Low life

The call of a blackbird’s full-throated song

26 March 2022

9:00 AM

26 March 2022

9:00 AM

Speaking pretty good English, Dr Tayeb came straight to the point. Was I eligible for the ground breaking new cancer treatment? He was afraid not. The radioactive test scan had illuminated the bone tumours very nicely, but the more dangerous one in the liver had remained occluded. So in my case the new treatment – a series of targeted infusions – could have only a ‘suboptimal outcome’. He was therefore not recommending that we go ahead.

This was at 8.30 in the morning. I’d been in a taxi since 6.30. I’d hardly slept the night before, due partly to anxiety about what Dr Tayeb might or might not say, and partly to euphoria after Andriy Yarmolenko had secured the Happy Hammers a place in the draw for the Europa League quarter-finals on a historic evening at the London stadium. The normally woeful Ukrainian striker has returned to deadly form since his country was invaded. A widely held opinion among West Ham fans is that if only the Russians had invaded Ukraine at the start of the English football season, we’d be top of the league by now.

‘Have you any questions?’ said Dr Tayeb. I shut my eyes and shook my head. He stood up. I stood up. Ten minutes later I was back on the motorway heading north. Just over an hour after that I was back in the cave eating a solemn omelette and telling Catriona that Dr Tayeb had said no.


Ping! A text message. From the hospital. Details of an appointment with the oncologist for an urgent review of my situation. He and I were rather pinning our hopes on my qualifying for this new generation last chance saloon chemical-infusion treatment. Apart from aspirin and a manly handshake, I can’t see now what else he could have in his repertoire that might be of any use.

Ping! Another text message. In a spasm of optimism, I’d ordered another harmonica: Hohner’s new ‘crossover’ blues harp with bamboo comb. The online gob iron community is talking of little else. Not cheap but loud and durable. Unlike its new owner. My purchase was out for delivery, said the text. Hubris or what? Since this morning a new reality dictates that I shouldn’t be buying unripe bananas, never mind professional-quality musical instruments.

I bid red-eyed Catriona ‘good morning’ and staggered up the wooden stairs to the bedroom and lay down on my back. The sky through the open window was a featureless urine colour, the sun blotted out by a cloud of Saharan sand. Was this the sun turned to darkness and moon to blood foretold in the Old Testament? I shouted down the stairs to Catriona, who is a student of the moon: ‘What was this month’s full moon called? Please say it wasn’t the blood moon.’ She replied knowledgeably that this month’s was known to native Americans as the ‘worm’ moon and I should therefore cross the Second Coming off my worries list.

I woke again around four in the afternoon wondering whether following red dots through a Marseille hospital for half a mile, then Dr Tayeb saying no hadn’t been all a dream. So often lately I’ve got out of the most appalling situations simply by waking up. Not this time. I reached for the iPad and watched Yarmolenko on YouTube making sure with his left foot from three yards out. I watched him poke it in perhaps a dozen times. Then Yarmolenko whipping off his shirt and jogging thoughtfully over to a fan waving a Ukrainian flag. Standing motionless, perhaps grief-stricken, his head bowed, he accepted love and absolution from a dozen ecstatic forearms. I showed Catriona. She never admits to fancying anyone but she fancied the big Ukrainian. It was the sharply defined lats and emotional vulnerability, she said.

Then I remembered it was Gold Cup day at the Cheltenham Festival and tapped the ITV app. And now here was the Gloucestershire countryside in pale spring sunshine and poised jockeys on surging horses, hooves drumming as they came fast down the hill and turned for home in front of the packed grandstands. What a far cry pale Gloucestershire and a thrilling finish in the Albert Bartlett Novices’ Hurdle seemed from chilly, early-morning Marseille and the trail of red dots leading eventually to Dr Tayeb, who said no.

Covid and chemotherapy have kept me fixed in place for two years. The French state has been wonderfully kind. But looking now at Gloucestershire in spring sunshine made me glad Dr Tayeb had said no. How I have longed to be part of a British sporting crowd once more! How I have longed too to hear a blackbird’s full-throated singing! How I have longed for a green field, for England, for home! And now that Dr Tayeb has said no, this native is free at last to return and to reconnect with all of these things.

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