‘If life is a race, I feel that I’m not even at the starting line,’ I said to the doctor in French. (I’d composed, polished and rehearsed the sentence in the waiting room beforehand.) She was a sexy piece in her early fifties with a husky voice. She listened to my halting effort to describe my depression with a smile playing lightly over her scarlet lips as though I were relating an amusing anecdote with a witty punchline lurking just around the corner. I further explained in French that I had been properly but briefly depressed once before, about 15 years ago. Here my tenses let me down badly, and from this point in the interview, until the confusion accidentally came to light near its end, she understood me as having been frozen in a catatonic stupor for the past 15 years. By that time she had already written out in triplicate my prescription for three months’ worth of Rirex or Amusant or whatever drug it was that she had plucked from her pharmaceutical arsenal, and I’d handed over €25, and she’d rummaged through her purse for the €4 change.
Not that I’m willing to put my trust wholly in antidepressants. Surely heart and soul remain aloof to changes wrought elsewhere by manufactured chemicals, no matter how well-designed and beautifully packaged they are. What I really needed was a damn good haircut. From the pharmacy I went straight to a busy four-chair barbershop. It was a Saturday morning and the place was crowded exclusively with North African males aged from eight to 80, many of them shouting at each other in Arabic. The appearance in their midst of a shuffling, elderly European with a head like a chrysanthemum and food stains on his 25-year-old fleece surprised everybody. A short, fat man called me peremptorily from the waiting area to his chair with the jocular, perhaps derisive word ‘Chef!’ I spoke only two words to him from start to finish. As I sat down, I said, ‘Court.’ (Looking around at the heads in the other three chairs, however, I saw that short was the only style available.) He nodded as at an imbecile and set about shearing my nut with the electric clippers, gradually revealing its true shape, hitherto unknown to me, then he corkscrewed the blade edge into my ear holes and nostrils. As he unfixed my cape, I said, ‘Alhamdulillah!’ — Praise God! He put his face in mine and repeated it passionately. He really loved his God.
Then I went to the gym for the first time this year. The attendant on duty was Amaury. I leaned over the counter and shook his hand. He gave me a ‘hallo, stranger!’ look. I explained that I’d been absent because depressed. I had been prescribed antidepressants, I added, but intended to trust also in daily rhythmic exercise. Amaury is a shy individual of great personal modesty, very few words, or no words at all. Now he spoke. The vehement forthrightness, tinged, I think, with contempt for medications, with which this young gym attendant imbued the phrase ‘C’est mieux, le sport!’ impressed me terribly. Later, I wrote the words down on a card, attributed them, and stuck it on the wall as an inspiration.
Haircut, gym. Tick. What else could I do as a shape-changer? I considered a journey: a pilgrimage of some kind or perhaps a train journey. I once went by train from Pretoria to Cape Town (after hitchhiking to Pretoria from Harare). The Blue Train was about to depart almost empty and they offered me a cheap deal. At lunch in the dining car I sat next to a glamorous and witty South African actress. I was wearing a dusty Adidas shell suit. We were rolling across the vast emptiness of the Karoo and eating foie gras. ‘What’s that?’ I said, pointing out of the window at what looked like an enormous pile of corrugated tin apparently dumped at random in the middle of nowhere. The actress looked up briefly. ‘That? That’s a squatter camp,’ she said. We continued eating. Another time I went by rail from Lagos to Maiduguri. It took three days. I lived on hard-boiled eggs and the train was so jam-packed I had to climb in and out of the window at stations to go to the toilet.
Yes, a long train journey then. On 9 February I’ll be 60. Horrifically, I qualify for a ‘senior’ discount on the monthly go-as-you-please European rail pass valid for 30 countries, including Turkey. I filled in the form and pressed send. The pass is in the post. Here’s the plan. Depressed senior on antidepressants stares out of train window from Tangier to Tallinn as Europe falls apart around him. I’ll leave on my birthday. I’m trusting that this, plus an intensive bout of le sport (c’est mieux!) before I go, will get me to the starting line.