I noticed her the second I walked into the tube carriage. Short, middle-aged, and sporting a non-designer grey jacket. She was talking to a friend, or possibly a younger relative, who was standing alongside in an equally unflattering coat. I noticed the two of them because they were standing where I wanted to be, in the gap between two areas of seating, close to the optimum door for getting off further down the line. I wished she was standing somewhere else, but she wasn't, so I stood nearby and clung on tightly as the train moved off.
I noticed her for the second time when she sneezed. A sudden explosive sneeze, nothing too violent, but a very definite uncontrolled expulsion of phlegm. I noticed in particular because of something that this woman didn't do. She didn't cover her mouth, or raise a hand in front of her face, she just let rip into the carriage. And then she carried on talking as if nothing had happened.
I wanted to glare at her, as if to say "you unhygienic witch, do you realise what you've just done?" but it was obvious that she didn't. She clearly had no consideration whatsoever for any of the scores of people standing or sitting nearby. That or she didn't realise how her mucus eruption might have been a significant health hazard to all and sundry. Either contemptuous or ignorant. Whichever it was, I was so very unimpressed.
I've been much better trained than that. I try to hold back a sneeze if I'm in a confined public space like a tube carriage. If I really can't stop myself, then I always whip out a handkerchief from my pocket or at lease raise an arm if time's too tight. I know that coughs and sneezes spread diseases, because that's been drummed into me since I was a kid. Health education, damned important, but not everybody pays attention.
I noticed her for the third time when she sneezed again. A double-barrelled assault on this occasion, and all over her friend who was standing directly in front. I attempted to lock eye contact and frown, but my nemesis was facing in the wrong direction and her companion remained deep in conversation. So I tried instead to catch the eyes of my other fellow passengers. Some read on, or dozed gently to the sound of plugged-in headphones. But a few appeared as annoyed as me. They frowned, and shrugged, and rolled their eyes - almost imperceptibly but I knew that's what they were thinking inside.
When sneezes four and five erupted forth, I despaired. I would have moved away, but this was rush hour and there was nowhere else to go. Instead I stood trapped within the blast zone, my subconscious imagining the cloud of tiny germ-packed globules which now floated unseen around my head. I could either breathe some in, or drop dead through lack of oxygen before we reached the next station. I took the less fatal option.
She didn't sneeze again, but I kept watching out of the corner of my eye just in case. I wondered whether my insanitary nemesis was merely hayfever-ridden, or whether her nostrils incubated some viral nastiness which she was destined to pass on. I might be feeling OK now, but had my presence in this particular part of the carriage doomed me to sickness later? I alighted a few stops further on, casting an unseen glare as I passed, then cast the event from my mind.
Until the afternoon of the following day, that is, when a light tickle suddenly kicked off at the back of my throat. It's probably nothing, I thought, in that way you do at the first signs of oncoming malaise. Then a few hours later came that first sigh of resignation as I raised a handkerchief to my nose and unexpectedly filled it. You bastard, I thought, as my September took a slight turn for the worse.
It's not a bad cold, to be honest, more a mild early autumn inconvenience. But at least I know how and when I caught it, from that anonymous woman snorting her lungs out in public. She might be nothing more than a scapegoat, of course, there being thousands of other sick people breathing heavily all around London. But I've already judged her guilty because it's nice to have someone to blame, especially when they're thoughtless muckspreaders with no thought for those around them.
She'd better hope I never see her again, the thoughtless cow. And best stay away from me on the tube this morning, just in case I can't whip my handkerchief out quickly enough and unwittingly stage a replay.