A young girl with wild hair and black eyes steps out from a graffiti covered wall and waits for us at the entrance to the alley. I ask her who the patient is but she doesn’t answer or react; instead, she turns round on the spot and soundlessly leads us down. It’s a curious place – on the left side, the decaying remains of the backs of shops and restaurants, on the other, a row of sharp new designer lofts, with etched grey lettering on glass, coloured furniture, chrome trim. There are two kitchen workers taking a break by some bins outside one of the doors on the left. One of them pushes his friend forwards: Take him! He’s no good any more. They wrestle and play fight. The girl looks round to make sure I’m still following.
Suddenly she turns in at the foot of a set of concrete stairs and takes us up to an old doorway. She knocks loudly, there’s the sound of something heavy being moved aside, the door opens, the girl carries on. We follow her through a derelict hallway until she stands aside and points to another doorway. Through it is a large room filled with people, a bay window open at one end with an army blanket pinned across it as a curtain. Down in one of the music shops in the street outside, someone tries out a guitar: Seven Nation Army; the notes drifting up against the blanket as thickly as the smoke.
In the middle of the room sleeping bags and clothes have been kicked into a messy pile; on top of it, a brindle staffie pup is rolling around on its back in an ecstasy of stretches and sneezes. There are half a dozen people sitting around the edges of the room on the bare floorboards, smoking, filter-feeding in the swampy fug.
As nicely as I can I ask them if they’d mind stepping outside to smoke. They’re all immediately apologetic. Someone hooks the blanket aside onto a nail that’s been knocked into the plaster for that purpose. The rest stub their fags out on the floor and shuffle past me into the hall. One person remains – a thin, bare-chested man of about thirty, slumped against the wall with a joint in one hand and a can in the other. He looks cartoon-sad, washed-up, like a clown who has just had his make-up and rubber shoes forcibly removed. The dog stops rolling around and hurries over to sit next to him.
‘Are you the patient?’ I say.
‘Yeah. It’s me, mate. I’m the patient. I’m the one you want. Fookin’ yeah. I’ve been shaking more and more. Having fits, like. I’ve been that unwell. Pains all over my body, dizzy, passin’ out. It’s like I’m gonna die, yeah? I’m feeling slightly better now I’ve had a drink, ‘cos I know it’s all to do with that n’ stuff. It’s like - I want to get clean, yeah? I want to go on a detox. Can you help me? Can you get me on the programme, fella? ‘Cos I tell you what – I can’t go on like this. I feel so shit. It’s like – whoa! No way, yeah?’
He grimaces, then slurps from the can.
The dog stares at him, then me, then back to the man, as if it wants to check that we understand each other.
I’ve met Rich before. The last time he was face down outside the Law Courts, a ragged crowd around him then, superintended by a couple of police officers and a security guard from the court.
‘Didn’t you already go on the detox thing, Rich? I thought that was one of the conditions?’
‘It was, yeah. It was. But – see. I did it n’all. And it went really good. But it’s hard, man. It’s so fookin’ hard. I ended up in the old bad ways, you know wha’ I’m saying? But this time I know I’ve got to stick it out, because I can’t carry on feeling like I’m feeling. You know what I mean?’
‘It’s good you made it that far, Rich. I know it must be hard. But as far as getting on another programme, it’s not really something the ambulance can help you with. You need to go back to your GP to get you signed up again.’
‘I know, I know, mate. I didn’t want to them to call but they were just worried about me. They didn’t like to see me going on like this.’
The dog smiles at me, happy about the consultation, then leaps back up onto the pile of clothes to start rolling around again.
‘Waaay!’ shouts Rich, waving his can at the dog. ‘Look at him go! Scribble knows how to have a good time.’