Away from the election, a breath of fresh air

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The Independent Online
Our pledge: This column is guaranteed absolutely free from any mention of the general election. Except just then, of course. Thank you.

Today we bring you a story for our times, a tale of personal values, of care for hygiene and yet of ultimately hopeless insecurity. It is post- modernist yet timeless, antique yet timely ...

A reader writes: Oh, for heaven's sake - get on with it!

Fair enough. Here we go then with a short story entitled "Bad Breath Blues".

It was rather odd that Bill Blunkett should worry about having bad breath, as he had taken so many other precautions about his personal hygiene. He had eliminated dandruff from his head and shoulders, he had made sure that nasal hair was trimmed with military precision, and he had even mastered the golden rule of after-shave lotion.

(The golden rule of after-shave lotion, if you are interested, is that putting too much on is worse than putting none on, and that if all those men who go round smelling like an explosion in a perfume factory realised how they spread asphyxiation, the after-shave lotion industry would plummet.)

But still Bill Blunkett worried that he might have bad breath.

This was because he had once read that you can never smell your own breath, in the same way that you can never hear your own snoring or see yourself from behind. You are so used to your own smell that it cannot impinge on you, and therefore everyone who has bad breath thinks he has acceptable breath.

The same is true of people who have acceptable breath.

So you never know if you have bad breath or not.

Bill Blunkett sometimes tried breathing into his own cupped hand and then sniffing quickly to see if he could catch the odour of his own respiration. It was useless. All he could smell was the warm, slightly sweaty smell of his own hand. This was all done in strict privacy, of course, as indeed was the experiment when he breathed into a paper bag and sealed it up, then later had a sniff.

It smelt of paper bag.

Which is what you would expect if you had bad breath to which you were already accustomed.

It drove Bill Blunkett barmy.

There was nobody he could ask.

He had a wife and two children, of course, and several score colleagues, but they were precisely the people who would have to put up with his bad breath (if he had it) and who could not be trusted to give an honest or unmalicious answer.

He could see the dialogue in advance.

Him: "Darling, do I ever have bad breath?"

Her: "No, not really. Except when you have been drinking, or eating, or smoking, or chewing gum."

Or perhaps more like this...

Him: "Darling do I ever have bad breath?"

Her: "Never mind about that - have you booked the car in for its service yet?"

There are some things you can never consult intimate friends and relations about - such things as sexual problems, table manners, the technique of tying a bow-tie, simple spellings, and how to drive better, and bad breath is one of these. Far better to consult a complete stranger.

And that is exactly what Bill Blunkett did.

With a courage he hardly knew he possessed, he one day leant forward on the train to a tall strange man who was about to get out at the next stop (Leeds) and said, "May I ask you a favour? Does my breath smell?" and breathed over him.

"Not specially," said the man, and got out.

The quality of Bill Blunkett's life soared after that. He had it on unimpeachable, unbiased authority that his breath was OK! A completely impartial arbiter had told him that halitosis was not a danger! You should have seen his social poise increase and his courage at parties and dinners take him through previously uncharted waters.

It even affected his work, in that his increased confidence gave him a more dynamic attitude and he soon won promotion, and was relocated to a senior position in Yorkshire.

The first day he encountered his new boss, he thought he recognised him. So did his new boss.

"My God," said his new boss, without thinking. "It's the man on the train with the horrible breath!"

It was at this point that Bill Blunkett's life took a decided downturn again.

Not a pretty story, I'm afraid, but it took your mind off the election for five minutes, didn't it?