There’s nowhere to park on Moreton Street, not even space to pop the car up on the narrow pavements. So I leave it on the wider road at the top along by the railway line and walk back down. I don’t mind, though. The sun has swept out from behind the clouds and the day has come alive. This street is a private and pretty exclusive tributary these days. The old buildings down here, the workshops, the chapel, the railway cottages, they’ve all been meticulously renovated, their brickwork blasted, their roofs made good with slate or thatch, every window and sign and gate made new again. It’s all so ruthlessly authentic, though, it makes me feel a little self-conscious, like I’m walking through a film set. There’s a postie delivering mail the other side of the street, and even he looks like he just stepped out of make-up.
‘Good morning!’ he says, touching the brim of his baseball cap.
(We may have to re-shoot that; I could do better with that last line.)
Rick lives in a flat at the very top of The George pub at the bottom of the street. The George is a relic, an old Helmstone boozer, one of the last old corner pubs still pulling pints. There’s astro turf in the yard at the back so you can sit at the tables under the outside heaters and pretend you’re in the country. They’ve painted the exterior walls a chi-chi, slate blue. They’ve even put dried grass in vases and lines of old books in the window. But if The George was struggling before the pandemic, it’s looking pretty hollow-eyed now. The whole place has an abandoned feel. It’s hard not to think that when the virus has retreated, time will be called for the last time, the scaffolding will go up, and the repurposing will begin in earnest.
It’s been hard getting in touch with Rick. The mobile number I was given turned out not to work, and I had to do some detective work to find an alternative. He definitely needs our help, though. He had some major surgery recently, he’s struggling to get about, and there’s no-one around to help him with the basics.
‘I’ll meet you at the street door,’ he says. ‘It’ll take me awhile to get down, so give me five minutes at least.’
When he does appear, he’s on two elbow crutches.
‘Could you do us a favour?’ he says. ‘Could you go to the newsagents and get me a bottle of Coke, a packet of crisps and The Daily Star? Thanks, mate.’
Rick is as lean and gnarly as an old whippet – if a whippet could live for sixty years working as a hod carrier, tattooing its legs and arms with blurry women and daggers and swallows, smoking spitty little rollups. Apart from his orthopaedic surgery, though, Rick is remarkably fit. His grey hair is so short and square cut I can only think it was done with a chainsaw, and his tan is so deep the bones must be scorched. He talks quickly, and his eyes sparkle like flinty chips.
‘Thanks Jim, thanks,’ he says, throwing himself down on his bed with his bad leg kicked out straight. I put the paper, the drink and the crisps down next to him. ‘Thanks a lot, mate,’ he says. ‘Cheers! I was gasping. Now then. Let me tell you what’s been going on with me. No! Sorry! Where are me manners? You first! You go! Go on! I’ll shut up. Who are you, then? Apart from Jim? Or Jimmy, is it? Nah – Jim. James when you’re in trouble. Just Jim, then. Aah – Jim Lad. Yeah. Sorry.’
Ordinarily he’s thoroughly independent. His flat is tucked away just under the tall chimney pots on the roof, as remote and contained as a squirrel’s nest at the top of a pine tree. For a man who’s lived all his life going up and down ladders it seems pretty appropriate. For a man on crutches the next couple of months, it’s a practical difficulty.
‘I can’t keep asking Billy to get my shopping,’ he says. ‘It’s embarrassing. He’s got his own shit going on. I just can’t keep doing it. Know what I mean?’
‘Have you got any family?’
‘Nah. Not any more. It’s just me. Which is okay most of the time.’
‘So – what happened with the accident?’
‘Well. Funny story. I was running out to go down the bookies when I tripped and fell arse over tit down the first flight of stairs.’
‘Tell me about it. It hurt like a bastard but I thought I’d just bruised myself or pulled something. So I crawled back up to the flat, which took all morning. Lay on the bed, and that was it. I was there all day and night. Couldn’t move or nothing. Eventually I thought I had to do something or I’d starve. So I made it over to the door but the pain was unbelievable. Couldn’t go no further. It was just too much. The door was shut and the key was up on its hook by the side – see? Where it is now? Luckily, I had a crutch propped up in the corner from when I dropped a brick on my foot a few years ago. I used that to knock the key off its hook and then drag it towards me. Another bit of luck – there was a pen and a paper on the table just above me head. I play the horses. You follow?’
‘That was lucky.’
‘It was, Jim. It was. So I knocked that down with the crutch, wrote a note what said I need help. Rest the key on it, then shoved it under the door. When I heard Billy across the landing come back, I banged on the door with the crutch. He come over, saw the note, let himself in, found me in a state, called the paramedics. And that was me sorted.’
‘Sometimes I think – what if I hadn’t had that brick drop on my foot that time, so I had to have a crutch? And then – what if I’d given the crutch back when I should? It was only ‘cos the crutch was in the corner I could do them things what I did and get help. Otherwise I’d have croaked and they’d have been seeing flies coming out under the door and not a scrap of paper.’
‘So somebody up there loves me. Hey, Jim? Somebody loves me.’
He adjusts his position on the bed and winces with the pain. ‘Although – having said that – not so much they wouldn’t trip me up and throw me head first down the stairs in the first place.’