For whatever reason, Peter isn’t answering the intercom. The tradesman’s button doesn’t work, either, and when I try Peter’s mobile it comes up not registered. I’m just about to phone the office when someone else comes to the door. A red-faced guy in a parka, baseball cap and sweatpants, his eyes so close together at the bridge of his nose he looks like a rangy, inner city Cyclops. When I show him my ID he smiles in a grimacing kind of hunch, exposing a set of wire braces.
‘Okay, mate. In ya’go,’ he says, and flinging his hood over his cap, walks on.
When I knock on Peter’s door there’s a minute or two of silence and then a hesitant hello from deep inside.
‘It’s Jim, from the Rapid Response team. Come to see Peter.’
After a long pause a bolt draws back. Pete stands there, still in the hospital pyjamas he was discharged in almost a week ago, the top unbuttoned to the navel. He is so emaciated, his ribs flare from his sternum in furrows.
‘Oh. Jim. I see. Jim. Yes. From the hospital? Right. And you’ve come to see me? Okay. Right. Got it. And you want to come in? Okay. So – just to re-cap. You’re Jim. You’re from the hospital. And you’ve come to see how I am? Is that right?’
He holds his right hand up to his mouth now and again, the index finger crooked, focusing with such intensity on our interaction the words buckle under the strain. I find myself talking with elaborate simplicity, like someone trying to speak in a language they don’t really know.
‘I’m a nurse, Peter. From the hospital. I’ve come to see how you are.’
I show him my card. He holds it so long I have to gently take it back again.
‘Is it okay if I come in?’
‘So – basically, basically, you want to come inside, because you’re a nurse from the hospital, and you want to see how I am?’
He lets go of the door and slowly retreats back into the flat.
It’s smotheringly hot. Hardly any furniture in the front room, just a sofa and an office chair. To the side of the sofa are half a dozen neat piles of WWF wrestling magazines, I would guess a year to a pile; opposite, a shrine-like arrangement around a radio on the floor of four cuddly toys and a couple of plastic figures, (the kind you get with fast food sometimes). On the deep windowsill opposite are several orderly stacks of letters, bank statements, hospital reminders, all meticulously laid out in a grid, with a black copy of the bible in the bottom left hand corner.
‘Is it okay if I sit here?’ I ask him, pointing to the office chair.
‘Do you want to sit there?’
‘This looks fine.’
‘You can sit on the sofa if you want.’
‘I’m happy with the chair.’
‘The only thing is – the only thing is – I usually sit on the sofa.’
‘I know what you mean. Everyone’s got their favourite spot.’
‘Yes. Everyone’s got their favourite spot. My favourite spot is the sofa. But you’re all right on the chair?’
‘The chair’s fine.’
I put my bag down.
‘Do you have a yellow folder, Peter?’
‘A yellow folder? Yes. A yellow folder.’
I look around.
‘Would you mind if I had a look? Only it’ll have all your bits and pieces in it – you know, notes and things. It’ll be useful to see them.’
He stares at me with a compressed smile.
‘Stuff the nurses have written,’ I add.
‘Yes,’ he says. ‘And you want to read it?’
‘Yes. I don’t mind getting it.’
He stands up. He’s so emaciated, the pyjamas hang in a line from the angular projections of his shoulders.
‘I know where it is,’ he says, and walks out.
Whilst he’s gone I check my watch and rearrange my caseload.
Peter has shown me into his kitchen. To look at it, you’d hardly think anyone lived here. The aluminium sink and drainer are bleach clean. On the work surface to the side of the sink are two boxes of own-brand powdered milk and two catering-size packets of instant coffee, and that’s it. No toaster. No microwave. Just an old-fashioned oven with a flip-down hob, and an empty fridge opposite. Peter seems to be existing on a single delivery of oven-ready meals a day. If it wasn’t for that, he’d be dead by now.
It’s difficult and not a little depressing to think it ever came to this. The only interaction the yellow folder describes is a recent admission to hospital with an ulcerated ankle, and this latest referral to us. Surely he must be known to other services?
‘The ready meals are very good,’ he says, showing me half a pudding left over from yesterday. ‘Yes, they’re very good. I put them in the oven to heat them up. The man comes every day about twelve o’clock with a main course and a pudding. Yes, they’re very delicious.’
‘One thing I really need to do is weigh you,’ I tell him. ‘Would that be all right?’
‘You want to weigh me? Yes. Okay. Weigh me. Fine. I think I might have lost a bit.’
‘Yes. I would think so. You look a little thin to me. For your height.’
‘I’m five foot ten. Is that what you mean? My height?’
I work out his BMI as fifteen.
‘You’ll need some special drinks,’ I tell him as he steps off. ‘Fortisip, they’re called. In some really nice flavours. Orange, Vanilla. Like milkshakes, you know. I’ll talk to your GP to get them delivered.’
‘Like the ready meals.’
‘Yes, like the ready meals. But they’re only a supplement, Peter. To build you up in the meantime. All the vitamins and minerals you’re missing at the minute. The thing is, though, Peter, we’ve really got to get you eating properly again. And make sure you’re looked after.’
‘I see. Right. Yes. So – just to recap. You’re a nurse. You’ve come from the hospital. I’m not eating properly. You want me to have special drinks. Milk shake drinks. Some of them are orange, some of them are vanilla. The doctor is delivering them. I’ve got to eat more.’
‘Yes. How does that sound?’
He crooks his finger to his mouth.