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 stops, staring at the weak bulbs, waiting to be plunged into darkness. The slow procession creeps on into the belly of the Pyramid of Khufu.
I twist in the constricted stairwell to glance past the hairy knees of Eva’s husband Dieter, following in matching khaki. The brilliant-white dot of the entrance, our only escape, disappears high in the distance.
Our Egyptian guide, Hala, had elbowed through the waiting line, waving her gaudy umbrella, and barking, “Keep up. Come on, with me everyone.” My wife and daughter had read out the warnings in the guidebook, “Climbing the steps is arduous and not recommended for those with heart-conditions, claustrophobia, asthma, vertigo...” The list went on and they (and Hala) stayed out, wandering the Giza Plateau, trying to avoid souvenir sellers, camel rides, and fast-food restaurants pinching the paws of the Sphinx.
The knee-jerking descent continues into the Egyptian bedrock, beneath two million limestone blocks. Hala’s hasty ramble on the coach haunts me. “Each block weighs two tonnes, and those at the base are over fifteen,” she had said. “Strict north-south alignment... Length of sides exact within two inches... All three pyramids on a perfect diagonal line...” I do not need a calculator to know I am inside a precision-made mountain.
The memory fades with the light, replaced by an oppressive, dizzying sensation. The stale air thickens with every breathless step towards the subterranean chamber. I can bite it in throat-clogging chunks.
“Most think the chamber was carved in case the pharaoh died before the pyramid was finished,” Hala had said. Daunting glimpses of the steep upward steps encourage a moment’s rest. Cornish Will and son Davy examine a deep shaft. Davy’s excited eyes shine. “I can’t believe I’m 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. Eva slips and I pause to check she is okay, grateful of the respite.
I can feel a long-forgotten tightening in my chest. A feeble, wheezy cough dribbles from my mouth. Since I was a boy, I have trekked over mountains and camped in deserts, but my childhood asthma chooses this moment to return. I plod on, embarrassed the khaki couple are leaving me in their dust. In between gasps, the voice of a Tanzanian porter returns. “Pole-pole,” he had urged, through a gap-toothed smile. 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 Queen’s Chamber passes in a dizzy blur of unbearable 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 spotty handkerchief to her sweaty chest.
I stumble next to the sarcophagus in the King’s 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 Dieter’s arm with blood-red talons. Anxious eyes show none of us has a torch.
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.
Eva’s 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.