You can catch something nasty from 'The English Patient'. Liesl Schillinger reports The English Patient virus is spreading to the UK. Liesl Schillinger issues a health warning from New York
It is not spread by mosquitoes, it does not seethe infectiously in the drinking water, nor do productive coughs send it lofting through the air. Nonetheless, the virus has gnawed its way through New Yorkers' viscera for three months now, infecting men and women alike with its heartbreaking contagion, its incapacitating dementia. There is no cure; prevention is the only hope.

Here are the symptoms. First, listlessness. Next, a running nose and dizziness. Later, fever, flushing and dramatic mood swings, and lastly, robed hallucinations and Wagnerian ringing in the ears, followed by cardiac arrest or terminal mal-de-siecle. It is called Delirium English Patiens, and it can destroy relationships within minutes, or hurl total strangers into bed with one another one day, and at each other's throats the next. Lately, it has reached epidemic proportions in Manhattan, so a quarantine has been imposed on men and women who have seen it, even those who show no symptoms.

Londoners, beware: the plague has only just reached your shores, and the time for vigilance is now. You may be stuck with Mad Cow, but there is still time to prevent the English Patient disease from wreaking the havoc on the Thames that it has inflicted on the Hudson. Heed these cautionary tales.

Jennifer, 27, a TV producer, is a typical victim. "We thought it would be romantic - a good date-movie," she says bitterly. As Jennifer and her beloved sat beneath the glittering screen, their retinas tingling as they watched planes burn, sand swirl, and costumed men cavort amid scenic ruins, the malaise sank in its fangs. "Gradually," she recalls, "I became aware that the man sitting next to me was disgusting to me. Slowly, I took my hand away from his. He put his arm around me. I recoiled. By the end of the movie, I knew we would never have that kind of passion; my boyfriend was not Almasy by a long shot. I broke up with him that night."

In other Manhattan cinemas, the sickness galloped in another direction. Peter, an editor, was feeling woozy. There was a woman sitting next to him, and although he didn't know her, he felt she might be on intimate terms with Herodotus. Her erotic silence was provocative - was she mute because the film was playing, or could there be some more mysterious explanation? He betted on the latter. Several hours later, they tearily departed the cinema, clinging to each other like fungus on a rock, and headed to her apartment. Several months later, they emerged, realising that they had been victims not of love, but of Anthony Minghella.

Observing the red-rimmed eyes and rueful sneers of thousands of passers- by, they knew they were not alone: every New York man knew every New York woman was not Katharine, every New York woman knew every New York man was not Almasy. (Who cared that the real Almasy was gay?). In bars and dance-halls, a rigid segregation of the sexes snapped into place; no one knew who might be a carrier of the malaise; each knew the other was not enough.

Londoners with their wits about them ought to read a prescription of hope in this grim report. Don't risk seeing The English Patient; it would be far safer to suit up at Banana Republic, hop on a plane, and head straight to New York. The addled natives, in their weakened state, will be ripe for English doctoring. Just keep them far from the cinemas, and whatever you do, don't mention the war.

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