I look through the letterbox. A dark, trash-filled hallway. Bottles, newspapers, discarded wrappers, scattered clothing. A bare staircase rising steeply to the left, the treads I can see completely cluttered-up with junk. I shuffle up closer to the letterbox to shout through and then listen for a reply, mindful of the rotten sinkhole that undermines the threshold.
Hello? Edmund? It’s Jim – from the hospital.
I straighten up and wonder what to do.
I’ve already tried calling Edmund’s mobile, but it cuts out, number unavailable. I’ve tried his next of kin, too, but no-one answers. The next step is to call the ward he was discharged from – but before I do, it occurs to me that Edmund’s flat is over a shop. Perhaps they know something. I gather my bags and folders and go inside.
The shop is a shadowy, corner-of-the-parade affair, grilles on the windows, just enough light to make you think it’s open, but not enough to make you feel easy about being there. Beyond the empty counter at the back there’s a corridor leading to a workshop of some kind. The whole thing goes back a long way – so far, in fact, I can only imagine it undermines the row, slowly dipping underground, like a burrow excavated by some giant creature who then turned round and hurried back to disguise the opening as an antique shop.
There’s a dull light in the workshop, but even though I say Hello? no-one answers and no-one comes. There’s no bell on the counter, no gong to strike. I say Hello again, then put my stuff down, and wait.
High up on two of the walls are rows of Victorian dolls, perished bisque faces and ropy wigs, pegged out like ghastly exhibits in a public mausoleum. Underneath their slippered feet are shelves of tobacco tins, garish porcelain animals, Pierrot clowns. There’s a glass cabinet freighted with tin robots, jewellery boxes, cards and tops. And then placed in whatever space is left, there are boards of old badges and pins, rusty tin adverts for Guinness and Chesterfield smokes, and ranging in untidy heaps across the floor, racks of comics and Picture Posts, and prints of Twenties’ film stars in fading, polythene wraps.
It’s so quiet I can hear the dolls blink.
Eventually I’m aware of a movement out back – or, if not exactly a movement, then a subtle stirring of the air, the kind of proof of life you might expect in a cave when the hibernating occupant’s disturbed.
A man steps out into my line of sight and waits there a while. I wave. He puts his glasses up onto his bald head and slowly comes through to see what I want.
‘Hi. Sorry to bother you. My name’s Jim and I’ve been sent by the hospital to see how Edmund’s getting on. Edmund upstairs. I wondered if you knew anything.’
I point to the ceiling, the maisonette above our heads.
‘Edmund? He’s in hospital.’
‘I think he’s been discharged. That’s why I’ve come. To see what he needs. You know – carers, equipment, nursing and the rest of it.’
‘But he hasn’t come home from hospital. I was there this morning. They’re keeping him in.’
‘Oh! They told me he’d been discharged.’
The man takes the glasses from his head and begins cleaning them on a corner of his shirt.
‘No, no – Jim, did you say? No, Jim. He’s definitely still there. And thank God, too. Have you seen how he lives?’
‘No. I’ve never met him.’
‘Well then, James,’ says the man, putting his glasses on again, carefully securing the wire arms left and right over the backs of his ears. ‘Follow me…’
He reaches into his pocket, pulls out a bunch of keys and shakes them in the space between us.
‘I have the means!’