A man with a Howard Jacobson novel to read has better things to do than listen to me

I sat on the edge of Mike's bed in the Whittington Hospital on Monday and tried to think of what to say. Mike had been taken in to have a tumour removed from his upper colon and two days after the operation had learnt that everything had gone well and that it was now a question of waiting to see if the cancer might spread elsewhere.

"That's really fantastic," I said, patting his dressing-gown sleeve well above the place where he'd shown me his injection scar. "It must be a huge relief."

Mike agreed it was.

"Now," I said, "you can put all that behind you."

Mike nodded. This was hard going. But somewhere at the edge of consciousness another cliche stirred.

"You know what's happened to you?" I asked, waiting for the dull train of thought to steam round the bend. "You've been given a new lease of life. Lots of people go plodding on quite happily until they get struck down with a heart attack and then it's too late to change their life. But you have the great advantage of a second chance. A chance to re-evaluate."

I could tell from the quick glance that he shot in the direction of the new Howard Jacobson novel on his locker that he might have better things to do with his last evening in hospital that listen to any more of this portentous nonsense.

"All that annoys me," he said, "is that I had to have the operation this week. It meant that I missed Michael Brecker at Ronnie Scott's."

I should have been prepared for this kind of put-down. What I've noticed in recent years as more and more ageing friends report the onset of some debilitating illness is that their one source of consolation is striking a more prosaic note than that adopted by their confidants.

They listen in silence while I stagger through my repertoire of philosophical reassurances and then tell me with obvious delight that the great thing about the imminent amputation of their left leg is that they will never again have to participate in any of Angela's absurd walking tours of the Lake District in search of the real Wordsworth.

More and more I feel like some ancient storyteller with a satchel full of reassuring narratives about the meaning of life which no one cares to hear. My worst setback was with Ken. I knew his doctor had recently told him that he had no more than two years to live and so I'd carefully worked out a long trope about how this would allow him to decide on the real priorities of life.

When he arrived at my flat, I was mildly disturbed to see that he was smiling. After we'd chatted about nothing at all for ten minutes I decided that the time had come for him to face up to his predicament.

"It must be difficult for you to smile," I said.

"Not really," he told me. "Remember the story of the photographer, Diane Arbus, who was once asked why so many of the ugly and grotesque people in her pictures were looking so tranquil. 'Surely,' asked her interviewer, 'you must have asked them to disguise their suffering for the sake of your camera?'

"Remember what Arbus said? She said that the poses were natural. The reason her subjects were smiling was because, unlike the rest of us, they did not go through life dreading a traumatic experience. They knew that the worst thing that could possibly happen to them had already happened."

And with that he gave me a large smile and asked me how much I fancied Chelsea's chances in the coming season.