Sometimes they were like rivers of phlegm. Like a gushing torrent from a crack in a dam, some way up the nose, which embalmed the valleyside and grew to an unstoppable tide as it would reach its target below.
The Queen’s guard had been to the doctors several times. He had had surgery twice, and pumped his nose with the fine mists of unpronounceable chemicals on a daily basis, all to little avail, save for some light, temporary relief. He had tried home remedies of steam baths and vapour rubs; changed his diet and then changed it back; and imbibed water at a rate astronomical. Yet the crack in the dam remained and the water pressure continuously threatened a vengeance no temporary plaster could withstand.
It was not so much the sniffling inconvenience or his larger than average outlay on tissues that irked The Queen’s Guard; nor was it his intermittent sense of smell. It was the irredeemable moments a fresh attack occurred while standing at his station, still as a pebble, and dispatching his much loved duty of being neither seen nor heard.
At this very moment the Queen’s guard is stationed in Windsor Castle at the top of the Grand Staircase, the last in succession of his ornamental kind from bottom to top (or first, from top to bottom). He feels the familiar itch in his upper nasal cavity – the forewarning of the cracking dam.
Also at this very moment the gravel in the courtyard cracks under rubber, heralding the arcing motion of a car as it swings in to position its passenger door as close to the palace entrance as possible, and ready to continue its geometrically efficient departure.
This is no surprise visitor; they never are. Detailed itineraries are provided as per routine to The Queen’s Guards, on gilded menus one might expect to receive at an extravagant dinner party. As it is, this is to be the hors d’oeuvres.
The sound of a door closing is met with the initial itch graduating into a tickle: this The Queen’s Guard knows to be the first trickle of phlegm passing through the fissure in the dam’s brittle wall and onto the grassy bank below. His mind wanders to the empty bottle of steroid spray on his kitchen table. It is very unlike him to have missed ordering his repeat prescription and even more unlike him to have so far been unable to account for what distraction may have led to this outcome. This latter thought cascades with the phlegm: an onrushing and unresolved blight of recent weeks, wherein The Queen’s Guard has found distraction to be the only constant in his once orderly life, the root of which evades him ever more completely, the more closely he attempts an appraisal.
As far as he is able to discern, very little has changed in his life to have affected him so. His daily routine, set by the atomic clock, remains unchanged; relative to the pace of change in his family and friends’ lives he is inert, and would be absolutely so were it not for the Earth’s turn on its axis, and orbital wandering. Everything as it is meant to be, measured, static and predictable, with the exception of a creeping impatience begging the elusive question What now? – and he knows full well What now? because it is written in his detailed itinerary! Yet this answer does not satisfy. Not even close. And he continues to wander the distracted landscape, sidestepping long-planned engagements; leapfrogging a family birthday; neglecting a half-finished book; annihilating his prescription re-order…
In the early autumn mornings, the sun casts long shadows along the courtyard and into the Great Hallway, announcing guests’ arrivals and their progress along royal carpet to the base of the Grand Staircase: a literal foreshadow. The Queen’s Guard, so usually steadfast in his station to remain statuesque unless released from this state by Royal Assent, allows himself the briefest flick of his eyes to gauge the Shadow’s progress. Desperate times called for desperate measures. He calculates a crude equation of Pythagorean estimations (containing height of arrivee, distance of hallway and angle of sun, according to the clock): he has somewhere in the region of 6.5 seconds before the corner will be rounded and his staircase ascended. From that point, he knows from experience, it will be a further 7.5 seconds until the arrivee’s trajectory will intersect his eye-line.
The cascading nuisance rounds some turbinates, gathering momentum towards the lower chambers of his nasal passage. Can he risk a sharp sniff? Attempt to temporarily halt it in its tracks, like a gust of wind catching under the wings of a high flying bird? After all, he has already broken protocol with that briefest of eye-flicks. But the unearthly silence dissuades him. Perhaps a gentle round of breathing in through the nose and out through a slight parting of the lips will be sufficient to elapse the time.
The figure comes into peripheral view. He has not allowed himself the consideration that she might take the other wing of the staircase, but that does not matter now for she has begun to ascend his own side anyway.
The 7.5 second countdown starts; as does The Queen’s Guard’s yogic breathing attempts, which have done little to stall the onrushing disaster. He feels a terrifying relief in his upper cavity where presumably the pressure on the dam has been relieved by the torrent now entering the lower reaches of the nasal valley.
He is the fourth and final guard she will meet and then pass on the staircase, evenly spaced, evenly distributed, evenly the same. The phlegm has reached the end of its covered descent and is pausing (as is usual and now, it appears, sinister) on the precipice of nose and upper lip.
The Queen’s guard braces himself silently: the Princess intersects his eye-line. For a brief moment the world is still and he half thinks her frozen in time, framed in his gaze, mid-step. Perhaps the Universe is momentarily caught in indecision as to whether she should spare The Queen’s Guard a personal catastrophe.
A new itch announces itself in the upper reaches of his sinuses – a different itch to the first. It twists and gnaws around the back of his left eye, and he feels the contraction of flesh in Geyser-like anticipation. Could it be possible? Is the universe, not satisfied with the stakes at present, throwing a sneeze into the mixer? Is the Universe so bored that she needs to augment his humiliation for her viewing pleasure?
The Queen’s guard immediately redirects both in- and out-breath to the parting in his lips. His eyes begin to well up.
As though prompted by the same gathering storm, the Princess’ stride resumes and she glides upwards and away from the Queen’s guard, into the other wing of his peripheral vision that is beginning to blur on account of the gathering tears. The phlegm dangles on its cliff edge, its menace outstripped by the prospective sneeze.
The silence is interrupted abruptly: a door along the corridor shuts to and just as quickly the silence returns.
The Queen’s Guard’s sneeze retreats to fight another day, giving way to relief and relaxation. The phlegm river holds its ground. And as the storm dissipates amidst the statues and silence, the Queen’s guard wonders if she will ever notice him and if he will ever be afforded such an opportunity again.