To lessen the side effects of chemotherapy I am prescribed a corticosteroid. I take a whopping dose around the treatment dates and a maintenance dose the rest of the time. The physical side effects of prednisolone are sweating, insomnia, a gargantuan appetite and a moon face. The mental effects are similar to those of decent coke: an afflatus of delightedness and collected wits spoiled by an indiscriminating faith in the truth of my own thoughts, and an overwhelming and grandiose desire to express these marvellous thoughts verbally to other people.
Grandiosity in an invalid is not a good look. But people excuse it. Acquaintances who I haven’t seen for a while, but who have heard I’ve been up and down to Marseille for chemotherapy, are bemused by my cheerfulness and pedagogy. ‘Goodness, you look so happy and well!’ they say. ‘It’s only the steroids,’ I say. And we all laugh.
Occasionally, I also have delusional manias. A recent one concerned the novelist Sally Rooney. The reviews I read of her latest book Beautiful World, Where Are You were mostly grumpy. But reading between the lines it seemed that here at last was our great white hope. Until that point, I had not knowingly read anything written by her. In fact, in my chauvinist mind I had the name Sally Rooney idiotically conflated with the novelist Anne Tyler, one of whose novels — I can’t remember which — I had read about a quarter of.
Then a friend said that she happened to be reading it and had almost finished it and that if I went to her house the next day she would pass it on. So rising late the next morning, I popped a couple of steroids and drove ten miles to where she lived in an old stone Provençal villa in a forest.
It was a clement mid-September day: not a cloud in the sky or a breath of wind and a first touch of autumnal flame discernible in the undergrowth. Arriving at the house I was warmly welcomed by three ladies, two of them sisters, no longer young, but well-travelled, well-read, well-informed and very friendly. The house was a second home belonging to one of the sisters (the one who promised the novel) and they were leaving tomorrow for England. The sisters were peacefully snipping at overhanging fronds with secateurs; the third lady, a friend, was sitting on the terrace absorbed by her Kindle.
Far from being put out by the arrival of a garrulous, fat, sweating, moon-faced skinhead, they put an ice-cold lager in my hand and eagerly rearranged the chairs on the terrace and we sat in a close circle for a jolly, mid-morning, end-of-term chat. The view from my seat was of a pellucid swimming pool, then 20 miles of forest bounded by mountains. And as I looked, I felt that steroid mental clarity and energy arrive that I know is false but find terribly exhilarating in these kinds of social situations.
All three of these ladies are wonderful talkers without steroids; light of heart but analytical as lawyers. Any flannel is hunted down and torn to pieces. One of the sisters, I think, gravitated to the left, their friend perhaps to the right. The latter did an impression of a cockney accent and was laughed at by the former for its stock inauthenticity and snobbishness. Where the other sister’s last ditch lay was impossible to tell.
For an authentic Estuary accent, I offered the recorded announcer on the free bus between Terminal One and Terminal Two at Nice aéroport reminding passengers not to leave any luggage behind when they get off. It’s a south-east Essex accent from the generation before me. When I was a schoolboy, one of my friend’s mums had exactly the same accent and I’ve often wondered whether the melodious refined cockney voice offering the friendly advice was a political or an aesthetic choice. I’ve also heard the same woman offer dialling options for a budget airline and gently telling me which floor the lift has arrived at.
Of course, surveys always show that the Geordie accent is the most trusted accent on the telephone for business, I told them. The three ladies, all of whom spoke with received pronunciation, having all been privately educated, hadn’t conceived that such a thing could be possible and they were light-hearted about their own ignorance. From here we got on to race, genetics, then political correctness in US and British publishing, and from here back to Sally Rooney. The sister who had just finished reading her latest thought she was definitely the real thing.
I was there perhaps half an hour but could have sat there all day in the September sunshine, flying on steroids, with these three accomplished and very pleasant conversationalists. But I kissed them all passionately and made off with my prize, a signed special independent bookshop edition, tucked firmly under my elbow.