The Perils of Paula

This was an experience of being hospitalised for infectious pneumonia, with several days of fever hovering around 104° to 105°.      After several days of unsuccessful treatment by antibiotics, I threw myself at the mercy of the Emergency Room at CHU Poitiers...

Two nurses came running down the stairs like white birds. Put me in a rolling chair.  And then a rolling bed. And I was rolled from room to room and hand to hand.  In time I was tied to the life-giving wall with oxygen, and to fluids, and antibiotics.

And I was in a wheelbarrow, where hundreds of little devils, poking every nerve sinew and fiber with their tridents, wanted to throw me onto their furnace.

Oh, I begged. Please just throw me onto the chariot and wheel me to the field.

What ? no chariots like that in your world ? You know, the ones made of mismatched wooden boards ... pulled by a rearing half-dead horse through a battlefield strewn with blown-apart soldiers and glowing in the dark with the dying embers of fires lit by hundreds of cannon blasts ...

Oh. I’ve been watching too many historical movies, they say. I should imagine a old pick-up truck, more like. Or one of those ominous black Cadillacs. Never mind. It doesn’t go with the music.

Sleep sitting up, Madame. No blankets. What ? more painkillers ?  You have to wait four more hours.  Our hands are tied, see, Ibuprofen inflames infection. Codeine suppresses cough. Paracetamol masks the fever.

Time to start writing my epitaph ...

This room is bugged. There is fly on the ceiling right overhead, we arrived at the same moment -- a fly-spy from the FBI, strapped with cameras. 

... my epitaph, and a long list of goodbyes, like Elender Wall.  Well, in case of survival, it could be recycled as hearty hellos.

I’m breathing through a net of crackling bubbles. Mustn’t lie down. The bubbles will try to drown you, and you wake up coughing. Every cough is a catastrophe, like ten men pummeling you in the stomach, and the little devils poking their tridents between every rib.

On a scale of one to ten, how’s the pain ?

On a scale of one to ten, I am a field of wheat with many stalks burned and black.

I appreciate the image, will take that as a five.

Riddle : So, what’s the state of your health ?

Answer : a flétan. A flatfish. More particularly, a flounder, an experiment in lying flat on the ocean floor, covered in sand, two eyes on just one side, which has become the top, and the other side has become the bottom, and its mouth opens sidewise instead of up-and-down. That is the cost of metamorphosis from upright to utterly flat. In millions of years of floundering, no flétan could ever learn to sit up, brush its teeth, eat lunch on a tray, or take itself and its tangle of tubes to the bathroom. (Never mind, said Alain, that a flétan is permanently suspended in water, and has no need to take its tangle of tubes to the bathroom to pee, or brush its teeth or eat lunch on a tray.) 

On the Fourth day the flétan became a biped, sat up, brushed its teeth and hair, had a tea, and entertained visitors - Mimi, Françoise, Alain.  But the décor remained variable. Version one ( eyes open) : A hospital. The bed, its blue blanket. A window. A fan. A tray. 

Version two (eyes closed) : two restaurants. In one, there are elegant tables entwined by belle époque brass à la Mucha.  The other is floating in the ceiling - shadowy and mysterious. To fly from one restaurant to the other you have to lift your arms over your head and fall up.

(à la Mucha, sort of like this famous restaurant in the Gare de Lyon à Paris, Le Train Bleu)

The hospital menu comes from the upside-down restaurant, too bad. Breakfast lunch dinner tea come and go on trays. La pièce de résistance : rillettes de maquereau and fenouil braisé. One sniff will amputate your appetite forever.

The fan turns back and forth. Noise from the hospital ventilation system roars in through the open window. Liquid oxygen gurgles in a bottle on the wall. Alternatively : we are lying on the beach under a parasol, calmed by ocean spray and wind, the roaring waves. Le ressac.

Venus, lying naked in her shell floats past the window on a cloud.  The butter, spread on a piece of bread, opens one eye, looks around, and scuttles back under its creamy yellow surface. Faces open in the wood knots in the bathroom door.

The Birth of Venus by Alexandre Cabanel, 1863 (Musée d'Orsay, Paris).

Don’t be alarmed, but the bathroom door evolves every time you pee. A fat baby Ophelia wallows in a pond, watched over by a very large frog. A long-necked monster swallows a golden retriever. A couple of mice or monks are reading a very long large book. Or seen the other way round, there is an overturned boat on the shore with waves, in an elegant Dickensian xylogravure.

I’m terribly sorry. These magical talents will gradually dissipate. Detached from the wall and oxygen, detached from the intravenous fluids, we will rediscover the novelty of legs, their wobbliness, the absurdity of moving about in Normal People Land. We will step outside in the hospital gardens in a dress, face ghostly-white with red splotches, hair natted and unbrushed, feet bagged in paper hospital slippers.  It’s okay. Everywhere you look, people are trailing eight-footed stands of tubes, bags of chemo, legs in casts, in varying degrees of dignity.


And then, on the Sixth Day, home again, home again. Almost real life. Except wobbly, and half dreaming. Eating remains an unattainable ambition. Water tastes like insecticide.

But the garden ! a lawn chair ! a parasol ! a fluttering of little wings, and splashing in the bath at the foot of our late quince tree. Sodden birds are embarrassed to be seen in such a state, they dry their wings out on the branches, rub their beaks in the tree. The cornflowers are taking bets on who will be the first one to bloom.

And Alain has ironed my nightgown.

Montamisé, jeudi, 8 juin 2017, rev 11 juin