A 20-minute drive through quiet country lanes then suddenly a madcap roundabout and teeming new ring road and finally the hospital car park where I leave the car unlocked and the windows down because nobody in their right mind would want to pinch a car as shabby as this.
Up the grassy bank, in through the sliding doors, turn right past the café, left and left again, up two flights of stairs to level one, then a wide sunny corridor with paintings by schoolchildren and mission statements, then left and straight on without deviating as far as the front row of the pews in the hospital chapel, where I stop and kneel. As usual I have the cool silence to myself.
A desperate prayer with a new sincerity that greatly surprises me, then up again, back out the way I came, then left and now I’m standing before the oncology department reception desk. Name, first line of my address, date of birth: that’s lovely, take a seat Mr Clarke. The familiar high-backed hospital chairs, the circular, magazine-strewn tables, the second-hand book stand, the unfinished giant jigsaw puzzle, the water fountain. Not many people in today, I see. And those who are look relaxed because, like me, they’ve been coming here for a long time and become reconciled to it.
I use the excellent hospital wifi to see if anyone has bid for the ten billion mark Weimar banknotes I’m selling on eBay. By their nature, ten billion mark Weimar banknotes have no rarity or monetary value, and nobody has. A nurse calls my name and I follow her along the corridor and into the examination room where she invites me to take a seat and leaves.
Since 2013, I’ve followed this exact route dozens of times. While my cancer has remained ‘naive’, poor thing, these oncology visits have been routine: monthly, three-monthly or six-monthly. But after six years, according to recent scan results, it is showing signs of sophistication. Perhaps like a toro bravo given enough ring time, it is beginning to dawn on it that better results can be obtained by going for the man not the cape. Today the oncologist would be telling me whether the new drug I’d been taking for the last six weeks was working or not, and what were the results of the biopsy taken from my kidney, taken at the same time as a stent was inserted in the vicinity.
For a fortnight I’d been clutching my side and passing blood and clots in my urine and experiencing odd pains in my groin. True, last week the wonderful Mr Doyle at the Eye Clinic told me that the suspected cancer in my eye was merely a benign cyst occurring in the eyes of 10 per cent of the population. But the kidney procedure had left me feeling battered, low-spirited and pessimistic. And this time, as I waited in the familiar examination room for the oncologist to appear through the door, I felt wedded to calamity.
After about five minutes she came in bearing a sheet of paper and handed it to me. On it was a graph showing my PSA count for the last six months. ‘More bad news, I suppose,’ I said, doing a passable impression of Eeyore. ‘On the contrary,’ she said. The new drug was working magnificently; my PSA score was down to nothing again, and the biopsy had showed no cancer in the kidney.
There’s no great depth to me. I’m not even shallow. Eeyore became Tigger. In a tenth of a second I went from a moribund state to mentally picking up my skirts and doing the can-can. I’d shot out of the end of a long black tunnel and found myself at the seaside in mid-summer. ‘I’m a royal idiot,’ I said, shamefacedly.
That was on the Monday.
On Tuesday morning I caught a bus to the station, a train to Bristol, a shuttle bus to the airport, a plane to Nice, and a bus to Brignoles, where Catriona was waiting for me in the Seat Ibiza. She was house-sitting for a week at what surely must be the loveliest stone hilltop house in the upper Var. It has an infinity swimming pool with wild nature growing right up to the sides. So all week with no clothes on, going round and round and in and out of the cold blue water. Stretching and strengthening. Otherwise reading in the shade. And one morning a young hare came on cotton wool paws and sat and contemplated me and my book from six feet away as though I were some sort of rare phenomenon. Never have I seen a live wild hare from so close. ‘So what do you think?’ I said to it.