Health: David Beresford's diary

It is a strange thought, I'm thinking, pecking away at the keyboard. You will be looking at these words as a surgeon is drilling into my skull and beginning the long slow trek into my brain. Into my mind ? I ask myself, gazing out of the hospital window in the old French town of Grenoble. The window on the second floor of the university hospital frames the Massif du Vercors in the lower Alps. Birds call in the tree-tops outside. Inside, a woman wails next door, at times with impatience, at other times with hopelessness. "Mama, mama," she cries day and night. One must be charitable towards the mother for her desertion. The daughter is in her 90s, seemingly lost to time in the thickets of senility.

The neurological wards are distinguishable from others, apart from the cries for mother, by the fact that the windows are all locked shut. "In case of suicide," the staff explain kindly. I try to explain that I'm from Africa and likely to be reduced to a suicidal frame of mind by a lack of fresh air, but it does not help.

Eventually my roommate, who looks like the French actor Michel Piccoli, but has been introduced as a Marseilles fisherman, helps me force the locks with a nail file. We stand triumphantly in the fresh air. A cleaner wanders in. At the sight of the violated window she pirouettes in her canvas shoes towards the door and carefully closes it behind her before running, squawking down the passage. We glance at each other. Nobody comes.

We begin to gabble in mutual incomprehension, my French having proved less endurable than the memory of the clubs of boredom and canes of reprimand with which they had attempted to bludgeon the language into me, in the bushveld some 40 years before. I think I have understood enough to establish that my room-mate is a successful fisherman, owning either a large boat boasting two propellers, or two boats of a more moderate size with a largish propeller each. I've made several sallies on the subject of fish-stocks, whaling and the iniquitous malpractice of Spanish trawlers in the south Atlantic when my companion, who is Dutch and multi-lingual, arrives with our son who is a linguistics scholar. My new-found fisherman friend is transformed on the moment into a Marseilles magistrate with a boat run for fun and in the enjoyment of fresh air.

The window changes when I'm handed over to the neuro-surgery department in a neighbouring block. It is still locked shut, but frames the mountains of Belledonne in which the resistance fighter, Jean Moulin, and the Klaus Barbie, the Gestapo chief of Lyon - who eventually captured and tortured him - used to hunt one another.

This time my room-mate is a truck driver of 34, who underwent surgery three years ago for a tumour on the brain, which proved untreatable. The next two operations were emergencies, when he developed brain infections. All three operations took place on August 25. "I don't believe in coincidences," says the mother. My French is too limited to ask what she does believe in.

From her smile of greeting, quite a lot. The son's air is one of preoccupation, but the smile when it does come promises to haunt me. I have to face three operations: one, an hour and a half under general anaesthetic, to insert the bolts in my skull, then the 12-plus hours with drill and electronic probes, bolted down without anaesthetic, in search of the malfunctioning part of the brain. Finally there will be the connecting up of the planted electrodes and the implantation of the pacemaker.

"It will be the longest day of your life," predicted the neurologist of the main day. The longest day? I play with the conversational gambit. What would it have been before - the Gulf war? I smile to myself: captured three times in 48 hours by the allies - the world's first virtual reality war; they should have played it in a penny arcade. Waiting for Mandela? Perhaps, except it was the old man who was kept waiting, by Winnie.

I remember the story told of a famous war photographer in Vietnam who was blown up by a mine. Presumed dead he was tossed with his camera into the back of a truck by troops he was accompanying. He recovered consciousness to find himself in a pile of corpses. He managed to grab his camera and, raising himself to one elbow, started photographing them.

And so, in a window on the fifth floor of the University hospital in Grenoble, I can be seen hunched over my keyboard, waiting for the signal that it is time to go home.

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