Foolishly I chose new specs in the village optician’s after a long lunch: a rather outré design that I might not have chosen had I been completely sober. For the past decade I’ve worn a retro design I’d first admired in David Bailey’s striking black and white photographs of Ron Kray. Thinking it might be time for a change of style to reflect my invalid passivity, and the hairless dome of my surprisingly small skull, I’d gone in a moment of madness for a pair of John Lennon’s hippie silver circles.
Three weeks later, I returned to the shop to try them on with the new prescription lenses fitted. It was only then, studying my face and new glasses in the mirror, that I realised that my eyebrows and eyelashes had also gone. And my eyes were grotesquely puffy, like Henry Cooper’s used to be after only a couple of rounds. Hairlessness and puffiness were magnified horribly by the jam jar-bottom thickness of the lenses. I peered incredulously at my reflection. However, personal vanity has never been one of my besetting sins, perhaps with good reason, and I tried to look pleased while making out an enormous French cheque for a large amount of money.
The next day, my lack of eyebrows and eyelashes magnified by my new specs, I took a taxi down to Marseille for a CT scan. The driver was Remi, the owner of the taxi firm. Remi is in his mid-fifties, has a trademark Teddy Boy quiff and is so entirely masculine he is a credit to us all. Remi has driven me to the Marseille hospital and back twice before. On both occasions I asked him searching questions about French politics and for his thoughts on the possibility of right-winger Éric Zemmour throwing hischapeau into the ring. He answered these questions guardedly at first, and then recklessly and passionately after judging that my political fantasies were not so very far removed from his own.
We also compared notes on the number and severity of the car accidents we had had before our brains were fully formed. Remi had rolled cars along both their longitudinal and latitudinal axes, as have we all, though for the past 20 years, he confessed, he has driven sedately. His hands-free phone rang frequently. The callers were mainly women who spoke to him with marked affection and even longing, signing off with verbal hugs and kisses. After our second trip, I gave him a bottle of champagne as a tip and he immediately video-called his wife to show it to her. His wife looked and sounded infatuated with him also.
I therefore looked forward to another three hours spent in his broadminded, unjudgmental, masculine company. But on this occasion I found him unexpectedly in a pettish frame of mind. For the first few miles he whined at me non-stop. Why had I booked him only yesterday when I had known about the scan appointment for several weeks? And where were my two signed forms? (Entitling me to free hospital transport because I have cancer, and him to the several-hundred-euro taxi fare.) ‘But I usually get them at the hospital and give them to you on the return journey,’ I said. Not good enough. All of his other hospital clients not only book their multiple appointments well in advance, but they furnish him with the transport forms in advance also. In the future I must do the same.
After that — silence. Silence and the stiff, self-conscious neck of a Frenchman who has got out of bed on the wrong side. I caught sight of my upper face in his rear-view mirror goggling with surprise. I hardly recognised myself. Then he surprised me further by pulling up outside a pair of electric gates, jumping out and ringing a bell, returning with a very aged, very decrepit man, shrunk beneath a baseball cap, fleece and a vast pair of waterproof over-trousers. Normally I have his taxi to myself.
‘All right?’ I said, when after some difficulty with his crutches this poor guy was settled next to me on the back seat. He eyed me fearfully. ‘And now put on your mask, Mr Clarke,’ ordered Remi. I obediently put on my mask. ‘And fasten your seat belt, Mr Clarke. It is the law.’ Golly. I fastened my seat belt.
‘Well, I’ll see you both later,’ I said, finally piqued. ‘I’m now going to put on my headphones and listen to music for the rest of the journey.’ Only I said ‘casquettes’ instead of ‘casques’, meaning I was going to put several hats on. Remi corrected me with a poker face, then laughed in spite of himself. Then he laughed again and shook his head in humorous sorrow and I took it that I was nearly forgiven.
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