Each floor of the block has an open balcony running the length of the building; here and there a porch light cuts the general gloom, but mostly the place is as warm and inviting as a gun emplacement. Up on the top floor I can see the figure of a man standing in silhouette, smoking, leaning over the parapet, watching as we lock the ambulance and walk across the grass to the front entrance.
Our patient answers immediately; was he waiting by the door?
‘Come on up. Second landing.’
We find Harry standing in the middle of the sitting room in his coat and slippers, a hospital property carrier bag of medication and night things in his hand.
‘Shall we be off, then?’ he says.
‘Hang on a minute. Let’s just get some idea of the problem first.’
He goes over to the armchair that dominates the room, a worn corduroy throne facing the TV, a spindly Ercol table by the side of it with a glass of milk, a TV guide, a pen and a remote control. He sits on the edge of the seat, and begins nervously turning his wedding ring round and round.
‘I’m not well,’ he says. ‘I can’t stay here tonight. Not like this.’
‘We were told in our notes that you discharged yourself from a respite centre this morning.’
‘Why was that?’
‘It was too noisy. I couldn’t get any sleep.’
‘Why were you at the respite centre in the first place?’
‘I’d been in hospital for a couple of weeks with a chest infection.’
‘And how is that now?’
‘Bad. Very bad.’
As if to illustrate, he purses his lips and puffs out his cheeks slightly with each breath.
‘Do you have any pain anywhere?’
‘Where’s the pain?’
‘All over. I’ve got pain all over my body.’
‘Any new pain?’
‘No. I’ve had it for years. But it’s bad. Very bad.’
The room has a reduced feel to it, like someone had decided to dress a set with the smallest number of clues to the occupant’s life: a framed military badge, a boomerang, a toy steam train on a specially constructed shelf, and taking up half of the sofa that faces the armchair, a giant chocolate-coloured teddy bear.
‘Do you live here alone?’
‘My wife’s in a special home. Dementia.’
‘Sorry to hear it.’
‘I’m trying to get there myself. You couldn’t take me, could you?’
‘I don’t think it’s going to happen tonight, Harry.’
Frank places an oriental style pouffe by the side of Harry’s chair and runs through the usual observations. Harry offers out his arm with the compliance of the habitual patient. Everything seems fine.
‘So. We need to figure out what’s the best course of action, Harry. Especially given the late hour.’
‘Hospital then, is it?’
‘Not necessarily. Do you have carers coming in to help?’
‘Four times a day. But they’re no good. You see – the thing is – I just can’t sleep. I’ve tried and tried but I just can’t get off.’
‘If that’s the only problem, Harry, maybe we could think of something better and more comfortable than simply dragging you off to hospital. Maybe we could get the out of hours doctor to prescribe you something to help.’
‘I’d rather go to hospital.’
‘It’s highly unlikely they’ll do anything for you. You’ll be monitored on a trolley for a few hours, then sent back home. In the early hours. Freezing cold.’
‘At least I could get some sleep.’
‘It’s even noisier at the hospital, though, Harry. All those bright lights. All that – commotion.’
‘I’d rather go, thanks.’
I put the clipboard on the floor and settle back on the sofa.
Harry stares across at me.
I reach out and scratch the teddy behind the ears.
‘I like your bear, Harry.’
‘Do you? My wife bought it. Two of them, actually. A matching pair. She’s got the other one.’
From outside the flat, the sound of shrieking, a car door slamming.
Harry reaches down, picks up the carrier bag of stuff and stands up.
‘Shall we be going then?’ he says.