Ruth doesn’t answer the buzzer, but it’s so early in the morning the tradesman button works and we let ourselves in. Her flat is up on the first floor, a complicated and bizarre route up half-stairways to mezzanines, the numbers running randomly through the block, but we’ve been here so many times we don’t need to think about it overmuch.
Her door isn’t locked. I knock and gently push it open.
She’s standing securely planted in the middle of the room, crutches in either hand and a fag in her mouth. ‘What the fuck do you want?’ she says, then shrugs off the crutches, tosses them into a corner, and throws herself just as carelessly into an armchair.
‘It’s my birthday today,’ she says. ‘Happy fucking birthday.’
For some reason I’m immune to Ruth. Control always send extensive notes about Ruth – block caps in red, warning about her abusive, threatening, sometimes violent behaviour – but for some reason it always passes me by. It’s just one of those things, a bizarre and particular immunity, like a bee keeper who can draw out a comb of honey covered in bees and not get stung. Added to which, I’m so exhausted I could probably wear the bee swarm as a beard and still go home whistling.
‘How are you, Ruth?’
‘How am I? Brilliant, mate. Just brilliant. How the fuck do you think I am? Suicidal. I want to die. It’s my birthday today and that’s what I want. Death. Thank you. Happy fucking birthday.’
‘I’m sorry to hear that.’
Ruth is a middle-aged woman who could pass for elderly. Her hair is ash-grey, the skin of her face pouchy and slack, cruelly undermined by years of smoke and the loss of all her teeth. It feels like the vital sap of her has turned tarry by long years of struggle with mental health problems, alcohol abuse, social and domestic troubles. She’s alone in this flat, but it feels crowded.
‘I’ll see you in heaven, Mum,’ she says to the photo of an elderly couple pressing their heads together and smiling in a silver frame with a diamante butterfly in the corner. ‘You too, pops.’ Then she looks up at me. ‘You think I’m crazy, talking to my mum and dad like that, don’t you? You’re thinking Crazy Bitch.’
‘No. Not at all. I think it’s nice you still talk to them like that.’
‘Yeah? Nice? You think that’s nice?’
‘Yes. I do think that’s nice.’
I could lie down and nap on that word nice.
‘Keeping you up?’ she says.
‘I’m really tired,’ I tell her. ‘But the shift’s almost done. Anyway – how are things? We’ve been sent by the crisis team. They’re worried about you?’
‘Are they? Are they really?’
‘Yep. They want you to come in for a chat.’
‘I’m finishing my fag first.’
She takes a long, contemplative drag, then watches the smoke as it streams out into the room.
‘It’s my birthday today,’ she says.
‘Happy Birthday, Ruth.’
‘I’ll just finish this and I’ll be out.’
On the vehicle Ruth rubs her arm. She’s scored it lightly with a piece of broken glass, but not so it’s bled over-much.
‘That’ll be sore,’ she says. ‘I shouldn’t have done that. You haven’t asked me where the glass is. Aren’t you worried?’
‘Have you still got it on you?’
The ambulance jolts from side to side.
‘Fucking hell,’ says Ruth. ‘If you weren’t sick before you got on you would be now.’
‘Ruth – have you got a CPN?’
‘Yes I have, fucking bitch. Gone on holiday.’
‘Oh? Well everyone needs a holiday sometimes, don’t you think? I know I do.’
‘What about me? When do I get a holiday?’
‘Can’t you sort one out?’
‘My fucking sister’s going on holiday next month. She hasn’t fucking invited me, the bitch.’
‘Maybe this is something you could talk to your CPN about when she gets back?’
‘She’s a social worker. Not a fucking travel agent.’
The ambulance pitches from side to side.
‘Jesus Christ. I can’t take much more of this.’
She grimaces, rubs her arm, looks at me.
‘And it’s my fucking birthday today, you know?’ she says.
‘Happy Birthday, Ruth.’‘Whatever.’