A dear friend came to stay for two nights. Could I be persuaded, wondered he and Catriona on the first morning, to venture out to a restaurant for lunch?

Descending the stairs to welcome guests these days takes a bit of effort. Bare feet, bony ankles, flapping pajama bottoms; the guests look up in fascinated horror as the anchorite wobbles down the creaking wooden steps (attended by importunate flies) with his revelry face on. They have even stopped insisting how well I look. I might last an hour in an armchair in the sitting room, refusing alcohol, before...

A dear friend came to stay for two nights. Could I be persuaded, wondered he and Catriona on the first morning, to venture out to a restaurant for lunch?

Descending the stairs to welcome guests these days takes a bit of effort. Bare feet, bony ankles, flapping pajama bottoms; the guests look up in fascinated horror as the anchorite wobbles down the creaking wooden steps (attended by importunate flies) with his revelry face on. They have even stopped insisting how well I look. I might last an hour in an armchair in the sitting room, refusing alcohol, before exercising an ague’s privilege, excusing myself and returning to the horizontal upstairs. Since my last trip to Marseille in the taxi three weeks ago for treatment, the farthest I’ve been is to the composting bin to scrape in leftovers and usually contemplate for a moment the insatiable forces of putrefaction.

But my friend is a wonderful man who had driven fourteen hours in spray from Yorkshire to come and cheer me up. His peerless impression of Marlon Brando’s judicious Godfather is all it takes. I said I would put on my medals and give it a try.

It was a day of sparkling sunshine. I felt far from well. Wellness now seems as remote and unlikely to me as Arthurian legend. I showered and shaved and put on a green Fred Perry and a clean pair of Levi’s and topped these off with a Peaky Blinders cap. In the bathroom mirror the overriding impression was of a praying mantis in a funky hat.

They had chosen a mid-range restaurant enclosed on four sides by vines, which run right up to the terrace edge, giving the delightful impression, in full summer, of dining in nature’s abundance. It wasn’t far to drive — three or four miles — yet on the way there I felt nauseous and was glad when the car came finally to rest with dead and dying vine leaves brushing the bonnet.

We filed in. The proprietress was a pale-skinned woman with delicate Arab features who welcomed us with the endearingly human complaint that she was tired, so tired, and was looking forward to closing the place and going on holiday. She sagged at the knees and mouth as though it were touch and go whether she would make it through even this lunchtime session. Unfortunately we couldn’t eat outside today, she said, owing to the wind. Suiting my opinions to my limited vocabulary as I normally do when conversing in French, I said that it hardly mattered and we were content to eat indoors.

She showed us to the only vacant table. It was circular and so absurdly large that after the cheery intimacy of the car the distances involved estranged us from one another. The Saturday lunchtime clientele was crowded around smaller, more suitable tables. It was entirely French, decent, unassuming, attached to reality, family-minded and unselfconsciously absorbed in the usual celebration of eating, drinking and affectionate intimacy. A mainly-black collie with a psychologist’s eye for soft touches and collaborators wandered between the tables, accepting chance treats as nothing more than his due. For an aperitif I bared my teeth at the waiter and asked for a Moscow Mule. Deciding not to mess about, Damian and Catriona said they preferred to get stuck into the wine list straight away. Hoping for some sort of mental lift-off or elevation, I emptied a morphine capsule into my Moscow Mule.

But it wasn’t to be. Isolated from my jolly table companions by distance and consciousness of frailty and death, and further isolated by that peculiar deafness in crowded rooms where voices become indistinguishable, I struggled against falling into melancholy.

Leaning in as far forward as possible to catch the drift of the conversation was physically painful. So I made myself as comfortable as possible by sitting sideways and crossing my legs, and tried to take an intelligent interest in my surroundings. In the grown-up good manners of the older children at the next table, for example. And in the almost freakish beauty of a teenage girl, and the expression of wisdom, discretion, sympathy, experience and contentment on the face of her old senator of a father.

But it takes energy to take even a polite interest in one’s surroundings and I’d spent what little I had showering, shaving and dressing. With profuse and sincere apologies, cheerfully and graciously accepted, I asked Catriona for the car keys, chucked my paper napkin on the table and made my way out of what was presumably my last-ever restaurant.

I eased myself gratefully into the front passenger seat and wound down the window. The early afternoon sun burned hotly on my cheek. The vines were almost bare. Here and there a tatty red or yellow leaf clung on despite a plucking breeze. I never liked restaurants much anyway, I said to myself. And with that happy thought, I closed my eyes and fell immediately asleep.

This article was originally published in The Spectator’s January 2023 World edition.