Red wine and bicycle by Ralph Steadman
Red wine by Ralph Steadman

A small bottle of red wine is administered as a tonic to patients each evening at Bordeaux’s Hopital Saint-Andre.

Those not in the mood give it to visitors.

I visited my partner each evening; I collected my miniature, and her room-mate’s.

Ca va? I said to the room-mate.

She half raised her hand. Ca va, she said.

Her husband did not treat her well, my partner said.

The French wine-growing region’s sun-lit hospital had big white corridors with white arches. Nuns glided down the white arched corridors.

Corridor of Saint Paul Asylum in Saint Remy
Corridor of Saint Paul Asylum in Saint Remy, Vincent van Gogh, 1889

There was a garden in the middle of the hospital. In the garden was a pond with goldfish.

The hospital’s architecture reminded me of Vincent van Vogh’s painting of the mental hospital he spent some time in.

Garden of the Hospital in Arles, Vincent van Gogh, 1889
Garden of the Hospital in Arles, Vincent van Gogh, 1889

My partner was in there for an internal infection. Bordeaux hospital, I mean. Not the asylum. But then I had to visit the hospital for treatment myself.

My heart was skipping beats. It marked out the beats of my life at a regular tempo then it left out one or two or three. Each skip was an abyss, a swing-bridge, a gulp of infinity. I put the gaps down to the baguettes and white cheese, the red wine and the recreational amphetamines back in London.

As life-threatening as my condition seemed at the time, my subconscious had a laugh, it took the mick. It dreamed I was in a city in France. I stood in front of big shop window and peered into the gloom.

A huge polished wooden wheel, shaped as some kind of cosmic clock sat on the dusty floor. The wheel was made up of more polished timber and bronze wheels which revolved slowly at different speeds in different directions at different times.

Cycle Of Time by vsea123
Cycle Of Time by vsea123

Above the wheel, a column of girls dressed in white descended.

Ghent Altarpiece (detail), Hubert and Jan van Eyck, c.1432
Ghent Altarpiece (detail), Hubert and Jan van Eyck, c.1432

“Oo, look,” I said to no one. “Angels.”

I turned around and the angels turned out to be a group of school-girls behind me, crossing the road in single file.

The dream joke did nothing to assuage my fear I might fall into any one of the oxygen-deprived abysses during a heart skip – especially at night.

At the Bordeaux youth hostel, I drew a big, red cross in oil pastel on my chest. That way, if I woke up flapping around on my bed someone might have the nous to give my chest a good thump. Or call an ambo from Hopital Saint-Andre.

Old Hospital Bordeaux

I went there next day, not to collect my red wine miniatures from the patients but to see if someone could put their finger on the pulse as to what was happening to my heart. A group of young doctors came in and mucked about. They had a laugh. They winked and nodded when the specialist came in. He took his internship earnestly. He asked questions in English. He applied the stethoscope and gave me a lung capacity breatho-test. My heart padded along regularly. The specialist told me to do some star-jumps and press-ups. The young doctors grinned.

We went downstairs to a laboratory where there were stacks of electrical equipment. The specialist stuck electrodes on my chest and back and took a reading.


He concluded the electrical activity in my heart was subject to the occasional spaz. The anomaly was a temporary thing. It affected two percent of the population. He said one day it will not be there.

We shook hands and he left.

Then there was the matter of the bill. The young doctors led me through labyrinth of corridors. They opened a door. Outside was a wide courtyard dappled with leafy sunlight.

Ladies in a Sun Dappled Courtyard by José Gallegos y Arnosa (1857-1917)
Ladies in a Sun Dappled Courtyard by José Gallegos y Arnosa (1857-1917)

It was walled but there were big arches for the ambulances to come and go.

The doctors laughed and said au revoir. We shook hands.

An ambulance sped in through the white gates as I left the bricked courtyard. It was a scene from Ernest Hemingway’s World War 1 experience as an ambulance driver in Italy before he was wounded and hospitalised there.

Ernest Hemingway on crutches while recovering in Milan, Italy, 1918
Ernest Hemingway on crutches while recovering in Milan, Italy, 1918

I had survived my experience. Life and death went on. The hospital’s bells tolled earnestly as I walked out into southern French sunshine.

The bells tolled, but in a good way. They had a laugh, they took the mick.

Every now and then there was a muffled tonk as one missed a beat.




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