We ring Keith’s bell, but it’s Kathy his neighbour who comes to the door.
‘I saw the truck’ she says. ‘He’s asleep. I’ve got the paperwork.’
Kathy stands aside and lets us in to the apartment lobby, a cool, high-ceilinged, ornately-plastered affair, one of those Georgian town houses converted into flats sometime in the fifties and hanging on ever since.
‘Is the social worker here?’
‘The social worker? No.’
‘He needs to be. It’s a Section Two. I’m guessing Keith doesn’t want to go in.’
‘No. He’ll fight.’
‘So we need the social worker. Maybe the police.’
Kathy hesitates. She has the lank, slightly doughy look of someone who’s been coping for a while in the face of things. She’s involved, has routines.
‘I’ll find out where the social worker is,’ I tell her, reaching for my radio.
The social worker is a tall, ascetic man in a woollen waistcoat and shabby/smart two-piece suit. He reminds me of James Cromwell in L A Confidential, a man made thin by years of unpleasant but necessary administrative control. He works his chewing gum quickly and methodically, with his front teeth, mostly.
‘He’s very weak, poor fella,’ he says. ‘Taken to his bed these past weeks, refusing all help. His problems are all down to the drink. He’s a chronic alcoholic with everything you might expect, and now it’s tipped over into depression and self-neglect. He’s got to go in, guys. He’ll not see the weekend at this rate.’
‘Will we need the police?’
The social worker stops chewing for a second.
‘The police? No, I don’t think so. See for yourself. He doesn’t want to go, but he’s so weak you could tuck him under your arm.’
Kathy is waiting for us in the hallway again. She has a Crawford’s biscuit box full of meds, the complex regime shakily written out on a stack of recycled envelopes.
‘I’ll show you in.’
Keith’s flat is surprisingly well looked-after, but I’m guessing Kathy has taken care of that.
Keith is lying on his back in bed with the covers pulled up to his chin.
‘Hello Keith,’ says the social worker. ‘We’ve come to take you to hospital.’
‘I want a drink first.’
Kathy has already prepared it. Vodka in a bottle of Lucozade, with a straw. She bends the straw and holds the bottle so he doesn’t have to turn his head, or lift it.
‘And a cigarette,’ he says.
She taps one out of the pack and lights it for him from the cooker.
We wait just outside the room.
‘So I’m guessing Kathy fetches in the drink?’
The social worker puts his hands in his pockets and leans against the wall.
‘I think the off-licence delivers. But to be honest, if he didn’t drink he’d fit, so…’
He sighs, and closes his eyes for a moment.
‘Makes you re-evaluate your drinking habits, doesn’t it?’
I laugh, but actually it doesn’t. It feels completely different, but I’m too tired to put that into words.
Kathy comes back out.
‘He’s ready now,’ she says.
He screams as we put him in our chair, making his body go rigid. We can’t get the trolley into the flat, so we have to manage as best we can. I make sure the blanket loops over his head so his greasy hair doesn’t rest against my shirt, and we bundle him tightly so he can’t grab out. His body is emaciated, caked in dirt. But amongst all the dreadful details of his self-neglect, his legs are the things that hold my attention the most. Maybe it’s because he’s holding them straight out, and the blanket has fallen away there. I think it’s their extraordinary shape and colour – bone thin, bone white, but pinched-off at the ankles, the feet like a pair of red rubber gloves filled with water, toes all-angles, rotten to the nail.
He screams as we wheel him to the ambulance, but it’s dark outside, there’s a freshening wind; I don’t think anyone notices much.