the list

Michael is sitting on the sofa in front of a giant plasma screen, the sound off.
‘I’ve come round this morning to do three things,’ I tell him, putting my bag down. ‘The first is to see how you are, to do your blood pressure, temperature, that kind of thing. The second is to take a little blood if that’s okay. The third is to do an emergency shop. How does that sound?’
He nods and manages an approximate kind of smile. He’s very weak. His alcoholism has been getting the better of him lately, and long periods of vomiting and diarrhoea have left him extremely debilitated. He’s only a couple of years younger than me, but his health problems have taken their toll. He uses a zimmer frame to get about the flat, his hair is thinning and grey, and there’s a fragile, parchment-like quality to his skin.
‘My blood pressure will be low,’ he says, bunching up a sleeve. Even that exhausts him. ‘And good luck finding any blood.’
In the end it’s not too much of a problem. The left arm is hopeless, but the right has a cluster of small bruises where the others have gone in, feeding off the one good vein.
I tap and prod about, eventually driven to inspect the back of his hand.
‘Don’t worry too much,’ he says. ‘I worked in a kitchen and the chef ran me through the arm with a kebab skewer. Hit an artery and everything. That was worse.’
I use a super-fine needle. It draws okay. When the tubes are full I take off the tourniquet and stick a piece of gauze on the wound. Once the labels and the blood form are all written out, I pack everything away and get ready to go.
‘So what do you want for this emergency shop?’ I ask him, taking out a scrap of paper to write a list.
He’s distracted by the TV,  a group of animated, highly-coloured women mutely arguing on a sofa.
‘Hm?’ he says.
‘This shopping I’m doing for you. What do you need?’
He touches the gauze on the back of his hand, paddles his fingers up and down on it for a moment or two.
‘A sliced loaf and a litre of Coke,’ he says at last. ‘Diet Coke. Not Fat Coke.’
‘Is that it? No spread? Cheese, cold meats? Fruit?’ I stop before I say anything else. It wasn’t at all the list I was expecting.
‘Maybe one other thing,’ he says.
‘Okay. Go on.’
‘A bag of sugar.’

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