A new year and another round of medical treatments in the French health system. On Saturday morning, needing a blood test pronto, I drove to the local branch of a chain of commercial laboratories, arriving before daylight. I joined a queue of the worried and unwell that had already spilled out of the door and into the icy car park. Except for a old chap behind me trying to cough up a lungful of warm porridge, and someone else’s lilting accordion ringtone, we were a silent, stricken field.
After shuffling forward for 20 minutes, I celebrated the achievement of reaching the outer door and passing through into the interior warmth with a double toot of hand gel from the public dispenser. Now I had only to shuffle another 15ft and I would be next in line to be called forward by one of two women administrators seated behind a Perspex screen.
I had been to the laboratory four times in the past month and had dealt with both. One, a gamine, I knew to be a friendly soul with no dignity or pretension to intellect. The other, roughly double the size of the gamine, had dignity but no capacity for friendship or equality. While I waited my turn I practised the elementary French phrases — greetings, statement of intent — that would see me through the administration process, then to the seated waiting area and eventually to rolling up my sleeve for the nurse.
It was the friendly gamine who called me over. Marvellous. Queuing for nearly an hour, first in cold air, then in tropical heat, while exposed to possibly the greatest concentration of airborne Covid germs within a 100-mile radius, had put me in a lonely and fatalistic frame of mind. If I had had the French, I would have now spoken to this woman from the heart. While she identified me on her screen, I would have told her that everything hung on the results of this morning’s blood test. I would have advised her that you cannot live fully without a permanent trust in something indestructible in yourself, though both the indestructible element and the trust are always hidden from you. I would have told her that since I no longer have either, I am, in snooker terms, in baulk. I would have told her that all my life I have been an undefeated jar opener. This, I would have told her, is the jar I cannot open.
And if she had time, and was still interested, I would have told her about the village bells. I would have told her that I lived above two bell towers, one belonging to the church, the other to the state, which tolled the passing hours from seven in the morning till ten at night. Because the state bell is ahead of the church one by as much as two minutes, each hour is tolled twice. Handy, perhaps, if you lose count the first time round. But strewth, Madame, I would have said. To have your now finite number of hours counted off one by one by two sets of sodding bells, one church, one state, is not good for morale. And dealing all day long, as she does, with a stricken field, perhaps she would have come back with something profoundly French and comforting like: ‘Oh but sir, the butterfly counts not months but moments and has time enough.’
But my French is nowhere near up to bandying philosophical observations or even platitudes. In fact, my French pronunciation must have fallen off during lockdown because when I stood before her I’d said ‘Bonjour’ and she’d come back with an irritated ‘Quoi?’ as though I were a madman spouting gibberish. However once she had ascertained that I was merely English she forgave it and mustered every ounce of her powers of concentration and we got through the administration process by signalling by flag.
The waiting area, smaller than a ping-pong table, seated eight facing inwards, and must have been intentionally designed so that nobody would miss out on any airborne viruses that happened to be circulating. I squeezed in between an elderly gent who looked — and was — deaf as a post and the bloke with the porridge-filled lungs. The tests were conducted in a row of three cubicle-sized rooms whose doors were constantly opening and shutting as patients were ushered inside or exited at speed. From behind one of these closed doors came the ghastly sound of somebody being ritually strangled. Then this bloke came staggering out clutching his throat and gagging horribly. Half an hour later, and worrying already that I might have lost my sense of smell, I was called to one of the cubicles and rolled up my sleeve for the teenage and tattooed tester. ‘Date de naissance?’ she said. ‘Neuf Février 1757,’ I told her. I still can’t get the hang of those high French numbers. She laughed but didn’t dispute it.