No Time To Be ill

The Flight

Near 6am in a crowded departure lounge at Luton Airport I had all but lost the will to go on. Instead I stayed slumped on a plastic bench with an elderly lady and a pregnant woman at the opposite wall to the boarding gate. Usually I would have been elbowing away at the front for a low cost aisle seat, but not that morning. I wasn’t up to barging ahead, I was hardly even bothered to stand up and catch my flight.

If normally pushy, the other passengers were statistically unusually nervous, being the sort who don’t like looking down at the earth thousands of feet below, instead preferring aisle seats because the plane will crash. So although nearly the last soul to board I had a window seat! But some 45 minutes later when peering from my window seat through the grubby glass I tried to derive some pleasure from the view down on the Auvergne and the volcanoes (clearly visible but insignificant) passing slowly beneath, but for once such a magnificent physical geography display was lost on me. I sagged back against the headrest and closed my eyes.

I opened them a moment to stop a sudden spinning sensation. I was surprised my lack of sleep was having such an impact, normally I resist disruptions to sleep much better than this, usually an overnight coach journey would have never brought on aches and a persistently sore throat.

The throb of the engines had become nauseatingly oppressive. The volcanoes must have slipped astern out of sight giving way to the plain of Larzac, but I didn’t care where we were, or what part of France was far beneath us.

A baby on the other side of the aisle started up a blood-curdling wail and I immediately guessed it had started an earache for at the same moment so too had I. Considering the pain that was suddenly afflicting me (in both ears) I might as well have had knives sticking in my head. Poor baby.

Why am I journeying?

I was beginning to think I had “something” and thought with growing dread of the days ahead, days to be spent in hard physical labour collecting and sawing up wood for my friend at her house near Arles. Oh dear. I yawned and swallowed, and swallowed and yawned. The pain just got worse.

The previous autumn I had gathered in nearly three cords, around 10m3 of logs if not more, and I had promised my friend that this year’s effort would be as fruitful – tough enough of a goal when fighting fit, but a ghastly prospect now that I felt awful. I thought of the bending, the crawling, the dragging, the tugging, the sawing (by hand indeed) the chopping, the lugging, the scratches and bruises the dust the tiredness… I pictured the area behind my friend’s masse (house) now nearly empty of the wood I had furnished the year before… I had to fill that area, I had go through all that again.

By the time the grey blue curve of the Mediterranean came to view, I was next to crying or howling out along with the baby. The knife blades then did a quarter turn each making the pain worse, something up till then I thought was not possible and I was convinced that at any moment a blood vessel or something might burst…

What The Deal Involved

There were, unfortunately, underlying power politics behind this firewood collecting arrangement. The understanding being that in exchange for gathering all that firewood my friend would reimburse my entire coach and plane fare, and would provide the board and lodging from the beginning to the end of my stay. Fair enough, three cords of wood is worth at least a Low cost flight and coach return fare and two weeks or so of home cooking.

The cabin pressure throbbed away at the knives in my head, and as I endured this piercing agony and a general, painful restlessness, I realised I couldn’t ask to get reimbursed if I didn’t fulfil my part of the bargain – and I couldn’t afford not to make that money back! How mercenary one can become when in need.

My Destination Nears

My repeated swallowing and yawning did nothing except to shift about the pain and further irritate my increasingly sore throat. The knives turned and thrust further into my ears, the engines boomed and the poor baby screamed.

The sea filled the porthole now as the plane turned East towards Nîmes and the sun came in full on my face, blinding my scratchy eyes and drying the tears of pain now wetting my cheeks. Several times I put a finger against either ear to check there wasn’t blood. Poor baby.

At last the plane started to descend and my ears went through increasingly reassuring changes, a fair exchange for a growing dizzy headache and a growing sensation of sandpaper rubbing away deep in my lungs. All in all, questions about my state were bunching like clouds but a spark of denial lit my thoughts, suggesting it was surely the effect of cabin pressure that was making me feel so awful, and I wasn’t coming down with “something” or if I was, it was only “something” made worse by the effects cabin pressure…

If I was ill (which looked the most likely conclusion), I would have to back out of this wood collecting lark at least for a day or two… The money would look after itself, it would have to. After all, my friend’s home was potentially the best place to sweat it out then to rest up and recover… and I would recover as quickly as possible of course. My friend would understand that I wasn’t up to doing her wood for a few days.

More Background Concerning The Woods

Unlike me, my friend is not a poor woman (top tax bracket after all) so I comforted myself that if I couldn’t do her firewood this year she could easily afford to have wood delivered all conveniently cut and ready to burn by proper woodsmen. This would cost more than a return journey from the Thames Valley and delicious meals of cheap cuts, but she could afford it. However, I had a doubt about this.

In my experience things are not that simple with the wealthy (at least those I have known), and my wisdom-of-the-laundry has it that the wealthy remain wealthy partly because they corral their money to the nearest centime, and keep it close. I also knew that when she was little my friend’s mother hadn’t been that flush, and they had had to spread thinly the small income Mother earned. Marked by that experience my friend had since adopted – and why not – a philosophy of not letting anything go to waste. But sometimes one can only squeeze a rumpled old cigarette paper between not letting anything go to waste and being tight.

This is all a preamble to say that my friend had potential firewood galore in her hectares of Woodland and she was determined to use it. Fair enough. But none of the proper, professional woodsmen of whom she had enquired were keen on extracting firewood from her woodland for anything less than an exorbitant fee. Whereas their quotes had put her off, their discouraging noises (as to how difficult and dangerous the work was) certainly hadn’t. When a couple of years previous I had heard her tell of these cowardly, work-shy woodsmen, I had just about jumped up from my chair said that I could do her wood, no trouble. She took me up on my offer, neither of us heading the inherent dangers in the enterprise, and consequently, one successful year of wood gathering had already taken place.

So this is why I was now in the plane circling Nîmes. It was making tiresome circle after tiresome circle, gradually getting lower on each five minute circuit. After the third circuit I was no longer charmed to see the Roman Arena drifting by, and was no longer noting that the land looked desperately dry, even in mid-late October.

My mind drifts

I needed to get out, oh goodness I needed air and a bed and to sleep, not this monotonous circling… the drumming vibrations and the sickly hot cabin air that smelt slightly of petrol exhaust were insufferable. At least — and it was a significant “at least” — my earache had now eased off to a dull stereo pain, a joy next to the torture of some minutes before. The muscles in my arms, legs and body were floppy and taut at the same time, a peculiar wishy-washy feeling that ratcheted up a disturbing onset of nausea. That was flu nausea, I knew it well.

Some may wonder why strapping big men were unwilling to cut and harvest firewood from my friend’s Woodland, but I knew full well why and it wasn’t because they had too much work on either. Firstly, since well before her arrival down south and buying the property, my friend’s parcel of woodland had been allowed to grow willy-nilly with no management to speak of except for the maintenance of a few key pathways. Off the pathways the thickets grow dense and dark, with hardly the room to pull the cord on a chainsaw (not that I would use one of those anyway).

Second and more pertinently, the region Bouches du Rhône is frequently assailed by the famous Mistral and violent storms. As a result for years on end now, in her neglected woodland trees of all sizes and states of life or decay had fallen, pell-mell over, across, between and under each other. This has created tangled thickets within tangled thickets and worse.

At last it looked like the plane was lining up to land. The thudding vibrations would soon stop, and I would breath some welcome fresh air. The whole Woodland was, is, a giant Jack Straws game, except that when removing one element, instead of risking the pile of sticks scattering about on a table-top, in this case, cut or move the wrong tree and others around could leap up snappy as a gin-trap and as powerful as a medieval siege ballista. No wonder professionals were loath to go in there. But I had previously managed these tangles of danger rather well.

Here goes…

I followed the slow shuffle to get off the plane – Wham. The air wasn’t fresh, the mid October sun was still viciously heating up the concrete to a decent oven temperature, and more than ever I regretted my woolly jumper between my warm fleece and the duck-hunting jacket. That’s what comes of wearing ridiculous amounts of layers so as to limit luggage to a meagre 10kg cabin bag. A few blobs of sweat trickled down my ribs, I squinted at the ground and made my way to the Arrivals hall and braced myself to negotiate my sick leave.

It was worse than I had expected

I tottered along behind the other passengers into Arrivals, lifted my painful, spinning head – but before needing to seek out my friend there she was! Right up against the barrier, the most eager of the eager press of friends and relatives. Oh dear.

Oh dear indeed, for those glittering eyes, that joyous smile and one of the brightest of her bright blouses announced all the jolly japes she was expecting we’d have over the next two weeks or so… Normally I would have been the same, but as I faced up to her a sick pain sliced through my forehead and stuck there like the blow of an axe. With another couple of ragged breaths I lumbered my cabin bag onto the other shoulder and we exchanged a warm hug and Gallic cheek kisses. I hoarsely muttered the likes of – gosh I’m tired after that flight – but she didn’t take any notice, instead she immediately let off a screed about the forthcoming day’s timetable and by the time we turned from the spot where we’d met, I’d learned we would be going on a demo in Arles that very afternoon. Oh goodness!

At this terrible news I took two extra heavy gasps of breath and lumbered my bag onto the other shoulder. By the time we got to the exit (how arid it looked outside) I had had a full briefing about the pals and comrades who would be there at the manif, how everyone had to bring at least one person along to swell the numbers, how important the cause was, how we both absolutely had to be there, and this and that. I gasped some more.


France is the nation of the demo or La Manif (manifestation). They are expert at it, they will march, chant, sing, will block roads with lorries, tip cauliflowers from tractor trailers in supermarket car park entrances, burn effigies, throw stones at the CRS… and feel terribly smug and righteous come what may, however sincerely worthy or wildly selfish the cause. Still a manif can be fun to witness – unless one is stuck in a car in a motorway traffic jam for hours on end, still kilometres away from the farmers’ road block of burning tires, concrete rubble and festering manure.

This particular demo concerned a proposal for pension reforms for civil servants, and before leaving England I had heard here and there about this reform and the demonstrations that inevitably would follow on. In one report I heard that these manifs would take place in every French town of any consequential size, and a Government cave-in was of course the goal. My how interesting I had thought as I packed my cabin bag before leaving, there it is, the French are at it again. What I hadn’t suspected is that I would find myself ill and roped in on this at the same time.

Not only am I not French and certainly not a fonctionnaire (civil servant), but more bitterly, being freelance and having changed countries my pension prospects were laughable. Besides, no one would ever demonstrate on my behalf nor for other freelance nobodies like me, so what the flying f*ck did I care about molly-coddled fonctionnaires nagging for extra percentages on their already plump pensions subsidised by the general tax payer? Grrr!!!

Thus went my selfish political analysis on hearing the radio reports, as I blithely packed my bags all those hours ago back in England. Now I had no interest in anything except having a long, long rest somewhere dark and comfortable.

One thing at least, the manif that afternoon would be of the tame sort or so I gathered. We would simply be going to the Place de la Mairie to meet my friend’s pals et al, would be listening to a couple of garbled speeches blurted out on a megaphone then ambling through some streets, then going home. Nothing more would be expected of us than to swell numbers, and more specifically and (I guess more pertinently) to be seen by the people my friend wanted to impress. There would be no running from the CRS, no dodging tear gas canisters, no hurling of missiles. But even right now dragging myself across the tarmac to my friend’s car was enough of a trial, ambling through the streets of Arles later that day would be hard work indeed. I had to get out of this.


My being was insubstantial, ready to take off and drift away over the car park like a Chinese lantern, I tottered behind following my friend to her car. Though my body was failing, my mind churned in a panic, I had to think of a plan so I could rest. My first try had utterly failed, but meeting at Arrivals was hardly the ideal place to be heard. Thankfully there wasn’t far to toddle as my friend uses disabled spaces. She uses disabled spaces due to her double hip replacement (nb) and the serious sciatic nerve damage that she suffered in the first operation. She seemed quite bright on her pins that day though, which I suppose was sort of nice.

Indeed, my friend’s near constant pain and weakness around her hips and in her left leg is one of the main reasons why I had keenly volunteered to help her with her wood management. The French call that being une poire (a pear) as in naïve ripe fruit good for the picking.

Once in the relative calm of the car she was still chattering on, but I managed to get a word in (similar to my first unsuccessful plea in the airport) claiming that I was very, very tired from the trip. Apart from this being only a small part of the dreadful truth, I had decided to propose this simple idea first, then hopefully would later promote my condition to a proper illness deserving of bed-rest.

There came silence, and when I glanced at my friend her smile had frozen and she was thinking. I took the opportunity to press my case and added that having travelled all night I hadn’t slept at all and consequently was feeling really ropey and needed a good rest. I thought that sounded good enough to excuse me from doing tiring things — for that day at least.

Her smile thawed and with an mhm, she then announced a modification to the day’s programme. We would return home, have an early lunch because – she supposed – I probably hadn’t eaten, which was true but unlike me, I had no appetite. Then she said I could have a nap (hey, she’d have a nap too), a good hour or so of sleep would see me right. Then we would go into Arles, do the manif, and great fun would be had by all.

I took another couple of painful breaths, I had hoped my friend would have excused me from doing anything that afternoon, surely it would have occurred to any normal empathetic person that I might need to rest after such a trial of a journey — surely? At that suggestion I too went silent. I stared (vision spinning slightly) at the glare of the motorway ahead and muttered again that I was tired, I sensed her glancing at me a couple of times.

I lose

I turned and was surprised to see a mischievous look which made me think of an adolescent boy defying a grownup. I knew then that she didn’t believe me and certainly didn’t want to. I took a breath to say something along the same lines as before, but the air moving in over my sore windpipe provoked a cough which was painful and dry but not dramatic. Unfortunately it sounded completely put on.

She gave a snort and looked at me again, holding my eyes a moment longer than was comfortable (but what was comfortable that day) and with that look of defiance she had drawn a line in the sand, and without any doubt I knew I had gained all the concessions possible.

Her project to go and have fun at the demo was more important than my fatigue. I knew then that if I didn’t do what she wanted, the effort to resist would be unpleasant and costly — and the unpleasantness could go on for the two full weeks or so of my stay. It came down to this: did I want to fight her and a nasty upper respiratory tract illness or just fight a nasty upper respiratory tract illness? There was no contest, the afternoon nap and Paracetamol would just have to do.

The Vanquished

With a profound sigh of relief I slumped back in my cool bed in my cool bedroom where, still fully clothed and hardly having drawn the outer cover over me … I passed out …

There came deliberate and loud door closing and chair scraping noises from downstairs.

I opened my eyes and my head span just looking up at the ceiling.

I gently rose to a sitting position feeling quite ghastly once up there — there was no difference to the ghastliness either horizontal or sitting up … I saw I had slept for under an hour, the “nap” (shorter than I had understood it would be) hadn’t helped in any way at all. I coughed another dry hack as I bent to put on my shoes. My throat was worse and an umpteenth flush of sweat pricked out all over.

The sleep had changed one thing though, having failed to gain any concession except a short hour to “have a nap” I now felt a knot of profound ill feeling towards her, my “Hostess”. But there could be no confrontation, I didn’t have the energy in my present state, and at the best of times I never liked those ding-dong spats at which I suspected my Hostess excelled – and at which I did not.

I tottered carefully downstairs troubled at how wobbly my legs were. My Hostess already had her coat on and was searching in her bag muttering something like “cigarettes”. She gave a further grunt and a glance of acknowledgement as I entered the main room, and then after another rifle in her bag asked chirpily if I was ready, but not how I was feeling. I throatily replied that I was ready, but speaking provoked another dry couplet of pathetic coughs.

Off We Go

With a flourishing swirl (that would have made my hips hurt but then they haven’t been replaced), my Hostess turned and swung her large handbag on her shoulder, jollily tossed up the car keys and led the way outside back to the car. Then as we climbed in, just to show who had Right on her side (and true to her cigarettes), she gave a proper tirade of ghastly bubbling bronchitic hacks that put my painful effort to shame.

The five minutes in the car was a moment of blissful rest, we glided past the antiquities museum then crossed the Rhône, sidled up into Arles by the right and parked at the pharmacy disabled space near the market esplanade.

Despite dodgy hips and sciatic nerves we went at a fair pace up through the narrow streets of Arles, my main problem being to keep up and not to fall over. I am not a person prone to swooning, but that afternoon it was my main preoccupation. The rdv point, Place de la Mairie was large, but not that large. It was large enough though also to be called Place de la République, or perhaps I got that wrong and quite simply my thoughts were deranged.

We sat on the stone bench around the fountain with the obelisk in the middle where my Hostess had agreed to meet her friends. I didn’t care that the stones beneath my ample buttocks were cold, from there I could let my mind drift without concentrating on not keeling over. I put on a misleading smile and looked on. The sparse crowd so far gathered for the march was by no means filling the given space, so I could understand why everyone had been asked to bring a friend. People drifted into the square, then unfortunately some drifted away while some others drifted towards the growing crowd of demonstrators.

The main group of demonstrators comprised at least two unions, the CFDT and the CGT. This I knew as I could see their red flags with the initials on them. There were other flags too, some with hammers and sickles, other with the face of the great Che… This main group gathered in a slowly enlarging bunch, but all the participants were turned inwards, as if crowding round a brazier at a very cold break of dawn before the factory gates… oh, for warm braziers, warm hands, warm buttocks, warm anything. My mind wandered far.


Arles is a beautiful town, known of course because Van Gogh spent time there and painted sunflowers and a self portrait (sans oreille), and above all in my opinion executed some sublime monochrome pen drawings of local landscapes mainly of the Apilles, well they looked inspired by the Apilles to me. But to my eyes it is the Roman ruins of the town that lifts Arles into the exceptional.

Whatever, thanks to sunflowers, the flat, flat Carmargue (forgot that) and the breath-taking Arena, a million tourists visit the city and its environs every year. Thankfully in mid-late October on the day of this demo Arles was largely given back to its residents, and there was the space and calm to enjoy its fabric of buildings of golden stone. But sitting with a cold bottom and feeling very unwell in a myriad of ways, I didn’t give a tinker’s cuss about the superb buildings of gold. Instead, I looked about at the scene, wondering how I was going to get through the immediate future.

The Manif

We were the first of my Hostess’s group to arrive, moreover, we were first by over fifteen minutes, some precious extra time I could have spent lying comatose in bed. V and F arrived within a couple of minutes of each other, I got up carefully for a moment to air-kiss each of them and noticed that neither of them had thought to “bring a friend”. It was nice to see them again, and I hoped they didn’t think I was being rude seeing as my sociable reserves had run dry. Perhaps they did though, as both remarked that I must be tired after the journey, and how courageous I had been to come out that afternoon. My Hostess made no acknowledgement of that at all, which further sharpened my hostility towards her.

At one point I also struggled off my butt to shake hands with the communist Mayor of Arles who was making his rounds of the politically active and correct. He gave me such a warm greeting and was genuinely pleased to meet me, and despite my enfeebled state he made me feel a little better for a moment. A typical politician. As he moved away, obviously delighted to meet all the subsequent people there gathered, the speeches started and my Hostess told me we should get up and gather round and join the crowd waving the banners.

My ears were clogged (or felt it) after the cabin pressure torture and from my condition, but the shrill quack from the loud-hailer was upsettingly painful; especially when there came the odd squeal of distortion – at which many of the gathered (quite rightly) cat-called in good humour. I rocked on my heels and winced at the noise. I really didn’t feel very well.

Starting the march proper didn’t harm nor help, ambling slowly and upright was just as arduous as standing still and upright. We joined in the cavalcade towards its rear, a little way behind the last of the flags and well behind the loud-hailers, but unfortunately many demonstrators including some around us had brought along compressed air klaxons, proper Premier League Referee whistles and rattles and these were sounded all along, all the time.

My worst moment soon came, shortly after the procession left the square and I really started to worry about what was going to happen… was I going to fall over, or was I going to chuck up? Oh gosh it could have gone either way… but unusually I also felt a weird lightness of spirit concerning this, deciding that what would be would be… and that either I would just fall over (there were lots of strong comrades around to pick me up) or I would rush up one of the many nearby charming alleyways and unpack my troubles away from the public gaze – and either way I would have had done with it. But neither eventuality came to pass and I continued to shuffle along with the cortège, and for good measure I smiled even more broadly.

Such courageous sang-froid actually helped and the malaise soon passed. By the time we had moved a street length further on all had stabilised and by the end of the march I felt much better than I had even on leaving my Hostess’s home. The terrible physical distress and waves of dizziness had diminished leaving me very frail, with aches and pains and weakness certainly, but no longer was I about to go into melt-down and fall to the ground. I was almost elated at the change.

My Hostess, unaware of and certainly unconcerned by the viral drama that had unravelled next to her was pleased with her militant afternoon, and even before we reached the manif’s official terminus said we could stop where we were and go home and I was in total agreement.

It was so good to be back in the car out of the rising Mistral and sagging into a comfy seat. I was also considerably relieved at having survived the ordeal, so I was off my guard when, as she buckled her seatbelt, my Hostess told me we would be returning for the manif the next day, and the next, and the next until the Government cave-in. Without thinking I reminded her that I couldn’t collect all the wood she needed if I spent half of every afternoon of my stay shuffling round Arles with klaxons going off in my ears – except I didn’t say that last part.

By the time we were crossing back over the Rhône the heater had started to breath a revival over my cold hands, then as we drove back past the antiquities museum (the surrounding willows swooshing in full Mistral), my Hostess suggested that if I was worried about doing the firewood, I could make a start that very afternoon on our return.

That I believe is being hoist by one’s own petard.

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