A few days ago, I was fished out of the Seine just in the nick of time.

Two feet from the bank, to be precise, but that’s more than far enough to sink into the mud and float to the surface a couple of weeks later, limp and soggy as the hunks of bread people throw to the ducks.

They cleared out my bronchial tubes, put various bits of me in plaster. I had clearly ricocheted off the bridge. Botched suicide, drunken binge, mugging? Everyone had a theory.

I was in a coma, so I could hardly voice an opinion.

*

I woke up in intensive care with multiple trauma, which sounds pretty impressive, watched over by a concerned-looking cop. The sort of kid my father might have spared, even on a day of political unrest. He was a young guy, a decent sort, with huge, sad antelope eyes and a three-day beard he’d probably been growing for three months.

He seemed completely overawed. My charisma, obviously. Or maybe the chest drain, the oxygen mask and all the huge tangle of wires to keep me monitored had something to do with it too.

This junior cop was a young thirty-five, he had a black leather jacket and a black leather notebook with the face of Chewbacca printed on the spine. He could have been my son, if I’d ever procreated.

When I opened my eyes, I did it like a drowning man desperately trying to catch his breath. Then again, I had drowned, or as good as, so that probably explains it.

I wondered what I was doing here, feeling a vague uneasiness over the general anaesthesia and the unpleasant sensation of not knowing where I began and ended. Part of my mind was panicked, racing in every direction, trying to get the lie of the land, where the fuck am I? Am I still in one piece? Can I move?

The other part could not tear itself from the face of this strange guy leaning over me, too close, who was whispering so low that I could hardly hear a thing. The words seemed to come from far away, his voice sounded weird, much too slow.

Eventually, I managed to catch the phrase:

“… any idea what might have happened to you? Because, right now, we’ve made no progress in our investigation…”

Then, studying the oxygen mask, he added:

“Just a yes or no will do. Do you remember what happened?”

I dimly shook my head, just enough to set the ceiling spinning and the mattress lurching. Sorry. I had no idea how I’d got there.

He asked me another question, one that took some time to percolate. Before I closed my eyes, I shook my head again.

No: I had not tried to put an end to my life.

I’ve no wish to kill myself.

Time will take care of that bit of business.

***

According to the latest estimate, I’ve been here a week. I haven’t seen the time passing.

I’ve felt it, though.

On the plus side: I spent a couple of days off my face – the piss-up of the century – feeling like I was waking up every five minutes and sleeping for ten hours at a stretch in between, and I wasn’t in too much pain.”

I sleep too much during the day, I’m zonked out by various drugs, by inactivity, everything merges into the same grey monotony, Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday. I don’t remember diving into the river, but there’s nothing to be done. Don’t remember being fished out, or being brought here either.

Apparently they sedated me because I was agitated and distressed. Not distressed in the sense of being upset, I’m never upset when I’m being a pain in the arse to other people.

No, distressed, meaning troubled or confused.

They put the kibosh on my ability to think, to move, to hinder the work of the nurses and doctors. On the plus side: I spent a couple of days off my face – the piss-up of the century – feeling like I was waking up every five minutes and sleeping for ten hours at a stretch in between, and I wasn’t in too much pain.

I feel a lot worse now. I ache all over.

And when I’m not in pain, I feel like I am an ache.

They sliced me open here and there to reset fractures and patch things up. I’ve got more pins and plates than a middle-class matron. My ID is the pile of X-rays that the doctors – especially the surgeon – pore over with an air of satisfaction: iliac spine, iliac crest, obturator foramen, femoral neck, femur, tibia and fibula.

Moving is out of the question, it’s strictly prohibited.

Normally I’m a spinning top, I toss and turn to try and get to sleep, now here I am forced to lie completely still, and, to make matters worse, I’m flat on my back.

It makes nights seem longer than a philosophy lecture.

*

I’m experiencing life in hospital. I’ve heard people talk about it, now I know first-hand.

As soon as you’re admitted, you want to get up and go home, the way dogs tug on their leads and try to turn back when they arrive at the vet’s. I feel like a mangy mutt, tail between my legs, coat dull.

I want my doggy bowl, my blanket, my bone, my basket.

I want to go home.

Besides, I can’t stand the smell of hospitals.

They don’t smell hygienic, they smell of disinfectant, of cleaning products with phony fragrances to hide the stink of pus and piss, of ‘little accidents’ and other horrors.

They don’t smell like home cooking – a nice stew simmering – they smell of canteen grub. Even the coffee doesn’t smell right. The aroma slinks along the walls like a traitor in the shadows, seeps into the hallways and the rooms, sneaky, insidious, sinister. Pour it into a cup and its weakness is clear, it’s a watery-black, warmed-up cat’s piss, deeply disappointing.

As for tea, there’s only one choice: stomach-churning chamomile.

*

I’m entitled to two white tablets whose name and purpose are a mystery to me, then she fills out the form , turns off the incandescent fluorescent and leaves, saying have a nice day without a shred of irony.”

The days start early, 6.00 a.m., which leaves lots of time to feel depressed later. The morning duty-nurse swings the door open like a cowboy swaggering into a saloon, flicks on the fluorescent lights that burn my eyes and shouts Morrrrr-ning! in a voice too loud for my sleepy ears and, without bothering to find out if I’m awake (which I am, thanks for asking), takes my blood pressure and my temperature.

I’m entitled to two white tablets whose name and purpose are a mystery to me, then she fills out the form hanging at the end of the bed, turns off the incandescent fluorescent then leaves, not closing the door, saying have a nice day without a shred of irony.

Then one of the lady orderlies – always cheery – arrives with breakfast, two cellophane-wrapped biscottes, some neurasthenic fruit compote, a tiny jar of jam that’s never met a real fruit in its life and a plain yoghurt.

Soft_in_the_HeadUnfailingly, even if she’s seen me a day ago or two days ago, she asks,

“And what would monsieur like this morning?…”

To get out of here, Dear God, to get out!

“… coffee, tea, milk?”

She opens the venetian blinds, fluffs my pillow, sets the tray down just out of reach, forcing me to perform various painful contortions forbidden by my surgeon.

*

Then the day begins, with ten times as many hours as a day spent on the outside.

Through the open door I can see people wandering past, which doesn’t bother me, and they can see me, which really bothers me.

I’ve given up watching telly. I think the programmes are devised by people in high places to free up hospital beds and deal with patients who overstay. Thrilling European cop shows, electrifying game shows and live coverage of the workings of the Assemblée nationale can do a lot to speed up the death of old codgers and encourage other patients to rip out their IVs.

The only thing I watch is the news, brilliant as always at focusing on good news – war, pollution, tsunamis, old people getting beaten up by young thugs, childhood depression and smoker’s cancer – in a commendable shot at positive thinking.

Or sometimes at night I’ll watch a movie, but not often.

The rest of the time, I’ve got all the time in the world. The direct and demonstrable consequence: I think.

Thinking is a morbid occupation that I prefer to avoid in most cases. Especially given that, since in here there’s no escape mechanism, I contemplate my navel, my thoughts frantically spinning like a crazed hamster in its wheel. Me, me, my life, my achievements.

Career paths and trajectories, inventory of fixtures.

Status report. Just the phrase makes me want to throw up.

‘Status report’ smacks of bankruptcy.

*

Lunch is at 11.30 a.m. and the evening meal is at 6.20 p.m.

My room is at the far end of the corridor, so my food is lukewarm or stone-cold and inedible depending on the swiftness of the orderly and the length of her legs. Since most of them are from Madagascar, I get a lot of sympathy and very few calories.

Everyone in the hospital, regardless of title or rank, feels entitled to ask whether I’m having trouble making pee-pee – and everything else – before they even bother saying good morning.”

The other day, I asked one of the nurses why they didn’t reschedule the meals by a couple of hours. She explained that it was because the night staff are responsible for serving breakfast before they go off shift and “if you changed one thing you’d have to change everything”. Fine, I said, in that case the night staff could take over serving dinner from the day staff, who could take over serving breakfast, and, by my reckoning, it wouldn’t make any more work for anyone.

Her only response was to stick a thermometer in my ear, a procedure I had some trouble getting used to at first.

***

The staff call me the “guy fished out of the Seine”.

News must have been slack, because the local papers ran a few short articles about me.

This was more than enough to give me a vague air of mystery that I’m actively trying to cultivate – though it’s too early to tell how successful I’ve been. In fact, I think it’s pretty commendable of me to want to remain enigmatic when I’m reduced to having my arse wiped like a big baby and everyone in the hospital, regardless of title or rank, feels entitled to ask whether I’m having trouble making pee-pee – and everything else – before they even bother saying good morning.

I have to say it is kind of amazing, this kind of relationship. Not a day goes by without someone asking me – with an interest that seems completely sincere – whether I’ve passed wind this morning. That said, I’ve got a sense that they wouldn’t appreciate it if I responded:

“Yes, thank you, what about you?”

Hold up, now!

Don’t go getting above your station.

I’m the patient here.

And it takes a lot of bloody patience to put up with the enforced inactivity, the discomfort of being in plaster, the sweltering heat of the hospital room, the lack of privacy.

Long story short, I’m not feeling myself at the moment. I feel like, as far as everyone else is concerned, I’m just a bladder to be drained, a bowel obstruction, a few fractures and some drains.

Not to mention the strange way they address me:

“And how are we today?”

I have to bite my tongue to stop myself saying:

We are fine, we thank you.”

“We” have a surname, a first name, and – in case anyone’s interested – a whole slew of births, marriages and deaths:

Jean-Pierre Fabre, widower, childless, retired, born in Perpignan, 4th October 1945 – the day Social Security was enacted, which probably explains my constant budget deficit – son of Roger Fabre, railwayman, born 17th November 1922 in Marseille and Odette Augier, unemployed, born 25th June 1924 in Avignon.

It’s my pelvis that’s cracked.

My head is fine.

From Get Well Soon, translated by Frank Wynne

 

Marie-Sabine_Roger_420Marie-Sabine Roger was born in Bordeaux in 1957, and has been writing books for adults and children since 1989. Soft in the Head was made into the 2010 film My Afternoons with Margueritte, directed by Jean Becker, starring Gérard Depardieu. Get Well Soon won the Prix des lecteurs de l’Express in 2012, and is now available in English from Pushkin Press, along with Soft in the Head.
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Author portrait © Cécile Roger

Frank Wynne is a translator from French and Spanish. He has won the IMPAC Award, the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize and the Scott Moncrieff Prize, and has translated Spanish and Latin American authors, including Tomás Eloy Martínez, Isabel Allende, Arturo Pérez-Reverte and Tomás González, whose In the Beginning Was the Sea is published by Pushkin Press.

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