Just to the right of Ian’s basement door, set back in an alcove lined with astro turf, is a large, plaster of paris copy of the Venus de Milo, pink and white fairy lights wrapped so tightly round her head and body it’s like the cabling cut off her circulation and caused the arms to drop off. And Venus isn’t the only one suffering. Every conceivable fabulous beast or mythical creature, cast in iron, plastic or stone, has been staked out in the porch area, some in conversational groups, some peeping out from behind fake rocks fitfully lit by solar lamps, some staring down in attitudes of petrified indifference from the few plants still alive in the raised bed behind me. Coming from the dark street down these basement steps into such a muddle of light is like sneaking into a cheap psychedelic grotto without paying. I ring the doorbell – disappointingly normal – and wonder what Ian will look like, as I stand back and wait.
Eventually – after such a long time I wonder if I should ring again – Ian shuffles into view, his pallor and exhaustion made more striking by the colour and fuss around us.
Come in, come in! he croaks. Go through to the bedroom, would you? He waves me through, then slowly closes the door, pausing for a moment to press his nose to the glass, as if he half expected the illuminated Venus to turn and smile back at him.
The flat is like a long and extensive burrow made entirely out of books, Tiffany lamps placed strategically here and there for illumination, along with a glowing square above the messy bed: a large reproduction of a Greek tableau – a naked warrior wrestling a satyr – the whole thing wrapped in white neon rope.
Ian moves to the side of the bed, then collapses back onto it, gradually finding the energy to draw his legs up into a half-tuck foetal position.
‘I won’t ever do it again,’ he says.
I think he means answer the door, but I’m not sure, so I say: ‘Do what, Ian?’
‘Is that what happened when you had the accident?’
He nods, then pushes himself up onto one elbow so he can see me more clearly.
‘Yes. It was such a lovely evening I thought, why not? But then I tripped and fell and cracked my head. When I awoke I was lying here in bed with blood all over the pillow. So I called that number – you know – whatever it is – and the next thing I knew there were two burly men in green standing over me, taking notes. We think you should come with us they said. Oh really? I said. Why should I come with you? Because we think you might have a bleed on the brain. A bleed on the brain? I said. Whatever next? But suddenly I was in hospital, you see? Weeks, I was there. Weeks and weeks. Months, quite possibly, I couldn’t really say. And now here I am, talking to you. Isn’t life strange?’
He smiles at me, and at the same time the lights around the tableau buzz and flicker, as if somehow the neon rope was connected to Ian in some way. Then they blaze on again as brightly as before.
‘Let’s see how you are today, Ian,’ I tell him, unpacking my bag.
‘Oh – if you insist,’ he sighs, then rolls onto his back.