Low life

The downfall of the French middle class

9 October 2021

9:00 AM

9 October 2021

9:00 AM

The chesty Corsican taxi driver was giving me his earnest appraisal of the way things were headed in France politically. On the right we were passing the battlefield of Aquae Sextiae where the Roman general Gaius Marius, commanding 37,000 legionaries, massacred a 100,000-strong Teutonic horde thought to be headed for Italy after laying waste to northern Spain. Then, on the left, the church of Saint-Maximin-la-Sainte-Baume with its fragment of Mary Magdalene’s cranium displayed in a spookily lit showcase. Later, turning south, we would pass through the countryside of Pagnol’s childhood, now split by the motorway. And a bit further on — glimpsed through roadside trees at Aubagne — the Foreign Legion barracks and parade ground.

All very fascinating, but this journey back and forth between our obscure village and the enormous hospital at Marseille has, I’m afraid, staled with repetition. It has also become subliminally associated in my mind with uncomfortable truths and disagreeable procedures involving unconsciousness. So I don’t enjoy the scenic ride as much as before.

I refocused my attention on the Corsican’s well-fed face as he painted for me a thrilling picture of impending social revolution and catastrophe attending the financial ruin of the French middle classes. He stated his gloomy forecast cheerfully, perhaps confident that people other than the middle classes are always going to want taxis, if only to escape the rain of tear gas and cobblestones. He concluded his tour d’horizon by coughing his lungs up. ‘I can’t wait,’ I said when he’d finished. ‘Serves them right.’

He dropped me at the hospital gate and my self felt immediately diluted by the immense structure. Today my oncologist was attended by a student who sat there radiating nervousness and perhaps uncertainty about his career choice. The oncologist studied the reverse label on the bottle of Louis Latour I handed over with boyish enthusiasm, then came to his senses by clearing his throat.


So far, he said, the indications were good. The overall effect of the chemotherapy treatments was beneficial, he said. As far as he could tell, my cancer’s recent incursions had been arrested. Nevertheless our success needs to be reinforced with more of the same.

I was hoping he’d announce a treatment holiday, a few weeks of something approaching vitality. Oh well. I took the opportunity to present my typed shopping list of prescription drugs usually found in toxicology reports on dead rock stars. The dear chap immediately became industrious with his Biro and prescribing pad, while his student stared mechanically at the flow of ink on paper. With the completed scripts, he handed over a card showing the date of my next chemotherapy appointment. ‘And you haven’t forgotten your appointment at 8.40 tomorrow morning with the urologist, I hope?’

I had forgotten. Merde. Up at six the next day, I drove myself to Marseille to save the poor French state €360 and maybe delay the extinction of its middle class by a couple of precious minutes. Four utterly wrecked cars pointing in different directions at the entrance to a tunnel beneath an outlying Marseille suburb made me late for the appointment by one hour. However, the urologist said I needn’t apologise as he was also running late by one hour. This man had not one but two students mutely in attendance on his left hand. One sensed in him a hint of the performative and a slight increase in distance.

Having seen the oncologist only yesterday, I felt confident that he wouldn’t now tell me anything about myself that I didn’t already know. Sheer complacency on my part. My cancer was, unfortunately, ‘progressive’, he said. And my right kidney — oh dear, oh dear. He swivelled his monitor around and together we went on a black and white journey up the tunnel of my ureter and had a tour of my innards. Passing close by on our right-hand side was a kidney. He circled it sadly on the screen with the end of his Biro. It looked like a squashed fig. This is a kidney on its last legs, he said.

I was downcast by this unexpected news. His two students studied my dejected aspect impassively. Then the urologist rang my oncologist and there followed an increasingly animated conversation lasting about two minutes. The words came too fast and I didn’t understand any of it. After finishing the call, the urologist looked at me carefully, then said that he’d made a mistake. Unfortunately, he hadn’t been in possession of all the known facts. Everything was fine. My cancer was not progressing. The kidney had not deteriorated. Sorry about that.

I looked at the students to detect any sign of hilarity at the denouement of some kind of a joke. The faces beneath the masks were impassive. Well, that was a bit of a roller coaster, I told my somewhat elated self, as the familiar landmarks — Foreign Legion barracks, Pagnol country, massacre site, Mary Magdalene’s bonce — went past in reverse.

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