Dirty hands, dare to dream

The mind is a dirty place. And some things are best left unthought. Unthought. Unsaid. Because once thought, and especially said, there's absolutely no telling where you might end up.

Like on a plane recently, heading for home, I ended up in Hades. A hell of my own creation. A place where personal hygiene was as scarce as a rare bird.

It began with a man. He was a behemoth. Head as huge and as ridged as a prize-winning pumpkin. His was in the row in front of mine, but while everyone else sat, headphones on, minding their own business, he stood, surveying rows 44-53.

His colossal hands gripped his headrest, his monster fingers encroaching on my screen. Space, as anyone who has ever flown long haul in cattle class well knows, is at a premium.

The miniscule amount allotted to you is your castle, your haven. And his hands were invading my meagre sanctuary. I was trying to watch a movie, but his thumb kept covering up the lead's face.

I wouldn't have minded so much; after all it was only that buffoon Owen Wilson. But they weren't clean, his fingers. They were as greasy as chicken fat, each nail packing a wide band of black crud. And he snorted wetly, scratched flakily and produced thick sounds in the back of his throat. What was his was yours.

Oh, I could have said something, should have said something, asked him to please sit down, especially when he coughed soggily over my prawn noodles and stir-fried market vegetables.

But no, what I did was I let my mind wander. Imagined just where those hands might have been. Hanging out in abattoirs and whorehouses? Loitering in gutters and hovels? Fraternising with cockroaches and mangy dogs?

And as I queued for the loo, inhaling the stale human stench peculiar to any space in which people are cooped up for long periods without access to fresh air, and took in the sticky patches on the lino, the stray hairs clinging to the carpets, the remnants of food stuck in every crevice, I felt like I was slowly but surely drowning in the foulness of others.

If you pause to think too long and too hard about the potential for exposure to poor personal hygiene out there in the big wide world, you could almost be excused for never leaving home. Travel is fertile ground for filth.

Economic circumstances afford different standards of hygiene. I'm sure no one actively chooses to live next to an open sewer, but many in developing countries have to.

And when far from home, the disruption to routine and the introduction of foreign foods can leave you desperate for the toilet; any hole over which to squat preferable to the alternative.

Even when surrounded by all the comforts of a good hotel, it pays not to consider just how many people have lain on the mattress upon which you are sleeping; exactly which bodily fluids they have left upon it.

We should be thankful though that, on the whole, we live in more sanitary times. That unlike those at the court of Louis XIV we don't merely mask our odour by spritzing with perfume. (The king himself was said to find the act of washing disturbing, and only bathed twice in his entire life.)

That we do not reside in medieval London, where the unpaved ground was covered in excrement and entrails, rotting meat was dumped in the Thames and the content of chamber pots was emptied out windows.

No, modern life is positively sterile in comparison. Possibly too sterile for our own good. How else do you explain the plethora of clips on YouTube of pimples being squeezed and boils lanced? An entire library of discharge is on there.

I was naive to the phenomenon, until recently I was asked if I'd seen the 25-year-old zit. Over six minutes and 17 seconds, a woman digs and coaxes a solid brown, woody plug out of her aunt's back.

There are no faces, and scant dialogue, merely a pore that had apparently been clogged for 25 long years. Recommended viewing.

Sunday Star Times