I was supine on the slab and a nurse was rigging me up via wires and tubes to machines and monitors. She was an exemplary old-school nurse, combining human kindness with efficient manual dexterity. Had she been vaccinated against COVID, I asked her? Oh yes, of course she had, she said. And what about you, she said. Have you had the mandatory pre-treatment COVID test? ‘Oh yes,’ I said. ‘I had it tomorrow.’ (My automatic confusion of the French words for yesterday and tomorrow could, I suspect, be explained in psychoanalytical terms.)
Now another, younger female nurse appeared by my side. She was lovely and reminded me of a young Fanny Ardant. Whereas the older nurse was effortlessly capable of subjectivity, objectivity, sympathy and imagination, the younger woman was limited to the first category only. She jabbered euphorically at me in colloquial French. ‘Anglais,’ said the older nurse, bobbing and weaving around my head, linking diverse parts of me to her machines. ‘You are from England? Oh, I am very happy,’ said Fanny. ‘I like to speak English. Where are you from in England?’ ‘Southwest,’ I said. ‘La campagne. Les vaches. La vache folle. Have you ever visited England?’ ‘No,’ she said. ‘But I hope very much to go to England one day.’ ‘You speak very good English,’ I said. ‘Thank you,’ she said. ‘I love to speak in English.’
The older nurse said to me privately, in French: ‘In a moment, when the doctor comes in, I want you to lie on your right side as though you are composing yourself for sleep.’ She unhooked the surgical mask from around my ears and replaced it with a clear oxygen mask and asked me to take a few deep breaths to confirm that it was working.
Then a third nurse, this one resembling a teenage Audrey Hepburn, came skipping lightly into the operating room clutching a gold iPhone Pro with a scratched and dented cover. She, too, was in a state of mild euphoria. She and the other young nurse were in love with one another and couldn’t believe their good luck at being on the same job. They hopped about with excitement as they exchanged news. ‘Shush,’ said the older woman when the volume of excited chatter verged on raucous.
The two young nurses obediently composed themselves and directed their attention to the old geezer lying on the slab craning his neck to get a better look at them. Audrey Hepburn atoned for her unprofessional conduct by leaning a hip against my side and supporting her weight on my upper thigh with splayed fingers. Then, with a display of sensual familiarity, she lowered her face to just above mine and gently blew me a kiss.
Without fail, the mental habit of a lifetime overrode reality and for a bizarre moment I thought I might be in with half a chance. The delusional hope was strangled at birth, however, when voices off advised her that I was not French but English and I saw her visibly recoil. She returned to her lovely chat with her pal. But the affectionate hand, attached to that slender forearm, remained on my thigh, as a farmer might rest a hand unconsciously on his barren cow while negotiating a reserve price with the auctioneer.
The older nurse completed her final adjustments. The stage was now set for the arrival of the top-of-the-bill knife-thrower. The older nurse put her mouth close to my ear and wished me all the best in French. Meanwhile the two young starlets were still chirruping to each other like a couple of canaries. Would Audrey Hepburn be persuaded to relinquish her gold iPhone at all during the procedure, I wondered?
Then I heard Fanny say to Audrey that she mustn’t laugh but before this English bloke passed out she wanted to practice her English on him because it was too good an opportunity to miss. Audrey’s lively face soured to repugnance at the idea of anyone wanting to speak English.
‘So where do you live in France?’ said Fanny to me. I told her. She knew of the place and approved. ‘And how long have you lived there?’ I told her on and off for about six years.
‘But tell me,’ I said. ‘Where did you learn to speak English?’ ‘Oh, from songs and movies,’ she said modestly. ‘Which songs?’ I said. ‘The Beatles? The Rolling Stones?’ These anachronistic suggestions amused her. It was as though I had suggested the music-hall songs of Florrie Forde or Marie Lloyd. ‘No!’ she said. ‘Then who?’ I said. ‘Adele,’ she said. At the name Adele I must have blacked out, unfortunately for our interesting conversation, because the next thing I knew I was lying in a large sunny ward with dinosaurs and rainbow stickers on the wall and it was afternoon.
This article was originally published in The Spectator’s June 2021 World edition.