I can only think Ann was a philosopher or a physicist – or possibly a witch – because as a memorial, Ann’s Court is something of a gigantic, infernal puzzle. The other possibility is that Ann’s Court is built on some kind of ley-line snarl-up, a geo-locational snag that sends people sensitive to those things immediately insane. There has to be some reason I always get lost here, other than simply being tired and a bit dense. Being built into the side of a hill definitely doesn’t help, so that coming in the front door effectively means you’re starting off in the basement.
To be fair, even the people who live here seem to be confused. The sequence of buttons in the lift starts from lower ground. The designer has circled this button with green plastic, which I suppose in some ways suggests GO or WAY OUT. But it’s clearly not enough, because someone has taped a piece of cardboard with EXIT next to it, written in such a shaky hand I’m guessing it took them some while to find it, too. Each floor has about twenty flats, the corridors exactly the same, every front door identical, the numbers running in such a hectic, jumbled up, any-how order delivery people must come here in teams, calling out to each other at intervals, spooling out meters of fluorescent rope behind them, like cave divers.
So it’s something of a miracle that I find Dorothy’s flat.
She’s sitting in a straight-backed chair, hands on either handrest, an occasional table to her side with a plate of biscuits covered with a draped square of kitchen towel. The room is remarkably empty, with just a television, a small table and two chairs, and Dorothy. There’s a white and black plastic globe on the mantelpiece just exactly like a giant cartoon eye, which I’m guessing is a security cam.
‘Hello!’ I say. ‘I’m Jim, from the rapid response team, come to see how you are this evening.’
‘Hello,’ she says, severely. ‘Have you come to give me my pills?’
‘Yes. And anything else you need.’
‘The pills are on the top of the kitchen cabinets above the cooker,’ she says.
Dorothy watches me closely as I put my bag down and go into the little galley kitchen. It’s as bleak and empty as the rest of the flat. Above the work surfaces and the cooker are a line of cupboards. The door over the cooker looks like the cover to an extractor fan, so I ignore that and open the cupboards left and right: stacks of plates, a few cups, but no pills.
‘Not there!’ she shouts. ‘Above the cooker!’
There are some packets of pills on the very top of the extractor fan cover, although why someone would put them there I’ve no idea. It’s too high for me to reach, so I come out of the kitchen to fetch a chair.
‘What are you doing?’ she says.
‘I’m not tall enough.’
‘What do you mean, not tall enough?’
‘I need a chair.’
‘No one else needs a chair.’
‘Well – they’re probably taller than me.’
It’s odd, though. Even the tallest in our team would still struggle to reach those pills.
I go back into the kitchen and go up on my tippy toes to illustrate how far out of my reach the top of the cupboard is.
‘But they’re not up there!’ she shouts. ‘They’re in the cupboard!’
‘What – this?’ I say, pulling on the extractor fan cover.
‘Dear God – yes!’
It opens. It’s not an extractor fan cover. It’s a cupboard, with a yellow folder and a blister pack of medication.
‘Oh!’ I say, taking them out.
‘Oh,’ says Dorothy, imitating me. ‘Oh.’
Both Dorothy and the security cam scrutinise me as I check the MAR chart against the pills in the blister pack, tick the relevant boxes and dish them out.
‘I swallow this one and crunch that one,’ she says. ‘With these…’ exposing a set of yellowing teeth and clacking them rapidly.
‘Shall I get you some fresh tea?’
‘No,’ she says. ‘I like it cold.’
She takes her pills.
‘All gone!’ she says, poking out a chalky tongue.
When the visit’s all done and I’ve helped her to bed – the bedroom and the bathroom both with the same, giant eyeball cams – I turn out the lights and leave the flat. The floor lights snap on automatically, a vista of identical doors, identical landscape prints on the walls.
I decide not to use the lift, because it’s only three floors up, I need the exercise, and anyway, because of the pandemic, you shouldn’t use the lift unless it’s really necessary.
I open a door that seems to lead to the stairs but instead leads to a laundry room. The door next to it is even worse, opening onto a tiny space that doesn’t seem to have any purpose at all, except maybe as a priest hole. Back out onto the corridor, I decide to follow the exit signs. A white figure striding purposefully through a white door, on a green sign that says EXIT. It couldn’t be clearer. And yes – thankfully – it does lead to a staircase. A staircase that goes straight down, two flights per level, to a deadend landing where the EXIT door is locked with a shatterglass handle FOR EMERGENCIES ONLY. I figure there must be a staircase either end of each landing, the one at the other end leading to the foyer and the real way out. So I go back up to the landing above, and follow the corridor round, past endlessly anonymous front doors, to the EXIT sign at the far end. I reason that because I started up from the Lower Ground, I’ve just walked up to the ground floor, so to get to the Lower Ground exit I need to walk back down. So I’m completely confused to find more flats where the foyer should be. It’s only later I realise that because the block is built into the side of a hill, the EMERGENCY EXIT is actually on the ground floor. And what also doesn’t help is that although there are two flights of stairs per floor, there’s an extra, shorter flight down to the EMERGENCY EXIT. In my disoriented state I hadn’t realised that, because of the hill, I only needed to go up one flight of stairs to get to Ground level, then walk along that corridor to the other end and descend two flights of stairs to get back to the entrance on the LOWER GROUND. It’s simple, really, when you draw a diagram. And slow your breathing.
At the time, though, the only way I could escape from the block was to find the lift and press the button for LG with the shakily written EXIT sign taped next to it. I felt like writing something there myself. Thank you.
Back outside, the crisp Spring air never felt so wonderful. I stand a moment filling my lungs, wanting to throw my arms out to the side like Tim Robbins in The Shawshank Redemption. When I look back down I notice a squirrel, perched on the railings of the adjoining park. It has been staring at me as it chews a nut, but when it sees that I’ve seen it, instantly stops. Its tiny, Squirrel Cam eyes zoom in. Then in one clean motion, it grips the nut between its little yellow teeth, flashes its tail, flips on the spot, and vanishes.