The Night They Said I Might Die
Live fast, die young, leave a beautiful corpse.
Well I can’t quite do that anymore, but for a while on Monday night, it looked like I might be about to try.
The backstory is that I am Bipolar – you didn’t think these dark old dirges came out of nowhere did you? – and am prescribed lithium, the ancient cure. Nobody is quite sure what it does, apart from making batteries that catch fire on aircraft. It has a very narrow band of effectiveness. Too little does nothing, too much kills you.
I like to think of it as the Rolls Royce of drugs, and was perversely pleased when the psychiatrist said it was the last thing left to try… I’m a poet dontcha know! I’ve been taking it for five years now, having spent the rest of the century on synthetic medications. Lithium was good, and far from tranquilizing me, it woke me up – like Heineken – it reached the parts other pills couldn’t reach.
I began to paint, write more, and I gave up wondering about the body-bearing strength of all branches and household fixtures. Every couple of months, I go to the Royal Free for a blood test, to make sure my lithium levels are within the correct band, and until now, they have been.
Towards the end of last year, the depression came back. I know when they’re coming – Paul Simon gets it right with the opening line of Sound of Silence. I know when I’m about to go up as well, which is really exciting, although perhaps not for those around me, who know they are about to get roped in to my latest bipolar scheme… have I ever played you my country and western album, my Krays musical, or shown you my etchings?
Lithium doesn’t stop the mood swings, but keeps them within a narrower band. However, the new black dog was much more pronounced than usual, so I sought treatment before it got out of hand. My lithium dose was upped, and I felt a little better.
This would have been fine had I not taken the reckless decision to get healthy. With a gig on the horizon, a dash of vanity, and post-Christmas good intentions, a lethal cocktail was accidentally concocted. I stopped drinking, began eating well, rice and apples mainly, and dragged an exercise bike back from the charity shop. The weight was dropping off, the guitar practice was going well – I even soaked my fingers in surgical spirit every night to toughen them up, and all looked bright for the 24th Feb, The Waiting Room, N19… plug!!!
On Monday afternoon, I waltzed into the blood room at The Royal Free and rolled up my sleeve. I knew what they were going to find – a healthy man, finely tuned, and much younger than his years – Oh yes.
Later, when the phone rang at 7pm I didn’t answer, expecting the usual cold calling enemy of humanity. Also, I was watching Heartbeat on catch up. The message was from The Out of Hours Medical Service. It told me to get back to The Royal Free at once, this was an emergency, and that a doctor was on the way to my flat. If I felt ill, I was to call an ambulance immediately – it looked like I’d failed the test. I believe he also mentioned that my kidneys were about to pack up.
At first, I wondered if this was a joke. Then I thought it was a major inconvenience, as Heartbeat was still on. Slowly, it occurred to me that this was quite serious, and rather more than a courtesy call. I played the message to my girlfriend, Marie, and told her I’d probably be needing one of her kidneys… she agreed at once.
We puzzled over the information, both calm, but she grasped the seriousness of it better than I did. I called 111, and immediately got through to somebody who knew who I was – this was getting bizarre now, like the scene in Harry Potter where letters start coming through the fireplace. The operator called me by my first name, told me to keep calm, and said that a doctor was on the way. She ended the conversation with a hearty ‘Well, good Luck.’
Now, many of my songs are concerned with death. Most of them, in fact. I have been rehearsing them, intending to play them at my forthcoming gig, but I hadn’t expected a practical tutorial from The Grim Reaper himself. I notice my joke about dialysis machines hasn’t gone down well with Marie, she is very quiet, and it occurs to me that she is worried, and possibly even upset. I serenade her with a verse of Dr Death
The doorbell goes… actually it’s a knock, because there’s no batteries in the bell.
A witch is on the doorstep, a beautiful, glamorous witch, all in black, with long glossy hair, and piercing eyes. Marie lets her in and holds the door open for the man with her.
“That’s just my driver, he’s not coming in.”
Whatever’s happened tonight has opened the door to another world. Big Brother most definitely is watching you. These are the Interzone agents of William Burroughs, secret, but always there.
She attaches a clip to my finger, asks me questions, then admits she has no idea why she’s there. She calls the surgery, then looks a bit more serious. My lithium and potassium levels are through the roof, and I have to go to A & E at once. I say that I am sure tomorrow would be fine. Don’t forget, I had to fast for this blood test, so had eaten no more than a bowl of muesli in the past twenty-four hours, which, even with my diet, is pushing it. I tell her I feel fine. Actually I don’t, but hadn’t made the connection yet.
“What’s the worse that could happen… I don’t want to go tonight.“
She tells me that I may well die tonight if I don’t get immediate help. She mentions the dreaded Heart Attack, and I suddenly feel like I’ve got one coming on. She takes my blood pressure. It’s frighteningly high. We discuss any other tell-tale signs of renal failure I may be experiencing. Tremors? I can hardly hold a glass. Rashes? Scratch this for me please. Thirst? Excessive urination? All of the above. Bad temper? Marie answers for me.
So, this fifty two year old monument to athleticism, eternal youth, and poetic beauty, is about to head off to Paradise by way of Golders Green? Disappointing.
My Uber up the big hill is a sombre affair. Through the sodium lit Hampstead streets, Marie and I hold hands – she’s packed my pyjamas. It does seem possible that I am being driven to the place I will die, and that my time is short. Without irony, I tell Marie that I love her, apologise for being an arsehole. I told her how to break it to my mother – straight, nothing spared. To please still go to Venice for her eightieth birthday. To watch out for my daughter and – in a magnanimous gesture, slightly more meaningful if I’d actually had some hits – share my royalties for life.
The bloody cab goes the wrong way, so we get out and I walk to the gallows. I am feeling pretty ill by now.
We get stopped on the door of A & E by the local idiot asking for change. I tell him we don’t have time because I’m having a heart attack. I like this line, it has impact. In the lift down to A & E, I catch my reflection. I am grey. This is where it gets serious.
As we check in, a frightened woman whose husband is arriving by ambulance pleads to go in front of us. We let her. She just needs directions, and doesn’t take long. As we give our details, a man tries to interrupt us for a glass of water.
“No, you can’t, I’m having a heart-attack.”
The entire waiting room is watching now… problem is, I think I am actually having one. I am getting light-headed, and can feel coldness in my chest, like swimming out of shallow water and catching a cold current. I think I’m about to lose consciousness and die. I feel sorry for the aforementioned frightened woman, because she is looking at me now with great concern as I slip down in my chair, and I hope she is not embarrassed for going first. How was she to know?
I am feeling very strange now, is it happening?
I don’t want to die staring at a plastic clock. Then I think of my poem – I’ve already foretold this.
It calms me down, I am where I am meant to be. My ashes will be scattered by the viaduct, the ladies will weep, but not for long…there are some minor instructions, but perhaps not for here. I would require some solemnity at my funeral though, all this wearing bright colours is appalling. ‘In life he was a miserable bastard, in death so shall he remain’.
Poor Marie must be terrified, I want her to hold my hand, but she has to check us in. She’s bloody good in a crisis, it has to be said.
Over the course of the evening, I am seen by three doctors. The first assesses me. I assess him as a fan of rockabilly music, the Labour Party, Arsenal Football Club, Penguin Classics, and John Hegley. The second, who was also the receptionist, due to understaffing, takes my blood, and gives me an ECG. He looks like Richard Hawley, and is also extremely nice. He can’t tell me if I’ve just had a heart attack, but by now, I am beginning to think I’ll be watching Heartbeat tomorrow evening, as usual.
Finally, Dr Number Three, he’s got his hair tied back, and resembles Nijinsky, as Le Faun. He seems like he might break into dance at any moment, and complete this magic night. This guy is so enthusiastic he makes the whole evening worthwhile. Forget Stockholm Syndrome, I’d like to buy this man a drink.
My blood levels are all back where they should be – better in fact, so the health regime has worked, in most respects. My heart attack was almost certainly psychosomatic, caused by being told I was just about to have one. I felt some unusual sensations, while expecting to snuff it… like stage hypnosis.
So, what caused the death level lithium debacle? Giving up booze, that’s what. My previous regime contained some alcohol – I’m not saying how much, but the last time we took the pledge, the Off License went bust. No meat, no alcohol, exercise, a virtuous existence meant that the lithium had no predators, so became super strength, like those powders from South America so popular with people in advertising, when they’re uncut. Not only had I upped the dose, I gave it clear passage. Had I not had the luck to get my blood tested on Monday, the time bomb would almost certainly have exploded within a day – and I wouldn’t be writing anymore of this rubbish.
Marie-Louise and I were at the Royal Free as Valentine’s Day began. Matters of the heart were very much on our minds. Life and death and love. We downed the bottle of tequila we’d been saving when we got in. It seemed like the right thing to do. To life!
Thanks to the 111ers, the incredible A & E doctors of The Royal Free, to Marie-Louise Plum for offering a kidney, and to The NHS.
Also, please come to The Waiting Room, N19 (nicely ironic) on the 24th February, where (if I live that long) I will sing songs of death, and a few about love. Click here for the event page.
The John Moore Bench
The John Moore bench that isn’t me
Whose middle name begins with E
Who must have come here just like me
And seen the things that I can see
On leaden afternoons
This John Moore who isn’t me
Whose middle name begins with E
Whose wooden bench now welcomes me
Did he die at The Royal Free
And is that fate awaiting me?
And was he once a blue-eyed child
A little shy, a little sad
Who never understood the world
And wouldn’t like it if he had?
And did he dream of towering seas
And jagged cliffs, and ancient trees
And did he die at The Royal Free
And is that fate awaiting me? We’ll see
But wrapped against despondent air
Did he gaze without despair
And wait until the evening lights came on?
Then did he stand, then did he leave
Turning from The Royal Free
Knowing that the magic hour had gone?