South of France
The greater the enervation, it is said, the greater the appreciation of a work of art. There was no place in Madame Benoit’s energetic life for art, if the austere interior of her huge consulting room was anything to go by. Human dynamos don’t need pretty pictures to look at. On a tiled floor the size of a tennis court were metal shelving racks filled with cartons of various sizes and loose piles of documents. The decorative theme of her workspace could be described as ‘warehouse’. The only nod to domesticity was a sink in one corner.
This was my second visit to Mme Benoit in as many years to describe symptoms of a suspected urine infection. And once before that I had sat at her desk and told her that life had lost its savor and I felt cast among the flints. I remember how her handsome face had fallen; how she had spoken to me in a humorous and skeptical tone, as though she found it incredible that a grown man should come to her and utter such pathetic nonsense, and she could only therefore assume that I had some perfectly respectable and probably illegal ulterior motive — wanton idleness couldn’t be ruled out — for speaking in this shameful manner, a motive which, at the end of the day, was none of her business.
I can recall going out into the street afterwards with my sense of perspective so nearly regained by her derision that I popped the prescription for antidepressants she had laughingly given me in the nearest trash can.
Whether this glamorous French doctor remembered me as that puny individual the year before was difficult to know, though her manner was once again humorously skeptical as I described my symptoms of pain and their frequency. I explained, too, that my kidney on the left side was drained by a plastic stent inserted into the urethra, and that it ached. I didn’t know what the French word for stent was, but she was familiar with the English word. ‘Ah! Stent!’ she laughed.
I was seated. I was wearing a vintage Barbour Northumbria, which is like wearing a suit of waxed-cotton armor. Nevertheless she made a sudden dive through my open coat for my lower abdomen and started kneading and poking at it in an opportunistic rather than a systematic manner. This reminded me of an old-school doctor who used to take my father’s blood pressure by fastening the inflatable sleeve over his arm while he was still wearing his overcoat. Mme Benoit’s examination felt like a clumsy street mugging, and I instinctively squirmed and resisted with equal force. She fought back strongly, giving me a flurry of rabbit punches to the gut for good measure.
‘Doulour?’ she said: ‘Pain?’ I had now. ‘Yes,’ I said. She shot me a look of pleasure and ran to the other end of the room, returning with a specimen jar and a key on a bit of old string. She pulled me out of the chair by my collar and drove me out of the door and into the waiting room, said something amusing that I didn’t catch to those waiting, then drove me out of that door and into a corridor, whipping me along it as far as a door fastened with a padlock. Here she presented me with the key, the specimen jar and a wipe for my ‘sex’ when I’d finished. Then she turned and ran back to the surgery. After filling the jar, I had a hurried smoke in the cubicle before returning.
Back in her examination room, I presented her with my sample. ‘It’s like the flaming Olympics in here,’ I said. ‘That’s modern France for you,’ she said tartly, flinging herself down into her chair and scribbling out a prescription and a receipt for my recoverable €25. She explained when and how often I should take the antibiotic. Then, her pen still poised over her prescribing pad, she said, ‘Was there anything else?’
She spoke carelessly yet with an encouraging and perhaps renegade light in her eye. It was, I think, a fine example of that wonderful southern French dandyism which is unwilling to admit that anything is difficult. I looked in her eye and mentally browsed the growing list of prescription drugs I’ve abused lately, lighting on the one that I have grown to love above all others — the sedative Xanax. Read the post-mortem toxicology report of any rock or Hollywood star who has accidentally overdosed in the past 10 years, and it’s there. Once you are past caring, it’s absolutely bloody marvelous.
Mme Benoit comically screwed up her face to mimic a child in a sweetshop’s indecision. ‘Non. Merci,’ I said, hoping to make amends even at this late stage with some Roman self-control. You bloody fool, I told myself as I crossed the floor to the door.
This article is in The Spectator’s June 2020 US edition.