Jack isn’t the manager of the building – not officially, at least. He lives in the ground floor flat, the one immediately by the front door, so it seems to have naturally fallen to him to be the gatekeeper – that, and his affable, loose-pawed, friendly old bear kind of disposition. He trudges up the endless stairs ahead of us, the pockets of his gilet stuffed with receipts and pens and things, a John Deere hunting cap tilted back on his head.
‘June’s son lives miles away,’ he says. ‘Which doesn’t help matters. We all look in on June when we can. It’s a friendly building like that. I’m glad something more official’s being done, though. You worry about these things.’
June lives in what must once have been the nursery, the small slanting rooms at the very top of the old building.
‘We’ve got a seagull nesting on the roof so I suppose technically there is someone higher,’ says Jack, wheezing a little as we make the penultimate landing. ‘I must give up the fags.’
‘How long has June been like she is.’
‘Good question,’ he says. ‘Just a minute…’
We stop so he can catch his breath. A young woman comes out of her flat dressed in fluorescent running gear.
‘Morning lovelies!’ she says, her long blonde hair flicking side to side behind her like a tail.
‘Hey Janice,’ says Jack, leaning on the railings. ‘Y’know – one day you too could have a body like mine.’
‘I can dream!’
‘Take it easy’
‘I’ll certainly try!’
We follow her progress, vaulting down the stairs two at a time, then a pause, then the front door slamming far below.
‘Come on,’ says Jack. ‘I’m back with the living again.’
‘Next time let’s take the lift’
The stairs narrow for the final stretch, screwing upwards onto the final landing. The hall light doesn’t work so it’s pretty gloomy, a close, pressed-in feeling that makes you want to start scrabbling through the ceiling to see sky again. Jack leans in and knocks three times on June’s door, a halting sequence I guess is his trademark. June calls from inside: It’s open.
Jack looks at me.
‘We all leave our doors open,’ he says. ‘It’s that kind of place.’
June’s flat is so flooded with light it hurts my eyes. Eventually when I’ve adjusted I see that June is lying on a mattress on the floor, surrounded by a confusing jumble of things, all at different levels. There’s a logic to it, though, and eventually when I see the pattern I’m struck by the adaptations she’s made, how she’s arranged things in sequence to give her something to hang on to as she moves about, working from floor to shoulder height. There’s an ironing board on the lowest rung she’s using as a long shelf, boxes and linen crates to walk up propped on her elbows, a rope she’s tied from the kitchen island to the door of the bathroom, chairs turned back to back, kettles, plates and a shoebox of cutlery and other essentials on the floor. The whole thing has an extemporary, survivalist feel, like the flat was really a capsized boat, and June the castaway who’d been forced to adapt to an upside down world.
I knew from June’s notes she was suffering from POTS, or Postural orthostatic tachycardia syndrome. I hadn’t heard of it before. There were a long list of symptoms – dizziness, palpitations, chest pain, fainting – all brought on by standing up, relieved by lying down again. As with many of these things, some people were more badly affected than others. Unfortunately, June was on the furthest end of the spectrum.
‘Excuse me if I don’t get up!’ she says.