Breathless Steps

The hacking cough of a fellow traveller kicks up clouds of choking dust. Fine grains of sand scratch my eyes and the air tastes like a filthy cloth stuffed down my throat.
I stumble in the gloom until cleansing tears trickle over my cheeks. Electric lights colour the steep steps dim orange. Blurry sight returns in time to see them flicker. Eva, a stout blonde from Dusseldorf, squeaks anxiously. Everyone stares at the weak bulbs, waiting to be plunged into darkness. The slow procession creeps on into the belly of the Great Pyramid of Khufu.
I twist in the constricted stairwell to glance past the hairy knees of Evaís husband Dieter - following in matching khaki. The white dot of the entrance disappears in the distance as the knee-jerking descent continues into the Egyptian bedrock, beneath two million limestone blocks.
The stale air thickens with every breathless step towards the subterranean chamber. I can bite it in throat-clogging chunks.
Daunting glimpses of the steep upward steps encourage a momentís rest. Cornish Will and son Davy examine a deep shaft. Davyís excited eyes shine. 'I canít believe Iím inside a pyramid!' he says.
We trudge in nose-to-backside convoy up the wooden-slatted steps, knuckles white, clutching the handrails. The passage kinks and twists. Humidity rises. Sweat stings my eyes.
I can feel a long-forgotten tightening in my chest. A feeble, wheezy cough dribbles from my mouth. My childhood asthma chooses this moment to return. I plod on, embarrassed the khaki couple are leaving me in their dust. I slow to a crawl, focus on each step, and try to stop thinking I am going to die inside a tomb built for a king - not a sunburnt tourist from the New Forest.
The walls press against my shoulders. I swear they are moving, tightening - wringing the air from my chest. The Queenís Chamber passes in a dizzy blur of heat. Sodden clothes stick to our bodies and we struggle into the lofty Grand Gallery. Eva stares at the ceiling with an open mouth and a spotted-handkerchief to her sweaty chest.
I stumble next to the sarcophagus in the Kingís Chamber, planting a steadying palm on the wall beside eighteenth-century graffiti. Then the light flickers, dies for a heartbeat, and returns as weak as I feel. Eva grips Dieterís arm with blood-red talons.
My rasping breaths break the silence. Concerned frowns stare back at me. 'Is he going to die?' young Davy asks.
Eva fumbles through her bag of many lipsticks then holds aloft an inhaler. 'Take,' she says.
The need to breathe overwhelms my doubt. Expectant eyes watch me suck hungrily then pause, waiting, calming. 'Thanks,' I wheeze, with a shy chuckle, handing back the inhaler.
Evaís scarlet nails wave me away. 'You keep it. You need it more.'
The final few steps into daylight arrive without any triumphant rebirth or halleluiah moment. Instead, there is just an embarrassed Englishman, scuttling away under the desert sun.

R Tye

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