Jean is waiting for me on the landing.
‘I didn’t call you,’ she says, then turns and walks back into her room, closing the door behind her.
I knock. She doesn’t say anything. When I give it a gentle push, it opens. I peer round the edge.
‘Can I just come in and have a chat?’
‘Suit yourself. But it won’t do no good.’
The foot of the single bed allows just enough room for the door to open; the head of it is pushed into a shabby little alcove with a couple of empty shelves above. The room is a dingy, high-ceilinged affair, painted so many times and so hurriedly you’d have to break the windows to let in some air. The fireplace in the centre of the main wall has been boarded up, but the old mantelpiece is still there. Jean has propped up half a dozen family photos along its length – two kids in school uniform, the same kids a little older hugging each other in Christmas hats, a blurry party photo.
‘My angels,’ she says, rolling a cigarette, scattering tobacco over the carpet as her hands shake. ‘I’d do anything for those kids.’
‘Jean – do you know why I’m here?’
‘There was a call to say you might have taken an overdose tonight. Is that right?’
She shrugs, licks along the fag paper, puts the fag in her mouth and then pats around for a light.
‘What have you taken, Jean?’
‘Look – I’ve been having trouble sleeping. I only moved in yesterday and it’s noisy, okay? So I took a few extra Tramadol. All right? Is that such a crime? I didn’t ask you to come here. I only phoned the doctor ‘cos I wanted to talk to them about stuff. What’s happening with me n’all that. Because I can’t go on like this, that’s for damned sure.’
She cups a lighter in her hands and leans over it; the flame illuminates a wizened face so drawn into itself it’s hard to say if she’s forty or a hundred and two.
‘The thing is, Jean, Tramadol is quite a risky tablet to overdose on. So I’m duty bound to say you should come up to the hospital to get checked out.’
‘What? And sit up there for hours? No way. All I wanted was help with my drinking. That’s it. The hospital won’t be able to do that, will they?’
‘Well, no – that’s really something your GP needs to organise for you.’
‘Right. So what’s the point of going up the hospital? No one cares up there. They just take one look at you and think piss head. They couldn’t give a toss.’
‘I think they do care, Jean. I mean – I won’t pretend they’re not busy. And often when it gets busy and pressured, they don’t have the time to sit down and talk things out in the way they’d like.’
‘They don’t care.’
‘When was the last time you were up at the hospital?’
‘What was that for?’
‘I had a perforated duodenal ulcer. It was bad. I was rushed in for emergency surgery, spent a week on intensive care, six weeks on the ward and then a couple of weeks in that rehabilitation place. The surgeon saved my life. He was amazing. Another couple of hours and I’d have been dead.’
‘So you see – they do care. The surgeon. All those other doctors and nurses. They took care of you then, didn’t they?’
She takes a crackling drag on her cigarette, and then carefully picks a piece of tobacco from the tip of her tongue with the dirty thumb and finger of her other hand. She drops it over the side of the bed and says: ‘Nah mate. Ain’t no-one cares about me.’
‘Come on, Jean. Let’s go down the hospital.’
She shakes her head.
‘What are your daughters called?’
‘Lucy and Janine.’
‘What do you think Lucy and Janine would say if they were standing in this room now? They’d want you to come and get help, wouldn’t they?’
She glances over at the photos on the mantelpiece.
‘They’re my angels, they are. My babies.’
‘So what do you think Lucy and Janine would say if they were here now?’
‘Mate – don’t bother. I’m not going to no hospital.’
‘I can’t force you...’
‘I know you can’t force me.’
‘But if you stay it’s against advice. Look. I need to finish off the paperwork before I go. You don’t have to decide right now. Let’s get a few details down and then talk about it some more.’
‘You can talk about it till you’re blue in the face, I’m not going.’
‘Are these your tablets here?’
I pick up a carrier bag from the rickety little table over by the window. Underneath a greying bra are boxes of medication – anti-depressants, pain relief, sleeping tablets.
‘There’s quite a lot here.’
‘Tell me about it.’
Jean sits cross-legged on the bed, watching me. An aura of tragedy hangs around her head as palpable as the smoke.
‘I had a good job,’ she says. ‘I bet you’re thinking What? Her? But I did. A really good job. D’you wanna see my work pass?’
She puts the fag back in her mouth, hauls herself to her feet, then moves unsteadily over to a decrepit chest of drawers. From the heap of junk on the top of it she untangles a security pass on a lanyard. She tosses it over to me, then leans back against the chest of drawers and folds her arms.
It’s a rushed portrait, functional, slightly blurred, but it’s Jean all right – in a uniform, smiling confidently.
‘That’s me,’ she says. ‘Access all areas. That was a really good job, that was.’
I can’t think of anything particular to say about it, other than to agree it looked pretty responsible. I hand it back.
She weighs it in her hand a moment or two, then shrugs and drops it back amongst the trash. ‘Now can you just go, please? I’m tired and I wanna go to bed.’
‘Are you sure you won’t change your mind?’‘Change my mind?’ she says, opening the door and then going back to sit on the bed. ‘I think it’s a little bit late for that, love. Don’t you?’