If I hadn’t looked at the notes and seen it written in black and white that an ambulance had been called and taken Maria into hospital where she’d stayed a few days, I’d swear she hadn’t moved since the last time I saw her. The only difference is that her little dog Pepper isn’t leaping around the place in a twitching fury, wondering whether to bite me or throw himself through the window.
‘Where’s Pepper?’ I ask her.
‘He’s sleeping next door with Theo,’ she says. ‘They’re both exhausted. We were all up late last night. Theo came round, for a social. He only popped in to say hello ‘cos I was back and everything, and he ended up staying all night.’
There’s half a chicken leg on the ash strewn table in front of her. ‘I’m sharing that with Pepper,’ she says, as if I’m hungry and on the take. She hides it under some newspaper.
Walking down into Maria’s basement flat is like walking down steps into an Egyptian excavation – except, this isn’t the lavish tomb of a pharaoh, filled with gorgeous sarcophagi, wrapped cats, miniature wooden carts and dishes of carbonised grain. This is the urban degradation version, piles of red reminders, missed hospital appointments, bags of medication, discarded asthma pumps, magazines, grimy throws and crochet blankets, inco sheets, elbow crutches. And the door isn’t protected by an unbroken seal and a curse, but a CCTV camera, securely wedged into the top corner of the hallway like a nuclear bunker for a spider.
I’ve been in to see Maria a few times before. There’s always someone sleeping in the next room. Sometimes it’s Theo, sometimes it’s Clancy, sometimes Giles (none of them sounding like real names at all). But it’s only now I’ve been given the heads up about what’s really going on.
The scheme manager had sounded annoyed on the phone.
‘She’s breaking the terms of the tenancy,’ he’d said. ‘We’ve got vulnerable people living in that place. This can’t be allowed to go on.’
‘What’s going on exactly?’
‘She’s being cuckoo’d.’
‘You know – when someone moves in and takes advantage. Except it’s a little complicated in Maria’s case, because I think she likes the company.’
‘D’you mean Theo and Clancy and the rest?’
‘Whatever they’re calling themselves. They’re using her flat to sell and smoke drugs, heroin mostly, but other stuff, too. The police have thrown them out of there before. There shouldn’t be anyone else staying. We’re trying to get an injunction to stick on the grounds that she’s breaking the terms of her agreement, but these things are always more tricky than they sound. She’s definitely got capacity. But she’s a vulnerable person, though. No question.’
‘Do you think it’s safe for carers to go in? Because Maria is pretty self-neglectful.’
‘I would think so. I mean – it’s not the nicest environment in the world. But during the day it’s fairly safe with regards to ne’er do wells hanging around. And if they are around they’re unconscious.’
‘Not terribly reassuring.’
‘No. But what can you do. I know it sounds harsh, but I’d like to forcibly take Maria out of there, find her somewhere secure, out of the reach of these people, and then maybe she’d come to see how awful they really are. At the minute, they buy her food and keep her company, and I suppose that’s something. If only they wouldn’t deal drugs, though. Or keep a dog. Pets aren’t allowed.’
I decide to be perfectly open with Maria about the concerns that have been expressed about Theo and the rest.
‘I’m always perfectly open and straight with people because I think in the end that’s the best way,’ I say, by way of introduction. Maria looks worried.
‘It’s about Theo, isn’t it?’ she says.
‘Yes. There’ve been reports that Theo and some of the others are smoking heroin and using you and your flat for a base.’
She’s instantly furious. I’m amazed that Pepper hasn’t rushed in to see what the matter is, and can only think he’s in an opiate haze as well.
‘I know what’s happened!’ she says. ‘And it’s not what you think. There was a man round here a few months ago. Xavier his name was. Said he was my friend and everything, but turns out he wasn’t. Oh no! Tried to sell my dog at one point. So Theo turned up and kicked him out, and now Xavier’s got the hump, going around telling everyone lies about what goes on round here.’
‘He tried to sell Pepper?’
‘Yeah! To Theo. That’s the kind of low life he is! I mean – who’d sell someone else’s dog?’