It’s a long time since Eric managed to paint anything. Years, I would guess, judging by the fine layer of dust on the stack of drawings and sketches on the workbench. But his pens and brushes are still waiting for him, standing in a bunch with their bristles-up, all-angles, in an old chipped mug, souvenir of Barcelona, by a gently composting heap of pastel crayons, charcoal blocks, pencils and a paint-splodged rag.
Alcohol abuse has left Eric with Korsakoff syndrome, amongst other things. At the moment he’s living in supported accommodation, although I learned from the warden that he’s been approved a place in a new facility with higher levels of care – something Eric urgently needs. The opening has been delayed, though. Last minute snagging, she said. Which means Eric will have to struggle through the next six months with carers going in three times a day, and various health teams, the District Nurses, the ambulance and so on – everyone doing their best to help him through the inevitable falls, infections and other crises.
I’ve met Eric before so I know what to expect. He’s difficult to handle, lurching from moments of great anger and anxiety to brief periods of something approaching lucidity. He doesn’t cope with novelty well, gets upset easily, has no short term memory. Despite the best efforts of the carers, the flat always looks ransacked. In fact, the only tidy thing about it is his old workbench, which maintains an eerie and almost magical detachment from the general chaos.
‘They’ve been coming downstairs! Four of them!’ he shouts, slapping the side of his face like a man desperate to wake himself up. ‘In the middle of the night, torturing me!’
‘Who have? What do you mean?’
‘Oh, you know perfectly well what I mean! What d’you think that is? Hey?’
He waggles a finger in the direction of his workbench.
‘They creep down here in the middle of the night, they cut my paintings into tiny squares, and then they stitch them back together so you wouldn’t notice. But I do! Of course I do! And they steal things, too.’
‘Like this. I mean – for goodness sake.’
He dabbles around on the over-chair table, and finally lands on a pair of nail clippers.
‘I bought these new. I was looking after them. And they’ve taken them away – and they’ve brought them back like this. Well I can’t use them now, can I? They’re disgusting…’
I need to calm him down before I’ll be able to do any obs, so I try to distract him by talking about art.
‘I love your paintings’ I tell him, slowly and innocently preparing my kit. ‘They’re so bold and full of life. Did you go to college?’
He stares at me, breathing heavily – then crosses one leg over the other and laces his fingers in his lap.
‘Yes, actually. Leeds.’
‘Do you paint?’
‘Me? No – I do the odd bit of printing sometimes. Linocuts, you know. That sort of thing. I’d like to do more, but any spare time I have tends to be given over to writing.’
‘It’s none of it easy. Look – I’m sorry if I’ve been a little short-tempered today.’
‘Don’t worry about it, Eric. You’ve got a lot on your plate. It’s always nice to see you.’
‘Is it?’ he says. ‘Is it really?’
‘Yes! Now then – can I be a real nuisance and do your blood pressure?’
But just as I move towards him with the cuff, as stealthily as a butterfly collector with a net, Eric changes again.
‘Never mind that!’ he says, leaping up and almost pitching head first into the bathroom. ‘I want you to get me something – oh you know what it is! That thing! That thing that goes between my legs…’