stepping on a crack

We’ve been told to double-up for this one, so Sasha is sitting in her car outside the hostel, waiting.
‘S’up’ she says, winding down the window.
‘Any sign?’
‘They said he left the ward by taxi an hour ago.’
Sasha shrugs and puts her phone in her pocket.
‘Well I don’t know what route the taxi took because no-one’s been in or out since I’ve been here,’ she says. ‘and I’ve been here like forever. A proper stakeout. Wha’d’you suppose is in that pan?’
She nods and I turn to look: an orange saucepan on a window ledge outside the building.
‘Dunno. Maybe it caught fire. Why? You can’t be hungry.’
‘Hungry? I’ve been gnawing the steering wheel.’
‘That’s the Christmas effect. Stretches everything.’
‘Tell me about it. I’ve just been googling gastric bands.’
I yawn, look up and down the street.
‘Maybe he got dropped off just before you came, Sash.’
‘All right. I suppose we oughta knock, then.’
She squeezes out of the car, hauls her bags from the boot, and we both go up the stoop to the front door. There’s a carrier bag of empty jam jars on the top step with a note tied to the top.
For Janice.
‘I think they mean Jamice’ says Sasha, pushing the intercom. A dialling tone – then a crackly voice from some remote location.
Scheme manager mouths Sasha, then leans in to the intercom.
‘Hello. It’s the nurses from the hospital. Come to see Frankie.’
The voice says something we can’t understand. A pause, then the door buzzes and I shoulder it open. There’s another, inner security door – and just as I realise we need  buzzing through that, too, the intercom rings off.
Sasha frowns.
‘You’re gonna have to be quicker than that, Jimmy boy’ she says, then goes back out onto the stoop to push the button again. Another wait. The intercom crackles again, but this time the inner door clicks without any words being said.
‘You’ve done this before,’ says Sasha.
What? says the voice.
‘I said we’re in now, thanks very much.’

The lobby has the beaten, low-lit and musty atmosphere of homeless shelters the world over. Some of the doors have numbers, some of them just the ghosts of numbers. Many of them have been kicked-in and repaired, painted and repainted so many times the panels and joints of the wood have a gloopy, approximate look.
Sasha knocks on Frankie’s door. There’s no reply.
‘Did you ring his mobile?’
‘It went to voicemail.’
‘Try again.’
We both hear it ringing from inside the room.
‘So he’s either ignoring us, gone out again and left his phone, or he’s lying on the floor. Either way we’re going to have to do something.’
‘Let’s see if the scheme manager has a key.’
Sasha goes back to the intercom to explain the situation; I put a bag down to stop the inner door closing again, then go back to the steps beside Frankie’s room and knock a few more times, putting my ear to the door to see if I can hear anyone moving.
‘He’ll be over in five minutes,’ says Sasha, coming back. ‘Anything?’
‘Nah. I don’t think he’s in.’

We wait for the scheme manager.
There’s a door marked Private just behind Sasha.
‘What d’you think’s through there?’
‘I dunno. Wonderland.’
Sasha checks her phone again.
‘What are you looking up now?’
‘Places to eat.’

Even though he sounded miles away on the intercom, the scheme manager is with us in five minutes, exactly as he said. Graham completely fills the hallway, so tall and powerfully built I wouldn’t be surprised to hear that his DNA was ten percent viking and fifteen oak.
‘He’ll be in the hospital,’ he says, pulling an enormous fob of keys from his parka pocket and squeezing between us to get to the door.
‘But he’s only just come out!’
Graham looks at me and smiles.
‘I’m guessing you haven’t met Frankie before?’
Graham presses his lips and shakes his head.
‘It’s always the same. They say medically ready for discharge, Frankie hears it as medically ready for drinking. He’ll have got the taxi driver to drop him at the nearest off-licence.’
Graham knocks on the door, calls out, then puts one of his keys in the lock and lets us in.
‘See?’ he says. ‘Empty.’

The room is as squalid as you’d expect. A scattering of filthy clothes, food cartons, random stuff. The bed is rucked up, seamy – bloody, even, the pillows.
‘He fell over and whacked his head,’ says Graham. ‘That’s why he went in this time.’
Frankie’s phone is on the table. Graham picks it up and balances it in his hand like an urban tracker able to tell where the owner was, what they were thinking, where they were heading, simply by the weight.
‘He must’ve come by to pick up some money and left his phone,’ he says, then carefully puts it down again.
‘We’ll follow it up, reschedule and let you know,’ says Sasha.
‘Thanks,’ says Graham. ‘You know – Frankie’s the sweetest guy. Everyone’s done their best, but it’s hopeless, really. He had everything. Great job. Pillar of the community. But something happened somewhere along the line and he drifted off track. Who knows? Whatever it was it’s turned him into the world’s slowest suicide. Anyway! There you are! Thanks for dropping by! And a Happy New Year…!’

He shows us out and waves when we turn to look.

At the bottom of the stoop we pause to let a young family go by: a bearded guy in a red check shirt and Timberland boots, having an earnest discussion on the phone whilst he pushes a baby in a pram, and a tiny boy carefully skips along the pavement beside him.

‘Poor Frankie,’ says Sasha as we watch them. ‘Maybe that was it. Maybe he stepped on a crack.’


I’m running late. Jess is opening a charity gig, onstage six thirty. It’ll take forty five minutes to make it there this time of day. I’d been doing so well, too. This decision, that treatment, this referral, that email, this cup of coffee…. frenetically pitchforking my way through the day’s workload like a demented farmer at harvest time. And I thought it was all behind me, and I was good to go. Except the lead nurse caught me and said the district nurses had missed a visit and could I go with David as back-up, because it was in a hostel and that was the policy.
‘It’s just round the corner. Then you can go home from there. You’ll be fine.’
I grabbed my bag and left, calling David on the phone as I went. We agreed to meet outside the hostel. A quick visit. Pretty much a drive-by. I should be out of there in ten.

There is a guy in a dark blue tracksuit and trainers sitting on the steps of the hostel, sipping from a can of lager, watching the cars as they pass along the main drag.
‘Champion,’ he says, raising the can. He has buzz-cut hair that highlights the riot of nicks and bumps that cover his scalp. When he smiles, his teeth are gappy and black.
‘I’m waiting for the other nurse’ I tell him, looking up and down the street. ‘He should be here any minute.’
‘Got ya.’
I lean against the railings and try to look relaxed, even though I’m so hyper I wouldn’t be surprised to see the entire building immediately light up behind me and start to tremble.
‘So how are you?’ I ask the guy.
‘S’all good, mate. All good. I’m moving in to a proper place next week.’
‘Yeah. I was six months sleeping down on the front in a tent.’
‘That’s tough.’
‘I dunno. Some things were. But then y’know what? I’d step out first thing in the morning and there was the sea and the sun, right there, like, and I’d think – shit, man – you’d pay a million quid for a view like this.’
‘Did you ever get any hassle?’
‘Nah. Not much. There were a few of us down there and we looked out for each other. It weren’t too bad.’
‘That’s good then. Still – great to get a place of your own. Especially with winter coming on.’
‘I’m in a bit of a rush tonight.’
‘Why’s that?’
‘My youngest daughter’s playing a gig tonight. It’s like this battle of the bands thing, and she’s opening. Doing a couple of numbers on her loop pedal. And I absolutely can’t miss it.’
‘Well it’s your daughter, man. You can’t miss a thing like that.’
‘I don’t want to’
‘No way.’
‘I’m a musician too, y’know?’
‘What d’you play?’
‘Guitar. And I sing, too. Write me own stuff. We’re organising a gig down on the front in a few months. There’s a guy I know might do us a deal.’
‘That’s great. I’ll look out for it.’
‘Please do.’
He takes another swig from the can and studies me with an appraising, sideways squint.
‘Don’t take this the wrong way, fella, but – y’know what? – if it weren’t for the uniform – you look rough enough to fit right in here.’
David comes striding round the corner.
‘Sorry I’m late’ he says. ‘Let’s do this.’
The guy on the steps stands up and to the side.
‘Tell your daughter good luck from me,’ he says, offering me his hand after wiping it twice on his tracksuit top.
‘Thanks. I will.’
And we hurry inside.