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.’

alice in the underworld

Despite having to work in an office that looks suspiciously like a converted cupboard, Alice, the warden is remarkably upbeat.
‘Have you come to see Terry?’ she says, squeezing past a heap of junk out into the hostel landing. ‘Shall I show you the way? It’s a bit of a warren…’
Even though I have been before, I know how confusing the layout is, so I say ‘That’d be great, thanks.’
‘Poor old Terry,’ she says, locking the cupboard/office door behind her then marching off up a set of stairs so narrowly twisting and creaking it’s like being processed the wrong way through the guts of a dilapidated monster. ‘He’s had such a time of it. We’re a bit worried about him, to be honest. He’s wasting away. I mean – he barely eats a thing, and he’s not going out like he used to. Mind you…’ she says, pushing through a fire door and then on through a series of branching corridors, ‘…at least he’s not seeing Keith.’ She turns and frowns at me, as if to say You know – KEITH, then carries on down the corridor. I feel like I’m in one of those nightmares where the way gets smaller and smaller and you end up on your knees tapping with one finger on a door the size of your hand. But suddenly Alice stops, turns on the spot, raps smartly on the door to her left, and goes in.

She’s right about Terry wasting away. What makes his condition worse, somehow, is the contrast between his emaciated body and the dark luxuriance of his beard and hair, curling upwards and outwards with such vigour you’d think they were wigs, stuck on a cadaver for the contrast. Terry’s still in his green hospital pyjamas, an ID band around his wrist. It says in the notes he self-discharged, against advice. Quite how he made it home I’ve no idea, although maybe Keith helped.

The room is a mess. Someone has had a rudimentary go at clearing some space at least, the piles of trash and bags and boxes and clothes pushed to one side of the room, occupying every spare foot of the galley kitchen surfaces and sink, giving the bedsit a lopsided feel. A light breeze plays in from the sea just a fag-flick away through the window, dispelling to some extent the heavy atmosphere in the room.
‘Sorry it’s in such a two-and-eight,’ says Terry, struggling to sit up on the edge of his soiled bed and then picking at his nails. ‘I haven’t had a chance to tidy up.’
‘We’ll get it sorted, Terry,’ says Alice. ‘Anyway. Listen. There’s a support worker guy coming later with some supplies. So that’s good.’ She pauses a moment, raising her eyebrows and smiling, to let the good news percolate through, I suppose. Terry waves his hand; she nods emphatically again. ‘’Okay! I’ll leave you to it, then,’ she whispers, and quietly closes the door behind her.
‘Damond girl, Alice’ says Terry. ‘They all are.’
‘I like their office.’
‘It’s a cupboard.’
‘I thought so.’
‘They ‘ain’t got no money for nuthin’.’
‘No. I guess not.’
‘They do their best though.’

I’m halfway through the exam when there’s another knock on the door and Jack, the support worker steps inside. Jack’s enormous, a bear in a parka, check shirt and caterpillar boots, holding a carrier bag of shopping in either paw. He’s wearing a face mask, and looks startled to see me there without one.
‘Oh!’ says Jack. ‘We were told we had to wear them. You know – ‘cos of the – thing.’
‘It’s fine,’ I tell him. ‘As far as I can tell. Terry’s being treated so it’s not classed as active.’
‘Oh!’ says Jack again. I expect him to take the mask off, but he stands there a moment undecided. Eventually he carries on, ignoring the fact he’s wearing it, so Terry and I ignore it, too.
‘I bought you a selection of things,’ he says. ‘Honey nut cornflakes, bread, milk, biscuits, tea. Y’know. The basics. Alice gave me a list.’
‘That’s kind of you, mate. Thanks,’ says Terry. ‘I need fattening up.’
Jack looks at him, then at me, then at Terry again, then carries on unpacking. Although it’s hardly unpacking – more like stacking – in the one clear corner of the kitchen he can find. He hesitates before opening the fridge to put the milk and butter away, and I expect he’s glad he didn’t take the mask off.
‘There!’ he says, closing the fridge again. ‘All done! We’ll be back this afternoon to talk about some other stuff, but I’ll let you crack on for now.’
‘Okay mate. Thanks again,’ says Terry. Jack clumps out and shuts the door.
‘I can’t complain,’ says Terry, crooking one leg over the other and crossing his arms. ‘I ‘ain’t got no reason not to get better.’

He starts telling me about his recent past. How he fell in with some big time gangster who let him stay in the cottage in his grounds rent free for a little delivery work.
‘Man – you shoulda seen that place!’ says Terry. ‘The house was like a castle. Actually I think it was a castle. He had this pond in the middle of the lawn, and it was filled with these enormous fish, all flood-lit, swimming about like bastards. Each one of ‘em worth a monkey. And the cars he had. From little fancy Italian sports jobbies to big fuck-off landrovers, all of ‘em in temperature controlled stables.’
‘Didn’t have any horses then?’
‘Horses? Nah! He didn’t like horses. ‘Cept down the track. Anyway, one night I was in the cottage, minding my own, having a little puff, when there was all these flashing lights outside, and I know it sounds stupid but at first I thought some’ink had gone wrong with the fish pond. But then it was all like Police! Open up! And I’m like How do I know you’re the old bill? Anyone can shout anything. So they smashes the door down and they drag me outside. They were after my mate, ‘course. Same old story. They was always trying it on. But they didn’t have nothing. He was a lot of things, but he wasn’t careless.’
‘So then what happened?’
‘It all went a bit Pete, I didn’t have no scratch, so I split.’
He shrugs, then leans forwards on his folded arms to inspect his leg as it kicks up and down.
‘Funny how it goes, innit?’