a matter of life and death

I can see Jeremy through the window, sitting in an armchair in front of the television, his fingers laced across his bare chest, his eyes closed, the television bathing him in a flickering blue light. I watch for a moment, to make sure that he is actually breathing, and it’s not some animating trick of the light. But then he squeezes his eyes and wrinkles his nose, and adjusts the position of his head on the cushion. I tap on the window again.

Even though the screen is facing away from me, I can tell it’s an old David Niven film. That beautifully modulated, terribly sincere English accent. But you know, are you in love with anybody? No, no don’t answer that…

‘Jeremy? Jeremy! Can you come to the door? It’s Jim, from the hospital.’

He doesn’t respond. I knock again. When he seems to open one eye, I press my ID badge against the pane. It’s no use. He sinks back into what now appears to be a determined kind of sleep.

Not that I’m keen to go in. I’ve already been warned to wear shoe covers, and I can see through the window that the accounts of rotting food and piles of rubbish were no exaggeration. Anyway, even if I hadn’t seen the report, the windowsill would tell me all I needed to know. It’s littered with the husks of flies, lying on their backs with their legs crimped up, so large I’m guessing they just dropped from the air and died from sheer luxuriousness, whilst around them, hyperactive amongst the webby detritus on the windowsill, a multitude of jumpy, crawly things, sensing fresh blood, hurling themselves against the glass.

I take a step back, scratch my head, then try his mobile once again. I can hear it ringing somewhere amongst the trash, but it doesn’t rouse him anymore than my banging on the window.

Even though it looks from here as if he just doesn’t want to acknowledge my presence, I can’t rule out the possibility that he’s unwell with a hypo or something. But just as I try the handle of the door to see if it’s actually open, a woman coughs and says hello from the end of the path.

‘Have you come to see Jeremy?’

‘Yeah. I can see him sitting in his chair but he doesn’t seem to want to come to the door.’

‘I’m Sharon, his neighbour,’ she says, holding out her hand. ‘It’s probably down to me that you’ve been called.’

‘Oh?’

We chat in the cover of an overgrown buddleia.

‘We’ve been increasingly worried about Jezza,’ says Sharon. ‘He’s been on the slide for some time now, a good few years. Ever since Eric died. Then he lost his job, and things went from bad to worse. He hasn’t put a foot outside the house in eight months or more. If it wasn’t for us and number twenty, he’d have starved to death. He’s skin and bone as it is. And his house. Well, I mean, my god…’

‘I know. I can see through the window.’

‘It’s worse inside.’

‘I’ve got shoe covers.’

‘Yeah? I think you’re gonna need something more than shoe covers. You need one of them bio hazard suits you see in the films.’

She mimes one, holding her arms out to the side, rocking a little from side to side and puffing out her cheeks.

‘I could totally use it,’ I say. ‘But I’ll just have to make the shoe covers stretch.’

‘Good luck with that.’

‘What does his doctor say?’

‘I mean – they have tried, bless ‘em. But it’s difficult. He was driving to the supermarket till recently.’

She turns to look at the wreck on the road outside the house, a mossy old Rover saloon, melting into its tires. ‘Mind you,’ she says, ‘I’m glad he’s done with all that. He was a menace. He used to go at five miles an hour, all the traffic building up behind him, going crazy. And he wouldn’t park so much as randomly stop and get out. It’s a shame. He used to be a nurse, funnily enough.’

I’m just about to ask Sharon some more questions when the front door opens and Jeremy pokes his head out.

‘Ah! Hello Jeremy!’ I say. ‘Sorry to disturb you.’

‘That’s okay,’ he says in a voice as smooth and dry as grease-proof paper. I can see from here how emaciated he is, the ribs and bumps and hollows of his torso a testament to years of self-neglect. He opens the door wider and smiles unexpectedly, with a flare of yellowing stumps

‘How can I help?’ he says.

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