I’m on the bathroom floor, my hands clasped around the toilet bowl, my eyes reflected back at me from its waters. I’m trying to rise above it all, these relentless bouts of nausea and vomiting, to find peace beyond the sickness; the white ceramic is a welcome chill against my cheek.
It started so well. I wasn’t working, the girls were off school, and my wife had a meeting up in town. So I took the girls to the British Museum and we all planned to meet up at the end of the day in a pizza place off the Strand.
We spent the morning gently grazing with the rest of the tourists, room through room with a copy of the museum map in one hand and a camera in the other. But the longest time we spent by any cabinet, longer than the mummified cats, the golden galleon table ornament, the Saxon helmet and the Iron Age burial, was in the Americas room, in front of the carefully lit display of Aztec ceremonial pieces. One in particular: a skull representing Tezcatlipoca, God of the Smoking Mirror. It was decorated with bands of blue turquoise and black lignite, the eyes polished spheres of iron pyrites on discs of white shell. From either side of the mask, two neatly coiled straps of deerskin, which the priest used to tie on the mask for the ceremony.
‘Imagine what that must have looked like grinning over you on the table.’
‘With that knife,’ pointing to the blade with the crouching warrior handle.
The girls moved on, but I stayed a little longer, staring at the skull, until a sudden flash from a camera bounced off the glass and dazzled me back.
Outside the museum the clouds had lowered and a fine rain was dragging across the city. We hurried on, down Museum Street and on into Covent Garden. But in the plaza the traders were packing up already; there was a wintery chill to the place, and only the hardiest tourists were still sitting outside on the iron seats, hunched like survivalists over plastic trays of noodles.
The offices where my wife, Hannah, was having her meeting were as closed up as the market. The CEO was in town, and a man in a fluorescent jacket wanted to know exactly what our intentions were, intercepting us as we hurried across the forecourt towards the lobby. In our bedraggled state we managed to persuade him that we meant the CEO no harm; he waved us on, we pushed through the revolving doors and found sanctuary on some over-stuffed leather chairs beneath a potted palm. Chloe picked up the Financial Times and pretended to check her shares. After ten minutes or so of trying to pass ourselves off as a raggedly eccentric billionaire family, we were rescued by Hannah and we all left for the pizza restaurant. I tried to catch the receptionist’s eye to say thanks for letting us have a seat, but she remained professionally welded to the screen.
We’d been to this restaurant before, a backstreet Italian-Schmitalian place where the pizza just about makes up for the décor and music. It was lovely to be warm and out together though, and I settled in. But half an hour into the meal I began to feel an ominous churning in my stomach; an hour or so later out in the street as we made our way back to the train station, I was rinsing as white and green as the advertising for the soya dessert they were promoting on the station forecourt. A salesman put an open tub under my nose and asked me what I thought; it was all I could do not to vomit into it. I shook my head in horror and hurried on.
The train ride took a hundred years. Rush hour, and every station stop it seemed they were actually herding cattle onto the train. My skin prickled; the windows ran with my sweat. I tried positive visualisation, that every clatter of the rails was bringing me quickly over ground to home, but then I’d look at my watch and see barely a minute had passed and we had half an hour to go. I groaned and yawned again, struggling to hold back a tsunami of vomit that would surely sweep everything ahead of me down the track to the next stop, bobbing with screaming passengers, laptops, rucksacks, hats, magazines, book club specials. I buried my fingers into my face in an effort not to embarrass myself any more than I already had. When I looked up again I imagined I saw the Aztec priest, holding onto the straps with the others, innocently reading the paper over his neighbour’s shoulder, with the skull of the God of the Smoking Mirror gawping at me from around his neck.
It would be impossible for me to overstate the bliss I felt on making it home. The comfort, the peace, the warmth. It is a treat lovingly made in heaven to be up here now on the bathroom floor, throwing up into this deliciously cool and clean toilet. Despite the hideous mechanical emptying, the Alien-like slavering extensions of the jaw, the washing-machine noises – my body seems to know what to do - I am profoundly happy to be here. An atheist, I thank God with every fibre of my being that I am home, miraculously brought back here, away from the train of despair, to this blessed place where I can be myself and do whatever I need to recover. And as the dreadful mechanics of the sickness subside, I prop myself up against the bath, and think – not for the first time – how enormously comforting it is in times of extremity to appeal to some bigger, all-powerful spirit. I picture those Aztec craftsmen, decorating the skull with their fine mosaic pieces, carefully setting the eyes, attaching the straps. I think about the priest, tying it on for the ceremony.
Anything to appease the spirit of the time, to find favour, to make it home.