She wasn’t a grade school teacher always. This woman has a past.
Taking a break from marking books of summer holiday reminiscences rendered in schoolboy scrawl, she decides to look again at the photographs.
Just five years after Nixon, she too went to China. It was ’78 and the next year an embassy would open in what everybody still called Peeking then.
Someone had to ready it for the arrivals.
Who better than the wife of the man who would be first cultural attache to the land of the Cultural Revolution?
In an uncommon moment of decor diplomacy, it was decided to break from American tradition: to forgo a little piece of the Uncle Sam overseas. Local sensitivities relating to cultural imperialism were judged to preclude the parochial neo-classicism of a White House away from home.
So the style would be Sino- American, through and through.
In the photographs, honeyed polaroids sweetened almost sepia by age, she sees the rooms she would never return to.
A jade green vestibule with minature orange trees standing guard at every entrance, each bright fruit wired for sound when entertaining.
The blue and white willow pattern reception room, where concealed cinnamon and clove spiced incense burned, to purify the guests before they met The Man.
A second function room in saffron yellow, great imitation Ming vases filled with jasmine, ylang ylang, and lilies right next to shameless shaker pots stuffed full of imported American roses.
A pause to shake the great man’s hand then onwards to the piece de resistence.
A vermilion laquered box made dining room.
A jewelled chamber of glistening red walls.
At its centre, beneath a glittering crystal chandelier, a rosewood oval table.
On the table sit solid amber place settings while to all sides it is surrounded by fine chairs polished in resins that smell purposefully of vanilla.
Inviting you to sit with a hand that slices air made thick with clouds of smoked bezoin and more cloves, the Ambassador, carnation in buttonhole, clears his throat, prepares to speak.
But she never took her seat at the Ambassador’s table, never dined in her dining room.
Her cultural attaché, so it turned out, came from a culture of casual violence and even more casual sex.
Everything settled six months before the dust sheets could come off the jade, willow pattern blue, saffron and vermilion rooms.
A return home and a career to support her new daughter.
What could be more respectable than a small town grade school teacher with an uncommonly beautifully decorated home?
Her manicured and painted hands close the black gloss, hard covered album and returns it to its own red lacquered box.
She reads from the exercise book before her, scribbled in childish hand:
‘This summer I went to China….’
Cinnabar is the common ore of mercury.
Beautiful and toxic.
Perhaps this is why at Estee Lauder counters they keep this object of a certain striking beauty hidden from sight.
For there seems no logical reason to conceal this warm, generous and welcoming pseudo-oriental scent.
Yes it is a version of China about as real as the model factories and swarms of smiling children Pat Nixon met in 1973, but this perfume knows that it is half way to being propaganda and for that reason never takes itself too seriously.
A bright and cheery, flag waving entrance of citrus leads swiftly to an “hallway of the people” with a determinedly spicy architecture. Here, structural elements of near sanitary cloves and almost strident cinnamon ensure that other softer elements do not sag.
Thus, when incense and vanilla and florals and bezoin come wafting through their route is defined and directed and a brisk and clear order to the whole assembly is maintained, as though some benign school ma’am were keeping a watchful eye over the proceedings.
Perhaps this is where it all went wrong for Cinnabar: where other perfumes of this genre let it all, and then more, far much too much more, hang out, it kept its nerve and retained its composure.
At the time that might have felt a little too tight lipped, severe even.
Looking back it seems, just like Cinnabar itself: an act of unwaivering poise and impeccable judgement.
Is this a role suitable for a man?
Things have moved on and today there are such things as diplomats’ husbands I believe…
The Perfumed Dandy.