The police car sits like a scandal outside number thirty seven, a tall, doll’s house residence as perfectly turned out as any of its neighbours. There are two policemen and two women on the chequerboard path leading up to the front door, standing as a square four at the end of a line of carefully clipped box. One of the women – a bearish figure in a dark fur jacket against which her face looks like a fresh batch of dough - steps forward.
‘Let me fill you in. Giles is really very unwell. He simply has to go to hospital. I’ve got to go to work tomorrow, I can’t afford not to. He’s an alcoholic. He’s been drinking non-stop for a week. He has ulcers on his legs and they’re infected. He’s desperately sick and not taking any of his medications. He saw the practice nurse three weeks ago and that’s it. The smell’s unbearable. He’s been aggressive to me and I can’t cope. I’ve done my best but I’ve run out of energy. I simply have to go to work tomorrow and there’s no way he can stay here on his own. You have to take him with you.’
‘Okay. Sorry – are you a relative?’
‘My name’s Ferdie. And no, I’m not a relative. Giles is staying here as my guest. He’s been here for three years.’
‘And can I ask – how aggressive has he been?’
One of the policemen tells me that they came in response to Ferdie’s call. The address isn’t tagged. As far as they can make out it was verbal aggression only; no violence, and the patient is calm at the moment.
‘Shall I go up and have a word with Giles then?’
‘Yes. Please. Top of the stairs, straight ahead. Just follow your nose, really.’
We step past them through a lead-lit doorway into what feels like a home improvements show: I can hear the anodyne jazz-funk soundtrack, and the modulated voiceover guiding us through the light and tastefully appointed hallway with its stripped pine floor and rich Persian runners leading the eye naturally into a reception area of comfortable conversational nooks. Here, stylish modern artworks rub up against a modest but intriguing selection of antique ceramics and pierced carvings, all of which lend a touch of opulence to this fantastic reception area, perfect for those vivacious meet-and-greets, as well as a private chill-zone for when the kitchen-diner becomes just too starry and loud.
A wide stairway takes us up onto a landing where there is a note lying on the floor outside a closed door. Scrawled on the back of an envelope: Please let’s not fight about this any more. Leave me to take care of myself. I’m going out later. We’ll talk when I get back. Giles x
I knock on the door.
‘Giles? It’s the ambulance. Can we come in?’
‘Yes of course. Please excuse the mess.’
I push open the door, but it only opens a little way. I look round it.
Giles is sitting on a two-seater sofa beneath the only window in a small, square room. A portable TV is off to his right on a plain wooden bookcase: on, with the volume right down and the colour up high. The door is stuck because the entire left side of the room is piled high with a great heap of discarded stuff – mostly books, DVD cases, clothes – as if the contents of all the drawers and bookcases and wardrobes in the house had been emptied into this room and then pushed up into an unsifted heap by a small bulldozer. Giles only has enough room on the sofa to lie down with his legs crooked up; every other available space is given over to trash. And lying over everything, as palpably as a mist over a swamp, the cloying odour of ulcerated flesh.
‘My name’s Spence,’ I say, as brightly as I can manage. ‘Do you mind if I come in and have a chat, take your blood pressure, that kind of thing? Ferdie’s a bit worried about you.’
‘No. Please do. Look. I know she’s worried about me, but honestly, it’s all in hand. I’m responsible for my own care. I know exactly what I’m doing – sorry if I appear rude, but probably much better than you or anyone. I’ll admit I’ve been a bit careless lately what with one thing and another. But I’m going to get myself cleaned up today and get myself down to the practice nurse tomorrow.’
He has exactly the voice that I imagined for the TV voiceover – blandly modulated, conscious of the appropriate intonations, entirely unconvincing.
‘Well let’s just see where we are now and take it from there,’ I tell him, looking for a reasonably flat surface to put the bag and board down. There’s no room for Rae to come in. She goes back down to talk to Ferdie and the police.
Giles sits neutrally on the sofa, his crazy, peppery black hair sticking out like a chimney sweep’s brush, and his teeth as grey as if he’d been snacking on ash. Both his legs are bandaged from knee to feet in thick swathes of dirty bandages. Rank fluid has seeped through both at the heel and instep, spreading out in flowerings of black and brown. I take his baseline obs, and they all come back fine.
‘That all seems okay, Giles, but it hardly needs me to say that your legs need attention,’ I tell him, folding away my stethoscope. ‘You’re absolutely right – I’m no expert. But these dressings haven’t been changed for awhile and there’s a bad smell in here. You must know you’re at risk of developing an infection – if you haven’t got one already. As soon as one takes hold, it can make you dangerously unwell very quickly. I really must insist that you come with us to hospital.’
‘Well, that’s awfully good of you, and I do very much appreciate you taking the trouble to come out here to see me like this. However, I reiterate. I am responsible for my own treatment. I’ve been a bit slack lately, I’ll admit, but that’s all going to change. I just need some time to myself to get things in hand, then I’ll be fine. I’m seeing the practice nurse tomorrow. So thank you, but I will not be travelling with you to hospital today.’
‘Okay, Giles. But if you won’t do it for me, will you come with us for Ferdie’s sake? She’s very upset about things at the moment. She’s worried about you and she wants to know you’re okay. Won’t you come with us to hospital just to set her mind at rest?’
‘Sorry but no. I’ll square things with Ferdie, don’t worry. That’s all I have to say.’
I leave the room and rejoin Rae and Ferdie downstairs.
‘There’s been a development,’ says Rae. Ferdie hooks some loose strands of hair behind her ear, closes her eyes as if she’s disclosing a grave confidence, tells me Giles has been stealing from her.
‘Somehow he got the pin number for my credit card and maxed it out. Cash from my purse, too. I know it’s his addiction to alcohol fuelling all this, but I just feel like I’ve reached the end of my tether.’
We try to persuade Ferdie to make a formal accusation of theft to the police so they can arrest Giles. ‘At least that way we can start to get him the help he needs. It’s more than just his legs, Ferdie, even though they need the most urgent care. He needs a thorough-going health assessment, for his drinking, his mental health. His living conditions up there aren’t good.’
‘I know,’ she sighs. ‘But I just couldn’t bear to do that to him. I couldn’t bear to have him arrested, to think of him lying in some cell somewhere.’
‘But as things stand, we can’t simply frogmarch him out of the house and into hospital, Ferdie. That would take a Section order, and I’m not sure he’s quite there yet.’
‘So do you want the police to arrest him for stealing from you?’
‘No. I couldn’t.’
‘Well then. He’s refused to come to hospital, so all we can do is report what we’ve found to our Control. But if anything changes, call us again.’
‘Thank you so much for coming.’ She shakes our hands, and the blue enamelled bracelets jangle round her wrist.
The second woman steps forward to shake our hands, too. Her sister? Neighbour? Whoever she is, she seems relaxed, radiantly content, beautifully framed as she is by the tapestry hanging behind her on the wall, a flock of doves on a pale winter oak.