There’s no reply on the intercom, so I ring the landline. It rings and rings, and I’m about to hang up when suddenly Ted answers, shouting above loud music in the background. I have to introduce myself three times, each time successively lounder, and in the end the door gets released but I’m not convinced he really knew who I was.
These flats always confuse me. About a hundred different entrances, each one serving a narrow concrete stairway that feeds a landing with two flat doors, both so closely facing each other if the doors opened outwards the occupants couldn’t leave at the same time. Ted lives at flat two, two floors up – and doesn’t make sense – but then nothing about this place does. They remind me of those fiddly, Rotostak hamster runs we had when the girls were small (for the hamsters, not the girls). The tubes seemed like they’d be a fun thing for the hamsters when we saw them in the pet store, but the reality was the hamster was too twitchy and traumatised to come out of its box, like I would be if I found out there was a sixth dimension or something.
Ted’s door has a mass of complicated, handwritten signs stuck to it with tape. What he will or won’t accept through the letterbox, who he does or doesn’t want to talk to, where to put parcels if he’s out, whose flat to ring if something goes wrong and so on. Knocking on the door is an act of faith, but whether I do or don’t is a moot point, because he’s playing his music so loud I’m sure he won’t hear me. (Which probably also explains why he didn’t hear the buzzer). The music is Kenny Rogers, ‘You Picked a Fine Time to Leave Me Lucille’. I’m thinking about a line in it I’ve always misheard: ‘four hundred children and a crap in the field’, when Ted opens the door.
‘Oh yes?’ he says, as if we’re already in the middle of a conversation.
Ted actually looks like a hamster, one that’s been crossed over the years with a succession of bookkeepers. He’s about four feet tall in a green tank top and corduroy slacks, tufty hair, pinhead eyes, curved back, handy pink paws, and he jabs his chin up as I speak, as if he’s sniffing the words rather than hearing them.
‘Hi Ted!’ I say, introducing myself, showing my ID. He turns around and shuffles back into the music.
Ted’s flat is exactly like a hamster’s bedding box. Piles of stuff nosed into position all around, access runs through it all that perfectly fit his body.
‘I’m having a bit of a clear out,’ he shouts, rootling around for something. ‘I know it’s a bit of a mess.’
‘Could we turn the music down a touch?’ I shout back.
‘What?’ he says.
At the far end of the room there’s an ornate birdcage, half-submerged in the mess like it’s floating away from a sinking liner.
He’s turned the music down to a Kenny Rogers growl, by means of an invisible knob he can reach without looking.
‘I love a bit of country,’ he says.
Beneath the surface, Kenny is singing: ‘On a warm summer’s evening, on a train bound for nowhere…’
‘Where’s the bird?’ I say, nodding at the empty birdcage.
‘Ruby? She’s there. She drops off her perch when I play my music.’
I want to say ‘same’ but don’t. Instead I wade a bit closer, and there she is – a forlorn little thing, like someone covered their thumb in glue and stuck it in a tub of feathers. She’s cowering among the seeds and shit at the bottom of the cage.
‘Ruby – like the Kenny Roger’s song?’ I say.
‘I suppose so,’ he says. ‘Never thought of it. C’mon! Come and have a look at this.’
I follow him through everything that was ever produced in the world through to a ghastly kitchen.
‘Can you take that?’ he says.
He’s gesturing to a horror show of a microwave – probably the first of its kind ever made – an enormous metal box you probably work with pedals, up on a slant on the worktop, its door hanging open like the last gasp of a dying grease monster.
‘What d’you mean, take that?’ I say.
‘Well… take it away. Put it outside. You know. Dispose of it.’
‘I’m a nursing assistant, Ted. I’ve come to take your blood pressure, not your old appliances. The council will do that.’
‘The council!’ he snorts. ‘But if you’re not willing to do it, that’s fine…’
‘You’ve got to know when to hold ’em, know when to fold ’em…’ says Kenny.
Back at the office I tell Michaela all about it.
‘Don’t talk to me about budgies,’ she says. ‘I have nightmares. I went to see a patient who had a budgie. It was sitting watching us on its perch the whole time, and just as I was about to go, it rolled backwards off the perch and landed feet up in the tray. I didn’t know what to do! I’ve done CPR before, but on a budgie? How would you even do the beak?’
She mimes doing compressions on the palm of her hand.
‘Oh my god! So what DID you do?’
‘I took the budgie out of the cage, wrapped it in a hankie and gave it to her. I asked her if there was anything I could do, anyone she wanted me to call. She said no, she just wanted to be alone. So that was it. I left. I felt terrible.’
‘I can still hear the sound if I close my eyes. A little feathery thunk.’
We’re both silent for a second or two, imagining the sound. Then Michaela brightens again.
‘Not a great look. A nurse walks in, your budgie has a cardiac arrest. But what can you say – I’m a nurse, not a vet. Anything else to handover?’