You know how it is. You are having a quiet evening in with a friend discussing string theory. The fire is blazing, the Armagnac chilled. Between your fingers a smouldering Gringoista, on your lap a notebook in which you make quick computations of gravitational fields. Your friend makes a little joke about the inconstancy of Planck's constants. You chuckle and note it down. Then suddenly your friends falls mute.
You look up from your notes. The sight is appalling. Where only seconds ago there sat a reasoning homo sapiens, a figure with whose manner and face you were long familiar, a weigher of words and a practiser of logic, one who could be trusted to guard luggage in a Chinese bus station, there now sits an exhibit from a freak show. Both hands are raised as if he's about to catch a beach ball. His mouth is open, but he doesn't speak. His nose is twitching like a rabbit's. His eyes are screwed to slits.
Before you can react, he gets worse. He gulps in an improbable quantity of air, hunches his shoulders, scrunches his face like a used tissue then with terrifying involuntary force he sneezes. Chilled Armagnac sizzles on the hot coals. He slumps forward, drained by the exertion.
"Bless you," you say, shocked into superstition by the violence of the act. But your friend is already going again, pawing at the air, crinkling at the nose, rearing up and back like a striking cobra and whoompha.
"Bless you," as again the coals sizzle.
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The force of a sneeze is such that it was thought to expel all spirits from the body, both good and bad, so the sneezer's soul was left momentarily unencumbered, as pink and rawly innocent as a new-born babe. The "bless you" was supposed to act as a spiritual road block, preventing the re-entry of evil. It was a matter of life and death.
And it seems there's some justification for the myth. According to unimpeachable authorities whom I read some 30 years ago in a waiting room and have never found cause to doubt, you're closer to death when sneezing than at any time in your life bar one. And according to those same unimpeachable authorities, a sneeze travels at 200 miles per hour. It out-hurricanes, in other words, hurricanes. Sneezing is drastic.
Now, I am not much of a sneezer. I sometimes sneeze when I contract a winter lurgy or when I disturb dust, and always when I look into the sun. When I do sneeze, I generally sneeze twice, in quick succession. But that's that. That's the whole of my sneezing history. I am a mere foot soldier in the Sneezing Battalion, an ordinariness, marked by and for no distinction. And I have been grateful for that anonymity. Until this morning.
At 3.18 this morning a sneeze woke me, ripped me from dreams of old lovers in new guises and flung me across the bed. Ah well, I thought and flipped the pillow over to coolness and plumped it and tried to return to my dream. Ha.
Another sneeze threw me towards the alarm clock, eyes staring at the numbers of alien green. Then another and another and another. They came like rifle fire. Sometimes they paused long enough to arouse the cruelty of hope but then whoompha. I tried holding my breath, gripping the bridge of my nose, lying on my back, thinking sweet thoughts, thinking vile thoughts, thinking cricket. No good. The sneezes came in waves, rocking me, racking me, bending me like a penknife. And if you are sneezing that is all you are doing. For a sneezer there is nothing else in his world.
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At 3.31 I could take no more, hauled on a dressing gown and padded through the house. The dog, curled in his chair, looked up in drowsy surprise.
'What do you do for a sneeze, dog?' I said, 'What cure is there?' The dog went back to sleep. I took aspirin and sneezed. I made honey and lemon and sneezed. I put whisky in the honey and lemon and sneezed. I threw logs on the log burner, stoked up a blaze, sat hunched on the sofa and sneezed. And despaired.
Four in the morning is the hour of most alone. It strips everything to its remorseless truth. Name, history, loves, kindnesses, these counted for nothing. The truth was a fat old man unable to stop sneezing, groaning and sneezing again. And nothing now could ever come to any good. Had there been a button I'd have pressed it.
The dog woke me at eight, his tail thudding against the arm of the sofa. 'Good morning,' I said.