Low life

The art of negotiating with French nurses

12 June 2021

9:00 AM

12 June 2021

9:00 AM

‘Ça va, Monsieur Clarke?’ said a nurse when he noticed I was stirring. It was an effort to speak. ‘Thirsty,’ I croaked. He handed me a graduated test tube containing exactly ten millilitres of warm water. Incredibly, the big clock on the wall said six in the evening. I’d been gone for eight hours.

While I was gone, a surgeon had snipped 30 centimetres off my colon, plus a valve, and rejoined the ends. I’d never had an operation before and was surprised by the severity of the pain. I couldn’t move an inch in any direction. A porter wheeled me back to the single room with a view over north Marseille and tipped me off the trolley into bed.

During the evening a succession of nurses and doctors came and fiddled with me. I was hooked up to a saline drip, a Tramadol drip and a catheter. My movement was limited by these in any case. No, I wasn’t allowed to drink yet, they said. Not until after midnight. Through the window the sky darkened to night.

I was forewarned that I would be roughly a week recuperating in hospital, then for three weeks at home. Piece of cake, I imagined, and I’d packed the harmonica. I had even looked forward to the week in bed. Now I consoled myself that a sharp dose of suffering would be a spiritual corrective and a physical tonic.

In the morning two nurses came in and removed the catheter and the analgesic drip. ‘What am I supposed to do now?’ I said. ‘When you need to, you must stand up and go in the lavatory,’ they said. ‘But I can’t move a centimetre,’ I said. ‘Try,’ they said. ‘You must try to move.’ ‘Can I have more painkiller?’ I said. The nurses plotted behind the arras for a moment, then covertly, I thought, handed me two paracetamol tablets. When the time came, and envying Captain Tom his athletic prowess, I succeeded in sitting, then standing up, then shuffling painfully to the lavatory.

By the second day I could stand up and sit down like anything. Any energy I had left over was spent negotiating with nurses for painkillers. As the nurses’ personalities came into focus, I noticed which were persuadable. The harassed but kindly night nurse, for example, didn’t bother asking me to rate the pain on a scale of one to ten. He just hooked up another bag of liquid Tramadol to my drip stand and wished me a pleasant evening. During the night those three-beat two-tone police sirens half-remembered from black and white 1950s French crime movies rose up from the street below.

By the second morning I had perfected sitting and standing and sometimes stood at the window and looked down at the traffic and pedestrians passing far below. Everyone down there looked incredibly fit.

Also I had noticed that my French had suddenly improved. French Without Tears — the Tramadol Method. A cleaner came in and mopped around me. ‘English?’ he said. He’d been warned, I think. He was an old guy with a reprobate face. I admitted I was English. ‘What about Harry?’ he said. ‘Harry Markle?’ I said. I said that I was embarrassed for him. ‘But he’s more tranquil now,’ said the cleaner defiantly. ‘I applaud him.’ Then he went out. But at the door he turned and tried out his one English sentence on me. ‘Bye bye,’ he said, reddening. ‘See you later.’

I now began to notice that nurses were entering my room with an air of barely suppressed hilarity. It was my absurd French, I think. Nobody had ever heard anything like it. There was one young female nurse in particular who just stood there with her hand over her mouth and looked at me with incredulity. Maybe it was the pyjamas also: matchy pyjama shorts, navy blue, pattern of tiny nautical anchors in honour of the historic port of Marseille.

That evening, before they went home, the nurse with the hand always over her mouth, and a male nurse, came in to say goodnight before they went home. I think these two might have been the nucleus of a satirical fan club. ‘What a day,’ said the chap. ‘We nearly lost two today. Look!’ He pointed to a vertical spray of dried blood on his white coat. ‘But we saved them.’

I was very tired. For 72 hours I had swung between pain and grandiose euphoria, and all the while speaking in my farcical French to doctors, nurses, cleaners, dinner ladies — exhausting in itself. I hardly knew any longer what to say or do or think about anything. I am sorry to say that the fountain of dried blood made me throw back my head and laugh. ‘Well, it might be funny now,’ he said. ‘But let me assure you it wasn’t funny at the time.’ Then, recovering his sense of humour, he said with a smirk, in English: ‘Bye bye. See you later.’

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