At dawn, starving, I drove to a commercial laboratory in the town centre where five phials of blood were taken from my arm. I was then handed a plastic jar and a refreshing wipe and directed to the nearest unisex lavatory to give a urine sample (mid-stream). Then a nurse stuck a long cotton bud up my nose as far as it would go and twiddled it this way and that. Blood, urine and Covid tests were preparatory to a hospital admission for a procedure involving a general anaesthetic. Then I drove home and ate a kipper for breakfast. While I was eating, Catriona stuck a hypodermic needle in my upper arm and injected me with a flu jab she’d bought at the village pharmacy — the last one in the shop.
In the afternoon I felt a little queer in an undefinable way and went upstairs to lie down. Then a sharp pain, situated I think in my colon, intermittent at first, then continuous, drove me to cry out for painkillers. I lay on the bed like a dying duck for the rest of the afternoon until five thirty, when it was time to get ready to go out.
We were slated for dinner at Michael’s house, door to door a distance of about 100 yards. I can’t stand dinner parties at the best of times. But knowing Michael, he had put a lot of time and effort into the meal preparation, so I washed down more codeine-based painkillers with a goodly tot of gin, lied on my Covid ‘attestation’ form that I was leaving the house for the purpose of exercising the dog, and tottered down the path to Michael’s house.
If signing an attestation for a journey of 100 yards seems paranoid, listen to this. Michael’s next-door neighbour, a widow as old as the hills, was intercepted by a gendarme while she was picking mushrooms alone in a forest and fined €130 for engaging in an activity not covered by the attestation. Which is surely the own goal of the season for les flics. One can only imagine that the copper in question was either possessed of a very fine sense of humour or none at all.
Michael’s fire was blazing, the living room cosy. Vladimir Tretchikoff’s Blue Chinese Girl avoided my stare with her usual hostility. He uncorked a couple of bottles of red and offered razor-thin slices of biltong as an appetiser. Then we were invited to the dining table. The first course was home-made foie gras and home-made quince jelly on thin slices of toasted home-made bread. The slab of foie gras was the same size and shape as a Swiss roll and coated with a layer of pure yellow fat. I reached down and secretly passed a lump of this fat to the hilariously unfussy cocker spaniel, Jagger, who accepted the foie gras into his maw with unwonted delicacy, suspecting a cruel trick. To go with the foie gras Geoffrey poured us each a glass of mar, which is a fiery, informally manufactured potion distilled from what is left over from the grapes after pressing. The mar was in a decades-old bottle that Michael had purchased for €2 at a car-boot sale. Once the initial torchlight procession had cauterised the interior walls of the gullet, it was just possible to drink a second glass without pulling a face.
The main course was a great tomahawk of beef, which Michael lightly seared on a grill placed over his hearth fire, then carved into bloody slices, as though he had Zulu antecedents. I balked at eating virtually raw beef and requested mine go back on the grill for at least another two hours. He served the sanguinary flesh with mashed potato and wild watercress. With this course we drank apple brandy, homemade in 1969, another of his car-boot finds, poured from a dusty and discoloured wine bottle. For afters it was vanilla ice cream and quince jelly.
After that lot, with the painkillers now wearing off, I felt as though I had been roughly bayoneted in the guts by a Prussian guardsman. But I found that if I sat perfectly still, without speaking, only moving my arm occasionally to take up my glass of almost neat alcohol, the abdominal pain, though acute, was tolerable. So for the rest of the evening I sat there like the statue of the Great War soldier on platform one at Paddington station, while everyone else, uplifted by the wine, mar and apple brandy, shouted exultantly in one other’s faces. For nearly two hours I didn’t speak. I moved only my right arm and my head, which I slowly turned from time to time towards whoever was shouting the loudest. And guess what? Nobody noticed. Nobody gave a toss. Good friends. And I loved them for it.