WE’VE settled into a routine on my dining table. Or perhaps I’ve just become quickly institutionalised. Having forced my companions to hold conversations by battering them relentlessly with my increasingly mangled French, the old boys and I have formed alliances.
One, the greediest, gets my bread every meal, most of the meal itself and of course the tub of creme caramel or fromage frais.
Oh, and although his placement clearly states no cheese, his pudgy hand inevitably reaches out for mine. He’s a heart patient.
Another takes just a few bare sips of his tiny carafe of wine and doles what’s left in to our glasses.
I’ve given an electronic fag to the painfully skinny, toothless but youngest one on the table. Since arriving here he’s cut down to just seven cigarettes a day but would like to find a substitute.
We’ve reduced from six to five at the table now as the most morose left yesterday; and the fifth, God love him, can barely breathe, never mind talk.
Each meal I ask the same question: “What meat is this?” And my neighbours take a bit of theirs and come up with different answers before ploughing on anyway.
The fact that one thought it was salmon when in fact it was chicken says it all, I think.
Frankly, I can’t eat most of it – it’s tough and tasteless with a hint of the smell of the clinic wrapped around each offering. That is my problem though. All around me plates are being cleared with relish and I will slap the next French man or woman who tries to tell me how fine this country’s food is.
So they’ve given up trying to make me eat more than a fistful and instead calculate at which point they can reach out for a share.
But the food is my only, mild, criticism.
For bizarrely I am enjoying being treated like a broken down old racehorse being gently returned to some measure of form – my body pushed into exercise to move oxygen around.
Treadmill, fixed bike, gentle gymnastics, aqua gym and breathing exercises divide up my daily routine and I go from gym to hall almost eager for the next experience.
Each time I do a tour of the outdoor circuit, which snakes through the park, I get a sense of pride I haven’t felt since making the first hockey team.
God help me, I’m even in competition with the woman who sits on the bike next to me, pushing faster and longer at every session. She has no idea of this, of course, but no yellow jersey has ever been more deserved, I tell you.
Mention you have a headache, feel sick or even itchy to a nurse and you’re whisked in front of the chief pulmonologist, a kind Yves Montand lookalike.
Infection is the enemy of us all here and so no chances are taken.
It’s having a personal physician on constant call and initially I was thrilled by it all, once again so appreciative of this splendid system.
I have begun to believe that I can learn how to control my symptoms rather than they control me.
There is no doubt I already feel immeasurably better here in this safe, watchful world and feel my body rediscover muscle and sinew to keep me, and therefore the oxygen, moving.
I haven’t yet been to the talks arranged on coping mentally with all of this and managing the horrendous panic that exacerbates all breathing difficulties.
My turn comes this week but I’ll be there grasping as much as I can and hanging behind afterwards to clarify the points I didn’t quite understand.
But, but, and I’ve said this so many times and only fellow ostriches will understand, French medics never give up until they’ve answered their own scenarios.
Tonight, for example, as I sat down to write this, I was moderately at peace with my world. In fact rather pleased with myself for going round the circuit on our Sunday off all exercise.
Then a nurse arrived with a prescription for yet more blood tests tomorrow morning. Of course I checked out what was being examined courtesy of Dr Google.
And now I am sunk in gloom, heart pounding, end days playing out in my head and once more I just want to bolt, run away, fingers in my ears as I sing “La, la, la, la – can’t hear you”.
Of course, as is the right of all patients, it was explained at the beginning, that any time I wanted to leave I could – just go, walk out the door (see, singing again).
It doesn’t work that way though, does it?
Instead I soothe myself by repeating tired old clichés like not crossing bridges while berating myself for my cowardice and fears.
In a little while I know this will subside and I’ll eventually sleep after muttering my fervent night prayers in supplication.
I’d love to talk about this with my old boys tomorrow at lunch but of course I won’t.
We may have formed alliances but such intimacy would be a gross breach of French privacy.
Sharing food is one thing, emotions another.