The only person not to respond to our buzzing is the patient. His neighbours – draped out of various windows like so much washing – are more forthcoming.
‘That won’t do you any good, mate.’
‘He’s not in his flat.’
‘He’s out on the landing.’
‘Top floor, mate.’
‘Can’t miss him.’
‘But you might want to.’
One of them rouses sufficiently to duck back inside and release the door, then drifts back to the window to carry on with the vigil.
We go in.
The block is a multicoloured stack of glass and brick, each floor strangely staggered, so that the whole building has the feel of a drunken experiment in Lego. We walk to the sixth floor up a floating concrete staircase.
Mr Sylvester is leaning with both arms on the balustrade, his lips pursed in an O. In his flat cap, blazer, tie and slacks, he looks like a retired Major taking his ease on the veranda.
He makes as if to touch the rim of his cap with his index finger as we rise up level with him.
‘Hello chaps,’ he puffs. ‘Sorry to trouble you. It’s the old asthma.’
He has a brown inhaler in his hand and as if to illustrate his condition, takes a couple of ineffective toots.
‘Where’s your blue inhaler, Mr Sylvester?’
‘Your blue inhaler? Where’s your Ventolin?’
He looks at Rae.
‘What’s he saying?’
‘He’s asking where your blue inhaler is? Have you got one?’
‘No. I ran out.’
‘Well there’s a problem for a start.’
He stares at us for a moment, then says: ‘I suffer with asthma. It’s my asthma playing up.’
‘Let’s go inside the flat and have a chat.’
He pushes himself away from his perch and we follow him into a boxy flat so stuffed full of craft material it’s like stepping into a giant workbox: a work table whose sewing machine is stacked around with boxes of thread, bags of scrap material, tiny drawers of pins and buttons, and neatly stacked piles of books on sewing, doll making, embroidery; there are shelves and shelves of DVDs – from Pilates for beginners to Advanced Origami – with just enough room for a black cat asleep next to a book on quilt making; fat reference books, collections of craft magazines in gilt pressed binders, the history of furniture; a knitting machine with a pattern half finished, and bags and bags of yarn overflowing underneath; and then to finish the flat off, in a heaped tangle of colour, a balcony crowded to the panes with potted plants, spindly hanging baskets and trays of little green seedlings.
‘Someone’s good with their hands,’ I say.
‘I say someone’s good with their hands. Does a lot of craft.’
‘I don’t know about that. I don’t like to get involved.’
Mr Sylvester sits down in the chair that’s obviously his, a saggy, worn-bare throne with a copy of TV Quick and a half-finished pint mug of orange squash.
‘How’s your breathing?’
‘Terrible. Absolutely terrible.’
But there’s no wheeze, he has no trouble talking, and his complexion is as brown as the chair. The SATS probe reads 98 per cent.
To emphasise his plight he takes another couple of toots on the inhaler.
‘The thing is, Mr Sylvester, as I’m sure you know, there are two types of inhaler. There’s a blue one that you use when you get an acute attack. You can use it as much as you need, and it’s really good in the short term for helping you get your breath. And then there’s a brown one, which is longer-acting – good for building up your lungs over time, but not much good when you’re feeling puffed. So you really need to get yourself a repeat prescription for the blue inhaler, if you’ve run out.’
‘How am I supposed to do that, then?’
‘Do you not go out much, then?’
‘Do you go shopping?’
‘Yes. I get the bus into town.’
‘So you could make an appointment at the doctors and get yourself a repeat scrip, then?’
‘I don’t know about that.’
I give up and start taking some obs.
‘Do you live with someone?’ Rae asks him. ‘Who’s your next of kin?’
‘Next of kin? I share the house with Kathleen, if that’s what you mean. She’s not my wife. I don’t want to rock the boat. We’re happy as we are.’
‘That’s lovely. So – is Kathleen at work?’
‘Yes. She’s at work, yes. She’s a good woman. None better.’
‘Where does she work, then?’
‘I don’t know. I don’t like to pry. None of my business.’
‘Is she due back soon?’
‘That’s why I like Kathleen. She’s punctual.’
‘So when’s she due back, then?’
‘Due back? Three, four hours? I don’t know. I don’t like to ask.’
Then he reaches behind him on the mantelpiece, pulls a blue inhaler out from underneath a stack of paper that I realise is a pile of old ambulance forms, gives it a shake, and puts it in his mouth. But the thing just hisses empty. He gives it a couple more shakes, tries once more, then tosses it into a wastepaper basket.
‘That’s it. That’s the one you should be using!’ I say.
He stares at me, then slowly, without saying a word, raises up the brown again, and takes a couple more squirts of that.