How advanced a society is can be judged by how well it looks after its young, its old, and those unable to look after themselves. It is this latter category that fills my thoughts.
I live on the first floor of a council block. I’ve spent half my adult life as a council tenant in buildings whose design is motivated more by saving costs than by providing adequate living space. With walls as thin as tracing paper you get to know your neighbours business and they yours, whether you want to or not. Lives collide. If you’re lucky friendships are made, if not intolerable stress can result.
My neighbour directly above me moved in four years ago. A white man in his early forties, he was a recovering alcoholic. A rock guitarist during the eighties and early nineties but no longer able to play, music was a common ground we could share for a minute or two in the stairwell or along the walkway. His taste in music was eighties AOR with some Thin Lizzy and Status Quo thrown in. A musician myself he’d sometimes knock on my door simply to tell me he liked what I was playing on my bass or guitar.
After a while it soon became clear that his struggle with the effects of alcoholism was far from over. Though no longer drinking it had left him physically ravaged, speech slurred, movement slow, and motivation lacking. His ex-wife used to visit him regularly. From their resultant rows it was clear she still cared deeply for him, and equally clear that he had travelled too far along the road of helplessness with no method of stopping or even slowing down. She would get angry with him for missing appointments she’d made for him. Health appointments, prospective job appointments, missing family occasions or embarrassing himself and her at the few he attended. She’d make ultimatums for him to “sort yourself out” or she’d stop helping him but this had no effect. Soon she wised up and stopped giving them, and eventually stopped coming. His days were spent listening to his small vinyl and CD collection and dreaming. I myself have had many a day, week, month, in this state so I understood and tolerated when the music became an irritant. His flat had minimal furnishing, no carpets or even a rug to soak up sound. I would hear him enter his bathroom, and like a soundscape hear in detail whatever bodily function he was performing. That’s the price you pay when forced to live like sardines. It wasn’t that he was loud, sometimes yes. It was more that being woken by Status Quo at four thirty in the morning can jar the nervous system and seriously mess up your morning!
Gradually his behaviour became more erratic. He was back on the bottle for a while. I’d hear the thump on my ceiling as an empty fell to the floor, followed by the thump of him crashing to the floor on his way to passing out. At least then I knew it’d be quiet for a while. Some days he’d fly into a rage, cursing at the world. He’d open his window and throw possessions out onto the grass below. One night last summer he must have passed out with his CD on repeat. I was forced to endure eighties classic “I wanna know what love is” by Foreigner, seventeen times in a row, loud. The song had been a teenage favourite of mine, not anymore. I banged on his door for fifteen minutes before he woke and turned it off, not before giving me a quick breakdown of the song’s arrangement, oblivious to the inconvenience he had caused. His appearance slowly changed. His face became puffy whilst his body lost weight and his clothes existed on the mere memory of having been washed. He had a bout of pleurisy from which he never fully recovered, and would regularly call an ambulance complaining of chest pains. He’d knock on my door offering me a CD for a pound. I was offered The Rolling Stones Greatest Hits, The Blues Brothers, Cream Live at the Royal Albert Hall. I’d give him the pound but never took the CDs. Last autumn, myself and couple of neighbours decided to contact the council and inform them that he’d reached the point of being unable to care for himself. That he needed health intervention. When I made the call I had to explain that I wasn’t making a complaint or asking for him to be evicted, which seemed to be their singular expectation. I was asking for the state machine to intervene, for Social Services to provide a social service. Our estate manager visited him for fifteen minutes. A young woman clearly more at ease behind a desk than with dealing face to face with her tenants. She explained to me that she’d passed on his details to the health service, which was all she was legally required to do.
This winter was a constant back and forth between hospital and the loneliness of home. I’d hear him screaming down the phone saying he needed morphine for his pain. Again we called the council and were told Social Services were on the case. In March this year I came home from work to find my flat flooded. He’d been taken to hospital but left a tap running. It took two days for the water to build up before leaking into my bedroom, front room, hallway, bathroom, and kitchen. As mad as I was during the subsequent two week dry and clean up, it was confirmation that this man should not be left alone. He’d become a danger to himself and potentially others.
Coming home a few days later I saw an ambulance pull up outside my block, and two paramedics wheeling him out. I was surprised and asked them if they were leaving him by himself. They said they’d been told that he had a care worker on the block. The ‘care worker’ turned out to be his next door neighbour, a young man who had his spare key and who would sometimes shop for him or call the ambulance for him. Feeling angry I told them they couldn’t dump him back in his flat and leave him, as it’d just be a matter of time before they’d have to come back for him. That there was no one to care for him. They replied their job was to drive and deliver. When l next saw him I explained to him the flooding he’d caused in my flat, and asked who was taking care of him. He replied no one, that he didn’t need anyone as he was just waiting to die. I gave him my best “don’t give up” pep talk and he shuffled away muttering “soon”.
The next few weeks were spent with him howling to the gods at night screaming for morphine, and shuffling through the estate during the day. Barely holding on to his plastic bag of discount groceries, eyes puffed, nose running, one shoe on his left foot the other foot in a sock. After another walkway conference with my neighbours we decided to contact Social Services directly. No sooner had we made the decision we learnt he’d died, three weeks ago.
It’s ironic. Many have been the day and night when I yearned for the stillness of quiet. Many were the time when anger engulfed me and I raged at him to “turn it down…. Stop the shouting!” But now when silence and tranquil have returned my thoughts turn to the absolute slow cruelty of his death. As the Council, or rather its private contractors clear out the contents of his flat, giving it a quick clean before admitting the next anonymous sardine, I can’t help but meditate on the unnecessary outing of a flame, once so vibrant and creative. I’ve deliberately not mentioned his name, for his life became that of an unmarked grave. He never achieved martyrdom, didn’t sacrifice for a cause. There will be no demonstrations in his name. Those who pass away silently, away from the bright lights of empathy, sympathy, and eulogy. Those lives branded as bland mediocrity. They provide the last will and testament of this cruel barbaric society. He was only someone’s son, husband, bandmate, and friend.
As am I.