laurie Taylor by the bed by Martin RowsonMiles Davis,” I say quietly. There’s no response. I try again. “Miles Davis.” Nothing. I try again. “John Coltrane.” Still nothing.

“Miles Davis,” I say quietly. There’s no response. I try again. “Miles Davis.” Nothing. I try again. “John Coltrane.” Still nothing.

Perhaps I’m speaking too quickly. I try again. “M-i-l-e-s D-a-v-i-s. J-o-h-n C-o-l-t-r-a-n-e.” Again there’s no reaction. Perhaps I’m too quiet. Too inhibited by the setting. I try again. “MILES DAVIS. JOHN COLTRANE.” Still nothing.

I’m beginning to make something of a spectacle of myself. One of the two nurses sitting behind the long desk in the Stroke Ward of London’s Royal Free Hospital is already glancing in my direction. I can understand her concern. Even though there are other visitors in the ward, most are sitting silently or very quietly at the bedside of friends and relatives whose power of speech has been distorted or stolen by a momentary failure of blood to reach the brain.

That’s the current fate of my close friend Stan Cohen. He suffered a life-threatening brain-stem stroke a few days ago while he was already in the hospital being treated for a relatively minor infection. Since then he hasn’t opened his eyes or uttered a coherent sound or shown any real sign of understanding anything said to him by nurses or visitors.

But the doctors are not too fatalistic. They say that we’ll all have to wait patiently to see how many of his physical and mental faculties have been impaired and how many can be remedied by the specialist therapists. Meanwhile we should all do our best to bring him out of his coma.

I try another tack. “Saul Bellow,” I say quietly. “Philip Roth. John Updike.” In the good old days I would spend hours with Stan not just chatting about our favourite authors but actually reading aloud whole passages and roaring with laughter. “How about that bit in Humboldt’s Gift when someone says, ‘Look, Charlie, I don’t want to interfere in your marriage but I can’t help but notice that you’ve stopped breathing’? Yes. Yes. ‘Or how about that bit in Sabbath’s Theatre when Mickey Sabbath visits Drenka’s grave?’”

Once more with volume. “SAUL BELLOW. PHILIP ROTH. JOHN UPDIKE.” It’s ridiculous. Here lying in front of me is someone who possesses one of the most subtle minds I’ve ever known and here I am shouting names at him as though I was trying to attract the attention of a recalcitrant mongrel. Here, Fido.

A memory of a long-ago night out in Paris comes back, a night in which as a teenager I’d gone out on the town with a young national serviceman. We ended up in a bar on the Left Bank sitting next to two young beautiful women. But neither of us had enough French to mount even the most primitive form of conversation. My mate became more and more frustrated. Eventually he looked beseechingly at the girls. “Why,” he said ever so sadly, “why the fuck can’t you speak English?”

Another close friend has arrived on the other side of Stan’s bed. “Any news?” she says. “There was a slight flicker of the eyelids,” I say. “I couldn’t swear to it but I thought I just glimpsed the colour of his eyes. And the nurse who was here when I came said that he’d given her hand a slight squeeze when she asked him to. But I’ve held his hand and got nothing. And he doesn’t respond to the names of his favourite people.”

“Have you tried Jewish jokes?” she says. It’s a brilliant suggestion. Somehow the seriousness of the setting has allowed me to forget that Stan not only loves Jewish jokes but also acts as a sort of Internet hub for others who think they might have found a new one.

“Stan,” I say, taking his limp hand in mine. “How can you tell a Jewish princess is a nymphomaniac?” No response. I try again. Just a little louder. This is not one that’s likely to go down well with the nurses. “How can you tell a Jewish princess is a nymphomaniac?” I bend nearer to him to deliver the punch line. “She’ll have sex on the same day she has her hair done.”

As I leave the bedside and travel down to reception in one of those vast hospital lifts with their customary complement of sad relatives, chattering nurses and grey-faced patients gripping crumpled packs of cigarettes, I console myself with the memory of the slight change in Stan’s demeanour that occurred as I delivered that punch line. There was, I am certain of it, a slight, ever so slight, creasing of the laugh lines on his face. It was not so much a laugh as a memory of a laugh.

Still, better than nothing, I think, climbing the hill to my bus stop. Oh yes, better than nothing, I think, rubbing a daft tear from the corner of my eye.