Ralph reminds me of that paleolithic fertility statue, the Venus of Willendorf, updated for the modern age, with trackie bottoms, steel-rimmed glasses and a wild beard.
‘I just want to be left alone’ he says.
‘I’m sorry you feel like that,’ I say, squatting down near to him, mostly because I don’t want to intimidate him by standing tall, but also because there’s nowhere clean to sit. ‘We’re worried about you. That’s all.’
‘I just …. don’t appreciate … all this fuss.’
I can understand why he feels exposed. Whilst he was away in hospital a deep clean team stripped the place. I hadn’t seen what it was like before, but a trainer they missed is a giveaway. I found it when I moved the coffee table to make room for his zimmer. The trainer is caked in brown matter, a ghastly combination of dust, dirt and accumulated awfulness, the inside of the shoe spilling over with ropes of web so thick even a spider would shake its head and walk on.
‘You can always say no,’ I say. ‘You don’t have to have any of this.’
‘I just wish … I could say … what I want… to say.’
‘Take your time.’
I leave lots of room for him to try, but he’s too distressed to speak. He sits there gripping the arms of the chair, taking anguished gasps of air, puffing his toothless cheeks in and out and rolling his lips.
‘Don’t worry,’ I say. ‘It’s okay.’
I can’t even make Ralph a cup of tea. All he has in his cupboard are cupasoups and instant porridge sachets; the only things in his fridge, a couple of pens of insulin. There’s a scattering of medication strips on the windowsill, which make me question the accuracy of the ‘competent to take meds independently’ description on his discharge summary. In fact, I’d have to question much of what’s on that paper. Ralph lives up a flight of stairs (the paper said basement); he has a keysafe, because he couldn’t possibly answer the door (the paper said no keysafe), his phone number is carefully transcribed (he hasn’t got a phone). You’d hardly think it was the same patient at all.
‘Who does your shopping?’ I ask him, looking around.
‘Alfred. He helps out now and again.’
‘That’s good! D’you mind if I give him a call?’
‘I don’t have his number.’
‘Do you know where he lives?’
‘He’s not far’
‘If you give me the address I could pop round.’
‘I don’t know where he lives. I don’t even know his last name. All these questions…’
It’s a difficult assessment. The thought of anyone living like this is depressing, especially someone with Ralph’s limited mobility, sitting for hours and hours in a dilapidated armchair by the window, his skin breaking down, his only company the radio or the hum of the flies circling impatiently overhead. Ralph could be a poster boy for the Self Neglectful.
One of the most difficult things to accept in community health is the business of mental capacity. Essentially, so long as you understand the consequences of your actions, you’re perfectly at liberty to live however you like, whether or not it’s bad for your health. A free climber is perfectly free to jump up on El Capitan with nothing but a bag of chalk and the strength in their fingers between them and certain death; similarly, Ralph is free to live in this filthy flat with one crapped-up trainer and nothing in the fridge and no-one to see him, and he has every right not be pestered by nurses and therapists and social workers.
‘Maybe you could write a list of the things you want to say,’ I tell him. ‘You could take a while, and have a good think, and put it all in two columns – what I want, and what I don’t want.’
‘Just… I don’t…. oh’
‘It’s okay. There’s a lot going on at the moment. The deep clean must have been stressful.’
They’ve left one thing on the walls, though: a crude, blockish, primary coloured tapestry of an owl, staring out of its grimy frame with an outraged expression. Tucked into the frame is a polaroid of something that looks like a glass owl on a mantelpiece, but the picture’s so faded I can’t be sure.
‘I like your owl,’ I say. ‘How long have you had that?’
‘Thirty year,’ he says. ‘My wife did it. By numbers.’