hats off

Paul’s flat is an extemporary landscape. Hundreds of empty whisky bottles on the floor, standing up or lying down, a sea of glass around the lifeboat of the sofa; volcanoes of cigarette butts rising from dinner plate islands; a tangled undergrowth of pepperoni packets; squadrons of flies cutting patterns through the air or crawling enthusiastically over everything. And overlooking the dismal scene, glaring like a vengeful god from the top of a filing cabinet, Johnny Rotten’s autobiography: Anger is an Energy.

‘How are you today, Paul?’
He tugs his beard, shrugs.
‘I’m okay,’ he says. ‘More or less.’

It’s a strange feeling, standing amongst the crap, nowhere to put my bag or set up my kit to take blood. So I just stand there a while, and we chat.

‘I’m not going to hospital,’ he says.
‘It’s entirely your decision. So long as you understand the risks.’
‘They keep on about potassium, calcium, magnesium…’
‘They’re all really important minerals, Paul. If you’re low it puts you at risk of serious heart problems. Even cardiac arrest.’
‘Yes,’ he says. ‘They’ve said that. But why?’
‘It’s complicated. I’m not even sure. But it’s something to do with the electrical conductivity of the heart. If your levels are screwed your heart can develop arrhythmias and stop working altogether. So…’
‘But why?’
‘I just don’t know enough about it. You’d need to speak to a cardiologist. Or Google it.’
‘Google it! The paramedics said that! Google it! That’s all everybody does these days.’
‘I know! It’s pretty handy, though. You gotta admit.’
‘Hmm,’ he says, stroking his beard in that classic beard-stroking way thoughtful men have, massaging the pointy end of it with a pulsing motion of his hand like an octopus swimming backwards.

I have to admit, his hair and beard are pretty amazing. He’s so unwashed, they’ve set into a wavy pattern like it’s carved from wood, the hair on his head progressing backwards in defined steps, the beard the other way as a counterbalance.

‘I drink,’ he says, releasing the beard long enough to make a grand gesture at the ruin of the room. ‘It’s an addiction.’
‘I can see that. I know it’s difficult, Paul, but there is help out there. You know – medication, therapy.’
‘Yes,’ he says, back on the beard. ‘Yes, I understand.’

There’s a blue metal chair in the dark of the galley kitchen. I wade through the bottles, tip it clear, wade back and plant my things on it.
‘Shall I take that blood, then?’
‘Be my guest!’ he says, rolling up his sleeve.

We chat whilst I work.
‘The doctor that came the other day? She said she thought I was more intelligent than she was. I said that may well be, but I don’t see what that has to do with the problem at hand.’
‘She was probably thinking about mental capacity. Whether you understood the risks you were running saying no to hospital.’
‘I’m not saying no to hospital as a general principle. I’m merely advancing the idea that it may not be the answer to my particular question.’
‘That’s fair enough, then. But your recent blood results are pretty poor.’
‘I’ve signed the forms,’ he says. ‘All done?’
‘Yep! All done.’
‘Thank you.’
I tape him up.
‘Have you got a cat?’ I say, noticing a flyblown bowl over by the window.
‘Somewhere,’ he says. ‘She’s shy. I’ve also got a collection of hats. How many hats do you think I have?’
‘Ten.’
‘Ten? That’s not a collection. That’s not even a weekend.’
I can’t imagine him wearing a hat. Maybe a stovepipe. Or a beehive beanie. Nothing else would fit.
‘One hundred!’ he says. ‘One hundred hats!’
And I can’t help looking round.
Where?’

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