‘Willie or bum?’ I said to Catriona on the motorway. Everything in my recent medical career has been introduced via the former: cameras, cutters, stents. I naturally assumed it would be the same choice of pathways for exploring and snipping off three pieces of my liver. At the wheel, Catriona laughed at my idiocy and explained where my liver was and that there was not a pathway from it to either of those entrances. ‘They’ll go straight in through the side with a needle,’ she said. ‘Ow,’ I said.
While I undressed in front of her, the admissions nurse scanned my written forms. ‘Anglais? I only take cash,’ she said, proudly enunciating her one English phrase. She was stout and very Marseillaise in that she joked with a tough face. I could keep my pants on, she said. I hopped up on the trolley and she pulled up the sheet.
‘Allergies?’ she said. ‘Prosthesis? Gold teeth?’
‘Gold teeth?’ I said. ‘Are you hoping to sell my organs too if I die on the operating table?’ She said: ‘I don’t imagine that we’d get very much for ones as rotten as yours. Give me your arm. Now make a fist.’ She inserted a cannula into the vein and attached a small plastic tap and clear tube, deftly anchoring the lot in place with tape. It was expertly done. ‘Professional,’ I said. ‘Beginner’s luck,’ she said.
‘Perhaps you would give me your name,’ I said. ‘I am a theatrical agent and I could get you some part-time stage work as a stand-up comic.’ ‘Are you in the theatre business really?’ she said, interested. ‘No,’ I said. ‘Then what do you do in your life?’ ‘I am a journalist. A columnist.’ ‘Ah,’ she said. ‘Then you make your living by coming here and mocking France and the French.’
I once knew an old-school GP who had similar flashes of insight. After seeing a patient every 20 minutes for half a century, a single glance as they sat down in front of him was often enough to correctly guess a patient’s occupation and medical condition. Occasionally he was subject to clairvoyant inspirations in which the life history was also revealed to him, including crimes and habitual vices. No doubt this Marseillaise nurse was similarly gifted. Later, lying on my side on the operating theatre slab, I heard a doctor warn his colleague, ‘He understands everything we say.’ It was very far from the case but I was flattered by the compliment.
A liver biopsy with local anaesthetic was not the piece of cake I had expected. My liver’s rotten bits were difficult to pinpoint. ‘Stop breathing,’ ordered one of the two doctors. ‘Don’t move!’ chimed in the other. Then they both sighed like football fans at a missed open goal. They’d have to start all over again. At one of these crisis points — I had both doctors on my back and a nurse holding my hands and looking searchingly into my eyes — my glasses broke. When it was finally accomplished, the last snip echoed in the room like a clipped big-toe nail. ‘Okay. Now breathe,’ they said. ‘It’s finished.’
Then I was up on the 12th floor looking at sunlit mountains further glamourised by a well-chosen sedative that I’d give anything to know the name of. A nurse came in with a plastic pisspot and said I was to lie flat on my back for the next four hours. I did so, passing the time by reading The Oxford Book of Twentieth Century English Verse chosen by Philip Larkin, who opens the batting with 25 pages of Hardy. Four sedated hours reading Larkin’s choices while the mountains turned orange, then blue was not a hardship but a heyday. Read under sedation, Kipling’s ‘McAndrew’s Hymn’, for example — ‘I’d seen the Tropics first that run: new fruit, new smells, new air’ — was the most thrilling thing I’d ever read.
At ten to ten the night nurse came in and excused me the last ten minutes of lying supine. ‘Pee-pee?’ she said. ‘Twice,’ I boasted. ‘You can take your hair net off now,’ she said.
In the morning the mountains were no longer glamorous and had moved further away. I put on pyjama bottoms and a new T-shirt. Presently a nurse with attractively dark gypsy features came in and took my blood pressure. As the sleeve inflated, she spotted the price tag still dangling from the collar and gave it a tug. ‘Impossible,’ I said. ‘I’ve tried.’ She took a knife from her pocket, cut it off, and read the label (€24.99). ‘Too much!’ she cried, angrily. So was this one perhaps also joking with a tough face? You should have seen the way she ripped the heart monitor sleeve off me. No, she was not joking. She was absolutely furious.