by Diane Knight

It’s hard knowing what I know. It’s difficult to be me. Where others discuss earthquakes, tsunamis and wars, I concern myself with destruction on a minute scale.

Micro versus macro. The unseen. Invading and contaminating. Take the man sitting behind me on this bus, his face covered in tattoos. A self-inflicted mask saturated with ink that penetrates his skin and introduces pathogens. They circulate his body, multiply and take over his functions.

If he should sneeze? Their vanguard would beach on the back of my neck and perform a pincer movement as they claw their way up my nostrils. I don’t know how long I would have but I begin tapping my collarbone as I’ve been taught. Panic levels are peaking at seven but if I tap a heart beat rhythm I might achieve a six. Think yogi not sprinter and breathe. Slow, easy, that’s it…and calm. Then a thought crashes in. Where’s my scarf? Idiot – it was on the table this morning and you forgot it? No scarf means no barrier. Frantic breathing. Chest pains, light-headedness. It’s all heading one way – paroxysmal atrial fibrillation. My index finger jabs morse code on my clavicle so fast it looks like a piston. It’s not a wayward heartbeat after all, thank God.

Yes, but the face mask you ask? Sure, I have to wear it. With the potential for attack who could blame me? I know you’re trying to work it out. Am I protecting myself from you? Or is there something about my face I’m trying to hide? A deformity, or a large spot? It’s not that simple.

Note to self. Must count my face masks when I get home, even though I’ve promised my therapist I wouldn’t. I’m getting better but, in my defence, changing my behaviour will not eradicate pathogens.

Psychotherapists, hypnotherapists – you name it, they’ve tried it:

Habit Reversal

Their techniques all tested and shelved. So I keep lists. As if I don’t have enough to do I’m forced to help them do their job. It’s a joke. When I get home I will start by listing all the therapeutic terms beginning with S. I will list the Ps while I’m at it but I should point out that I do NOT pull, pluck or pick like some others.

The little girl in front has given up craning her neck to get a better look. She kneels on her seat so she can stare straight at me.

‘Mummy, why’s that lady got that thing on her face?’


Come on mummy, she’s only asking what convention states you can’t. Give her a break. I smile at the girl. She smiles back so she must have noticed my eyes crinkle at the corners. She breathes against the bus window and uses her half chewed fingernail to draw a smiley face on the millions of germs clinging to it. I daren’t think about what’s lurking under her fingernail now. The chain reaction has begun and can’t be stopped; from glass to finger, from finger to mouth. And from there? The insidious journey through the digestive tract. Germs sneaking about doing what they do best.

My therapist says I’m suffering from a mental hiccup; an unpleasant analogy. My ex-husband puts my pre-occupation with pathogens down to my past and my ex-daughter puts it down to my present.

Anxiety versus menopause. Both wrong and very blinkered in my opinion. But I’m used to it. People poke fun at me all the time, like those sanctimonious women who smear on masks of make-up with dirty sponges. Under their clogged pores the silent invaders gather in their millions. They find cute little hiding places in the nasal mucosa or down in the air sacks of the lung, potentially infesting the abdominal cavity with a florid exudate. Why do I think of floribunda roses when I say florid? Anyway, such enemies will indulge their need to skinny dip in the colon where they are whisked along in a swimming competition of peristaltic waves in a bid for the freedom of the toilet bowl.

People are not welcome in my home. They are innately filthy but you can’t tell them that. Let me give you an example. At work one of the technicians touched my hand AFTER he had scratched the corner of his nose.

Staphylococcus Aureus for Christ sake! He may have had impetigo, or a carbuncle. Either which way, the bacterial slime that’s produced is designed to stick long enough to invade my body. So is proper cleaning and good hygiene too much to ask? In fact, why touch another person at all?

No one has any idea how tiring it is to think not only for myself but for everyone else.

Ex-husband states, ‘You’re not on a mission to save the world.’

Ex-daughter states, ‘Why can’t you just be normal?

Ex-friends state, ‘You never let us in your house.’

And let them contaminate it? They must think my brain’s been attacked by the critters I’m always warning them about.

Then I see it – a flattened blob of chewing gum on the floor. There’s instant clawing and gnawing in my gut. An intestinal snake-dance and a whimper climb up from the depths. Short gasps for air as I realise the implications. I’m scoring seven out of ten on my panic scale.

How long ago did my shoe make contact? Five minutes? Ten? Fear courses through me as I picture the lurking microbial overgrowth from the number of shoes that have trodden on it. Cross-contamination! Scoring eight now. Viral infestation clings to my sole, a cocktail of sinister germs hitching a ride and getting intimate. Reproducing. I’m peaking at nine.

Yanking a pack of anti-bac wipes from my pocket I do a quick count. Oh my God – there are only two left. Just enough to sanitise my hands; each digit cleaned palmer and dorsal, starting with the proximal, then the intermediate then the distal joints. Rolling medical terms round my tongue is part of the action so I don’t leave any section of my hand unprocessed.

Done. But I mustn’t touch the headrest as I get up. Skin flakes, psoriasis, dandruff. Nits. Things that should make us all quake in our boots. Worn out, I long to be in my home where everything has its place and I know I have eradicated ninety nine point nine nine per cent of bacteria. But – because there’s a remaining point zero one per cent unaccounted for, the work is never ending. Doors locked, checked, a final, final wipe of the handle, key sterilised. I double-check the window catch and finally disinfect my shoes. I say, finally, but I usually miss stubborn viruses hiding in the grooves underneath. They sing out their presence, ‘come and find us, ready or not!’ To be safe I will brush them with bleach; throw out the brush and disposable gloves.

Exhausted, I will slide between boil-washed sheets. Thank God I sucked up skin cells and dust with my vacuum cleaner earlier but as a precaution I will sleep with a mask. I’ve been told that up to seven spiders a year crawl inside your mouth when you sleep and God knows what they’ve scuttled over.

Pathogens; from the Greek, meaning suffering and passion. Nobody could say I don’t suffer for my cause, or lack passion in the way I fight it. Total eradication will never be possible. Pathogens lead such furtive lifestyles.


Diane Knight graduated from the University of East Anglia with a degree in Literature, became an English teacher and went on to study psychotherapy for three years. Her passion lies in writing stories about aspects of mental health and the human condition, particularly the darker side to our psyches. She is currently writing her first novel.