Barbara the social worker tells me about Bob.
‘We’re holding a key, so make sure you take it. I’d bang on the window first though. Just to the left of the door as you look at it. Bang hard because he’s deaf and he won’t hear you. If he’s in of course, which he probably won’t be. He goes out early for breakfast at the cafe on the corner, then spends most of the day in the betting shop, or the catholic church just across the road. He’s got a really strong Irish accent, so good luck with that. And he swears. A lot. Feckin’ this, feckin’ that. But he’s a lovely guy. Used to work with horses.’
I take the key from the wall safe, gather my notes, and head out.
‘Bob? Hello? It’s Jim from the hospital.’
The flat’s dark, and I can’t make out much behind the net curtains.
I ring the bell, then open the door with the spare keys and go inside.
Through a small hallway, then into the main room. A single bed, the covers thrown back. A pair of trousers and a shirt crumpled on the floor, like Bob simply evaporated and his clothes fell away behind him.
I check the flat, half-expecting to see him slumped in the large armchair facing the window, or lying in the bath, or collapsed in the toilet. But the place is cold and quiet and empty.
I lock the place up again and stand in the street, wondering what to do.
It’s half past eight – too early for the betting shop, but across the road the iron gate stands open to the church courtyard. Maybe I’ll try there.
‘Good morning!’ I say to a guy hurrying along the pavement to work.
‘Good morning!’ he says. He probably thinks I’m a priest, in my sensible black jacket, black shoes, hugging my black diary to my chest. He stops to let me cross in front of him, so I raise the diary like the good book and go on into the courtyard.
The wooden outer doors are open. Just inside are two glass doors of matching shape. They give with a sigh and I’m through to the main body of the church, a great, vaulted space lined with rows of white pillars, the ceiling richly ornamented with murals of gold and blue and green. The experience is quite overwhelming and as the glass doors gently swing to behind me I stand still, as stunned as if the gigantic fluted pipes above my head in the gallery had suddenly thundered out a chord.
Except – they’re not silent. A wheezy, whirring noise. Someone’s started work over the far side of the church – an elderly woman, vacuuming the carpet in the chancery. She hasn’t heard me come in. When I shout hello she gives a little start and then stamps on the machine like the voice came from there and she’s shutting it up. When I say hello again, she gets her bearings and then stands squinting at me, pointing the plastic nozzle in my direction, like a gun.
‘Sorry to disturb you,’ I say. ‘I’m from the hospital, I’ve come to visit Bob over the road. I don’t suppose he’s here, is he?’
She looks appalled.
‘I’ll get the father,’ she says, drops the nozzle and hurries away.
There’s the sound of keys in locks, door after door being opened and closed, shuffling slippers on stone flags, then nothing.
I stand waiting.
After a while, the muted sound of voices, doors opening and closing again, then the woman appears, followed by a kindly, red-faced man buttoning up a plaid shirt.
‘Him!’ says the cleaner, pointing at me.
‘Hello there – erm – Father,’ I say. ‘Sorry to disturb you.’
He closes his eyes and shakes his head like it’s no bother at all.
‘Sheila tells me it’s Bob you’re wanting’ he says.
‘Yep. I’m supposed to see him on a health visit but he wasn’t in his flat. They said he comes over here sometimes.’
‘He does, he does, so. Poor Bob. He’s getting on a bit these days. Ninety if he’s a day. Would you not think, Sheila?’
Sheila purses her lips and squeezes her eyes shut, like it’s the saddest thing she ever heard. Then she blinks her eyes open suddenly and catches me looking. I blush.
‘So do you know where Bob is this morning, Father?’
‘Well, you see, what it was now, they came and they took him away to the hospital in an ambulance. Last night. He was that bad. Cursing and swearing and carrying on. Well – you know Bob…’
I smile and nod, even though I’ve never met him.
‘But the fire was quite gone from him, you know? Quite gone. A sad change. A month ago they’d have needed one of them there dart guns. For the horses. And a big net. But no – he went peaceful enough in the end. All bundled up in that little chair they have. I’ll be seeing him later this morning. Is there anything you’re wanting me to tell him?’
‘No. That’s okay. So long as I know he’s safe.’
‘Oh, he’s safe all right. He’s in good hands.’
I’m not sure whether he means the ambulance, or God, or both, so I just smile and nod again. Sheila seems to be on to me, though. She frowns and leans in.
‘Did they not tell you he was taken away?’ says the Father.
‘No. They don’t tell me anything.’
‘Is that so?’ he says, placing a hand on my shoulder and turning me in the direction of the door. ‘Poor fellow! Join the club! Hey, Sheila? Shall we have him in the old club?’
I turn to look, but incredibly, she’s already back at the vacuum cleaner. She stamps it on, then stands there, staring in our direction, the nozzle in the air, hoovering up the motes.