BILL HEARLD puts himself to the ultimate test for a man - a trip to the perfume counter

I NEED to know. Did you fall for it this year and did you feel as small and pathetic as I did? Did you brave the Christmas foray through the aromatic portals of the department store perfume department?

I always say never again, but every year I fall for it and put myself through the run of the gauntlet.

All those perfectly-plumed perfume ladies-in-waiting, tester sprays in hand ready to pounce as if attacking an ant plague.

These women always look so perfect. They surely can't earn a fortune yet they look like a million dollars. They must take hours putting on the faultless make-up and if so, is that built into their working time?

Their nails are polished to a shine like a guardsman's boots; the lip-liner has been applied with precision instruments built by NASA; and the department uniform is so crisp - no back creases to suggest they have ever, ever sat down, no seat belt rumples across the chest like the rest of us.

But then they need to be immaculate as guardians of their glittering glass palaces where even the demo atomisers gleam without a fingerprint as if they've been polished by a barman in an American movie.

Lured by the seductive smells (and by the fact that perfume is such an easy, last-minute gift) we are dragged down the corridors of Cacharel, Calvin Klein or Chanel. That's when their trained eyes seem to bore right through you, as if they can see right inside your jacket and detect an anorexic wallet.

Can they see the holes in the toes of my socks? Suddenly the suit I thought that morning was fashionable and well-pressed, feels crumpled, shiny and shabby.

Confidence evaporates, I dive to my right to escape the overpowering odours of the chemical factory and find myself in ladies lingerie amid a kaleidoscopic array of skimpy bras, thongs and fishnets.

I rebound again like a demented ball bearing in a pinball machine and am back in their clutches.

"Is it for a wife or girlfriend, sir?" Both, I want to say to unsettle her.

"Is it for evening, day or a special occasion?"

"Well, er, just something nice and fresh," I whimper.

Try this, she suggests and I push out my wrist. Tut-tut, her eyes accuse as she sprays a posh piece of cardboard and wafts it under my nose like smelling salts.

Yuk, I think, smells like the naughty girls' garret in a Turkish whorehouse, or what I imagine in my Fantasies of an Adult Globetrotter it would smell like.

"Eau de parfum or eau de toilette?

"Just the toilet water, please."

Gift wrapped or plain? 50ml or two-gallon drum? Refillable or disposable? With large fries and a cola? Smoking or non-smoking?

Filling in the census form was a doddle compared with this. Let me out of here.

Never again. Next time I need an olfactory fix, I'll nip into the leather shop in Lendal and sniff to my heart's content.

Updated: 12:16 Thursday, March 20, 2003