"It's an undersea smell, they say, briny, like the inside of a sea shell and slightly fecal to begin with, studded with buttons of squid bones. It will mature to become grainy, musky and precious for its rarity. To verify, heat a needle above a flame and slide it into the waxen flesh. The smoke will be white and sublime in fragrance. Miraculous."
An old whaler placed a piece of ambergris in my palm the other day.
"How can you be sure?" I asked him.
"Ahh, oh, I dunno, mate. This old bloke just gave it to me and said it was ambergris."
It was quite black, looked like a meteorite, felt waxy to the touch and weighed nothing. I held it in my hand and sniffed at it. It didn't smell like much. I wondered about the whale who'd once carried the lump of ebony stuff in its stomach through several oceans, hemispheres, for decades. How did 'this old bloke' get hold of it? Did he find it on a beach after a whale had vomited it up? Did he dive into the hot belly of a slaughtered whale and dig it out? Did someone sell it to him in a bar or a Nantucket souvenir shop?
"Let's sink a hot needle into it and see what it smells like," I said to the whaler. So we went from the carefully-curated museum in his lounge room, up the hallway, to his kitchen table where a forest of Worcester, Tomato and Barbeque sauce bottles stood over an understory of chaotic ashtrays, empty coffee cups and stacks of the old whalechasers' log books.
"I've got some needles here somewhere," he rummaged through the kitchenette, brought out a biscuit tin and reefed open the lid. He started emptying a whole sewing kit onto the table; a quick unpick, cotton reels and packs of pins and sewing needles. "Whaddaya reckon? The quick unpick?"
"Just give me a decent needle that won't burn my fingers."
He eased an upholstery needle from its cardboard sheath and handed it to me. I flicked the cigarette lighter and held the flame to the metal. He placed the ambergris on the plastic, flowered tablecloth and I plunged the red hot needle into the lump.
Both of us leaned in to get a whiff of the white smoke that plumed from the needle and then reeled away coughing. It was a bit like smoking hash from heated-up bread knives except this delivery system was via our nostrils. Mick must have got more than me because his coughing fit lasted several minutes (later he blamed it on a lifetime of White Ox), whereas I was merely bemused on how awful the revered, mythical ambergris actually smelt.
"It smells like shit burning," I said.
"It's really bloody stinky mate," He said once he'd drunk a cupful of water from the kitchen sink and recovered.
And it was. But there was something else beneath it; something sublime and utterly inexplicable.
Anyone who has read the perfect novel that is Jitterbug Perfume will know that under any fecal, nasty smell lies something more beautiful, something that goes straight to our old lizardy selves. Sure it smelt like burning shit but it also carried the very essence of sex, death and the nature of humanity. Both of us agreed about this. (This is coming from two smokers with no knowledge of perfumery.)
It was there, it was amazing and we smoked it.