The International Headquarters of Nostriphobics Anonymous is located in the basement room of a dilapitated house at the bottom of Bridge Hill. Its logo, a stark, black, unembroidered NA, is on the door but this is the only outward sign of its existence. When I arrived I was already a few minutes late for my first meeting but I walked up and down, composing myself, for some time before ringing the door bell.
Nostriphobia is a condition that has only recently been officially recognised yet it affects, to some degree, one in three of the population. In some people its effects are so mild that the sufferer is able to lead a normal, respectable, life but between 3-5% of the victims exhibit symptoms so extreme that they are condemned to a life of isolation and alienation. Often, it is only the family and close friends of the advanced nostriphobic who know of his or her existence; them and the DHS as the person with this condition is, invariably, unable to work and must live on benefits.
The door was opened by a woman wearing a brightly coloured, hand-knitted balaclava that covered her head down to her slim shoulders. Before she could speak I said, nervously,
"I've come for the meeting. I'm Bernard Vine."
"We only use our first names here." she reproached, gently, "Come in, Bernard."
She led me down two flights of stairs and along a short corridor to a dimly lit room in which a dozen people sat in a circle either on low chairs or on the floor. Some wore balaclavas and others had scarves wrapped around the lower portion of their faces. Three men had no head covering but sported large, bushy moustaches. They all stared at the floor and nobody looked up as I entered the room. That was a relief.
"This is Bernard." The woman announced.
They all said, "Hello, Bernard." but only a few looked out of the edges of their eyes and strained to catch a glimpse of me. As the woman resumed her position I sat down on the floor.
"Gerald was about to tell us something." said a man's voice to my right.
Gerald got to his feet, shuffled a bit, agitatedly, and then stood still with his fists clenched. He cleared his throat, several times, before saying, in an apologetic tone of voice,
"My name is Gerald and I am a nostriphobic."
Nostriphobia, for those of you with no medical background, is the irrational fear of people looking up your nose. If diagnosed early enough, in infancy preferably, it can be treated with drugs and aversion therapy but if it is allowed to develop into puberty and beyond the consequences can be disastrous. There is no known cure for advanced nostriphobia but the old adage, 'Once a nostriphobic, always a nostriphobic' is no longer given universal credence. Recent research, using pigs, has drawn some very interesting conclusions and points to a time when nostriphobia will be eradicated in the same way that smallpox has been consigned to history.
Gerald stood silently, stared in panic around the room, and pulled his tartan balaclava down tighter over his head. All the others looked up at him and willed him to go on.
"I am a nostriphobic." He repeated, almost silently.
"What else do you want to tell us?" said a man's voice.
The silence went beyond pain and verged on agony as Gerald turned his head away from the group and looked over his shoulder towards the corner of the room.
"We're your friends, Gerald." Came a coaxing, female voice.
"You can tell us." Said another.
Gerald began to sob as if his heart was breaking but he remained standing.
There is a clinic in Palo Alto, California, which claims a 100% success rate for its revolutionary treatment of nostriphobia. The 'Naesebor System' is named after its inventor, Dr. Karl Naesebor, a Danish behaviour psychologist who is best known, perhaps, for his work with psychocraniacs; people with an overpowering desire to knock the head off the statue of the little mermaid in Copenhagen. He found, astonishingly, that the two conditions were related and both sprang from pre-natal trauma associated with the mother-to-be experiencing the gynaecologist's examination as a physical and mental intrusion bordering on rape. Upon moving to California he found little call for his expertise in treating psychocrania and so concentrated all his energy on the more debilitating condition of nostriphobia. His work and dedication, in any other field of research, would have been rewarded with high honours and maybe even a Nobel Prize but, like any genius, ahead of his time, he was regarded as a crank or charlatan and classified along with those who profess to be able to foretell the future in the fluff taken from a person's belly button.
Gerald's sobs grew louder and more insistent until he was convulsed with tremors that would have registered nine on a human Richter Scale. Everybody looked at him.
"We understand." Said a voice off to my left.
"Tell us how you are feeling." Said another.
Gerald's tears were beginning to show through his balaclava and he seemed unable to stop crying.
Extreme nostriphobics are easily recognised. Their whole lives are dedicated to avoiding exposing their nostrils to public view. They live in basement flats at the bottoms of hills where they sleep on thin mattresses placed on the ground. Some even dig trenches so that they are able to sleep below floor level. They wear balaclavas, even in mid-summer, or roll-knecked sweaters that come up to their eyes. They often, in the past, found work as miners but, with the closure of the mines, more and more of them have been forced to find alternative employment and, while some have been lucky to find work as deep-sea divers, many more are reduced to the degredation of cleaning the sewers.
The first indication of latent nostriphobia can be seen in the pre-toddler who constantly sticks boiled sweets up his nose. If the sweets are taken from him he will happily use any other small implement to achieve the same objective - pens, beads, cigarette ends - anything that is to hand. Lacking any of these objects the child will revert, as a last resort, to his fingers and thumbs. Other, early signs of the approach of nostriphobia can be seen in the child who blows his or her nose too frequently even when they have no cold.
Minutes passed and Gerald remained standing. He was no longer crying. He was facing the group and standing less slouched than before. He took a deep breath and said, almost proudly,
"My name is Gerald and I am a nostriphobic."
This time he said it more strongly, with confidence and conviction. There were gasps from the group.
"We're your friends, Gerald." Someone murmured.
"We love you." Said someone else.
Gerald started to cry again.
Throughout history, nostriphobics have overcome their disability and risen to the top of their chosen professions but, often, the world has paid the price for their self-imposed restraint. Hitler suffered from nostriphobia but, tempered by his megalomania, he cultivated a small moustache that served to draw attention to his nostrils as if in a defiant, 'look up my nose if you wish. I have nothing to hide.' There are very few photographs of Hitler sitting down. Except when he was signing a peace treaty with the leaders of one of the countries he was about to invade, he stood proudly to attention and seemed to go out of his way to expose his flared nostrils to the adoring German public. The Nuremberg Rally was a prime example of his attempt to project normalcy; his reasoning being that if he was able to stand high on the podium with hundreds of thousands of people cheering, waving, saluting and staring up at him then he obviously had no nasal problems. He spent the best part of the last five years of his life in an underground bunker and this rather speaks for itself. Some academics and revisionist historians have proposed the hypothesis that Hitler started the second world war in order to hide the onset of advanced nostriphobia as, by doing this, he was able to remain underground for years at a time without raising suspicions.
Stalin, to judge by his walrus moustache, was already in the advanced stages of nostriphobia when he first came to power. Charlie Chaplin, Douglas Fairbanks and Clark Gable are just three of the actors who suffered from varying degrees of the disease but, as most nostriphobics do their best to remain out of the public eye, the debilitating effects of crippling nostriphobia are most in evidence amongst the lower strata of society: the down and outs, the tramps, ditch-diggers and traffic wardens.
Gerald stopped crying , raised his hands to the neck of his balaclava and grabbed hold of it. He began, very, very slowly to peel it back from his face. Around the room, all eyes were wide.
Is one born or does one become a nostriphobic? Nature, nurture or a mixture of the two? This is the conundrum that has faced philosophers, pedants, academics and seers since the beginning of time and we are no closer to a solution now than we were when we crawled from the primeval swamp, looked back down at our reflections in the muddy water, and stared into the fathomless depths of our own nostrils for the first time.
Gerald gradually revealed his head to the rest of us. He had a very ordinary face, quite pale, almost like marble, or death, due, no doubt, to having been covered by a balaclava for many years. He was completely bald but had a magnificent, bushy, red moustache on his upper lip. His attitude was serene, saint-like, almost beatific. The single, dim, light-bulb, hidden, from my position, by his head, gave him a warm, orange halo. Spontaneous applause broke out and I joined in. We clapped until our hands tingled and broad grins flashed from hidden face to hidden face, recognised only by the acompanying glint in the eyes.
The rest of the meeting was taken up with reports and discussion. David had noted some advancement in the Equality for Nostriphobics campaign but said that many professions were still closed to the extreme sufferer. Banks would not entertain the thought of balaclava wearing cashiers. The police force does accept a very few nostriphobics but they are used only for undercover work and there is little opportunity for promotion. The Law Society accepts them but expresses doubts that a masked solicitor would ever get much work.
Charles reported that a bill, now going through parliament, which would give the same rights to nostriphobics as those enjoyed by claustrophobics, agoraphobics and arachnaphobics, was due for its second reading.
Claudia told us that a female pressure group, Feminists for Nostriphobia, were ready to have their nostrils stitched shut in a show of solidarity and defiance.
Peter reminded us that the annual convention of the National Nostriphobics Association would be held in the cellars of Beaufort Castle on the 28th and 29th June and any member wishing to go should put their names down as soon as possible.
The rest of the evening we just sat around chatting and drinking tea. I quite fancy Claudia, I wonder what she looks like.
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