Quite how the conversion was done or how it all hangs together it’s impossible to grasp. All you can say with any certainty is that at some point in the last twenty years a substantial Georgian house was designated as hostel accommodation, completely gutted and then divided up into numerous studio flatlets. The effect is of a grand old bee-hive. If I was a giant, I could take the roof off and lean in to inspect the interior, layer on layer of compact cells, each divided by nothing more than paper (and all the bees looking up at me, shaking their fists).
The cards describing the flat numbers give you a flavour. Random, hysterical groupings, arrows pointing left and right and round the corner – which is where the door to the staircase leading up to Terry’s flat is located, in an alleyway that funnels the wind so furiously it makes my ID lanyard flap backwards over my shoulder and snatches the sunglasses from the top of my head.
Hello. It’s Jim, from the hospital. Come to see Terry.
I put my mouth to the intercom.
Hello! It’s Jim, from the…
The door buzzes and I step inside.
A steep staircase, something of a cubist spiral, steeply rising up and up past flat doors whose numbers seem completely random.
By the sixth floor I’m slowing up and breathing hard. Terry is waiting for me by the door.
‘Why didn’t you say anything when I answered?’ he says, clutching his bathrobe around him.
‘I did… but the… wind was so strong…phew! That’s a long haul!’
‘I suppose you’d better come in,’ he says, and retreats into the flat.
I’m astonished to see how much IT equipment Terry has in his living room. There are laptops, desktops, a 3D printer the size of a small family car, plus shelf after shelf of spare parts, manuals, odds and ends, and then miles of cables of every colour and size, looped chaotically over hooks and hangars and any other appendage that might take them. It’s like climbing to the top of a great pine tree to find a crow’s nest with a fully-stocked workshop, fridge and snooker table.
‘Wow!’ I say. ‘I’m exhausted just carrying my bag’ dropping it down and then sitting in a chair. ‘This is amazing!’
‘I didn’t do it all at once,’ he says.
I want to say that doing any of it at any time would be inconceivable, but I let it pass.
‘I’ve come to see how you are,’ I say. ‘To do your blood pressure and that sort of thing.’
‘What – again?’ he says.
‘I know it’s a pain, but it’s good to get a picture over a period of time.’
‘I suppose,’ he says. ‘I just don’t think it means anything.’
Terry is an extraordinary figure. He’d be a shoe-in for Ben Gunn, if his robe had been woven from grass and not cotton towelling. Terry hasn’t cut his hair in years; it stands out in long, grey strands that, back-lit in the harsh light from the window, looking like the splayed ends of a fibre-optic cable. His thick glasses enlarge and dilute his eyes, holding their rather lost expression regardless of the wild changes of emotion Terry expresses.
‘It would help if it bloody worked’ he says, suddenly enraged, picking up a tablet and then crashing it down on the table again. ‘Windows 7,’ he says, his whole body trembling. ‘All I wanted was to download the driver for my printer so I could bloody well use the thing, but will it do it? Yes, it will.’
‘No – but just wait a minute. Yes, it will download the driver, but it won’t let me load it!’
‘That must be frustrating…’
‘Frustrating? It makes me want to… I want to….’
He tails off, overwhelmed by the injustice of it, his whole head wobbling, as if the sudden change in pressure in his brain had loosened something critical in his neck.
‘What about getting advice on a forum…’
‘Forum? Don’t make me laugh! I haven’t got time for forums. They don’t want to… I can’t…’
It’s simply too much; he runs out of breath.
‘Unfortunately I’m not the one to advise you on this sort of thing,’ I tell him. ‘I struggle to find my way around my phone. I’m a bit hopeless, to be honest. If my daughters were here, though…’
‘Ah. Well,’ he says, blinking hard. ‘Digital natives.’
Terry seems so tortured by his environment it’s strange to think he’s responsible for it. I couldn’t be more confused than if I saw a mouse deliberately lower itself into a vivarium and then sit on a rock, quivering.
‘Try these on,’ he says, in a tone of voice suddenly balanced and conversational. He reaches behind him and hands me a pair of hi-spec glasses, connected to a handheld device that turns out to be some fantastically ergonomic controller. Through the glasses I’m presented with a virtual desktop, so vibrant and unexpected I’m momentarily lost for words.
‘Wow!’ I say, moving my head around and gently experimenting with the controls. ‘That’s – amazing!’
‘Yes,’ he says. ‘It is – or it would be if my hands didn’t shake so much I can’t work the damn thing!’