I know the steward is Argentinian. I heard him talking Spanish with one of the passengers up front several hours ago. There is at least some affinity then—albeit unspoken and unacknowledged—when it is he who leans down to ask me to turn off the call light I’ve had switched on for the last fifteen minutes.
I don’t know the Spanish word for ‘smelling salts’. I’m not sure of the English word for the chemical it contains. My eyes are streaming out onto my cheeks like raw eggs. The rubbing together of the surfaces at the back of my throat is like a concert given in particularly coarse grades of sandpaper.
The fear is palpable in the sidelong glances I’ve been getting all throughout this leg of the long journey, all the way back from Asia, towards the influenza-ravaged wastes of Europe. I sneezed at stentorian volume all the way through the swine flu warning—given in hushed tones over the cabin public address loop.
The gummed-up wads of used tissue paper I have stuffed into all my pockets are not much more than germinal smart bombs as far as the other passengers are concerned. An uncovered, red-raw nose and mouth is the equivalent of a diseased cock and balls without a condom, or a used syringe. The lady sitting next to me has been wearing a surgical mask for seven hours.
I’m in so much pain that I can hardly speak, never mind enunciate clearly and intimate demonstratively what the problem is. It feels as if all the liquid conduits in my neck are being slowly injected with nitroglycerin.
I try to explain with a series of arabesques at the shape of the bottle of smelling salts that I remember being given in a similar situation on an Aeroflot flight into Moscow some years before.
This doesn’t help.
The steward suggests that maybe I would like something to chew on. I surmise he now understands I have such nasal congestion that the air pressure is forcing my sinuses to expand across my face and the back of my head to such a degree that they are pressing on my nerves and causing my head to go numb. He suggests I might like some biscuits.
I make an effort to swallow, mainly to confirm just how awful the prospect of a dry biscuit seems to my desiccated epiglottis.
Thankfully, a stewardess rushes back with two plastic drinking cups stuffed with hot towels and I gleefully press the things to the sides of my head, uncaring at the searing of the flesh of my ears against the steaming flannels; oblivious to the fact that I look like a demented child impersonating an air traffic controller, or a radical re-interpretative take on the cup/string telephone.
I stumble off the plane onto the shuttle bus, thanking the stewardess profusely, but aware that I am completely deaf in my left ear. This is something like the twentieth consecutive hour without sleep, so the paranoia levels are staring to jump, and I immediately begin to wonder if, by thanking her, I’ve given the defense some rope in the court case I am already envisaging bringing against the airline for permanent damage to my hearing.
The allergic reaction to the new air redoubles as I enter the tiny, beige terminal. I blindly follow the ‘Transfer’ signs and stagger through another baggage scan even though my connecting flight isn’t for another eight hours. I fail to understand the significance of the strange looks my boarding pass gets from the staff checking my details until well after the last flight of the night—when the scant hotel reps plying their trade on the other side of the airport have all packed up and gone home.
It takes two trips to the clinic and a series of injections of nasal ordinance of increasing potency to feel like I can tackle getting a hotel room, but it’s already well after midnight when I realise that I’ve been shepherded beyond the point-of-no-return, and unless I want to spend the next eight hours in a freezing-cold strip mall, I need to spend US$35 on a visa in order to leave the terminal and enter Qatar.
I try to draw out some money from an ATM for exactly this purpose. The transaction goes through but the money never appears, and I spend another hour online and on the phone to the bank trying to ascertain if I’ve lost the cash.
The verdict is inconclusive.
I remember vague mumblings about some kind of meal voucher for passengers stupid enough to place themselves beyond security with such a yawning delay until their next flight—us sad, solitary individuals, alone on the cheapest possible overnight connections from Asia back to Europe.
If the night flight from New York to Los Angeles is the “red eye” flight, then this is resolutely the “dead eye”. The men here, from various European footballing nations, wear an unmistakable—and strangely familiar—expression of grim accomplishment. You see it everywhere in the North of England, from National Express coach waiting rooms to January sales queues. It’s a look that says:
I walk for twenty minutes and queue for half-an-hour until I find out I’m at the wrong restaurant. Every transaction is expressed in so many different currencies and languages, that it proceeds at a geological pace.
The meal voucher system is organised according to a protracted and esoteric logic that remains a mystery for three-quarters-of-an-hour stood rattling a set of nose pills around in my fist—devoid of the precious lubrication promised by the voucher. An official arrives and an eclectic queue ensues. He writes out each voucher by hand and I finally get my food; sitting down to enjoy it among the lads in football shirts and various stages of depravity. One familiar T-shirt reads: ‘Good Guy Go to Heaven, Bad Guy Go to Pattaya’.
I imagine this is pretty much exactly what every entrepôt station in the world has been like for centuries, from Constantinople to the Cape of Good Hope: A stark confrontation with ourselves as base animals; herded around and scrambling over each other for purchase.
I go and brush my teeth in the brackish Qatari water to try and make myself feel like a human being again.
It doesn’t work.
I add nothing but an additional suspicion of dysentery bacteria swimming around my teeth.
I manhandle my unwieldy luggage through the narrow aisles of the mall, fighting to see anything through a veil of mucus and apnoea—squeezing past the throngs of sheiks, African ladies and Chinese tourists to join the end of an immense queue of people—baskets brimming with muck and tat.
A small boy recoils bodily when he sees my swollen face and oozing cavities, backing up against a cigarette display and edging around in terror. I feel like sneezing on him. I buy some child’s nose balm and some more tablets which don’t work. For tissues, the cashier recommends I try the toilets.
Dithering in the air-conditioned chill knifing down out of the ceiling and straight through the diaphanous layer of my second shirt of the day, I decide to change and put on some more clothes in the stinking bathroom, awash with piss. The most difficult choice is whether to wear my sweat-soaked used shirt against my skin and the new one over it, or vice versa; to put my shorts on over my trousers or on under them; whether to wear two pairs of trousers, or three.
With the legs of some overly baggy bottoms tucked into my socks, I open the lid of the only vacant toilet to find a dozen anaemic flukes of variegated wan shit that won’t flush. I close the thing on its fetid contents, hitch the legs of my trousers out of my socks and up beyond my knees, step up and over my luggage on the trolley I’ve jammed into the cubicle with me; unlace one shoe on the raised surface of the toilet, and then use it squashed-down as an improvised mat in order to shift my weight over and prepare the other foot.
I am gagging so much from the stench that I feel I have to abort half-way through, but find myself standing barefoot, on tiptoes, at full-stretch, on shoes which are already soaking up the piss; laces dangling in the puddles; trousers gathered around my midriff like a bunch of skirts; naked torso shivering in the fluorescent light. I’ve stamped the toilet closed with one foot, so I have nothing to vomit into except a torn plastic shopping bag which sits gaping in the top of the trolley.
It’s when the sneezing begins again that I start to wonder if the increasing number of apocalyptic doomsayers, from George Carlin to Kip Tobin, may actually be right. As a species, I think we might be irrevocably fucked.
I used to think that we would breed out the retrograde, destructive elements eventually; surmount the religio-ethnic differences; trim the population to a level commensurate with the distribution of resources etc. etc. but after eight hours in Doha airport, to bastardise Francis Ford Coppola, I think there are almost certainly too many of us; we had access to too much money, too much equipment, and little-by-little we went insane.