Wednesday, March 02, 2011

the god of the smoking mirror

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.


jacksofbuxton said...

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.

Interesting turn of phrase that Spence.A friend of mine,a doctor,once told me that when serious illness strikes atheists find God and people of faith temporarily lose theirs.

BB said...

Oh I sure hope you feel better soon. There's nothing worse than stomach ailments. Blah! Good post though.

Ali_Q said...

Only you would manage to make vomiting sound poetic! Job well done, Sir!

PS I hope you feel better soon!

Tony Van Helsing said...

You're lucky you didn't eat Mexican.

Spence Kennedy said...

JoB - That's an interesting way of putting it. And I must say, that's been my experience so far. I've had a couple of close scrapes - went for a long sea swim that was more difficult than I thought, and my wife went in for serious surgery once - and both times I found myself praying to whoever and whatever might have any influence on things to make it come right. I suppose it's really a sign of how desperate you feel, and a way of reaching out to forces bigger than you, anything that might make a difference. But I didn't then and couldn't now translate that into any formal religious practice - for reasons too long to go into here. So I suppose I'd better reclassify myself as an Opportunistic Atheist Fumbler(or OAF for short).

BB - I hate those late night / early morning vigils in the bathroom - but at least it was my bathroom, and not on a train!

Alison - Yep - feeling better and brighter today. Won't be going back to that pizza place again, though. Not that I thought that was the problem, but it's the associaton...

TVH - I might as well have offered myself up for sacrifice.

But - mmmm. Mexican food (must be a good sign - I can picture a big plate of quesadillos and refried beans and I'm not rushing off to be sick)


Thanks for all your comments! :)

tpals said...

Glad to hear you're feeling better! I don't know how you held it in on that train ride. Amazing control.

Spence Kennedy said...

Me neither. I think the nausea was still in the early stages, green as I felt. Later on I wouldn't have been quite so fortunate :/

Helen said...

we'll just call you 'Iron-Jaw Kennedy' from now on...

Spence Kennedy said...

I quite like that. But it's probably more like Quivering Lip Kennedy.

Unknown said...

I hope you were praying to the god of the smoking mirror as I suspect he was to blame for the ailment.

Spence Kennedy said...

I was suspicious, too. Maybe he just gets bored, stuck behind the glass all day. He takes his fun where he can get it.

Eileen said...

Until you have a similar experience in an Italian venue with "footprints in the sand" loos you will never know how comforting a nice, clean, UK-style toilet bowl can be...

Christina42 said...

I would have just let it go on the train. Social experiment.

Anonymous said...

I get really panicky when I'm feeling like that, I think I was traumatised by a school trip to France at the age of 11. 36 very very sick kids,in a force nine gale school trip. The teacher was so traumatised she wanted to fly us all back home the next day.

Karen Martin Sampson said...

Over here in the colonies we would call your sickness
"Montezuma's Revenge" if indeed the Aztec mask had any power over the situation. When going south of the US border we are told not to drink the water - only things that have been bottled. Very glad you are recovering. I have been there...not pleasant, but as you said, when you feel you're about to die from it there is something soothing about the cool comode on the side of your face that brings a sense of peace. And you wrote so beautifully about it all!

Josh said...

I have read your blog for a couple years now, always moved by your vivid writing and story telling ability..

Your stories have always hit home, yet never have I been compelled to comment.

However, I must say this:

You truly are the only person I know who could make food poisioning a poetic magical experience.

Well done.

Spence Kennedy said...

Eileen - 'footprints in the sand' loos. They sound romantic, but prob not. Must google that!

Christina42 - Esp. on British trains, where they'll do anything to deny that something's happening.

UHDD - I def felt quite panicky there. It's that feeling of not being able to get out - either through the great crowds of people or off the train. Yuck. And that French trip sounded horrendous! :/

KMS - I remember an interview with Graham Chapman of Monty Python, talking about the filming of Life of Brian. GC said the crew had been struck down with Montezumas Revenge - the interviewer asked him what it was - GC widened his eyes suddenly, gripped the sides of the chair and then sprinted off!

Josh - I suppose I just want to make something positive out of something bad! But I often wonder how graphic I should be. (Esp bearing in mind how much snacking goes on in front of the screen).


Back at work now and very much better! Thanks v much for all your comments. :)

Eileen said...

What you've never some across footprints in the sand??? A china hole in the ground with two positions either oblong and ribbed or foot shaped, one on either side, for your feet. Don't appear to have a U-bend in their constellation. Some flush by a positive tsunami-like rush of water, usually suggested by the extension on the chain which means you can stand outside and pull. Require a certain degree of acrobatic prowess but have the advantage of not having to sit on a seat. Definitely still found in Italy and France (especially on campsites but also in restaurants), not sure about other mediterranean countries.

Spence Kennedy said...

Well, actually now you mention it, I have used that kind of hole. Somewhere in France. It made me nostalgic for some of the rougher outside loos in pubs I've been in (i.e it made even those look good). Mind you, it probably is more hygenic - and good exercise, too. :/