I was shown to a room divided into three cubicles, each with a reclining chair and bed table. In the first, a nurse was vacuuming fluid from a man’s lungs. He was large and physically helpless with a beautiful smile. He had no voice but croaked breathlessly over the whirring noise of the machine. I set up shop in the middle cubicle and peeked round the partition to greet my other neighbour, a bird-like woman with a black head wrap. Her smile too was bright, with a suggestion that in her case chemotherapy is no longer the disaster it once was.
Six weeks ago my colon was resectioned. While she was at it, the surgeon laid a tube from my heart to an opening on my neck to facilitate the administration of any future chemotherapy. When people ask what the bulge is in my neck, I say it’s where they will insert the funnel and tip in the red diesel.
But I purposely haven’t formed much understanding about what chemotherapy is or how it works. Nor have I hunted around online for the full starting prices. I like to find out as I go along. I do, however, have a list of possible side effects of chemotherapy given to me by the oncologist which, left in their original French, sound almost glamorous. Beyond these he has remained deliberately inscrutable. Some finish the course as strongly as they begin, he said. Others can’t stick it. Any debilitating side effects are usually experienced in the first of the three intervening weeks. That’s all I know. I have nine sessions scheduled over the next six months.
I sat in my cubicle listening to the mucus being sucked out of the old chap’s lungs and his breathless conversation with the nurse. Then a young male nurse came in and opened the tube in my neck and joined it to another tube. He was very nice about it. Then he attached a bag of clear liquid to the tube and suspended it from a sort of elegant mobile gallows. Then he went away. To help pass the time I picked up the Book of English Common Prayer and, opening it at random, read the prayers and responses of the Service of Holy Matrimony.
An hour later he came back, dismantled the apparatus, removed the tube and gave me a Madeleine sponge cake and a carton of orange juice. I was free to go, he said. I felt fine. I ate the cake wondering whether in another life I would take a bite of a Madeleine sponge cake and be reminded of the cubicle in the Marseille hospital, the nurse’s dirty uniform, and the man’s beautiful smile.
That was on the Friday. On Saturday I was right as rain. Sunday, the same. On Monday morning I was given an injection complementary to the chemotherapy. Almost immediately I had shooting pains in odd pairings all over my body: thumb and skull, foot and hip, toe and back. Sharp but easily tolerable. These lasted until Wednesday. If that was the worst of it, I thought, this will be a doddle.
On Thursday I slept all day and in the evening I was able to come downstairs to sit with a glass of wine and listen to an old, gentle, pro-European Union French socialist say what he has learned about France in 20 years of speechwriting for a socialist minister of the French state. I have two things to report that surprised me. One is that, according to him, there is no strain of liberalism in French politics. The other was his rueful admission that the EU Commission is ‘deeply anti-democratic’. His emphasis on the word ‘deeply’ was theatrical and this ringing phrase is now a household catchphrase, declaimed at irrelevant or incongruous moments in the grand Shakespearean manner. After two hours on French politics, I excused myself and returned to bed.
The next day, Friday, I was too enervated even to read. I tried several old favourites but had to lay them down after a page or two. The words swam, the books were too heavy. I think I could stick any side effect of chemotherapy if only I could still read. What a bore! Then I picked up Kangaroo, an intensely autobiographical novel by D.H. Lawrence. He goes to Australia where he flirts with the idea of joining a covert revolutionary fascist organisation and falls in homosexual love with the charismatic Jewish leader. Frieda is furious. Based on a true story apparently.
I haven’t read Lawrence for 40 years. But tired now to the point of feebleness, and helpless to resist it, his fervid, hallucinatory prose is the only thing I can read. It’s like hearing a dying man preaching to dying men, distantly, on a beach, with roaring Pacific ocean rollers in the background. Simply too tired to read, but feel you must? Try Kangaroo!