When I first met Paul he was in his mid-forties, a couple of years older than me. He was almost completely bald, the sparse red hair that he did have stuck out from under his cloth cap at strange angles, he wore an unfashionable red moustache and had thick red sideburns, his forearms were patterned with childish home made tattoos. He was a skinny wreck of a man with watery blue eyes, his flesh had the texture and colour of a dead fish. All year he wore his cloth cap and most days a thick dirty black donkey jacket. He had lived in the village all of his life, the same as his father before him. In the six years that he spent at the village school he failed miserably to master the art of reading and writing - but he could add up and work out his change quicker than any calculator. By the time he was supposed to progress to secondary school Paul had given up and rarely attended classes, he formerly left school at 15 and began working as a labourer in the village. Every job he had ever had had been labouring in the village, although by the time I met him he hadn't worked for a number of years. Every penny he had ever earned was spent on cigarettes, drink or drugs.
Paul would come into the shop every morning and put a half bottle of whiskey and a packet of cheap cigarette's on his tab, he would then give me unsolicited advice on how to stock the shop, what the government ought to do about immigration, complain about the weather, recall some trivial detail about his youth in the village, whine about his poor health and tell a childish unoriginal rude joke. Each conversation would start with a crude "Hello darlin' fancy a bit when the old man isn't lookin?" To my knowledge Pauls last girlfriend had run off at least 25 years beforehand. Just after lunch-time most days his father would wander into the shop and buy another half bottle of whiskey for him. This was the cycle of Pauls life - once a fortnight he came into the Post Office to collect his benefit, he would pay off his tab and buy a half dozen eggs as a treat for his mother, he would cook her scrambled eggs once a fortnight to thank her for putting up with him.
Following some half-baked plan to get the long-term unemployed back to work the Government made it slightly more difficult to claim benefits and it forced the likes of Paul to actually seek employment - he complained long and loud but eventually got a job at the local hospital as a kitchen porter, or "trainee chef" as he told me. I remember the first day he went to work there, well I actually remember him coming home rather than going. He was shaking like a leaf and stopped in the shop for some cigarettes. He didn't go near the off-license and for the first time ever left the without a bottle of whiskey in his hand. As the week progressed he shook more and more, his grey lifeless flesh pumped out sweat but he didn't go near the off-license. By the second week the shaking and sweating had almost stopped and his flesh was beginning to take on a whiter shade of grey. Against all odds he made it through to the end of the third week; he told me he was getting promoted the following week, he wouldn't be surprised if they made him "Up to top chef eventually", they could see he had talent. The next week he was allowed to start preparing the vegetables - as it got nearer the end of the month Paul told me he was going to buy a bike with his first pay cheque, he fancied riding into work each morning instead of the walking the mile and a half. Pay day arrived and Paul didn't come into the shop on his way home; he stopped in the village pub instead. That was the last day Paul ever worked.
Over the next year his health got gradually worse and one day he couldn't make it as far as the shop - his father bought him his supplies from then on. He took to his bed and stayed there for the rest of his life. Sometimes at lunchtime he would telephone to ask if we would reserve a bottle of something for his father to collect, sometimes he would phone to abuse us for not having his favourite brand of whiskey in, sometimes he would just telephone for a chat.
Paul was 47 when his liver finally gave in to all the abuse it had suffered; he died the day after the ambulance took him away from the village. The Great and the Good in the village organised his funeral tea, and speaking in hushed tones they referred to him as "Poor Paul" and boasted how this village "Looked after its own", the same people who had shunned him all his life, and would cross to the other side of the street rather than walk past him, suddenly remembered how he had helped build their duck pond, or put up a long fallen-down fence. All the time he lay dying in his bed only two of them ever visited him.