Rebecca Tyrrel: Days Like Those

'Matthew spent the day at the Turkish baths and now he's home, bronchial and miserable'
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The Independent Online

Matthew's forlorn headshaking is slower and more ponderous than usual. The whisky is being sipped more reflectively and there is awful coughing. He coughs and sips and sighs and shakes his head and says: "That it's come to this. That it has come to this."

He is clearly unwell and suffering from the onset of bronchitis and I am clearly smug and looking forward to precisely the right opportunity, when he is just a little bit worse, to say: "I told you so."

I really did tell him so. I told him when he packed his rucksack before setting off for the Turkish baths he frequents in Bayswater. I said that the one thing he must avoid if his cold isn't to go to his chest is extreme contrasts in temperature. He responded by asking irritably if he of all people an "experienced and well-esteemed doctor" in every respect, other than having any actual medical training or qualifications would ever be that stupid.

I was reminded then of the incident with the soap five years ago when, on the eve of England's World Cup match with Brazil, he managed to get a piece of Roger & Gallet sandlewood stuck in his ear. I begged him not to make it worse by fiddling and he gave me the "experienced and well-esteemed doctor" spiel, emphasised that he did actually know about the extreme delicacy of the aural organ and that he would never be so daft.

Two hours later, after pushing the soap on to his eardrum with a cotton bud, he was in a taxi to Harley Street, where he was charged 450 for the privilege of having it removed. The only consolation for Matthew, a world-class hypochondriac, was being told by a clearly impressed ENT specialist that he had the narrowest ear canals he'd ever seen. Which is exactly what the vet said of Steptoe, our West Highland terrier's ear canals, giving the dog and Matthew something mutual to bond over.

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So I can't claim to be surprised when, after dismissing my advice about maintaining a regular ambient temperature as "a statement of the insanely obvious", Matthew spent the day at the Turkish baths wafting near nakedly between the intense heat of the steam room and the intense cold of the plunge pool.

And now he's home, bronchial and miserable. "Oh, it's not so bad," I say as he hands me his whisky glass for a refill. "A course of antibiotics will sort you out in a few days."

"It's not the bronchitis that is making me miserable, you daft twit," he said, rudely I thought, given that he was expecting me to hand him back the full glass of whisky, not to pour it over him. "I am depressed because I have been ostracised at the schmeisser."

The "schmeisser" is the Yiddish term he uses for the Turkish baths. Schmeissing is the process of men hitting each other's bodies with raffia brushes in steam rooms. Matthew rarely gets involved in actual schmeissing himself, because while he doesn't mind being schmeissed, he is not so comfortable with the notion of schmeissing others. And apparently, the man who receives a schmeiss without returning it is known as a schmeiss ponce, and this is something that Matthew doesn't wish to be. Even so, he is a great proselytiser of the schmeiss, believing it to be one of the most effective ways of busting stress and improving the circulation.

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What goes on at the schmeisser apart from the schmeissing has remained something of a mystery to me over the years. Occasionally Matthew will recount some story involving one of the schmeissers getting into trouble with the Russian mafia. And he told me once of his embarrassment when he unintentionally grossly insulted a deaf schmeisser with the wrong sign language. Generally, though, he keeps the schmeisser to himself; all marriages need their cordons sanitaires. Which is why I am so surprised at this sudden admission that he has been sent to Coventry.

"There's been a terrible misunderstanding," he says. "They think that I am trying to ban the act of schmeissing. Me, of all people. As Voltaire so nearly put it; I may not be much of a schmeisser myself, but I will defend to the death the right to schmeiss."

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So far as I can make out, the whisky on top of a few Lemsips wasn't helping with the clarity of the narrative. Matthew has been fighting a battle on behalf of a man with a nipple ring who has been banned from massaging his friends in the steam rooms. Massaging soap on to the schmeissee's body by hand is apparently a precursor to the actual schmeiss and all massaging and soaping of any kind has now been outlawed. Matthew, hearing of the outrage, took it upon himself to ask the manager how this could be when schmeissing is the very soul of the Turkish bath, and the manager told him that schmeissing per se was not banned, just massaging, on account of a council licence. Matthew then expressed his confusion about the distinction between massaging and schmeissing in the strongest terms and his meeting with the manager ended on a note of some tension.

I sat and nodded as the story was told and made sympathetic noises while topping up the whisky glass and Matthew went on to explain that via a series of Chinese whispers, it had got back to the schmeissers that rather than fighting this heroic human rights battle on their behalf, Matthew was their sworn enemy. "I am a pariah," he says sadly sipping and sighing. "I am an outcast."

And then he coughs bronchially and puts his hand to his chest. And just this once, I really haven't got the heart to say: "I told you so."

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