Low life

‘Bonjour, monsieur! Douleur?’: My night in a French hospital

28 November 2020

9:00 AM

28 November 2020

9:00 AM

I regained consciousness on a trolley in a recovery ward. A masked porter wheeled me from there back to my two-bed room on the fifth floor. When I’d left the room earlier, the bed next to the window was vacant. Now it was occupied. Lying on his back under a blanket, his face half covered by a surgical mask, was an old man. On the floor under his bed was a pair of Adidas ‘Superstar’ tennis shoes. The word ‘Superstar’ was in gold lettering. The old man lay rigid, as if bearing pain or discomfort patiently. Through the window the sky above Marseille continued a resolute blue, as though cloud were a meteorological impossibility.

The porter lent me a hand with the treacherous transfer between wheeled trolley and bed, then hoarsely wished me a good day and departed. Enjoying the lingering effects of the sedative with which I had been knocked out, a fabulous chemical which I would be glad to know the name of, I hailed my new room mate genially.

Response nil. The eyes above the mask remained fixed on the TV. Maybe he was deaf. In a companionable mood, and still hoping to make a social connection with my new hospital room mate, even on a subliminal level, I lay back and watched what he was watching on his TV. It was a US soap opera, the chief attraction of which was the immense wealth of the characters and the size and sumptuousness of the house in which they lived. With the sound off, the acting was plywood. The range of the principal character, for example, was narrower than that of a digitally generated avatar in a ten-year-old computer game.


Now a masked nurse stuck her head into the room, reminding me where I was. ‘Pee-pee?’ ‘Non, Madame.’ ‘Douleur?’ As a member of a nation boasting Lord Nelson among its forebears, I couldn’t possibly admit to a French nurse that I was in pain. ‘Non, Madame,’ I said. The head vanished. Then two masked doctors came and stood at the foot of the old man’s bed and studied him in respectful silence. One of them then raised his voice to ask him whether he knew why he was in hospital. The old man looked guarded, then regretfully shook his head. ‘Douleur?’ shouted the doctor. At this the old man’s eyes crinkled, as at a witticism.

Later he got out of bed and made his way unsteadily across the room to the lavatory in his pants, gripping the toes of my right foot for support on the way past. His upper half was squarely and solidly built but the shanks were spindles.

At bedtime a nurse took our temperatures and blood pressures while singing the Yves Montand number ‘C’est Si Bon’ in a wonderfully pure and accurate voice. ‘Douleur?’ she asked finally. We neither of us conceded any pain. At this point the old man looked at me for the first time. Above the mask line the eyes were unblinking and expressionless. The nurse bade us good night and switched off the light and he and I lay on our backs side by side in the darkness wearing our masks. Through the night the old chap was quiet and still. Asleep, his breath escaped from his lips with a gentle pop. From somewhere in the hospital precincts a piteous female wailing dominated my semi–consciousness for what seemed like most of the night.

Long before dawn the room exploded in a supernova of light. Two teenage nurses — black, masked, businesslike — marched in. The morning shift. A blood-pressure monitor sleeve gripped my upper arm and the nozzle of a pistol thermometer was thrust in my earhole. ‘Bonjour, monsieur! Ça va? Douleur?’

The old man’s eyes stayed shut. Taking a foot each, the nurses gently paddled him awake. ‘Bonjour, monsieur! Douleur?’ they chorused. One of them discerned that he had been incontinent of faeces during the night. A peep under his blanket confirmed it. With cheerful resignation they took an arm each and hauled him to his feet, stripped him, wrapped him in a sheet and guided him towards the shower room. On the way past my bed he again grasped my foot to steady himself. The expressionless eyes met mine. I closed my eyes and showed my palms to express hearty congratulations on what was surely a dream come true.

A four-wheeled vehicle drove at speed past the open door. Then a third woman entered the room. She said to me: ‘Well, what do you want?’ ‘Want?’ ‘Yes, want.’ Irritated by my stupid incomprehension — how was I to know she was the breakfast orderly? — she turned to the old man wrapped in a sheet and sagging between the young nurses. ‘And you. What do you want?’ The old man wearily lifted his head to take in the source of this new peremptory voice. A long pause. ‘N’importe,’ he whispered — ‘it doesn’t matter’. It was the only time I heard him speak.

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