a perch in the square

The thunderstorms they promised have yet to materialise. Instead, a giant grey lid has drawn low over the city, holding down a pressurised heat that makes you long for clear skies and a clean breeze, the sea, and a rock to dive from.

I’m visiting Andrew, a patient whose history of alcohol abuse and mental health problems means he needs to be a double-up. I’ve arranged to meet Sandy, one of the nurses, at the address. As well as my obs bag and folder I’m carrying a perching stool, because the notes say Andrew injured himself recently and needs something to sit on when he washes. I’m so hot now I’m tempted to stop and sit on it myself, right here in the street, and just wave for people to go round.

Andrew lives on a new estate, somewhere I’ve been before but only to the outer houses. I’ve heard the private parking arrangements can be fraught, so I take the safest option of leaving my car out on the street and walking through. Rookie error. The estate turns out to be the architectural equivalent of a cavity – a small entrance roadside that quickly opens out into a wide, faux village green, red brick Lego houses on four sides and cul-de-sac arms windmilling off at the corners. Whether it’s the heat, my innate stupidity, the evil planners, or all three, but I cannot figure out the way the numbers run. I take the south side of the green; of course, the numbers are completely wrong. I cut across the green, but in the far corner they’re even lower. I have a sudden, terrible image of myself, discovered years later by maintenance staff when they strim around some overgrown bins, my skeleton sprawled on the rusty perching stool, a squawking crow gothically and ironically perched on me. The maintenance staff taking a picture, uploading it. People commenting yeah right how fake.

Eventually, though, more through luck than judgement, I find myself standing outside the entrance to Andrew’s place. There’s an intercom with half a dozen numbers, high numbers at the bottom, low numbers at the top. Andrew’s buzzer is at the bottom, which means, I’d guess, he lives on the top floor. Great. I put my stuff down, sit on the stool, and wait.

Sandy rings. She’s lost. The satnav has taken her somewhere else entirely. I try to give her directions but it’s only then I realise how little I understand the area myself. We spend five minutes trying to establish which way she’s facing, whether we’re talking about the same convenience store, the same school. I can’t remember whether the entrance to the estate is opposite a boarded-up pub or a church. I’ve walked too far into the estate to walk back onto the road and wave as she drives past. She says don’t worry she’ll drive around a bit and see what happens. I say fine, good luck, see you later.

Take a breath. Take stock.

A large white van enters the square from the far corner, drives round the opposite side and stops in the road facing me. It idles there a second, then a guy in a baseball cap and a face as red as his shirt leaps out, fluorescent tabard wings flapping behind him. He strides round the front of the van leaving his door wide open, throws open the side of the van, grabs out a parcel, hurdles a small flower border with his index finger already extended to press the intercom so forcefully he almost puts it through the wall. He stands there, breathing heavily, looking around. He sees me sitting there and seems to straighten. After a second he nods once, sharply, then spins the parcel in his hand like Billy the Kid. The door opens. Even before the woman has said hello the guy has chucked the parcel at her. She drops it and apologises, but he’s already vaulted back over the border, slammed the side door shut, slid arse-first across the bonnet, thrown himself into the driver’s seat and set off, only closing the driver’s door when he’s made ten yards. The woman slowly retreats back inside. The square falls silent again.

A woman further down on the left comes outside, carrying a folded camping chair in her left hand, a glass of drink in her right, a rolled magazine under the same arm. She drops the chair down onto the scrap of grass outside the main door, pulls the magazine from under her arm, sets the magazine and the drink down, then shakes out the chair, kicking the feet out securely with a crocked foot. When she sees me I wave. She nods back, but in a non-committal way, then carries on setting herself up – a little more self-consciously, it seems to me – occasionally glancing my way to try to figure out quite what I’m doing over here, perched on my perching stool. She must realise I’m an official visitor, though? Black trousers, black shoes, a white polo shirt (the hot weather allowance instead of a tunic), an ID badge hanging from my belt. But then – if I’m visiting, why am I sitting outside the house and not going in? There’s no way of miming that I’m waiting for a colleague, and I’m certainly not going over there to explain. Because what if she isn’t wondering what I’m doing? Maybe she’s just happy to see someone else sitting down in the square. You can overthink these things.

My phone rings. Sandy has found the entrance and wants to know whether to drive in or not. I tell her that I didn’t drive in but wished I had. I give her directions to follow once she’s reached the square.
‘This is exciting,’ she says. ‘It’s like in the films when the pilot has a heart attack and the control tower tells a passenger how to fly the plane.’
I agree with her, although when I hang up I try to remember a film where that happened and can’t think of one.

A few minutes pass, more than you’d need to drive round. I wonder whether to ring again.

I look across at the woman again. When she sees me she raises her glass in a cheers way. I smile and nod and mime how hot it is by wiping my forehead and flicking my hand off to the side. But then I wonder if she interprets that as me saying how hard I’m working when I’m patently not.

Sandy pulls up in her enormous car. Watching her drive front first into the parking space is like watching a tanker super-cautiously nudging into dock. After a while she struggles out, desperate to avoid dinking the neighbouring car with her door, which she only manages by using her knuckles as a cushion.

‘I forgot to get the air con gassed-up when it went in last week so basically I am fully cooked now!’ she says. ‘Anyway. Here I am. I made it.’

I fetch the key from the key safe and we struggle up the stairs to Andrew’s flat. We stand in the doorway, puffing and blowing and staring inside.

He’s lying prone on a low sofa, covered in a fleece. The room is unbearably hot, the radiators on, the windows closed. A tropical greenhouse would be several degrees cooler. Sandy looks at me, widening her eyes over the top of her mask, her forehead already glistening with sweat.
‘Andrew?’ she says. ‘Would you mind if we open a window please?’
‘I’d rather you didn’t,’ he says, slowly turning his jaundiced face to the side and giving us both a sad, heavy look. ‘I like it warm.’

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