stronger than honey

It’s something of a miracle the square has survived at all. Driving up to it, especially on a night as dark and damp as this, along a service road ruthlessly lit by yellow street lamps, past a multi-storey car park, a concrete and steel hotel, a loading bay to the back of a shopping centre, everything deserted, everything thrumming with a thrill of brutalist development – it’s an act of blind faith, a hope against hope that things will turn out alright, that when you take a left at the mini roundabout you will actually come to an address, somewhere warm and domestic and settled, somewhere someone could live, maybe, or at least, come back to from hospital, to get better.

No doubt the Regency architects who built Coleridge Square were looking for a romantic endorsement of their wrought-iron canopies and filigree balconies. Two hundred years later and times have changed; there’s more wrought-irony to be had from the fact that Coleridge was a smackhead. The smart townhouses are all on the slide, backstreet hotels, hostels, bedsits, the red neon NO flickering on the sign that says VACANCIES, like it wants us to get closer before it commits.

We’ve come to see Roo, an IV drug user who has been discharged from hospital to one of the hostels in the square.
‘Why d’you think he’s called Roo?’ I say to Brenda, the nurse I’m doubling-up with. ‘What’s that short for?’
‘I don’t know. Rupert? Rooney? Maybe it’s like in Winnie the Pooh. Roo with the pouch, where he keeps his stash.’
‘That’s a whole other version. Might explain Tigger, though.’

We ring the bell.
Nothing happens.
We try ringing Roo’s mobile again; it goes straight to voicemail.
The door’s on the latch, so we go inside.
‘Hello? It’s the nurses!’ says Brenda.

A heavy but loose-limbed guy walks down the stairs, methodically and carefully, one at time, like a marionette with lead boots. If he is a puppet, it looks like they made the head from a potato, two eyes shot into it with a BB gun.
‘Yes?’ he says, stopping before he reaches the bottom, stabilising himself on the gappy bannisters.
‘Oh hi!’ says Brenda.

She’s amazing. I’m sure if she knocked on the gates of Hell and a daemon slid back the latch, she’d be just as delighted.

‘We’ve come to see Roo!’ she says. ‘We don’t have a room number and he’s not answering his phone.’
‘He’s out.’
‘Oh! When did he get back?’
The man shrugs.
‘A couple of hours ago. He didn’t like the room he’d been given.’
‘Oh! Why was that?’
‘It was filthy,’ says the guy. ‘Which – to be fair – it was. So I put him in room two.’
‘Room Two? Is that a nice room?’
‘But he’s not there now?’
‘No. He dropped his things and then went round to a friend’s.’
‘We’ll have to come back another time then.’
‘I’ll tell him you called.’
‘Would you? Thanks again!’
And we turn and leave. The man watches us from the stairs. It’s only when we’re back out in the street does he come all the way down and then slowly close the door.

‘What a waste of time!’ says Brenda. ‘Of course he’s out! He’s been in hospital a week! What else is he going to do?’

We stand in the square, Brenda by her car, me by mine, looking forlornly right and left, at the mist blowing softly across the square like someone quietly erasing a painting in the dark.
‘I don’t blame him though,’ says Brenda, hugging her laptop bag and folder whilst she unlocks her car. ‘You need something stronger than honey on a night like this.’

the drugs people

The houses of the Belle View housing estate certainly have a view. The main road was cut sometime in the fifties along the side of one of the chalk escarpments that overlook the town. I can imagine the construction photographs: heavy lorries passing backwards and forwards along a ribbon of dusty white hardcore, scaffolding like stilts along the plunging edge. Visiting these houses is a strangely disorienting experience. You park on the road, walk down two flights of steep concrete steps to the front door, into a house where the downstairs is the upstairs and the upstairs is underneath. It’s always bracing to look out of the window, like a suburban council house had been ripped up and slung under a giant balloon.

Lila is sitting in a riser recliner at the wide window, a rent controlled Captain Nemo on the bridge of her dirigible. Since her accident – a fall, naturally – she’s swapped her uniform for a sweltering, cable-knit dressing gown and felt, leopard-skin booties.
‘Did you have any trouble with the keysafe?’ she says, waggling the booties. ‘Some people find it a bit fiddly.’
‘No. It was fine. It’s one of the better ones.’
‘I worry about it,’ she says. ‘Being overlooked.’
‘What by? Seagulls?’
‘No,’ she says. ‘The house that side’s been empty for ages. Next door’s the drugs people.’
‘Oh?’ I say, pulling a concerned face. ‘Sorry.’
‘Oh no!’ she says. ‘They’re lovely. They’ve helped me loads of times. They don’t take the drugs. They only deal.’
‘Is that the house with the big hedge?’
‘That’s it. The postman says it’s cannabis, but I think it’s juniper. They didn’t grow it, mind. It was there before they came. Fifteen years ago, now. It wasn’t that tall then, but I don’t think they’re gardeners. Anyway, it probably suits them to have a little bit of cover, if you get my drift. They’ve had the police round twice, you know.’
‘Have they? When was that?’
‘Once when they first moved in, and once a couple of years ago. Rita did a bit of time in the prison, but she’s so good they let her out pretty quick. I think they wanted to keep her longer ‘cos she was good for morale, but she’s got kids, so…’
Lila waggles her booties again.
‘Anyway! What’s on the menu today?’

mr stabby

The worst blocks have the loveliest names.

Carnelion House. By rights it should be bold, angular, cut from a solid block of plastic. Not a few, desultory storeys thrown like a bad cap over a huddle of failing shops.

You’d never know it was there. Even the SatNav’s embarrassed, blindly and hurriedly planting its red-button flag somewhere in the general area. The name of the block had fallen away years ago, so even if you parked exactly at that spot, and looked around, you’d never see it. And if you asked someone walking by in the street, no doubt they’d say: ‘Nah mate. Never heard of it. Unless they lived there. In which case they’d say: ‘Who wants to know?’

I only know Carnelion House because I went there once on an ambulance call. It was one of those addresses we tended to know, an ambulance lore of warning, passed from person to person in the way that a knowledge of obscure and dangerous reefs are communicated naturally between sailors. We used to have a lot of calls to Carnelion House, domestic abuse, assaults, overdoses and so on. The last time I was there the patient who’d taken too much heroin threatened us with his needle. I can picture him now, slumped on the edge of the bed, a line of drool shining from his bottom lip as he gripped the needle in his fist, point-down, like a dagger.
‘You come near me an’ I’ll stab yer in the fuckin’ EYE’ he said.
He obviously wasn’t quite as unconscious as reported, so we let the police go ahead of us with their vests and gloves and no-nonsense demeanour.

‘Wow! I’m impressed you knew where to go!’ says Connie, as I park up and lead us both to the discrete front door.
‘I’ve been here before.’
‘In the ambulance?’
‘In my dreams.’
I buzz the buzzer.

It turns out to be the same flat as Mr Stabby. I recognise his flat mate, Paco, an extraordinary guy holding himself painfully, in a semi-crouch. With his haunted eyes and his long greasy hair partially obscuring his face, he reminds me of that drawing of Nebuchadnezzar by Blake.
‘Hello,’ he says, gruffly, then letting go of the door, lurches precariously back towards the bedroom.

It may only have been two or three years, but things have headed south at a pace. These days Paco barely makes it out of bed. He has a bucket by his side for toileting. Someone on the same landing brings him food now and again. Maybe pays his TV licence, rates and so on, I don’t know. He’s been deemed to have capacity to make decisions for himself, so any attempt to engage by various services have met with little or no success. It’s only a recent ambulance call that’s brought him back into focus. And it feels as if maybe things have changed enough to convince him to accept help.

‘I’m sorry it’s such a mess,’ he says, collapsing back on the bed, the same bed Mr Stabby was sitting on when he made his vow to me. ‘But you see, my carer died.’