetly of last summer’s improvised flower water, iris and a little citrus blossom, and of the musk of their profession, the oldest.
Longing to kick off leather to-the-knee boots and settle down to true domestic sollace, you must settle instead for its simulacrum: a stodgy pudding in the English style laced with heavily vanilla-ed custard from Caron’s kitchen and the conversation of a woman who is not and could never be your wife.
The nights at the ‘bar-tabac-bierre blondes’ are long, and though perhaps not what they should be or once were, in a world turned upside down, on a weather-beaten winter’s night, they are without doubt the best show in town.
Years later, a thumb worn photograph in hand, you will not recall the colours of ‘bar-tabac-bierres blondes’. You may not even remember the girl’s name, just the colour of her hair, the damp yielding of her flesh in the cheap room upstairs and that priceless, immortal smell.
Tabac Blond is an unforgettable aroma of perhaps best forgotten situations.
It speaks of liberation and the release of sexual frustration in equal measures.
Of women free enough to smoke and free enough with their favours to sleep with men for money or pleasure or both.
It exists in a tension of repression and liberation never properly resolved.
Everything starts with a slap across the face by a leather gloved hand, then an upturned table, a smashed glass vase and carnations strewn over the floor.
A bar brawl avoided, only just, a vanilla and iris perfumed semi-siren seeks to calm the situation and seduce all sides with her placid heart.
It is a front, for behind lie deeper motives and the baser notes: wood, a patchouli that seems only to dampen and darken, a vetiver that adds a little smoke to the scene and a slow climb upstairs to discover a musk that is one part powder and two parts body.
Tabac Blond is a sin, as simple and satisfying as that.
Sex some say is a sin but sin itself is no respecter sex. Men and women are all of the flesh.
The Perfumed Dandy wore Tabac Blond in a current and older version of the Eau de Parfum.
Differences between the two are overstated, though the earlier EdP may not have been old enough for true comparison.