Low life

The call of opium-based analgesics and introspection

30 April 2022

9:00 AM

30 April 2022

9:00 AM

On the morning of my last day in England, I drew back a curtain and there in the garden, browsing one of the flower beds, was a brown hare. It hobbled cautiously but not timidly among the spring bulbs, choosing thoughtfully like a discriminating shopper. I leaned on the window sill and watched it for perhaps ten minutes. The hare was in the process of exchanging its tatty winter fur coat for a shorter, smoother, lighter-brown one, visible underneath. Overnight late spring had turned to the softer air of early summer and I was sorry to be leaving the country at the exact point of the season’s changing.

In the bedroom I regretfully set about packing my trolley bag for the flight back to Nice. Everyone – on the radio, in the Daily Mail, my sister – was saying that to travel by road, rail or air over the Easter weekend would be a nightmarish ordeal. Neither was I in the best physical shape for the widely predicted ‘airport hell’. My daytime energy tank allows about two hours a day upright on my feet. After that I need to sit or lie down. I was flying from Gatwick on Easter Saturday afternoon. With weakness has come timidity.

It’s partly my own fault. I should be breaking out of the vicious circle of tiredness leading to inaction leading to muscle loss by restoring my wasted muscles by exercising. ‘At all costs you must exercise,’ the French urologist had said last year. I hear his voice and see his face in my mind’s eye every day now. But once the pain begins and you can actually feel the cancer, hope is abridged and you are tempted to think, what’s the point? I have bone pain, or rather two bone pains so far: one in an upper rib, another in the left shoulder blade. On a scale of one to ten I’d say one for the shoulder blade, mostly two for the upper rib. If the rib pain gets a bit sharp I take a painkiller tablet or capsule. The French state supplies me with a fabulous amount of anything I like in this line. Any analgesic selection kills the pain. There often comes a side effect of cheerfulness. It’s a gentle introduction.

Alone at times in my borrowed house for a fortnight, the side effect of the expensive new anti-cancer tablets – extreme tiredness – became obvious. And the pains increased. Not by much, but they became more consistent. And over the two weeks I developed what some might say is the very bad habit of immobility combined with opium-based analgesics and introspection.

My two grandsons have a new saying, taken from the argot of football commentary: ‘He’s fluffed his lines!’ They never fail to use it when an opportunity presents itself: a car door not properly shut, a single-figure score with three magnetic darts, those kinds of things. Well, as far as exercise went, I fluffed my lines. Instead of getting out and walking the lanes and footpaths of that famously attractive countryside, and taking great gales of fresh air into my lungs, I reached for the pill packet, sat down and looked out of the window at the garden and thought about my childhood. Or, if the sun came out, I sat in the garden and thought about it.

The baby care manual my mother adhered to instructed her to put the baby outside in the garden for hours on end, summer and winter, rain or shine. My mother said she was always surprised by how quietly contented I was with this arrangement, absorbed, as she thought, by the sky and the birds. So in my defence I would argue that sitting, near the end, in an English garden on codeine, paracetamol, CBD oil and maybe half a Xanax, and recalling the airs and sounds of your beginning, is perfectly all right. Though deliberate inactivity does feel wanton when confessed afterwards into a telephone or set down on a page.

The taxi driver rang the doorbell exactly on the hour. He wore a pressed blue shirt and tie and smelt of perfumed soap. On the M25 traffic was flowing. The south terminal at Gatwick was almost deserted. For the security check there were no queues. Airside was like a library. After all the warnings, this reversal seemed to me as miraculous as the parting of the Red Sea, which reveals the greater extent, I hope, of my invalid narcissism. The new, shorter legroom aboard easyJet’s new aeroplane was disappointing but I was glad to be sitting down. All I had to do now was sit tight and in an hour and a half I’d be – strewth, I nearly said ‘home’. And waking next morning with a view of scrub oaks punctuated by cypresses and the distant Massif des Maures, dear old England and that moulting hare seemed as fantastical in retrospect as it had been in prospect.

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