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.’
Oh dear heavens, I hope somebody can help him along. Many years ago I met someone in similar circumstances, totally unable to cope or take the next step. But somehow she got her bearings again, don't know how, and I now see her occasionally feeding the ducks. She looks calm, even smiles at me at times but will not speak.
Good to hear that.
Sometimes when you meet patients there's a kind of despair that nothing will ever change or get done, but at least with Ken there's a strong sense that a good shower, proper nutrition, and a stripping back of his flat to brick and floorboard - that all this will really help set him on the road to recovery.
If Ken can take the first step himself he should be on the road to recovery I think Spence.
Never underestimate the effect personal loss can have I suppose.
Your writing is so brilliant! I love reading your posts and the cameos they create. Just fantastic! Thank you.
Jacks - I hope he'll be okay. My horror was that he'd be discharged home back to that appalling mess, esp. if he exercised his right to self-determination (that thorny old issue of mental capacity again...) and refused anything else. After all, I'm not sure anyone could go into his flat and clean it up without his permission. Definitely one of those jobs I wish I could see what happened next.
Sally - Thanks very much! I must admit I felt a bit guilty with this post. I had promised after the last one to write something more upbeat. Oops! The next one, then...
This was brilliant. I try to write about similar characters, and the thing that is most essential is to tell a story while preserving someone's dignity. You did so quite magnificently.
Thanks very much, Philip. I suppose one of the reasons I've stuck at this job for so long (well - eight years - four times longer than anything else I've done!) is the chance it gives me to see how other people live, how they cope. 'Nosey' is another way of putting it. Anyway - always interesting.
Cheers for the encouragement, Philip. V much appreciated.
I imagine in that state someone could probably go in and strip it on public health grounds, no? What would happen after that, of course, would be a whole different question... maybe it would help things start to change, maybe it'd be the final straw.
I'm not sure whether they would. It's a private address, so presumably they'd need Ken's permission first. He may well give it - but then he might say he wanted to be there to supervise, to make sure nothing got chucked away. But let's hope a team did eventually go in. I'm sure the warden would be making moves to have something done. I hope Ken gets all the help he needs, and turns his situation around. He did seem quite unwell, but it's surprising how even the most dire circumstance can be set right again.
Cheers for the comment, Anon.
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