sharp scratch

I know this Close pretty well, a tributary of neglect, hanging off the main route as malignantly as an untreated aneurysm. Back in the sixties when it was built they named it after a woodland flower, but the name doesn’t fit. Blue Hell, maybe.
Penny is sitting in the window. She waves when I get out of the car.
Her front door has a battered look, and judders when I push it open.
‘Through here,’ she shouts.
I pick my way through the mess.
It’s a familiar scene, as symptomatic as a productive cough. The scattering of filthy clothes; the chaotic piles of final demands, hospital letters, ambulance sheets; carrier bags of bottles; pyramids of fag butts in the ashtray; stacks of unwashed plates and rotten trays of food in the kitchen, and hanging above it all, like the pall of smoke over the scene of a battle, a thick and noisome fug. It’s so familiar, I’m sure there must be an interior design magazine somewhere. Nightmare Abodes, maybe. Free with first issue: The Lost Gardens of Hell Again.
‘Sorry about the mess,’ says Penny.
She looks about as used up and cast aside as any of the clothes or cans around her. Her face is puffy and red, her trembling fingers stained with nicotine, her nails rimed with lines of dirt.
‘I’ll definitely go into hospital this time,’ she says. ‘I know they can’t do nothing for me if I stay here. So if you think I should go in, I’ll go in.’
Whilst I’m doing the exam there’s a knock on the door and Gerry, the scheme manager comes in.
‘All right?’ he says.
Penny gives him a sour-faced nod, then turns to look out of the window again.
‘Just thought I’d see what the score was,’ he says.
‘I’m giving Penny a bit of an MOT, taking some blood, that kind of thing. And then we’ll think what’s best to do,’ I tell him.
‘Fine,’ says Gerry. ‘Good. Well – if there’s anything you need…’
He smiles at Penny, but she’s still fixedly looking away, so he tactfully withdraws. As soon as he’s gone she turns back to me again and says: ‘He’s trying to murder me.’
‘Gerry? Why do you say that?’
‘He wants me gone. He wants us all gone.’
‘I wouldn’t have thought so.’
‘No? Well why do you think he’s always sticking his head round the door, then?’
‘That’s his job. Scheme manager. He probably just wants to make sure you’re okay.’
‘I tell you what he wants. He wants this flat.’
‘It’s not his flat, though.’
‘He treats it like it is.’
I write down her obs and fetch out my phlebotomy kit.
‘All right if I take some blood, Penny?’
‘Be my guest,’ she says, holding out her arm. ‘And by the way – good luck! They always struggle with me.’
I put the tourniquet on and start tapping around for a vein.
‘I must admit Gerry’s never struck me as a bad sort,’ I tell her, unsheathing a needle.
‘You don’t see him at night, when everything’s quiet. He sneaks around like one of them cats.’
‘If you’re worried you should tell someone.’
‘Me? Who’d believe me, hey? Who’d believe poor old Penny. I’m not safe here, you know. They all start coming round, sniffing me up for money.’
‘Who do?’
‘You know. Drunks.’
‘Sharp scratch.’
Sharp scratch! Why do you always say that? Little prick. That’s what you should say.’
‘Little prick.’
‘That’s more like it.’
She watches as the blood fills the phial.
‘Or Gerry. Just say Gerry. I’ll know what you mean.’

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