‘But you look so well!’ How many times have I heard that lately. Kindly meant by most, but for a few it’s outrageous, after all they have heard or read about my health, and they feel cheated of the mushrooms growing out of the side of my head that they’d been hoping for. Either way I’m surprised by the compliment. Yes, the tan and this expensive shaving balm Catriona bought me, and now hair again, make me appear unravaged from the neck up.
‘But you should see the rest of it,’ I laugh gaily, detailing the bulge in my neck where the chemotherapy tube remains in place; the young Brigitte Bardot breasts; the scarred, punctured jelly belly; the spindle shanks; the lizard-skin calves; the knobbly feet; the black toenails oozing some sort of clear liquid that I don’t enquire about. ‘But you do look fabulous,’ they insist. And vanity whispers: ‘Perhaps it’s true!’ Maybe some sort of psychic flaring is making me attractive to those with an eye for that sort of thing.
‘You must keep thinking positively,’ say others, grasping my hand and looking me in the eye. ‘Mind, body, spirit – eh? Mind over matter – eh? Come on. You can do it.’ I might be encouraged with one of those anecdotes about a chap who was absolutely riddled. Half man, half derelict termite mound. But stubborn. Never-say-die, life-and-soul sort of a bloke. Was given six months to live ten years ago, went to live in Phuket, opened a ladyboy bar, still going strong, doctors baffled.
Or there are the ‘Well, we’ve all got to go some time’ merchants. These are usually middle--aged, comfortably off, high--testosterone sporty men exuding health and strength from every pore. They probably secretly think that they are the blessed exceptions who will live for ever, riding the crest of a pharmacological wave of one incredible scientific breakthrough after another.
‘Yes, yes. Undeniably true,’ I say. ‘The year I was born, life expectancy for a UK male was exactly my age now, 65. So I have no complaints and only gratitude to have been allotted my full share.’
Some of these stoics might go as far as to say they rather envy me the advance warning, and therefore the time and space to relax and compose myself, to read the poets, make my peace, look at the sky and so forth. How elegant, they feel, to slope off in my prime and be ever afterwards remembered like that on their phones.
‘Oh, I couldn’t agree more,’ I say. ‘I feel very fortunate indeed to be spared a toothless old age.’
‘Look at it this way,’ advise other comforters. ‘We come from nothing and go back to nothing. There’s no such thing as “the dead” – see? “The Glorious Dead”? Rubbish. You’re either alive or you’re nothing. This is just the blink of an eye, mate. A bird flitting through an Anglo-Saxon feasting house. In one door and out the other. Ever heard that one? Bloody marvellous. Life ain’t normal. Being nothing is normal, my son, so you’d better get used to the idea.’
‘Why, thank you very much,’ I say. ‘I hadn’t thought of it quite like that. Throws a quite different light on the whole business.’
And the last time I saw Professor Brian Cox, I think he said that the latest theory of life deriving from the study of black holes is that we humans are all basically holograms, comprised of bytes of information, and it is therefore possible that when we die these bytes of information will disperse into the universe, perhaps to reform elsewhere. Mind you, we’d drunk a lot of champagne by the time we got on to black holes and holograms, and I might have got that completely wrong or imagined or dreamed it.
And then there is my Aunty Margaret, the same age as Her Majesty the Queen, who wrote me a letter last year telling me I must ‘get right with the Lord’ as a matter of the gravest urgency. The suggestion being, I think, without having to put it into stark words, that I was going straight to hell on a poker unless I repented of my sin and reformed my reprobate heart and walked in the light in the short time I had left on Earth. My Aunty Margaret is an unfailingly kind, humble and faithful Christian and her letter shook me rather. She finished by saying that she had been moved to write me such a letter by a spirit of Christian love rather than chastisement. I believe her and love her for it. And if I’m honest I would say that of all the advice I’ve received so far on this controversial subject, my Aunty Margaret’s letter is well out in front.