a red and white torch

Sheila is a square-cut, no-nonsense woman in her seventies, armoured rather than dressed in a stout tweed two piece and a pink turtleneck sweater. With her hair lacquered up into something approaching a helmet, and her substantial breasts impressively coned and cantilevered, she looks less like a Scheme Manager and more like a specialised assault wagon.
‘I’m dead worried about Alfred,’ she says. ‘C’mon. I’ll take you down there.’
She locks up the broom cupboard that serves as her office, and leads me through an endless series of corridors, turning right and left and then right again, to the point where I completely lose track of where we started from, with only the angle of the light and a different picture on the wall now and again to show we’ve made any progress at all. In fact, if it wasn’t obvious that Sheila knows her way to Alfred’s flat without having to look, I’d be tempted to think someone was playing tricks, changing small details here and there after we’d passed, just to see how long it might take before I stop and say Now, just hold on a minute…
‘I don’t understand how this can happen,’ says Sheila, swinging her keys like a jailer, the soles of her pumps squeaking on the lino. ‘He’s from a big family. They’re not all dead. I don’t understand how things can get like this. You see he’s a very private man. He doesn’t like anyone poking around. And that’s half the trouble. You could tell things were going off because his clothes started to get that shine, d’you follow? There was a bit of a haze about him, and not in a good way. He didn’t look well fed. He didn’t look good at all. But everytime we asked if there was anything we could do he said Oh, no! Everything’s fine! I’m all right! But then he started to fall, you see? And we had the ambulance round a few times. And it was only then I got a peek in his room, and – honest to God – I suppose you’ve seen this kind of thing before…’
‘Self-neglect? I’ve seen quite a lot.’
‘Have you?’
‘Yep. A fair bit. And it often comes down to capacity. You know – if someone has the capacity to make decisions for themselves. So long as they understand the consequences. It’s surprising how far things have to go before you can step in.’
‘I don’t pretend to understand.’
‘It’s a difficult area. I struggle with it. I remember going to one woman who lived in the wreck of a car in a ditch.’
‘A ditch?
‘A ditch. The wreck was on its side in a bank of hardened mud, under some brambles. And that was her registered address. She lived like that for years. Just her and the cats. She had a husband, but he disappeared after a while. Probably into the mud. It was years before anything was done. And then it was only because of the cats. She got too sick to look after them. They went to a place of safety before she did.’
‘In a ditch?
‘Yep. The neighbours were brilliant. They tried really hard. They used to bring her carrier bags of food and things, and they called everyone they could think of to get her properly housed. But she just didn’t want to know. It was a shock to see her, lying on her side in all that debris. She was holding a torch. And it freaked me out because I used to have that torch when I was a kid. An Ever Ready, red and white plastic torch. I remember how excited I was, using it one bonfire night when we were setting up for the fireworks. And now here she was, holding the exact same torch, with her fingernails all corkscrewing out.’
We stop outside what must be Alfred’s door. Sheila gives me a sharp, appraising look.
‘Hmm,’ says Sheila. ‘Well I don’t know about that. He’s bad, but he’s not in a ditch.’
‘No. Thank goodness.’
She knocks.
Puts her ear to the door.
After a while there’s a feeble sound from inside.
She shakes her head at me, straightens up, calls out It’s only Sheila, Alfred.
She unlocks the door, and we go in.

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