The porter rolled me off the trolley and on to the bed, wished me a good day and departed. My previous neighbor in the two-bedded ward — a frail, aloof, slow-moving African man — was gone. In his place was a visibly vigorous man of about my age with a charismatic, masculine face reminiscent of Anthony Quinn’s Zorba the Greek, except he had no front teeth. The wiry gray hair was closely scissored and he wore a sportive white polo shirt and black jog pants. Even in repose he looked dynamic.
A nurse entered to take my readings. Now I must drink plenty of water, she said, to flush out the clots. When she’d gone, Anthony Quinn fixed his dark eyes on mine and spoke. (Later I learned that he was Algerian Arab. In spite of living for most of his life in Marseille, his French wasn’t much better than mine. But we did our best.)
‘Water, my friend. You must drink water. Here, give me your jug.’ He sprang to his feet, filled my water jug from the tap in the lavatory and found me a paper cup. ‘Drink. Drink. Water is Allah’s gift, praise Him. What does Allah cause to fall from his sky? Carrots? No. Milk? No. Water. Water to heal and to bless. Water is life. Here, drink the healing water of Allah.’ I hadn’t drunk anything for 17 hours and I was glad to oblige the both of them. With that toothless, committed face of his — life is after all a momentous business — he watched me drink four cupfuls straight off, then cautioned a pause before I harmed myself. ‘Allah’s blessing. Every day I drink two and a half liters. Every single day. Look at me.’ He lifted up the front of his polo shirt to show the soft white skin of his belly, his medium chest, his raspberry nipples. ‘I am 63 years old with the physique of a 40-year-old,’ he said. I nodded approval. ‘And you are in here for what?’ I said. ‘Kidney stones,’ he said, demonstrating the face he wore when the agony was at its most acute.
‘I am not sleeping so well. Three months sleeping on my left side. But this is nothing. Tomorrow the doctor will disintegrate the stone with a laser beam. A simple job. Why I have to stay in here for two nights for this simple job I cannot understand. And these!’ he said, loping across to the small pile of disposable, hygienic surgery-wear on his dining trolley ready for the morning. He went through it item by item disdainfully: a paper shower cap, paper gown, paper slippers and white knee-length stockings. The stockings tipped his disdain into depression.
‘These are for women,’ he said. ‘And you. Why are you wearing these women’s things when you have finished with them? Take them off. Please. And the hat. Take it off. Let your head breathe.’
I gladly took off the hat and set about the stockings, which were uncomfortably tight. While I wrestled with these he hung his head in shame.
During the evening we lay on our respective beds and talked. His phone ring tone was 1970s sci-fi synthesizer. It rang often during our conversation. Once it was his third wife and what sounded like numerous hilarious children thrilled by their heroic father’s comical indisposition. Speaking on the phone in Arabic to his beloved wife and children, his persona was unchanged from the one he presented to the world.
‘What is Allah?’ I said. ‘Is he a man?’ The masculine face lit up with reverence and gratitude and he cupped his hands in supplication. ‘Allah?’ he said. ‘I don’t know.’ He put his forefinger on a speck on the wall. ‘I don’t know if he is small like this or if he is big. I don’t know. Is a mystery. But Allah decides everything, even what time I wake up.’
He was a welder by trade and gloried in earning his living with his hands. ‘In Arabic we have a saying: “Black hand, white bread.”
I said that once upon a time I had worked with my hands out of doors and that after 10 years I had grown tired of Allah’s water falling from the sky and had consciously sought an indoor job. The face creased into a smile. I noticed that the toothlessness added weight to the force of his personality.
The next morning the nurse had to read him the riot act before he consented to put on the stockings. Allah had humorously decreed that his had extra frilly tops. The sight of this intensely masculine Arab wearing knee-length frilly stockings and blue paper cap and sitting disconsolately on his bed waiting for the wheelchair to take him to theater made me laugh. I facetiously offered to take a photograph and send it to the Var-Matin but he was too miserable to speak.
This article was originally published in The Spectator’s July 2021 World edition.