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September 8th, 2004

I spent seven hours of Saturday night lying on a trolley in the Accident and Emergency department of St Thomas’ Hospital**, listening and, having sneakily opened the curtains of my cubicle, watching a number of strangely compelling little dramas unfold.

There were the Saturday night drunken escapades gone wrong, such as the Sloany girl who had fallen over drunk and smashed her face into a champagne glass. There was an elderly (diabetic?) black woman with her anxious wide-eyed grandchildren. The vile fragrance of her gangrenous foot preceded her like a fanfare and followed her like an echo. There was a pregnant woman in some pain; neither she nor her hippy husband could control their existing child, a horrible ginger brat who caused havoc by running about and constantly screaming ‘I don’t want a baby brother’. I found myself hoping, for the sake of the gene pool, that she wouldn’t get one.

But there was one episode that I found really moving, that I think I will remember. A drunk called Kieran, perhaps about my age, had fallen off his pushbike and sustained some cuts and bruises, none of which were particularly serious. He had been brought in by ambulance, and they had left him on the trolley opposite me to sober up. At some point he had woken up, still drunk, and wandered off and fallen asleep outside one of the operating theatres. I watched him as he walked away, scrawny and hunched and nervous, like a dog that has been beaten too much and fed too little. When he was brought back to A&E I listened as the young houseman, his eyes brilliant with tiredness, treated him and talked to him.

The Houseman asked Kieran if he was an alcoholic. He wouldn’t say that he was, but grudgingly admitted to drinking at least eight cans of lager a night. Throughout their exchange Kieran kept apologising; for being there in the first place, for using up an ambulance even though he wasn’t hurt that badly, for wandering off and making them look for him, for wasting their time when they were so busy. His apologies were quiet and strangely dignified, as was his refusal to say that he was an alcoholic, or to admit that he was homeless. The houseman gradually elicited this information from him, gently but relentlessly. I was struck by his cool professionalism – he was never over-familiar or presumptious, never condescending or patronising.

Eventually the houseman said that he thought that Kieran had some bruising to his head and wanted to keep him in overnight for observation. He clearly didn’t have any bruising, he had a very slight scratch from the bush he had crashed the bike through. But it was very quiet for a Saturday night, and I think the houseman just wanted to give him the opportunity to have a bath, some decent food and a bed for the night. But Kieran kept quietly insisting, ‘I haven’t hurt my head… I shouldn’t even be here now, I’ve only got a few bruises and scratches… what if you need the bed for someone really ill?’ He spoke quietly; he was embarrassed and struggling to maintain some semblance of self–respect, though everything he uttered was underpinned by a crushing sense of his own utter worthlessness.

The houseman finally persuaded him, by saying something like ‘I am in charge here, and it is my professional opinion that you need to remain in overnight for observation. If there is a crisis and we need extra beds, I may review that decision and boot you out’. With his posh Home Counties voice he was being deliberately officious. He managed to make the drunk believe him, managed to let him keep his meagre shred of self-esteem intact, perhaps even boost it a little.

A very quiet dignity met with a very subtle, very English compassion.

*Shakespeare, Merchant of Venice n.b. in Shakepeare's day naughty meant thoroughly wicked and bad
**Three rather dramatic blackouts and the kind of heart-rate I normally only achieve with a monstrous excess of class As, or mortal dread, or getting caught. I told you my heart was broken.

Amavi ergo ero*

This is to minusbat. You will need to read the journal entry he wrote today to see why.

I am watching a quietly spectacular sunset slide away behind the busy London skyline. It is peachflushed and golden and rosy and it fades into a scintillating silver-blue thread on the horizon. I can even watch it as I sit here typing because I can see it reflected in the huge cheap mirror in my lounge, a reflection so warped it looks like water; London turned to Venice as the peach turns to bronze and the blue to violet.

Yesterday I stood out on the balcony with Minusbat and admired the dusk. And he noticed an optical illusion, the way the car headlights reflect briefly in the windows of the apartment blocks and makes the buildings look like they are sparkling. Minusbat often notices things that other people don't, even when he's not really Minusbat, when he's had 72 hours in chemical-induced existential hell.

Yesterday I watched him pottering about this room, using his black cable of doom, some cunning and a Swiss Army pen-knife to work electronic magic that enables my computer to come out of my stereo, and all the other things I don't know how to work properly to come out of it too. I watched and listened to a not-quite-Minusbat, struck by how diminished he seemed even though he was much better than he had been, still mono rather than stereo, faint and a little fuzzy.

But I can conjure, at least while I'm breathing and my brain works, a hundred Minusbats: a teenage one with a harried expression, a puddingbowl haircut and clumsily elegant hands, kind enough to scrub graffitti about me off the walls of his school toilet; an assortment of dancing, drunken, drugfucked minusbats from 15 years and 15 weeks ago; a skinny, hairy recently gothicised Minusbat delighted at the gift of the bat necklace which gave him his nickname; a gleeful and delighted Minusbat-in-love, laughing down the phone the phone and telling me, 'women really do taste of honey when you kiss them. Well, it was probably sherry, because she's been drinking sherry, but it tasted like honey to me'; a dreadlocked Minusbat in mirror shades, pulling up in the rain outside the Barry Island funfair in his open-topped black sports car and greeting me with a deliciously absurd, 'come on Barbie, let's go party!'.

I read what he wrote earlier and watched the sunset and thought how strange it was that when he was cursed with a horrible sense of the fragility of identity and how easily it can fracture and dissolve, I was struck by the stongest, most concrete sense of who he is, at least to me.

Of course when I die, or go mad, or senile all the Minusbats in my head will disappear. Eventually I too will fade or rot into nothing, and in a 100 years or ten years no one will know, still less care, that an ordinary woman stood on the balcony of her ordinary flat and watched the unlikely beauty of a ravishing sunset and thought about her extraordinary friend. What of it? All flesh is grass? There isn't any magic that separates us from the animals. There isn't even any magic which separates us from the rocks and the seawater. All of what we are is merely the patterns formed from the emergent behaviour of a complex mass of chemicals. No more wondrous than patterns stirred up in dead leaves by an autumn wind?

But I am different from the rocks and the seawater. I am different from the dead leaves stirred up by the autumn wind, precisely because I can wonder at the pattern they seem to form, because I can see their beauty. Is that magic? It is to me. But then modern electronics are like voodoo spells to me, so what do I know? I know only this:

We are everything you and I. Remember that. Everything. If only for a moment.

* I loved therefore I was. At least I hope that's what I've written. Please do correct me, classicists, if I am wrong.


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