Low life

He's a great friend. He knows everything. Please don't let him phone

It's too sunny a day for a long conversation with Frank. But now my knee's gone twang

29 March 2014

9:00 AM

29 March 2014

9:00 AM

Another sunny Sunday morning and the phone rings. I pick up the receiver. It’s Frank. I groan inwardly. Frank is a doctor and an old family friend and a great talker. What he has to say is always intelligent and interesting and often funny. He will explain scientific laws or philosophical arguments or biological functions with elaborate care and in the simplest possible terms, so that even a child might understand them. My immune system, for example, is run by soldiers with powers of arrest and internment, constantly on high alert for terrorists. His talk is invariably sprinkled with his favourite Jewish jokes, and bawdy songs, which he breaks into with little or no provocation, his cherubic face aglow with pleasure. But he has zero emotional intelligence and his talk is always delivered in the form of an interminable and exhausting monologue.

So on this sunny spring Sunday morning with the primroses out and grass to be mown, he’s the last person I want to talk to. But it’s been a while. And in the fast lane of the local pool earlier something in my knee went twang! and I’m crippled. So I take my mug of coffee and do a choreographed fall into the nearest chair and resign myself to being subjected to a Frank monologue.

He’d been to Cambodia with a party of doctors on a fact-finding tour. Goodness, those Cambodian women! They had to be seen to be believed. As the doctors were strolling together in the town, one of the women doctors had teased him by saying, ‘Gee, Frank, I don’t know how you can resist all these fabulous women.’ Frank replied that he woke up every morning wondering the same thing. But in truth he hadn’t been resisting them at all. In fact, he’d been conducting his own independent fact-finding tour from the moment he’d stepped off the plane.

His approach was capricious rather than systematic, by the sound of it. Instead of heading for the bars, like any normal monger looking for local colour, he patrolled the outdoor markets, imagining presumably that every Cambodian woman he saw was a possibility. Which seems a trifle arrogant and wholly misguided to me. But I don’t cavil, partly because one doesn’t interrupt Frank when he’s in full flow, and partly because he had a tremendous success almost right away.

He had his sights set on this one particular ‘gorgeous piece of ass’ in a shop. I forget what sort of a shop he said it was, but in Frank went, no doubt muttering ‘Ding dong!’ under his breath, making a beeline for this exceptionally alluring ‘ass’. In the course of giving this woman the Frank seduction chat, he made his profession known and word quickly spread that there was a doctor in the house. And before he knew it, he was inundated with the unwell and conducting an afternoon surgery on a first-come-first-served basis. They were queuing out of the door. A woman kindly came in from the shop next door and offered to act as his interpreter. Her name was Ian. She wasn’t bad-looking either. Between consultations they chatted. She worked part-time in the shop next door and part-time at the temple. She wasn’t paid for either work. She did it for love. It was this simple statement, said Frank, suddenly hoarse with solemnity, that made him fall in love with Ian on the spot. It was the meeting of two humanitarian minds.

She took him to meet her parents. They were simple rice farmers. They lived in a one-room hut with no furniture and at meal times they squatted on the concrete floor to eat. Water was ladled out of a bucket. Everything was spotlessly clean. Nobody drank straight from the ladle. The intelligent attention to matters of hygiene by these simple peasants left him speechless with admiration. He was invited to sit on the floor and eat. He did so. It all reminded him very much, he says, of his simple cockney childhood. In fact, he felt so overwhelmingly at home there that he asked the father if he could have his daughter’s hand in marriage. The father hospitably agreed.  And the happy ending is that Frank brought Ian back to England just after Christmas and married her in his local register office. ‘I don’t know what she sees in me, Jeremy, but we just seem to hit it off so well,’ he says. ‘How old is Ian, Frank?’ I said, mentally bracing myself. She’s 28, he says.

Frank is 83. I find myself trembling on the brink of a moral judgment but restrain myself. It would be impossible to get a word in edgeways, anyway. I sip my coffee and look out of the window at the sea, which today is a striking hyacinth shade of blue.

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