There are several reasons why we decide to go down the crumbling basement steps and not wait for the police. The first is that we’ve been out to Robert, the guy who lives here, several times before, and although each time there has been a different derelict amongst the cans and ashtrays, the atmosphere has never felt dangerous. The second reason is that even though this particular call is given as an assault, the follow-up message assures us that the assailant has left the scene; there is an implicit understanding that although the police are aware of the situation, it won’t be high on their list of responses, so we’d be waiting a long time for them to show. The third and deciding reason is that we are due to finish our shift in thirty odd minutes, and if he needs to go into hospital it’s going to have to be now.
Robert answers the door. I’m only ever used to seeing him in bed – he never travels to hospital - and I’m surprised by how tall he is. He looms above me, stinking on a cigarette, the lower half of his head hinging backwards in a welcoming smile like a garbage crusher.
‘Someone’s attacked Ralph,’ he says, and leading us along the crudely painted red hallway and into his bedroom.
Ralph is slumped in a ruined wicker chair by the window. He looks like a rock star waiting in a hotel to be interviewed, except the interview is delayed, and he’s sat there five years whilst the room, his clothes, his face decayed.
‘What’s happened, Ralph?’
Robert goes to light another cigarette and I ask him not to.
‘Oh. Sorry,’ he gapes, then adds ‘We’ve known each other since we were babies.’
Rae is hugging the clipboard to her and smiling professionally. ‘Ralph. Sorry. Go on.’
‘I’ve been attacked,’ he says, and rubs the side of his face by illustration. There is a small splash of blood just above his left eyebrow, but when we look at it we decide it doesn’t need gluing.
‘Were you knocked out at all?’ she asks him.
‘Yep. Clean out,’ he says. Then with more animation: ‘He grabbed me and pushed me back against the wall, man. I don’t deserve that. No-one deserves that.’ He looks across at Robert, who is lying back on the bed, propped up on his elbows, staring at me. He carries on. ‘He grabbed me by the hair. He tore loads out. I put it on the table.’
There is a great clump of hair beside a two litre bottle of cider.
‘That’s awful,’ Rae says, then ‘Ralph – you really need to come with us to hospital. If you were knocked out it means you’ve had a significant head injury and need to be seen.’ Ralph says nothing, so she makes things clearer. ‘Ralph? Do you want to go to hospital?’
He blows his cheeks out like a bored child. ‘Do I have to?’
‘No. You don’t have to. But we think you should come with us. That’s what we’re advising you to do.’
‘I don’t want to come, though,’ he says.
Robert snaps out of his reverie and chips in: ‘I called the ambulance. I was very worried.’
‘So who was the guy who attacked you?’, I ask Ralph.
‘Some idiot who’s been coming round here sponging off Bobby.’ Robert smiles at this and raises his eyebrows at me. Ralph rubs the side of his face. ‘He’s been round here a lot lately “Can I have something to drink, Rob? Can I have something to smoke, Rob?” Then today, when I answer the door, he pushes his way in and starts having a go. He calls Bobby a doo-dah. Then he calls me a doo-dah. Then when I say to him “You can’t call me a doo-dah” he says “Do you fight?” and I say “What do you mean, do I fight? No! I do not fight.” Then he grabs me by the hair, holds me against the wall, whacks me, then runs out.’
‘Ralph – this is really a police matter. You should come into hospital, but if you refuse to come in that’s your decision. Other than that, speak to the police.’
‘Yeah. I think I will,’ he says, but we all know he won’t.
‘Is that it?’ says Robert, flailing up from the bed.
We follow him out. We pass two pictures on the darkly stained wall –a family of geese feeding by a beautiful river, and Christopher Robin dragging Pooh bear backwards down the stairs.