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.