Our friend Anthony was reportedly dying and a party of four drove over to the nursing home to say cheerio. The journey across deepest Provence was an hour and a half each way and we went in my old Mercedes. I fixed my attention on the badge and the twisting road beyond it, rhythmically chewing one square after another of 4mg fruit-flavoured nicotine gum. My morning dose of 75mg Venlafaxine filtered out extraneous thought, self-criticism and fantasy, leaving me feeling unusually self-possessed.
The mental picture I keep of Anthony is just the eyes, which are a startling shade of light blue. I’ve never got used to them. Since I have known him he has usually worn a jacket of faded blue cotton that matches their colour exactly and doubles their disconcerting effect. Blazing with passionate excitement about Brexit, say, or with anger, or with piqued curiosity, accompanied most often by a roar of flat-out laughter, eyes as blue as those tend to lead and exalt the com-pany. Ten thousand years ago, the shining blueness would have made him a chieftain. Sylvia Plath was sufficiently captivated by them on a sofa in Cambridge half a century ago, he claims, to offer herself to them without preliminaries. Intuition told him that she had a tile off and he declined.
We entered a sunlit, single-occupancy room on the second floor. He was propped up in bed, his chin rested on his chest. The eyelids were closed. The nose and mouth were encased in a oxygen mask of transparent plastic; within the mask a small tube disappeared up each nostril. Another tube led from a suspended bag of clear liquid to a cannula taped to the back of his liver-spotted hand. It did indeed look to an unprofessional eye as if the pneumonia was hoisting him away that very afternoon.
But not to red-headed Scottish nurse Catriona’s professional one, it didn’t. While we hung back exchanging glances of sanctimonious apprehension, she was all over him with practical efficiency, feeling his forehead, listening to the rhythm of his breathing, checking his drip and oxygen supply, kissing him, hugging him and talking to him as freely and buoyantly as she always has. The unostentatious, almost sleight-of-hand way she felt for a pulse in his inert wrist reminded me of my farmer uncle wringing a chicken’s neck so unobtrusively, as he carried it back to the house, that my child’s eyes missed its dying. We stood back goggle-eyed with admiration.
‘Anthony. Anthony,’ she said. ‘Is there anything I can do for you?’ The eyelids rose. The remarkable blue eyes blazed out unseeingly. ‘Blow job?’ I chipped in perkily. ‘Une pipe?’ The unfocused eyes lifted to locate the source of this new, coarser voice, then searched the room, not omitting the ceiling. I joined Catriona in kissing and cuddling him and putting my ugly old boat race close to his so that he might see it more clearly and perhaps recognise it and give it full marks for attendance.
Now he spoke, but inaudibly. We lifted the oxygen mask away from his mouth and refastened it to the top of his head like a coxcomb and asked him to say it again. Again the hoarse whisper was inaudible. We asked him to say it again. He was speaking in French, it seemed. ‘Speak in English, Anthony,’ said Catriona. ‘Are they kind to you here?’ ‘Oh yes,’ he whispered. His facial expression added that the thought of how kind everyone was being to him was almost too painful to bear. ‘But I want a fag.’
I unshouldered my daypack, put it on the floor and took out ice cubes, lemon slices, two tins of tonic water, a bottle of gin and five glasses. A narrow wheeled bed table did as a bar. I could see no possible objection to a lifelong gin-and-tonic man enjoying one last sip or two at the end. I made stiff ones and handed them round. When I told him it was gin-and-tonic o’clock, Anthony’s eyebrows shot up and he nodded vigorous assent to the proposition that we sit him up a bit more and that he try one.
The transformation in him after the first sip was incredible. (Nurse Catriona pointed out afterwards that perhaps it was the simple lubrication of his throat rather than the magical effects of gin that made all the difference.) His voice became audible then strengthened to near normality. He was chatty, smiling and laughing like his old self and the blue eyes dominated the company again. He was looking forward to going home, he said.
I was quite pissed by the time we left. Last to leave the room, I gave him a double thumbs-up. He returned them with interest. When we reassembled outside in the car park afterwards for a smoke, snowflakes floated down from a cold, pale, apparently cloudless sky.