On Friday morning I was peeing razor blades so I rang up the doctor and was given an appointment after lunch. The surgery was at the top of a dingy staircase in an ancient, dilapidated village house. Except for some magazines spread out on a table, the waiting room might have been a comfortably furnished private sitting room. The woman with whom I am staying speaks better French than me and she came along to translate if necessary. We sat down on one of the sofas, and while we waited she picked up a magazine and was immediately absorbed by beach photos of celebrity couples. I made a snobbish remark about her interest in such things. She defended herself by saying that she simply couldn’t help herself. In a tetchy frame of mind, I took my criticism further, observing that her lack of interest in current and foreign affairs showed a deficiency in her intellect. She replied that the news depressed her, and that she would rather look at the beach bodies of pop stars and actors any day.
The doctor hurried into the room peeling off her coat revealing a ra-ra skirt over a frilly petticoat over fishnet, seamed tights. She indicated with a nod that I should follow her into the consulting room, which was also full of homely furniture. Among the occasional tables and armchairs was a desk. I sat on one side of it, she opposite. The doctor was restless and mentally disorganised after her lunch and unable to compose herself. She tried lolling across the desk with her right arm extended towards me, then she switched to her left side. Then she leaned dangerously back in her chair with her fingers knitted behind her head. Finally she gripped the edge of the desk with both hands and pressed her chest against the edge of the table and looked up at me from a sort of press-up position. Cheerful sexuality was written all over her lively, made-up, 50-year-old face. I explained my problem to her in my schoolboy French, illustrating the site of the pain with an extended, animated forefinger. (I had prepared for the interview by looking up the French words for ‘pain’, ‘frequency’ and ‘urgency’.) We both laughed uproariously at my description of my difficulties.
Then she leapt out of her chair, charged around to my side of the table and without preliminaries reached down and roved her hands all over my pubic area, pressing and poking, laughing as she did so at her clumsiness and my unpreparedness. ‘OK?’ she said. I said that yes, it was OK. Then she vaulted back over to her side of the desk, flung open a laptop and put her face two inches from the screen while she typed a prescription for a course of antibiotics. She printed it off and presented it to me with a grand flourish. I gave her 25 euros and she hunted frantically through her handbag for my two euros change.
Later that afternoon, armed with a wide-mouthed empty plastic bottle, we went to see Mary Magdalene’s skull. The relic was on display in the crypt of a local basilica. Even with the Gospels open in front of me I can never quite work out exactly who Mary Magdalene is. Was she the wealthy patron or the prostitute? Never mind: whoever she was I was interested to see her old skull. In the car going there we contended further about the value of keeping up with the news. I complained that I was suffering mental withdrawal symptoms from not hearing the news. She said a news fast would do me good. And in any case, she said, the BBC news is just the BBC’s version of the news.
We had the darkened basilica crypt to ourselves. Mary Magdalene’s skull was enclosed within a head-shaped glass, which was obscured beneath a Star Wars-style space helmet. Subdued blood-red lighting suggested some shadowy exhibit in a Chamber of Horrors. The effect was so bizarre it was hard to know what to make of it, so instead we speculated on the effect it has had on the minds of the generations of local toddlers lifted up and shown it by their proud parents.
In the evening I continued to reluctantly acquiesce in her radio and television news blackout. But when she took herself off to bed, I had a sneaky listen to the ten o’clock news on Radio Four and heard the first startling reports of the Paris massacres. I listened for an hour, then turned in. On Saturday morning, as we chatted over bacon and eggs and filter coffee, I said, as casually as I could, ‘Over 150 people were massacred in Paris by Islamists last night — have you heard?’ Since that moment we’ve hardly missed a BBC news bulletin.