to the guest room

I’ve been coming to this sheltered housing block for years, but if Sheila wasn’t here to lead me to the guest room – down a long corridor, to a sharp, unexpected left through a fire door set back in a recess, out onto a tiny, overgrown patio surrounded by fences, with two doors facing each other, one to an electrical plant room, one to the guest room – I’d never have thought it was there.
‘It’s a good job we’ve got this room,’ says Sheila, talking quietly to me as we walk. ‘Alan wasn’t at all safe where he was. I don’t know if you know the story…?’
‘They didn’t tell me much.’
‘No? Wellshort version – Alan was living in our sister place over the other side of town. He’s a lovely old guy, bit vulnerable, likes a drink, never been any trouble. Then a month or two back he got himself involved with this fella Chris, a nasty piece of work, a real polecat, d’you know what I mean? About twenty years younger, a really aggressive sort, who knocked him about, stole his things, used his cards and I don’t know what else. And then the police got involved but they said they couldn’t do nothing in the end because Alan wouldn’t press charges. Psychological, you see, a lot of it. And he’s such a sweet and scrappy little thing. Skin and bone – that’s it – I’ve seen more meat on a daddy long-legs. We’ve been trying to feed him up, and what have you, and he gets proper grumpy about it, but we can’t just let him starve. All this is short term till we can sort something better. But he can’t go home, not with that Chris hanging around. He knows not to show his face round here whilst I’m on duty. And if he comes when I’m out, I’ve warned the others what to say, and to call the police. And hopefully, even if he does manage to get in, no-one’ll know where to send him.’
Just before she knocks on the door she says to me: ‘And that’s why they call it the guest room, you see? Because if you didn’t know it was there, you’d never have guessed!’
She waits for me to laugh.
‘No? Oh, please yourself…’
I follow her in.

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