Magazine article The Spectator

Low Life: Jeremy Clarke

Magazine article The Spectator

Low Life: Jeremy Clarke

Article excerpt

Our friend Anthony was reportedly dying and a party of four drove over to the nursing home to say cheerio. The journey across deepest Provence was an hour and a half each way and we went in my old Mercedes. I fixed my attention on the badge and the twisting road beyond it, rhythmically chewing one square after another of 4mg fruit-flavoured nicotine gum. My morning dose of 75mg Venlafaxine filtered out extraneous thought, self-criticism and fantasy, leaving me feeling unusually self-possessed.

The mental picture I keep of Anthony is just the eyes, which are a startling shade of light blue. I've never got used to them. Since I have known him he has usually worn a jacket of faded blue cotton that matches their colour exactly and doubles their disconcerting effect. Blazing with passionate excitement about Brexit, say, or with anger, or with piqued curiosity, accompanied most often by a roar of flat-out laughter, eyes as blue as those tend to lead and exalt the com-pany. Ten thousand years ago, the shining blueness would have made him a chieftain. Sylvia Plath was sufficiently captivated by them on a sofa in Cambridge half a century ago, he claims, to offer herself to them without preliminaries. Intuition told him that she had a tile off and he declined.

We entered a sunlit, single-occupancy room on the second floor. He was propped up in bed, his chin rested on his chest. The eyelids were closed. The nose and mouth were encased in a oxygen mask of transparent plastic; within the mask a small tube disappeared up each nostril. Another tube led from a suspended bag of clear liquid to a cannula taped to the back of his liver-spotted hand. It did indeed look to an unprofessional eye as if the pneumonia was hoisting him away that very afternoon.

But not to red-headed Scottish nurse Catriona's professional one, it didn't. While we hung back exchanging glances of sanctimonious apprehension, she was all over him with practical efficiency, feeling his forehead, listening to the rhythm of his breathing, checking his drip and oxygen supply, kissing him, hugging him and talking to him as freely and buoyantly as she always has. The unostentatious, almost sleight-of-hand way she felt for a pulse in his inert wrist reminded me of my farmer uncle wringing a chicken's neck so unobtrusively, as he carried it back to the house, that my child's eyes missed its dying. …

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