Low life

It’s my ninth – and final – chemotherapy session

29 January 2022

9:00 AM

29 January 2022

9:00 AM

‘Sorry I’m late,’ I said to the big unit stationed behind her computer. She’s the chief, this one. She shows no fear or favour. ‘It’s not grave. Room two,’ she said without looking up. ‘Today’s my last one,’ I said. ‘I know,’ she said.

Room two comprises three cubicles. Two were already occupied. I was piggy in the middle. I took off my shoes and coat, hung the coat over the back of the chair and climbed up on to the padded recliner.

Then the raven-haired black-eyed nurse, who invariably looks searchingly into the depths of my soul before asking whether I would like apple or orange to drink, came in. ‘My last one,’ I said. I thought that she at least would smile or offer congratulations. But she remained her usual otherworldly self. ‘Apple?’ she said. ‘I think orange today,’ I said.

Although I was annoyingly cheerful on this my last day of treatment, I should say that I am usually annoyingly cheerful on chemotherapy days because on doctor’s orders I must take a double dose of steroid, which invariably makes me a bit too full of myself. I settled down into the recliner and opened my pocket Book of Common Prayer, as I have done before each of the nine doses.


Last Sunday was the third Sunday after the Epiphany. The Collect for the day was: ‘Almighty and everlasting God, mercifully look upon our infirmities, and in all our dangers and necessities stretch forth thy right hand to help and defend us; through Jesus Christ our Lord.’ The Gospel excerpt following was St Matthew’s description of the Roman centurion who, with perfect confidence, as one man accustomed to wielding authority speaking to another, asked Jesus to heal his servant, who was down with the palsy. Just say the word, Lord, he said.

Then the black-eyed mystic nurse came in and handed me a carton of orange juice and I stretched forth my right hand to receive it. When she’d gone, I briefly closed my eyes to consider the Roman centurion, picturing him initially as a man of little imagination promoted from the ranks.

When I opened my eyes, the patient from the next-door cubicle, a very old man, was standing over me. A tennis ball-sized tumour grew out of his face, beside his left eye. Broken-down sandals and voluminous old jog-pant bottoms proclaimed absolute poverty. He’d left off his mask and was talking to me with great seriousness in French. Unfortunately, his tongue was hanging out, rendering his speech slurred and indistinct and I couldn’t comprehend a word, let alone translate anything. The left eye watered continuously.

Patients occasionally natter through the partitions to each other, but normally everybody keeps to their own cubicle. So I presumed that what this chap had to say to me must have been fairly important. But what was it? Was he accounting for the state he was in? Defending it? Was he perhaps saying that everyone, my friend, everyone lives for something better to come? Which is why we want respect for every person. Because who knows what’s in him or why he was born?

I badly wanted to know what a man as poor and earnest as this had to say on any subject. When you are chronically unwell you can tire of listening to the grandiose ravings of the invincibly well. And if this man wanted to say something badly enough to disencumber himself from his treatment chair and come staggering round into my cubicle with his tongue hanging out, I was all ears.

The poor guy must have regretted squandering profundities and energy on a cretin. But he refused to give up and I looked up at him in a sort of apologetic agony as I tried to grasp at a single word that might have lent a clue as to his general subject. It might have been anything. Did I know any Roman centurions? Was I single and did I fancy a pint of something less toxic later? What he was saying appeared declamatory, even dramatic. Was it poetry? Verlaine perhaps? ‘I remember/ The old days/ And I cry;/And I go/ In the ill wind/ That carries me/ Here, there,/ Like the/ Dead leaf.’

My surmises were as wild as that.

He gave up finally when a nurse ushered him back to his own cubicle and plugged him in. Afterwards, when she plugged me in, I asked her if she knew what it was he had been banging on about. ‘He thought he knew you,’ she said. ‘But when he saw you without a mask he realised he was mistaken.’ ‘I’m sorry that my French is so primitive. I couldn’t understand a word,’ I said. ‘It’s not grave,’ she said. Then I said brightly: ‘Today is my last one!’ ‘I know,’ she said, narrowing her eyes at the bag of clear liquid suspended above us.

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