The good news? I’ve got the number to the key safe. The bad news? There are about a thousand of them, row upon row of squat black boxes trailing up the wall like mussels on a quayside at low tide. Sometimes you get some detail, initials smeared on in nail varnish, a sun-bleached sticker or a smiley face painted on in Tippex, but in this case, they all look the same. The only thing to do is work through them methodically. I put my bags down and start at the bottom. Flip the rubber cover, punch the buttons, press the release catch. Nope. Replace the rubber cover. Move on to the next. Flip the cover, punch the buttons, press the catch. Nope. And the next. And the next. All the way up to the top. That doesn’t open, either.
Maybe I put the wrong number in. Maybe the number was written down in the first place.
I’ve just pulled my phone out to call the office and check when I become aware of an elderly man standing watching me in the lobby. I smile and wave the phone in the air – a mime that’s supposed to tell him that although I’m more than happy to stand there and phone someone to gain entrance, I’d also be happy to speak to him directly. He stares at me for so long that I guess I’d better go ahead and make the call, but just as the office answers he comes to the door and opens it. I ring off, put the phone back in my pocket and hold my ID badge out to him on its extendable line. He grimaces and draws back. It makes me feel a bit like Max von Sydow in The Exorcist. ‘The power of Christ compels you…’
‘Hello. My name’s Jim. I’m a nursing assistant, and I’ve come to visit one of the residents here,’ I tell him.
He pulls the door aside.
‘What am I supposed to do with all this?’ he says, gesturing to a great pile of plastic containers and cardboard trays, donated food of one sort or another, heaped up in the lobby.
‘Where’d it come from?’
‘Well – is the manager here?’
He shakes his head.
‘I don’t know,’ he says. ‘She’s probably buried under this lot.’
‘It looks like nice stuff.’
‘Would you eat it?’
‘I’m okay, thanks. But maybe you should dig in. You might find something you like.’
He’s not convinced. I leave him standing there, staring at the pile of food as I walk up the stairs.
The corridor that eventually leads to Janet’s flat is guarded by two old women, standing chatting outside their doors. They retreat a little when they see me approaching.
‘You come to see Janet?’ says the first one.
‘I have, actually.’
‘Well she’s not in.’
‘She’s in hospital,’ says the second. ‘The amb’lance took ‘er.’
‘Did it? Oh! I heard she’d been discharged this morning.’
‘What – Janet?’
‘Oh. Well – seeing as I’m here, I may as well check.’
‘Suit yourself,’ says the first one.
‘You be careful,’ says the other.
I’m aware of them watching me as I reach the far end of the corridor and turn the corner.
When I knock the door opens automatically. Janet is sitting on the far side of the room in her riser-recliner. She gives me a tired, queenly wave. I wave back, then put on my PPE in the corridor.
Afterwards, I undress in the kitchen, bag and dispose of the waste, say goodbye, and leave the flat.
The two old women are still standing guard in the corridor.
‘Was she in, then?’ says the nearest.
‘Janet,’ says the other, helpfully.
‘Yes, she was.’
‘Oh. How is she, then?’
‘Bearing up…’ I tell her, and I tap my chest to illustrate.
‘Ye-es,’ the furthest one says, ominously. ‘It’s that corner virus, in’it?’
‘Actually – she was tested and was negative. So that’s a relief.’
‘Can I ask you a question?’ says the nearest.
‘I don’t mean to keep you ‘cos I know you’re busy.’
‘Why aren’t you wearing gloves?’
‘Well – I did when I went in. I put all the protective gear on, because she’s very vulnerable. But I took it off before I came out.’
‘I don’t mean with Janet. I mean when you’re just walking about the place.’
‘I don’t need to. So long as I’m careful to wash my hands and not touch my face I should be alright.’
‘Oh. That’s a shame,’ she says. ‘Only I like a man in latex.’