7 JULY 2007, Page 41

Down and out

Jeremy Clarke T open my eyes. It's morning. I'm lying 1 on a sofa in a sitting-room I don't recognise. This'll have to stop. Apart from anything else, it's getting boring. I'm reflecting on this when Tom charges in. 'Jerry!' he says urgently. 'Does my face look different?' It does. Even from several feet away it looks radically altered. His thin, strong, angular face, with the fourtimes broken nose as the centrepiece, has been replaced overnight with a fatter, more fleshy, almost circular one.

He kneels by my sickbed and shows it in profile. 'Jerry, my lower jaw's receded by about half an inch as well,' he says. It has. His normally thrusting chin is this morning weak and indecisive. 'And my bite's different,' he says, opening and closing his mouth with difficulty and some pain.

I drive him over to the casualty department of the local cottage hospital. The nurse falls backwards with surprise and pleasure when she sees it's Tom again. She looks up the word 'swelling' in the medical dictionary then tentatively manipulates Tom's jaw. Tom leaps up and staggers backwards as if he's been shot by a Taser gun. She gives him a note in a brown envelope to take to the X-ray department of the county hospital.

We drive there and I stay around for the verdict. I'm paralysed and content to do nothing except sit and wait with him in the bustling A&E department swigging Lilt, observing the nurses, and trying to piece together the events of the night before. In the cold light of day our reminiscences seem almost incredible. I remind him, for example, about his trying to hit the landlord over the head with a chair, a free shot almost, and missing completely. (On hearing this, Tom is convulsed alternately by hilarity and excruciating pain.) He reminds me about our standing outside the pub afterwards and seeing a harmless old drunk come sailing out through the window backwards and horizontally, glass flying everywhere, like a human cannonball. I remind him of the comedian in the crowd, who said in his best Bruce Forsyth voice, 'Let's have a look at the old scoreboard!' as the drunk hit the ground. I really cannot believe, I say to Tom, that I ended up in that state and in that kind of a place.

The X-ray shows that Tom's jaw is broken at the hinge on both sides. The nurse holds the photograph against a lightbox and the fractures are clear as day. If they can find a bed they'll operate right away, she says. But Tom's had his jaw held together with metal plates (two plates, 16 screws) once before. And he knows in advance that metal plates also means having his jaws wired together for six weeks and a correspondingly limited social life.

Also, he's wearing stolen knickers. He opens his flies and shows me a row of tiny red ribbons, a pink background, a pink cherub with horns, and, pulling his trousers wider apart, the words 'I'm no Angel'. His girlfriend's best friend's. He needs to get home to wash and change, he says, and then he badly needs to get a drink. They can wire up his jaws tomorrow if they want — not now.

A beautiful, slender, elegant Asian doctor with a clipboard pulls up a chair. Tom's mood lightens considerably. She asks him how the injury was sustained. He was punched probably, he thinks. And can he remember on which part of his jaw the blow landed? He can't. Any other injuries? Yes — two broken ribs. From the same incident? No, from the week before. Sustained how? He and a friend were taking it in turns to see who could take the hardest punch in the ribs. Any other injuries? Yes — a sprained left ankle. Sustained how? He jumped through a window at the back of a theatre on to a stage, he says, and landed on one of the performers. It was a charity event. Age? Twentynine. The obvious remark hangs unspoken in the air between us.

She puts on plastic gloves and gently puts two fingers into his mouth. Then with the other hand she carefully inserts two more and prises his lips apart. His eyes roll back, his head lolls sideways and he's on the floor. Out cold. The nurse summons a trolley and I help load him on. We lay him on his back, prop his head with a pillow, and I cross his arms on his chest as if he's dead. 'My mate Tom,' I say to the nurse. 'Make the most of it, if I were you, because it's the first time he's been on his trolley, rather than off it, for a very long time.'