The flat we want is actually round the corner, on the front. Parking there is impossible, so I arrange to meet Andre the nurse outside the Chinese restaurant in an adjacent side street. There’s no time for much conversation; a squall of rain is sweeping in off the sea – so fierce it almost tears the boot from Andre’s car and empties the contents – all the dressings and folders and so on – out into the street. People squeal as they pitter past us, holding bags over their heads, wrestling with umbrellas turned inside out.
‘Let’s go!’ snarls Andre, and we run.
Andre the nurse reminds me of Andre the Giant from The Princess Bride. Not so much in height, although he is pretty tall. It’s more in demeanour, the same lunkishly, lowering kind of look. An ogre in a nurse’s tunic. Andre is basically harmless, though. I’m sure he could spend many happy minutes stroking a dove’s head – if a dove was ever dumb enough to land on his outstretched paw. And if it survived the stroking, and flew off in a dazed and crooked line, I’m sure the dove would feel affectionately towards him, too.
We’ve come to visit Rick, a patient referred to us by the GP, more as a welfare check than anything else, and to see if our team could help out in any way, with care or therapy or nursing and so on. ‘At risk of unconsciousness or death’ the referral had said, bleakly.
‘We’re ALL at risk of that, my friend!’ snorts Andre, buzzing the intercom half a dozen times, and then banging on the main door with the edge of his fist, with such brutal energy you’d think it was a SWAT team calling rather than a nurse from the hospital.
There’s no reply, just as there was no reply from the patient’s phone. Andre seems ready to pick up the block and shake Rick out, but luckily a delivery guy turns up with a code to get in, so we tailgate the rather anxious looking guy and then trudge up the plush steps to the third floor, grumbling about the weather all the way up.
Once we find Rick’s flat, Andre bangs on the door with such force the whole thing jumps in its frame.
‘Nurse!’ he shouts, which would have any sane person leaping from the bathroom window.
I look through the letterbox. The flat is silent, everything under sheets, buckets and paint trays and rollers on the floor.
‘I think it’s being refurbished,’ I say, straightening up. ‘He must be somewhere else.’
Andre sighs, goes to the flat next door and bangs on that, too.
Amazingly, an elderly woman opens it.
‘Oh – so sorry to disturb you,’ says Andre, using a whispery tone of voice so sinister the woman visibly recoils. ‘Me and my esteemed colleague are nurses from the hospital,’ he says. ‘I wonder if you would be so kind as to tell us where Rick is, please?’
The woman shudders, shuffles back in alarm, slams the door. There’s the sound of several bolts being thrown, a chain rattling on. Maybe a small wardrobe dragged into position.
‘Thank you so much!’ says Andre, giving a little salute to the door, then glares at me like I’m somehow responsible.
‘I’ll ring the office,’ I say.
‘You do that, Jimmy,’ says Andre. ‘Meanwhile I will stand here and think about why God is punishing me like this.’
The coordinator sounds sleepy.
‘Yes,’ she yawns. ‘The address is wrong. He’s in a flat on the other side of town.’
She texts us both the new address. Andre stares down at his phone as if he can’t decide whether to put it in his pocket or on the floor so he can stamp on it.
‘Come on, Jimmy!’ he says, choosing the former. ‘We can’t stay here the rest of our lives.’
The squall has settled into something more terrible, a hybrid inundation somewhere between a hurricane and the Great Flood. Even with the wipers on full it’s difficult to see where I’m going. It gets so bad I could be persuaded I’d left the road completely and was driving along the sea bed, following a whale that fails to indicate when it turns left. More by luck than skill I end up outside the alternative address; Andre parks in front of me and we both run with our coats over our heads to the entrance to the flats, a battered black door with a font of water rushing out of a broken downpipe across the pavement and over our shoes.
Andre beats on the door.
‘Come on! Come on!’ he says.
Just before we have to stop knocking and start treading water, the door opens and Rick stands there, his long hair matted, his beard worse.
‘Yes?’ he says, holding on to the door, then resting his face against the edge of it. ‘Can I help you?’
‘We are nurses from the hospital. Can we come in please?’
It sounds like Andre’s asking for sanctuary, which in a way, of course, he is. Luckily it seems to work. Rick releases his grip on the door and drifts back into the flat.
‘Your doctor asked us to visit,’ says Andre, shaking his coat and slapping the rain from his bald head. ‘Your doctor is worried about you.’
‘Oh?’ says Rick. He trails further back into the flat, sits on something that must have been a sofa once, and starts rolling a cigarette. He’s surrounded by empty cans of lager, and I’m impressed he managed to sit down without disturbing any of them.
Andre drags a stool over and tries to explain the reason for the visit, growling through the basics with the patience of a WWF wrestler called ‘The Nurse’. Rick is oblivious, though, fastidiously licking the strip of gum on the cigarette paper, rolling it, admiring it, then lighting it with the snick of a match.
‘Yes?’ he says, blowing smoke. ‘Er-hmmm.’
‘So this being the case, would you be accepting of such help from us, please?’ says Andre.
‘No,’ says Rick, picking strands of tobacco from his lips. ‘No, I would not.’
‘Do you understand what I am telling you?’ says Andre, almost tearing the folder in half.
Rick sighs, hooks the hair from his eyes, and – strangely – closes them when he looks at Andre
‘Like I said, officer,’ he says, ‘I’m perfectly fine.’
‘Okay. Good. You are perfectly within your rights to refuse, my friend,’ says Andre, trembling from the effort of control. Would you be so kind as to sign here, then?’
‘This? This is a form to say that you do not want any help from us, and that you understand the risks involved in not accepting help,’ says Andre, handing him the paper and tapping with his pen where he wants Rick to sign.
‘Unconsciousness and death’ says Andre.
And the way he smiles at Rick, it’s like he doesn’t mind which.