the people upstairs

It’s a long time since Eric managed to paint anything. Years, I would guess, judging by the fine layer of dust on the stack of drawings and sketches on the workbench. But his pens and brushes are still waiting for him, standing in a bunch with their bristles-up, all-angles, in an old chipped mug, souvenir of Barcelona, by a gently composting heap of pastel crayons, charcoal blocks, pencils and a paint-splodged rag.

Alcohol abuse has left Eric with Korsakoff syndrome, amongst other things. At the moment he’s living in supported accommodation, although I learned from the warden that he’s been approved a place in a new facility with higher levels of care – something Eric urgently needs. The opening has been delayed, though. Last minute snagging, she said. Which means Eric will have to struggle through the next six months with carers going in three times a day, and various health teams, the District Nurses, the ambulance and so on – everyone doing their best to help him through the inevitable falls, infections and other crises.

I’ve met Eric before so I know what to expect. He’s difficult to handle, lurching from moments of great anger and anxiety to brief periods of something approaching lucidity. He doesn’t cope with novelty well, gets upset easily, has no short term memory. Despite the best efforts of the carers, the flat always looks ransacked. In fact, the only tidy thing about it is his old workbench, which maintains an eerie and almost magical detachment from the general chaos.

‘They’ve been coming downstairs! Four of them!’ he shouts, slapping the side of his face like a man desperate to wake himself up. ‘In the middle of the night, torturing me!’
‘Who have? What do you mean?’
‘Oh, you know perfectly well what I mean! What d’you think that is? Hey?’
He waggles a finger in the direction of his workbench.
‘They creep down here in the middle of the night, they cut my paintings into tiny squares, and then they stitch them back together so you wouldn’t notice. But I do! Of course I do! And they steal things, too.’
‘What things?’
‘Like this. I mean – for goodness sake.’
He dabbles around on the over-chair table, and finally lands on a pair of nail clippers.
‘I bought these new. I was looking after them. And they’ve taken them away – and they’ve brought them back like this. Well I can’t use them now, can I? They’re disgusting…’
I need to calm him down before I’ll be able to do any obs, so I try to distract him by talking about art.
‘I love your paintings’ I tell him, slowly and innocently preparing my kit. ‘They’re so bold and full of life. Did you go to college?’
He stares at me, breathing heavily – then crosses one leg over the other and laces his fingers in his lap.
‘Yes, actually. Leeds.’
‘Wow. Great.’
‘Do you paint?’
‘Me? No – I do the odd bit of printing sometimes. Linocuts, you know. That sort of thing. I’d like to do more, but any spare time I have tends to be given over to writing.’
‘It’s none of it easy. Look – I’m sorry if I’ve been a little short-tempered today.’
‘Don’t worry about it, Eric. You’ve got a lot on your plate. It’s always nice to see you.’
‘Is it?’ he says. ‘Is it really?’
‘Yes! Now then – can I be a real nuisance and do your blood pressure?’
But just as I move towards him with the cuff, as stealthily as a butterfly collector with a net, Eric changes again.
‘Never mind that!’ he says, leaping up and almost pitching head first into the bathroom. ‘I want you to get me something – oh you know what it is! That thing! That thing that goes between my legs…’

waiting for janice

A nondescript semi.
So nondescript, the estate agents probably made a point of it.
This charming example of a nondescript house is pleasantly situated at the end of a row of equally anonymous dwellings, all with a clear view of the busy main road. Generously provided with four metres of all-weather, low maintenance AstroTurf, front and rear, and ample off-road parking for one, small red or blue car. Railway station five minutes. Hospital, ten.

I ring the bell and wait.

After a while I walk round the side, in case the front door’s out of commission for some reason. It’s only then that I notice a key safe, tucked away behind a down-pipe, like a giant mussel stranded at low tide. Luckily, amongst all my papers, I find a record of the number, so I open the safe, take out the key, and let myself in.
‘Hello? Mrs Rudd? It’s Jim, from the hospital…’

The first thing to hit me is the absolute certainty that Mrs Rudd is not at home.

The second is the alarm.

Not just any house alarm. This is a whole new species, a terrifying, weaponised hybrid Mrs Rudd must have stolen from Porton Down.
‘Jesus Christ!’
I put my things down, run into the hallway, flip the lid on the alarm console and press any button that looks useful. But of course, I know even as I’m doing this that any alarm you could simply turn off when it was tripped wouldn’t be any kind of alarm at all.

I see Mrs Rudd’s yellow folder on the hall table. With the shrieks and hysterical klaxon blasts of the alarm resonating through the house and neighbourhood, I scramble through the folder desperately trying to find a number – anything, any sign or marking that might suggest how I might turn the thing off.
I become aware of a figure on the threshold of the door – an elderly woman, both hands pressed to her ears, either a smile or a rictus of pain it’s hard to tell.
‘DO YOU KNOW HOW TO TURN IT OFF?’ I shout over to her.
She can’t hear me, so I get closer.
But after some elaborate miming and lip-reading I figure out that she’s only come round to ask me to turn the alarm off, so I turn my attention back to whatever the hell else there is to be done.
The folder mentions a friend, Janice, in the Next of Kin section, but there’s no contact number written down, so I have to ring the hospital to see if they can find out. Eventually when I speak to the coordinator, she says yes, Mrs Rudd was taken to hospital that morning, and no, she doesn’t know why I wasn’t told, and what the hell is that dreadful noise? She says she’ll do her best to find a number for the friend, and get back to me.
It feels as if the alarm is invading me, running through me in a horribly invasive way, like when trees grow into metal fences and the iron enters their heartwood. This is probably a pre-terminal sign. Followed by fits, unconsciousness. Death by Sonic Puddling.

I’m forced outside for respite.

People are coming to their front steps, frowning, shaking their heads, folding their arms to emphasise their biceps, staring at me as if they can see the noise swirling out of my eyes and mouth like swarms of infernal bees and why the hell would anyone DO that? It strikes me that this has probably happened before, in which case I’m definitely in trouble. To add to the horror, dozens of school kids have begun streaming past the garden fence.
‘Ahh!’ shouts one kid, putting his hands flat across his ears and bending forwards as if he’s being shot at ‘What the fuck’s that?’
‘It’s an alarm,’ I tell him.
‘Make it stop!’ he says.
‘I’m trying.’
Wha’did he say? shouts his friend, shoving him hard from behind.
He says it’s an alarm.
Haa-haa! laughs the friend, like Nelson in The Simpsons, stopping to point at me. He set the alarm off! He set the alarm off!
I nod and smile – and then, looking up at the alarm box on the outside wall, phone the company.
When eventually I get through to someone, she tells me they only fit the thing.
‘Who they give the code to is their own affair,’ she says. She doesn’t sound that bothered, even though she must be able to hear the alarm in the background.
‘What am I supposed to do then?’
‘I don’t know. Shoot it?’
But she does come up with a better solution.
‘Or you could just try retracing your steps, locking the doors in sequence as you go. It might be one of the old ones that resets.’
‘Brilliant! Great! Thanks!’

I do as she suggests, scooping up my bag, locking first the inner and outer doors in turn, and then waiting on the front step. The alarm changes pitch, dropping fifty decibels to something like a grouchy kind of wail, then drops some more, and then finally – mercifully – falls quiet, a deep and unearthly silence that for a second feels almost as loud as the alarm itself.

I stand there, catching my breath.

The next door neighbour is standing the other side of the low wall, smiling at me in a slightly more relaxed way.
‘Well done!’ she says.
‘I’m sorry to have been such a nuisance!’
‘Ah!’ she says, patting the air. Then goes back inside.

It’s only when I turn to go that I realise I’ve left my diary in the house.

I go through my options, but really – there’s nothing else for it.

I unlock the doors and hurry back inside, rushing through the double doors as quickly as I can.
I grab the diary – just as the alarm kicks in again, a little differently it sounds to me, even more violent, with a new, wounded note in its belly, something like outrage.
And this time, even though I do that thing of retracing my steps and locking the doors in sequence, the alarm does not reset, but actually redoubles in volume (although that could just be tinnitus from the first assault).

The neighbour has come back out into the garden and is standing staring at me over the wall with a look of utter confusion.
Smiling and shrugging, I ring the office again.
Luckily, the coordinator’s been able to find a number for Janice.
‘Thanks!’ I say, my fingers shaking as I redial.
There’s a long pause before Janice answers. I’ve barely managed to say hello before she speaks over me.
‘You’ve set the alarm off.’
‘Yes! I’m so sorry.’
‘I was only there an hour ago.’
‘They took her to hospital.’
‘Yes. I know. But unfortunately they didn’t tell me and I used the key in the keysafe to let myself in.’
‘An hour ago! And now I’ve got to come all the way back there’
‘I’m so sorry. If you tell me the code…’
‘In my slippers.’
‘Yeah, but – if you just …’
The phone goes dead.
I put it back in my pocket.
‘What are you doing?’ shouts the neighbour.
‘Waiting for Janice!’ I shout back.
Then waving to the school kids passing by the garden gate, I sit down on the front step, and as calmly and innocently as I can, do just that.

a job lot

It’s already late when I get there, the sun low on the hills, shreds of pink cloud against a deepening sky.
Roy answers the door with a tea cloth in his hands.
‘Come on in!’ he says, flipping the cloth over his shoulder, shaking my hand warmly and ushering me in. ‘Jean’s just through here. She will be pleased to see you.’
He follows me into the living room, dragging his left foot a little, like his hips are starting to go.
‘What a pair we are!’ he says. ‘A job lot. Aren’t we Jean? A job lot?’
Jean is sitting by the patio window in a high-backed armchair, smiling at us both with as much of a delighted expression as her stroke will allow. She tries to speak, too, and though it’s incomprehensible, Roy seems to know what she means, and fills in the gaps.
I’ve come to change the dressing on her arm. For some reason she can’t help picking and scratching at it, and the wounds have become infected.
‘I did clip the nails on her hand,’ says Roy, ‘but she was still finding a way through it all. Weren’t you, Jean?’
He strokes her hair. ‘Thanks again for coming out. We do appreciate it.’
‘It’s no trouble.’
He stands over me whilst I prepare the dressings.
‘I have to apologise if I smell a little – you know.’
‘I can’t smell anything,’ I tell him. ‘Why – what have you had? Garlic sausage?’
‘Me? No! A little glass of whisky.’
‘I think you’re more than entitled to a glass of whisky. What sort is it?’
‘Famous Grouse.’
‘That’s a good one,’ I say, sounding as if I know about these things. To back it up, I tell him about a job I used to have a few years ago, working for an company that maintained intranets. ‘One of the clients ran a gin distillery,’ I tell him. ‘They showed us round once. It was amazing! These gigantic stills, filling the place, right up to the roof, like giant copper onions.’
Roy laughs.
‘I wouldn’t mind seeing that,’ he says. ‘Mind you – I’m not really a gin man.’
I start cutting off the old bandage. Jean watches me with her eyes wide and her mouth hanging open.
‘Alright?’ I say. ‘I’m just going to use a little bit of sterile water…’

Roy helps out where he can, passing me things, comforting Jean, keeping her distracted. It’s all pretty straightforward and I’m done in a few minutes.

‘Good as new!’ I say, peeling off my gloves and starting to clear up.
‘Here! You might be interested to see this..’ says Roy. He unhooks a framed, black and white picture from the wall. A man in overalls, neckerchief and peaked cap standing on the tracks beside an enormous steam engine.
‘I used to work the locomotives. A fireman to begin with, until I made driver. It’s funny to think of it now, y’know, but on an early turn I used to stop off on the way into the yard for a pint of Guinness. Not for the alcohol, y’understand. For the oomph. I tell you what – it was hard work, shovelling coal, keeping it going. But it was the best job in the world. You got into a sort of flow after a while, and there was nothing you couldn’t do. I’d be all the way to Newcastle and back, and I’d suddenly think hang on a minute! I haven’t had a wee since breakfast! But that’s how it was.’
We both look at the picture for a moment. Roy has one hand on the rail of the cab, one foot on the plate, and he’s standing looking at the camera with such a strong and confident gaze you’d think for tuppence he could pick the whole thing up and wave it over his head.
‘These days the only exercise I get is wheeling Jean along the front,’ he says, wiping the glass with his elbow and then carefully hanging it back on the wall. ‘But we do alright, don’t we Jean? Hey?’
He bends down to give her a kiss on the cheek, and she gives him a big, adoring smile in return, before turning her attention to the new bandage, looking for any weak spots with her other hand.

a view of the sea

There’s a three-quarter length, black and white portrait of Madeleine on the shelf behind her: a young woman in her early twenties, I’d guess, in a French beret and raincoat, sitting in the driving seat of an open-topped sports car. She’s resting her left elbow on the door, right hand on the steering wheel, staring at the camera in a wry and open-faced way, as if she knows – and the photographer knows – that any moment now she’ll be tearing off that beret, throwing it aside and racing off down the road in a scattering of gravel.
Seventy years have past, and much has changed, but Madeleine is looking at me with exactly the same expression.
‘I suppose you’ve come to jab me again,’ she says.
‘I’m afraid so.’
‘Let’s get on with it, then.’
She watches me whilst I fill in the Tinzaparin chart and check the syringe.
‘Married?’ she says.
‘I am, yes. Eighteen years.’
‘Marvelous,’ she says. ‘I was married twice, you know.’
‘Both times for exactly thirty years. To the day.’
‘That’s – consistent.’
‘My first husband was alright, I suppose, but I think essentially we just didn’t mesh.’
‘Thirty years. That’s a long time not to mesh.’
‘One put up with these things. Unlike today, of course. Today it’s like cancelling the papers. George was terribly romantic to begin with, but that petered out and in the end we were more like brother and sister. Until he went bankrupt, and started to drink an awful lot more, and then life became rather sticky.’
‘In what way?’
‘He became bitter about everything. The fact we never had children. The constant moving about. He didn’t like what I had, you see, which is a very strong sense of self. I think he was really rather threatened by that, and I’m afraid he became something of a bully. He hit me, you know.’
‘I’m sorry to hear that.’
‘’The first time I said to him George. You do that once more and I’ll be off. And although he did make an effort to change his ways for a week or two, the writing was on the wall in jolly big letters. He hit me again. Hard, across the face. So hard in fact that I fell backwards into a rose bush. Scratched my stockings and my legs. I was in a frightful state. Anyway, I picked myself up with as much dignity as I could muster, walked myself back into the house, packed a suitcase, and I left him, and I never went back. And there! That was the first thirty years.’
‘So then what happened?’
‘I thought that was that, of course. I was off men for good. But actually what I was off was marriage. And I started to have quite a nice time of it. No responsibilities. I like to think of that time as my golden period. Then I met Pierre. Lovely, sad Pierre. French, y’know. From Paris. I told him I didn’t want anything serious, but he kept on and on in that terribly sad and attractive way he had, and eventually I said Look. We can live together if you like. But that’s as far as I’m prepared to go. So that’s what we did. We lived together for a year or so, and then I thought, well – what the hell? Why not? And we were married, and everything changed again. You see I’d been worried I’d end up with someone like my first husband. What I wanted was someone who was so unlike me there wouldn’t be any clashes. And Pierre and I were certainly different. He was from a terribly poor background, you see. During the war he’d lived out in the mountains, with the resistance. They didn’t even have any shoes, and had to tie newspaper round their feet, creeping into the valley at night to scavenge whatever they could, and lay traps for the Germans. He was captured, I’m afraid, and ended up in a concentration camp. And that was a frightful business. I’m certain it was the source of all his sadness’
‘It’s hard to imagine how awful it must have been for him.’
‘Pierre didn’t ever talk to me about it, though, and I think in the end that was the problem. One day he came home, and instead of walking through to give me a kiss, he went into the bathroom and locked the door. Well I knew straightaway something was wrong, because we didn’t ever lock the door if it was just the two of us. So after a while I went to the bathroom and knocked. He wouldn’t answer, but I kept on and in the end he told me to go away. I did – for as long as I could bear. Then I went back to the bathroom and I knocked again. Pierre? I said. What on earth’s the matter? And he didn’t answer, and he didn’t answer… so I just kept knocking, and I said if he didn’t let me in I’d break the door down. Which sounds pretty hot stuff but it was only a token kind of lock. So that’s what I did. I pushed the door in, and there he was, sitting on the toilet, his head resting against the wall, looking into space. You’re scaring me I said. What’s wrong? But he couldn’t or wouldn’t say, so I called the ambulance. They took him away, and he died three days later.’
‘That’s awful! Do you know what the problem was?’
Madeleine slowly gathers her blouse an inch so I can inject her in the abdomen.
‘They were never terribly specific and I was too upset to inquire. Men’s trouble, something of that nature,’ she says, flinching as the needle goes in. ‘So there we are. That was the end of it. Thirty years to the day. And now here I am, an old woman being jabbed in the tummy, wondering what on earth all the fuss was about.’
She lowers her blouse and settles herself in the chair again.
‘But there are always compensations,’ she says.
‘I suppose,’ I say, posting the used syringe into the sharps bin and peeling off my blue gloves. ‘That’s a very balanced way of looking at it. What sort of compensations?’
‘Well – in my case, a simply marvellous view of the sea!’

the miserable moo

Vera is as formidable as an oak tree. An ancient, wonderfully craggy version, a boundary oak, maybe, with a disposition of knots and old storm wounds that give her a ferocious but at the same time peculiarly forbearing and kindly expression.
‘How did I get like this?’ she says, approximating a walk by rocking from side to side in her vast, rose-pink slippers, pulling the chord of her dressing gown so tight I’m worried her curlers will fly off. ‘Dear oh dear. Sad, innit?’
She stops and gives me a baleful look.
‘Don’t get old’ she says.
‘What’s the alternative?’
‘What’s the alternative? Switzerland.’
She shakes her head and carries on into the living room.
‘Make yourself at home,’ she says, waving dismissively at the sofa, then slowly lowering herself into a well-worn armchair. ‘Mind you, I’ve lived here sixty year and I still ‘ain’t managed it.’
‘I don’t know. Seems like a nice place.’
‘You make the best, d’oncha?’ she says, putting her feet up with an expressive range of ooh-ooh-ooh’s and aah’s.
‘All right?’ I ask her. ‘Do you need a hand?’
‘I need more than a hand,’ she says. ‘What else’ve you got?’
Before I manage to do anything, the phone rings. Vera mutters a great deal as she picks up the phone from the side table, holding it to the end of her nose to scrutinise the number, then making a great fuss of holding it at arm’s length to press the ok button, frowning at the same time, as if she was being asked to do something outrageous, then cautiously and slowly putting the phone to her ear. I can hear the voice on the other end shouting as the phone travels through the air – a man’s voice, saying Nan, Nan, It’s John. Nan?
‘21364’ she says, in a strangely formal voice. But that only lasts as long as it takes to establish it’s John on the other end, and she immediately slumps back into normal Vera again. I prepare the paperwork and get my obs kit out, whilst Vera sighs and tuts and does her best to reassure John she’s all right, and no, she’s all right as far as shopping goes, she’s got enough to last her till Christmas, and yes, she’ll let him know how the appointment goes, and no, she doesn’t want anyone to worry, she hasn’t lived till ninety without learning a thing or two. There’s a moment towards the end of the conversation when John’s seems to be telling her something about himself.
‘Oh? …. What’s that, then? …. You what?…. I thought that was cows…?’
She looks at me, raising her eyebrows and shaking her head, then refocuses her attention on what John has to say.
‘Righto,  then, John. You get better soon, love. And love to the kids. All right? All right? Bye bye, John. Bye bye.’
She thumbs the phone off with the same pantomime of attention as the answering of it, then drops it back with the TV guide on the side table.
‘That was John,’ she says.
‘Yes. He’s always ringing me up to ask how I am and then telling me he’s got it worse.’
‘Why? What’s the matter with him?’
‘Foot and mouth, he says. I thought that was something cows got.’
‘He probably means hand foot and mouth. It’s a viral thing…’
‘Oh. I see,’ she says, but I can tell she doesn’t. ‘That’s all right, then.’
She pats her curlers and rearranges her dressing gown whilst she gets her thoughts in order.
‘Only John!’ she says at last. ‘He’s a bloody postman! Although saying that, maybe they give him a new round that takes in a farm somewhere.’
‘Maybe,’ I say.
She sighs and shakes her head.
‘Hark at me!’ she says. ‘I’ve turned into a right old miserable moo!’

living in the dark

Mrs Butterworth is wearing a cornflower blue chenille dressing gown, its plump collar falling open at the neck. She talks in a soft, sadly undifferentiated way, like fog flowing over the brow of a hill. And whilst she talks, she gently rubs the side of her tummy, in the unconscious way pregnant women sometimes stroke their bumps, although the last time Mrs Butterworth was pregnant it was back in the sixties, and the swelling in her abdomen is now diverticula disease. Behind her on the wall is a photograph – the seventies, I’d guess, with Mrs Butterworth in the centre, smiling brightly, her arms left and right around a smart looking boy standing straight-backed, and a younger girl with bright yellow hair, leaning forwards, her face a little out of shot.

‘Gilly’s not a bad daughter. She’s got her own problems. It goes back a long way. It’s all diagnosed. She’s been on Prozac for twenty years or more. Who knows what she’d be like if she ever came off. She’s had therapy and a few stays in hospital, but nothing seems to do the trick. She’s just fundamentally unhappy, I suppose, and I can’t help blaming myself. But it’s just – I don’t know – what with my recent scare and all this and that, I wish it could be different. Like normal families. My eldest child Peter, he lives in Australia, and he does what he can from there. He rings every other day and whenever his business takes him this way he makes a point of stopping over. What do you need? he’ll say. Just like that. Name it. He’s such a good boy. You wouldn’t think they came from the same place. I know he gets cross with Gilly, but he holds it back because he knows it’ll only make things worse. There’s nothing anyone can do. It’s just such a shame. She only lives three streets away but I’ll tell you something: Australia seems closer. I haven’t seen her since January. To be fair, she did come to the hospital with me that time, when I went in for the operation. I mean – it was a serious thing. They didn’t know if I’d come out of it. I had to sign papers. And the morning of the operation, there I was, sitting in bed waiting to get wheeled through, with this terrible thing hanging over me, and Gilly was pacing up and down, sighing like she does, checking her phone every five seconds. And then she turns round to me and she says I can’t wait here all day. I’ve got things to do!  And she left. And that was that. I didn’t make a fuss. I knew it wouldn’t help. I told Peter about it and I know he was furious, but what could he do? I think he did ring her, though, because when I was discharged she came over to see me. I kept the conversation as light as I could. I mean – what was there to say? But my grandson, James – not the most prepossessing boy in the world. Well James was sitting on this chair with his head down in his phone, jabbing away with his thumbs, and it was all very quiet, so I just thought I’d ask him about school. Right! That’s it! she said. I don’t have to stand here and listen to this! And they left. And that was the last I heard from them. Although I did try ringing her last week, when I needed a bulb changing in the living room. Her husband Trevor answered the phone. Well. He’s not what you might call an attentive son-in-law. Do you know what he said to me? He said Can’t you just stand on a ladder and do it? Me! On a ladder! That’s okay, Trevor I said. I’m getting used to living in the dark.’

a matter of life and death

I can see Jeremy through the window, sitting in an armchair in front of the television, his fingers laced across his bare chest, his eyes closed, the television bathing him in a flickering blue light. I watch for a moment, to make sure that he is actually breathing, and it’s not some animating trick of the light. But then he squeezes his eyes and wrinkles his nose, and adjusts the position of his head on the cushion. I tap on the window again.

Even though the screen is facing away from me, I can tell it’s an old David Niven film. That beautifully modulated, terribly sincere English accent. But you know, are you in love with anybody? No, no don’t answer that…

‘Jeremy? Jeremy! Can you come to the door? It’s Jim, from the hospital.’

He doesn’t respond. I knock again. When he seems to open one eye, I press my ID badge against the pane. It’s no use. He sinks back into what now appears to be a determined kind of sleep.

Not that I’m keen to go in. I’ve already been warned to wear shoe covers, and I can see through the window that the accounts of rotting food and piles of rubbish were no exaggeration. Anyway, even if I hadn’t seen the report, the windowsill would tell me all I needed to know. It’s littered with the husks of flies, lying on their backs with their legs crimped up, so large I’m guessing they just dropped from the air and died from sheer luxuriousness, whilst around them, hyperactive amongst the webby detritus on the windowsill, a multitude of jumpy, crawly things, sensing fresh blood, hurling themselves against the glass.

I take a step back, scratch my head, then try his mobile once again. I can hear it ringing somewhere amongst the trash, but it doesn’t rouse him anymore than my banging on the window.

Even though it looks from here as if he just doesn’t want to acknowledge my presence, I can’t rule out the possibility that he’s unwell with a hypo or something. But just as I try the handle of the door to see if it’s actually open, a woman coughs and says hello from the end of the path.

‘Have you come to see Jeremy?’

‘Yeah. I can see him sitting in his chair but he doesn’t seem to want to come to the door.’

‘I’m Sharon, his neighbour,’ she says, holding out her hand. ‘It’s probably down to me that you’ve been called.’


We chat in the cover of an overgrown buddleia.

‘We’ve been increasingly worried about Jezza,’ says Sharon. ‘He’s been on the slide for some time now, a good few years. Ever since Eric died. Then he lost his job, and things went from bad to worse. He hasn’t put a foot outside the house in eight months or more. If it wasn’t for us and number twenty, he’d have starved to death. He’s skin and bone as it is. And his house. Well, I mean, my god…’

‘I know. I can see through the window.’

‘It’s worse inside.’

‘I’ve got shoe covers.’

‘Yeah? I think you’re gonna need something more than shoe covers. You need one of them bio hazard suits you see in the films.’

She mimes one, holding her arms out to the side, rocking a little from side to side and puffing out her cheeks.

‘I could totally use it,’ I say. ‘But I’ll just have to make the shoe covers stretch.’

‘Good luck with that.’

‘What does his doctor say?’

‘I mean – they have tried, bless ‘em. But it’s difficult. He was driving to the supermarket till recently.’

She turns to look at the wreck on the road outside the house, a mossy old Rover saloon, melting into its tires. ‘Mind you,’ she says, ‘I’m glad he’s done with all that. He was a menace. He used to go at five miles an hour, all the traffic building up behind him, going crazy. And he wouldn’t park so much as randomly stop and get out. It’s a shame. He used to be a nurse, funnily enough.’

I’m just about to ask Sharon some more questions when the front door opens and Jeremy pokes his head out.

‘Ah! Hello Jeremy!’ I say. ‘Sorry to disturb you.’

‘That’s okay,’ he says in a voice as smooth and dry as grease-proof paper. I can see from here how emaciated he is, the ribs and bumps and hollows of his torso a testament to years of self-neglect. He opens the door wider and smiles unexpectedly, with a flare of yellowing stumps

‘How can I help?’ he says.