Billy’s nest

I’m waiting for Georgiou, the physiotherapist. It’s a smart street, not at all the place you’d expect to find a hostel like this – not because the effects of alcohol and drugs aren’t universal, but because the rents are so high. Maybe it was some kind of bequest. Fact is, the Georgian terrace houses either side and across the road are as fancy as you’d expect for a street off the main drag of a wealthy seaside resort.

A Mercedes Uber pulls up. A man and a woman dressed immaculately in 1920s costumes hurry out of a door opposite and jump laughing into the back of it. If it wasn’t for the modern car with the decal on the side, I’d be worried I was seeing ghosts. I watch the car pull away, and see Georgiou standing on the other side waiting to cross.
‘Did you see that couple?’ I ask him.
‘What couple?’ he says.

I buzz the intercom and the door clicks open. Inside there’s a tiny, security lobby with nothing in it but another door and a perspex grille to the side. A woman frowns at us through the grille. I hold my pass up, she scrutinises it, then clicks us through the inner door. We walk round to the front of the office, which is a counter with another screen. She’s waiting for us with a ledger and a pen. It’s a confusing interaction; she uses code words and acronyms I’ve never heard before, and gets huffy when I ask what it all means.
‘Just sign here,’ she says, jabbing at the ledger with a biro. ‘And take this…’
She hands me a radio and a bunch of keys.
‘Press to talk,’ she says, holding her own radio up.
‘Yep. Got it!’ I say, waving the radio.
‘No. Press to talk,’ she says, then presses the side button on her radio. ‘Testing, testing…Control to R2, receiving…?’
‘Oh! Right!’ I say. Then I press my button and talk back.
‘R2 receiving, loud and clear. Erm…. Over.’
‘You don’t have to say all that,’ she says, clipping her radio back on her belt. ‘Just talk’

Once I’ve filled out the ledger with our details, the woman tells us that Billy, our patient, lives right at the top of the hostel.
‘It’s a long way up,’ she says. ‘Keep going till you can’t go anymore.’
‘Do we need oxygen?’
‘No. It’s not that high.’
I’m aware of her watching us as we go through the first fire door and start walking up.

‘Billy has breathing problems, discharged after a recent exacerbation, lives at the top!’ says Georgiou, striding ahead of me. ‘Makes perfect sense.’
The stairs go on forever, getting narrower and steeper as we go, first floor, second floor, third, up and up and up, past landings of decreasing size, everything warping and tilting like the house is morphing into a giant tree.
‘Where does this guy live – a nest?’ says Georgiou.
And finally we’re there, standing outside Billy’s room, panting. I lean on the balustrade, which wobbles so alarmingly I immediately stand up straight again.
Georgiou knocks.
‘Hello Billy?’ he says, putting his face close to the door. ‘It’s Georgiou, the physio from the community health team, come to see how you are. With Jim, the nursing assistant. Are you up yet?’
There’s a scuffling noise inside. I’m half expecting a giant squirrel to open the door, and actually I’m not far wrong. Billy is a hunched middle-aged guy, his t-shirt riding up over his belly, huge, dilapidated fur slippers on his feet, a tin of Golden Virginia clutched in his paws in lieu of an acorn. If he ever had a tail, he’d long since taken it off and wrapped it around his head for a beard instead. It seems to twitch as he stares at us.
‘What?’ he says.
‘We’ve come for a physio assessment,’ says Georgiou.
‘What kind of assessment?’
‘We want to see how you are on the stairs.’
‘Me?’ he says. ‘Terrible! There! That was easy! I’ve got the cee oh pee dee whatsit, I’m getting over a chest infection, I drink a bottle of rum a day, so all in all you might say I’m running out of options.’
‘I’m sorry to hear it.’
‘I’m sorry to say it. But what can you do?’
‘I think the first thing would be to get you in a flat nearer the ground.’
‘That’s true. You’re right there. They’re working on that … so they tell me.’
The radio squawks in my hand so violently I almost drop it.
Control to R2! Control to R2! Status update. Over.
I press the button.
‘Yeah. All good, thanks’ I say. Then, as an afterthought: ‘Over’.
Control out.
Billy laughs.
‘You know the best thing about radios, doncha?’
‘What’s that?’
‘The off button. So c’mon then. A stair assessment. Okay. Ready? There’s a fackin’ lot of ‘em. There! Bosh. Done. Thank you very much and goodnight.’

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.’

into the hive

Highdale Lodge sounds like a golfing hotel. Truth is, the nearest it will ever get to a fairway is the smear of grass in the middle of the road running by it, and the only shots the residents make are into-the-vein.

You’d never know it was there if you didn’t know it was there. When the weather’s better you might wonder about the people hanging around, leaning against the wall, but you’d probably think they were something to do with the Magistrate courts in session a few doors down. Because otherwise, Highdale Lodge is ruthlessly, determinedly anonymous, no nameplate or number, utterly forgettable. The building itself seems to sit up from the general run of the street, the first row of windows higher than usual, like the road was subject to flooding or riots. The main door is set back at the end of a narrow recess four or five feet deep, an odd architectural feature, somewhere between an alcove and an alleyway. The door – if you paused long enough to look into the recess – is severe, thickly-painted, double-hinged, more like the fortified entrance to a private citadel than the front door to a hostel. There’s a single, metalled button to the left of it to talk to the staff, linked to a security camera so sturdy it could take a swing from a lump hammer and still be looking down at you.

Everyone who enters the Lodge has to go up a half dozen steps and pass the office counter on the left. It would be a cliche to describe the Lodge as a hive – even though the layout is exactly like a hive, with endlessly bifurcating, shoulder-width corridors leading to a bewildering number of tiny rooms, and everyone who takes you to each particular room seems to do a little wiggle to let you know how to get back – but if I DID feel tempted, and DID describe it as a hive, I’d have to say it would be a particularly busy hive, administratively confusing and always at the point of failure, the kind of hive where every bee has to sign in and out, and many are tagged, and have their stings monitored, and the farmer is at his wits end, desperate for more hives, but you’d have to think there’s no money in honey.

My patient, Keith, seems happy enough, though. To begin with, at least. He stubs out his cigarette and turns on his nebuliser.
‘Sorry about the mess,’ he gasps.
There’s a great smear of damp in the corner, spreading upward like a malignant wave. It’s a poor situation for someone with COPD.
‘I’m hoping to get ah’t of ‘ere soon,’ he wheezes through the mask. ‘It’s a shit’ole. I ave’da go upstairs to the kitchen. Me like I am it may as well be the moon. So it’s not like I even get a decent meal.’

I check him over. Unsurprisingly, his SATS are lower than you’d expect.
‘I don’t need to tell you the smoking’s not helping,’ I say, writing in the folder.
‘Oh – here we go!’ he says. ‘It’s all my fault! Yeah – I know! But listen, mate – it weren’t so long ago they give you a fag with yer bottle a’milk at school. Everyone smoked everywhere, all the time – on the buses, the tube, the pictures. Saturday night, you couldn’t see the cowboys for the smoke! So don’t come round ‘ere blaming me for everything…’
‘I know it’s difficult, Keith. I just meant it’d be better if you could cut down, given how bad your lungs are. Even a little bit. That’s all. There are things around to help, patches and whatnot.’
‘Patches!’ he says. ‘Don’t talk to me about patches! What about them patches over there, eh?’

And he turns away to nod at the damp, and then turns back again, and glares at me over the rim of his mask.

stepping on a crack

We’ve been told to double-up for this one, so Sasha is sitting in her car outside the hostel, waiting.
‘S’up’ she says, winding down the window.
‘Any sign?’
‘They said he left the ward by taxi an hour ago.’
Sasha shrugs and puts her phone in her pocket.
‘Well I don’t know what route the taxi took because no-one’s been in or out since I’ve been here,’ she says. ‘and I’ve been here like forever. A proper stakeout. Wha’d’you suppose is in that pan?’
She nods and I turn to look: an orange saucepan on a window ledge outside the building.
‘Dunno. Maybe it caught fire. Why? You can’t be hungry.’
‘Hungry? I’ve been gnawing the steering wheel.’
‘That’s the Christmas effect. Stretches everything.’
‘Tell me about it. I’ve just been googling gastric bands.’
I yawn, look up and down the street.
‘Maybe he got dropped off just before you came, Sash.’
‘All right. I suppose we oughta knock, then.’
She squeezes out of the car, hauls her bags from the boot, and we both go up the stoop to the front door. There’s a carrier bag of empty jam jars on the top step with a note tied to the top.
For Janice.
‘I think they mean Jamice’ says Sasha, pushing the intercom. A dialling tone – then a crackly voice from some remote location.
Scheme manager mouths Sasha, then leans in to the intercom.
‘Hello. It’s the nurses from the hospital. Come to see Frankie.’
The voice says something we can’t understand. A pause, then the door buzzes and I shoulder it open. There’s another, inner security door – and just as I realise we need  buzzing through that, too, the intercom rings off.
Sasha frowns.
‘You’re gonna have to be quicker than that, Jimmy boy’ she says, then goes back out onto the stoop to push the button again. Another wait. The intercom crackles again, but this time the inner door clicks without any words being said.
‘You’ve done this before,’ says Sasha.
What? says the voice.
‘I said we’re in now, thanks very much.’

The lobby has the beaten, low-lit and musty atmosphere of homeless shelters the world over. Some of the doors have numbers, some of them just the ghosts of numbers. Many of them have been kicked-in and repaired, painted and repainted so many times the panels and joints of the wood have a gloopy, approximate look.
Sasha knocks on Frankie’s door. There’s no reply.
‘Did you ring his mobile?’
‘It went to voicemail.’
‘Try again.’
We both hear it ringing from inside the room.
‘So he’s either ignoring us, gone out again and left his phone, or he’s lying on the floor. Either way we’re going to have to do something.’
‘Let’s see if the scheme manager has a key.’
Sasha goes back to the intercom to explain the situation; I put a bag down to stop the inner door closing again, then go back to the steps beside Frankie’s room and knock a few more times, putting my ear to the door to see if I can hear anyone moving.
‘He’ll be over in five minutes,’ says Sasha, coming back. ‘Anything?’
‘Nah. I don’t think he’s in.’

We wait for the scheme manager.
There’s a door marked Private just behind Sasha.
‘What d’you think’s through there?’
‘I dunno. Wonderland.’
Sasha checks her phone again.
‘What are you looking up now?’
‘Places to eat.’

Even though he sounded miles away on the intercom, the scheme manager is with us in five minutes, exactly as he said. Graham completely fills the hallway, so tall and powerfully built I wouldn’t be surprised to hear that his DNA was ten percent viking and fifteen oak.
‘He’ll be in the hospital,’ he says, pulling an enormous fob of keys from his parka pocket and squeezing between us to get to the door.
‘But he’s only just come out!’
Graham looks at me and smiles.
‘I’m guessing you haven’t met Frankie before?’
Graham presses his lips and shakes his head.
‘It’s always the same. They say medically ready for discharge, Frankie hears it as medically ready for drinking. He’ll have got the taxi driver to drop him at the nearest off-licence.’
Graham knocks on the door, calls out, then puts one of his keys in the lock and lets us in.
‘See?’ he says. ‘Empty.’

The room is as squalid as you’d expect. A scattering of filthy clothes, food cartons, random stuff. The bed is rucked up, seamy – bloody, even, the pillows.
‘He fell over and whacked his head,’ says Graham. ‘That’s why he went in this time.’
Frankie’s phone is on the table. Graham picks it up and balances it in his hand like an urban tracker able to tell where the owner was, what they were thinking, where they were heading, simply by the weight.
‘He must’ve come by to pick up some money and left his phone,’ he says, then carefully puts it down again.
‘We’ll follow it up, reschedule and let you know,’ says Sasha.
‘Thanks,’ says Graham. ‘You know – Frankie’s the sweetest guy. Everyone’s done their best, but it’s hopeless, really. He had everything. Great job. Pillar of the community. But something happened somewhere along the line and he drifted off track. Who knows? Whatever it was it’s turned him into the world’s slowest suicide. Anyway! There you are! Thanks for dropping by! And a Happy New Year…!’

He shows us out and waves when we turn to look.

At the bottom of the stoop we pause to let a young family go by: a bearded guy in a red check shirt and Timberland boots, having an earnest discussion on the phone whilst he pushes a baby in a pram, and a tiny boy carefully skips along the pavement beside him.

‘Poor Frankie,’ says Sasha as we watch them. ‘Maybe that was it. Maybe he stepped on a crack.’

alice in the underworld

Despite having to work in an office that looks suspiciously like a converted cupboard, Alice, the warden is remarkably upbeat.
‘Have you come to see Terry?’ she says, squeezing past a heap of junk out into the hostel landing. ‘Shall I show you the way? It’s a bit of a warren…’
Even though I have been before, I know how confusing the layout is, so I say ‘That’d be great, thanks.’
‘Poor old Terry,’ she says, locking the cupboard/office door behind her then marching off up a set of stairs so narrowly twisting and creaking it’s like being processed the wrong way through the guts of a dilapidated monster. ‘He’s had such a time of it. We’re a bit worried about him, to be honest. He’s wasting away. I mean – he barely eats a thing, and he’s not going out like he used to. Mind you…’ she says, pushing through a fire door and then on through a series of branching corridors, ‘…at least he’s not seeing Keith.’ She turns and frowns at me, as if to say You know – KEITH, then carries on down the corridor. I feel like I’m in one of those nightmares where the way gets smaller and smaller and you end up on your knees tapping with one finger on a door the size of your hand. But suddenly Alice stops, turns on the spot, raps smartly on the door to her left, and goes in.

She’s right about Terry wasting away. What makes his condition worse, somehow, is the contrast between his emaciated body and the dark luxuriance of his beard and hair, curling upwards and outwards with such vigour you’d think they were wigs, stuck on a cadaver for the contrast. Terry’s still in his green hospital pyjamas, an ID band around his wrist. It says in the notes he self-discharged, against advice. Quite how he made it home I’ve no idea, although maybe Keith helped.

The room is a mess. Someone has had a rudimentary go at clearing some space at least, the piles of trash and bags and boxes and clothes pushed to one side of the room, occupying every spare foot of the galley kitchen surfaces and sink, giving the bedsit a lopsided feel. A light breeze plays in from the sea just a fag-flick away through the window, dispelling to some extent the heavy atmosphere in the room.
‘Sorry it’s in such a two-and-eight,’ says Terry, struggling to sit up on the edge of his soiled bed and then picking at his nails. ‘I haven’t had a chance to tidy up.’
‘We’ll get it sorted, Terry,’ says Alice. ‘Anyway. Listen. There’s a support worker guy coming later with some supplies. So that’s good.’ She pauses a moment, raising her eyebrows and smiling, to let the good news percolate through, I suppose. Terry waves his hand; she nods emphatically again. ‘’Okay! I’ll leave you to it, then,’ she whispers, and quietly closes the door behind her.
‘Damond girl, Alice’ says Terry. ‘They all are.’
‘I like their office.’
‘It’s a cupboard.’
‘I thought so.’
‘They ‘ain’t got no money for nuthin’.’
‘No. I guess not.’
‘They do their best though.’

I’m halfway through the exam when there’s another knock on the door and Jack, the support worker steps inside. Jack’s enormous, a bear in a parka, check shirt and caterpillar boots, holding a carrier bag of shopping in either paw. He’s wearing a face mask, and looks startled to see me there without one.
‘Oh!’ says Jack. ‘We were told we had to wear them. You know – ‘cos of the – thing.’
‘It’s fine,’ I tell him. ‘As far as I can tell. Terry’s being treated so it’s not classed as active.’
‘Oh!’ says Jack again. I expect him to take the mask off, but he stands there a moment undecided. Eventually he carries on, ignoring the fact he’s wearing it, so Terry and I ignore it, too.
‘I bought you a selection of things,’ he says. ‘Honey nut cornflakes, bread, milk, biscuits, tea. Y’know. The basics. Alice gave me a list.’
‘That’s kind of you, mate. Thanks,’ says Terry. ‘I need fattening up.’
Jack looks at him, then at me, then at Terry again, then carries on unpacking. Although it’s hardly unpacking – more like stacking – in the one clear corner of the kitchen he can find. He hesitates before opening the fridge to put the milk and butter away, and I expect he’s glad he didn’t take the mask off.
‘There!’ he says, closing the fridge again. ‘All done! We’ll be back this afternoon to talk about some other stuff, but I’ll let you crack on for now.’
‘Okay mate. Thanks again,’ says Terry. Jack clumps out and shuts the door.
‘I can’t complain,’ says Terry, crooking one leg over the other and crossing his arms. ‘I ‘ain’t got no reason not to get better.’

He starts telling me about his recent past. How he fell in with some big time gangster who let him stay in the cottage in his grounds rent free for a little delivery work.
‘Man – you shoulda seen that place!’ says Terry. ‘The house was like a castle. Actually I think it was a castle. He had this pond in the middle of the lawn, and it was filled with these enormous fish, all flood-lit, swimming about like bastards. Each one of ‘em worth a monkey. And the cars he had. From little fancy Italian sports jobbies to big fuck-off landrovers, all of ‘em in temperature controlled stables.’
‘Didn’t have any horses then?’
‘Horses? Nah! He didn’t like horses. ‘Cept down the track. Anyway, one night I was in the cottage, minding my own, having a little puff, when there was all these flashing lights outside, and I know it sounds stupid but at first I thought some’ink had gone wrong with the fish pond. But then it was all like Police! Open up! And I’m like How do I know you’re the old bill? Anyone can shout anything. So they smashes the door down and they drag me outside. They were after my mate, ‘course. Same old story. They was always trying it on. But they didn’t have nothing. He was a lot of things, but he wasn’t careless.’
‘So then what happened?’
‘It all went a bit Pete, I didn’t have no scratch, so I split.’
He shrugs, then leans forwards on his folded arms to inspect his leg as it kicks up and down.
‘Funny how it goes, innit?’