Jean, the scheme manager, hurries ahead of us down the corridor, stiffly propelling herself forwards from the hip, her shell tracksuit rustling and swishing.
‘Ken’s been on the slide for a few months, ever since his wife died. Drinking and such. He wouldn’t let anyone in. When you saw him – which wasn’t often – he looked thinner and thinner. Wasting away - like a scarecrow. I dropped some shopping off from time to time, but I had to leave it at the door, he wouldn’t let me in. I could tell something wasn’t right so I kept an eye on things. Well – as much as I could. But then he stopped going out completely and I wouldn’t get the whisky like he said. I knew he wasn’t well, so I got the doctor in, but the doctor stuck his head round the door, took one look and refused to go anywhere near him. He said Ken had to detox, and made him an emergency appointment at the Massingham Centre. So I went in to help him get ready – oh my God! I can’t even begin to describe.... I was going to put him in a taxi – although I’m not sure the taxi would’ve taken him, to be honest, the state he’s in. But then he fell over and I couldn’t get him up. The power’s gone from him. And so thin! That’s why I called you. I hope you don’t mind. I’m really sorry.’
The lift door opens. We all get in and Jean presses the button.
‘I hope you’ve got strong stomachs,’ she says.
She folds her hands in front of her, leans in to me, closes her eyes and whispers: ‘Faeces’.
The door to Ken’s flat is standing open.
‘Watch where you put your feet,’ she says.
The first thing that strikes me is the extent of Jean’s courage. No wonder the doctor refused to go in – amongst the scatterings of filthy newspapers, unopened letters, empty bottles, dirty plates and carrier bags of half-eaten, putrefying food, the carpet is liberally smeared with patches of dark matter. The noisomely sweet atmosphere makes you long to throw the windows open, to let in air and light and health, but to get there would mean climbing over an upturned sofa, piles of soiled clothing and Ken himself, stretched out amongst the wreckage.
He looks comfortable, though, in four or five layers of jumper, a West Ham scarf, and a beanie hat pulled down low to the crook of his nose. He has a wild, grey beard, wiry as an Airedale, with eyes just as black and small, but his cheeks are yellowing, sunken, and the fingers he has laced comfortably over his middle are long and skeletal.
‘Hello,’ he says. ‘Sorry about the mess.’
At the hospital, Rae goes to handover and I wait with Ken.
‘She died of anorexia. And there wasn’t a thing I could do about it,’ he says. ‘Wasted away. To nothing. I lost the will after that.’
‘It must’ve been tough.’
‘It was tough. Tougher than me. So – here we are.’
He moves his hands out from underneath the blankets, palms uppermost, right and left, holding them there for a moment like a martyrd saint, dragged out of the wilderness and wrapped in cellular blankets. Even that slight movement disturbs the air around him; it’s difficult not to gag.
‘I’m not sure you’d have made it into a taxi, Ken,’ I say.
He laughs, and his yellow teeth crackle.
‘Maybe not. And anyway, I don’t suppose the cabbie would’ve been too happy with me in the back.’
‘No, probably not.’‘No, definitely not.’ He closes his eyes a moment, then opens one and squints at me. ‘Trust me. I should know,’ he says. ‘I used to be one.’