The flat is part of a single-storey, Georgian building, probably once quarters for the servants of some long demolished house. When it was built, that elegant chimney stack would have been the highest point in the street, but since the sixties a series of developments have grown up around it – hotels, housing blocks, multi-storey car-parks and city centre offices – until now it looks like a toy house, utterly dwarfed and out of place, lost at the bottom of a canyon of concrete and glass.
The front door is open, so I knock and look inside.
The flat is in chaos. Every cupboard is open and spilling, the contents of every drawer dragged free and strewn about the place, up-ended suitcases, a put-you-up piled high with stuff, everything thrown about, dumped in odd places. A poltergeist would take more care.
Suzanne is on two phones at once. The landline, I would guess, is ambulance control. I can vaguely hear them saying hello? hello? But Suzanne is talking into the mobile phone instead, a tumble of emphatic and despairing words, something about a hundred pounds and a train to London.
‘Hello? Hi? Ambulance?’ I say, leaning forward and giving a little introductory wave. But Suzanne is too engrossed in her phone call and doesn’t acknowledge me.
‘Let me explain this to you once again,’ she says, gripping the mobile, and putting the landline back in its holder without even looking at it. ‘All I want is one hundred pounds. One hundred pounds that belongs to me. One hundred pounds that’s rightfully mine, that I can buy a ticket with, that I can get on a train with, and go to London, back to my home, so I can sleep in safety and not die – yes? Do you understand? Do you understand what I’m saying to you? I’m a sick woman and I simply want to be reassured that I will not die when I close my eyes to go to sleep tonight. Is that too much to ask? Because if it is too much to ask then I’d like you to put me through to someone who will not find it such a ridiculous proposition. Do you understand me? Do you?’
I lean even further forwards and wave again.
‘Hello? Ambulance? Are you the patient?’
Suzanne shoots me a glance, then holds out a finger for me to wait.
I put my bag down.
She turns slightly and carries on her conversation – although from this end it sounds more like an emotional discharge down the line to a call centre operative who has either already hung up or should have, a long time ago.
After a few minutes I decide I’ve waited long enough.
I move forwards and gently touch her on the arm.
‘Suzanne? It’s the ambulance. I really must insist that you finish your call now and talk to me.’
She lowers the mobile a little, frowns, then throws it down amongst the mess on the table.
‘So there. Now we have it. Here I am on the verge of getting the money I need to get back home and you cut me off. How is that supposed to help? What do I do now? Are you going to give it to me?’
‘Suzanne? Let’s start from the beginning. My name’s Spence, I work for the ambulance service. We had a call to this address to someone who was fitting. Is that you?’
‘I suffer with blisters of water on the spine. Read my notes. It’s all there. Speak to my GP. I shouldn’t have to tell you this. Blisters – of water – and yes, I have fits. I’m incontinent – you can look at my pads in the bathroom if you don’t believe me...’
‘Suzanne? First things first. Has anything happened this afternoon that led you to call the ambulance?’
‘Look around you. What do you think? I have a boyfriend coming home who knows when, if ever, and when he does I don’t know whether to let him in. Because he won’t let me sleep, and anyway, what does he know? What can he do? I just need a hundred pounds to get back to my specialists. I have a team of them. Neurologists. Professors. Not ordinary people, like you. Scientists. They know what’s going on. They know what I have to endure...’
Suzanne is the personification of the flat. It’s exhausting, simply breathing the same air.
‘Do you mind if I have a seat?’ I say to her, trying to act the part of the unflappable medic even if I don’t feel it. I reach down and open my bag. ‘Would you mind if I gave you a quick health check? Apart from your spinal problems, do you have any other conditions? Are you diabetic, for example?’
‘No. I’ve told you. I suffer with epileptic fits. I am incontinent. I have a mountain of pads in the bathroom if you’d care to look.’
‘No. That’s fine. Let me just run through the basic checks and make sure everything’s okay.’
She takes a seat facing me and holds out her arm.
It’s quiet in the room for the first time. Pulses of traffic noise from outside, stirring through the net curtains in the warm afternoon sunshine. In the middle of the window ledge, a strange new-age sculpture, something like a pyramid, but made of glass and a conglomeration of coloured crystals, surmounted at the top by a glass sphere. The light from outside hangs and bends in the sphere, blues and whites and greens.
The mobile phone starts to ring.
‘Just let me just finish your blood pressure before you answer, please, Suzanne.’
She stares at me, but holds her arm still.
‘There! All good!’
I unwrap the cuff, but the phone stopped ringing before she had time to answer it.
‘Well thank you very much. No doubt that was the bank. Now I can’t get the money I need to go back to London.’
‘I’m sure that can be sorted out this afternoon, if that’s the only problem.’
‘So you’re going to sort it out are you? You’re going to give me a hundred pounds? Because if I don’t have the money I’ll have to go to hospital, even though they don’t know me there, even though they don’t know anything about my condition...’
‘Suzanne? Just – try to take a breath and be calm for a moment? Okay? I’m here to help.’
‘And forbidding me to answer my own phone so that I can get some money and get my life sorted is help is it?’
She changes tone, dropping a gear, to something darker. Even though it’s an unexpected turn, I don’t feel threatened. It’s like being growled at by a tabby.
‘So that’s your idea of helping, is it?’
I decide to take a different tack myself. I finish writing down her observations, rest the clipboard on my knees, then lean forwards on it like I’ve decided to come clean.
‘Suzanne? Can I ask you something?’
‘Do you suffer with any mental health problems?’
‘What do you mean, mental health problems?’
‘Well – and I’m being perfectly honest with you, Suzanne – you seem a little emotionally volatile this afternoon.’
‘Define what you mean by emotionally volatile?’
‘Do you have a CPN, Suzanne?’
‘A CPN – a Community Psychiatric Nurse.’
She looks at me with the same refractive brilliance as the sculpture.
‘So let me see if I understand you. I want to use my own phone – to arrange for one hundred pounds – to get a train, to get back to London – to find the space to go to sleep without fear of dying. Just because I want some help with unbearable pain, pain that the experts – professors of neurology – have all agreed is serious and irretrievable – blisters of water in my spine and you accuse me of being mentally ill...?’
I finish writing the report form whilst she talks. It’s not so bad actually, sitting here in this great, tumbling nest of a flat, with the afternoon leaning in through the window, the patterns of coloured light thrown out by the crystal sculpture animated by the curtains. After a while I realise that Suzanne is slowing down; when she pauses sufficiently for me to say something, I mention a referral I can make if she’d like. She says she would like – and she also says she fully intends to put in a complaint about me. I tell her I think she should, and she can use the report form I’ve written to do just that. She asks me to explain what I’ve written. I clear a space on the table and lay it flat. She reads what I’ve written so far. I apologise for some of the acronyms; we have a laugh about that.
‘Do you mind if I smoke?’ she says.
‘No, of course not. But why don’t we step outside? You can have your cigarette, I can finish off.’
We pick our way through the mess to the front door.
* * *
Five minutes later, Suzanne is standing in the doorway, her left arm folded across her belly, her right arm resting on it whilst she smokes. I am leaning against the old black iron railings at the front of the building, adding a couple more things to the paperwork I think might help.
An elderly man walks past.
‘Afternoon,’ he says pleasantly. ‘Another nice one.’
He nods at Suzanne in the doorway, and carries on.
She smiles back, flicks her ash off to the side, then looks the other way along the street.
‘There!’ I say, tearing the sheets apart and handing Suzanne her copy.‘Thank you,’ she says, then drops the fag butt to the flags and grinds it out with her foot. ‘Now. Can I go in and check my phone, do you think?’