Harriet Walker: 'I felt my face was going to explode'

 

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The worst pain I have ever suffered hit me on a flight between Milan and London. As those who have flown with budget airlines will know, the experience is rarely pleasant – or even comfortable – but it doesn't usually cause you to dip your head and cry into a cup for two hours. Or maybe it does, but that would be the overreaction of someone fixated on the days of Concorde, perhaps.

The fault was all my own. That is, it was the fault of the tremorous workings and faulty piping in my head. I had a terrible cold, you see, brought on by flitting between air conditioning and the fetid, swampy heat of September in Lombardy, and by not laying off the finer things in life – such as alcohol and cheese – in a bid for early recovery. But when you're ill, all you want is alcohol and cheese, regardless of the effect they have on your nasal passages and mental capacity.

Having a cold isn't nice, but it doesn't often drive one to agonied distraction. But as the plane soared higher and higher, the amassing catarrh, phlegm, snot, ectoplasm and whatever else suddenly solidified behind my eye and began to expand as the cabin pressure increased. This was scary for two reasons – first, that you very rarely see so clearly the impact of flying on one's body, and second, because I was worried that my face was going to explode all over the jaunty orange livery. As my moans grew, the man next to me moved his Pringles.

First of all, my face began to ache. Then it was racked with shooting pains that began behind my nose and burst like electrical currents into the very depths of my eardrum. For two hours. Non-stop. The capillaries in my left eye stood to attention like Prince Harry at Sandhurst and, just when I thought they would all burst ghoulishly, the lids swelled to golf-ball proportions and shut. I have never understood so well the feeling of being put through a mangle. For two hours.

I'd like to be able to tell you I was serene and martyrish, but in fact I behaved like a Victorian lunatic. I was unable to sit still; my legs kept spasming in my seat like Michael Flatley's after a hard night's Riverdance, and I tried every angle of incline for my head, until I found the one which least felt as if my eye was going to roll out on to my cheek. After a while, a steward asked me if I was all right, taking in my swollen eye with one brief twitch of his gentle face. "Not really," I foamed. So he went to find some paracetamol and Karvol for me.

This being easyJet, I assumed these two things would cost me about 15 quid, so as I breathed in the balsam fumes and prayed for a miracle, I pressed some money on the steward. "Oh no," he said, "you don't have to pay for these. All you need to do is write down your name and address in case you drop dead."

I gulped. It only pushed the cementy mucus further into my inner ear, so I tried to un-gulp, and choked on a rattling Dickensian cough. I also began to feel incredibly guilty for having been irritated by and, yes, rather contemptuous of the kindly steward when I'd first boarded the plane. He had addressed the passengers as "guys"throughout the entire safety demonstration, which he had delivered in the sort of weirdly intoned, high-to-low dactylic hexameter that means most public announcements make me want to rip down the Tannoy system and start jumping on it, shouting, "Nobody actually talks like that!"

I saw now – metaphorically, of course, because one eye was still forced shut – the error of my ways and gave thanks for this good Samaritan and his freebie drugs. And sure enough, as I took the paracetamol, we began our decent. As we swooped into Luton airspace, my ear fizzed like a mistuned radio. As we landed, it popped and my eye thwapped back into its socket. I did the most enormous nose-blow and disembarked.

Being given a makeover is the sort of thing I dream about. I think I'd really enjoy being prodded and poked and told to stand up straight by the likes of Trinny and Susannah. Not because I think I need one, you understand, but because I love being evaluated.

But when a lady approached me in the street outside a fashion show in Milan and offered me a free one, you can understand my eagerness to bat her away. There I was, all togged up in my finery with some woman circling me like a fly, telling me I should be more dressy and in more make-up. The thing is, she was right – everybody in Milan wears heels and at least an inch of foundation. It was as if I'd come out naked.

When I got back to London, I spent almost a week in a jumper and trousers with an elasticated waist. My boyfriend said that I looked like an artist. My boss said I looked terribly chic. Take that, Milano.

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