Monday, May 22, 2006

Down the stairs

We brush past thickly growing camelias and ornamental acers to the front door of the maisonette where Ella lives, and ring the bell. Immediately from high up inside we hear her terrier, Jodie. It comes thumping angrily down the stairs like someone's just kicked a small footstool down from the landing, arrives in the hallway and punches its head through the cat flap. It doesn't make any difference that I've met this dog before and know its name. It ignores my attempts to quieten it down, snarling and licking its bared teeth, making hideous feints at our ankles, periodically withdrawing and then bashing back out again.

A huge man suddenly opens the door. Jodie rushes out and begins sniffing innocently around our boots. 'She'll be down in a minute,' he says, hauling out two bulging bin liners and putting them by the gate. 'She's not happy.'

Ella starts coming down the stairs. The big man nods to us, then disappears back inside.

'Jodie, come on - leave the men alone.' Jodie trots back inside.

Ella emerges. She is wearing a tatty brown coat with a fur collar that must once have been a luxurious piece of trim but which now only serves as a pillow for her lank yellow hair. 'We're late', she says, 'and I'm not on my medication.'

On the ambulance she sits tensed up behind the seatbelt. She tells me that she's not well, doesn't know what she'll do.
'It's not fair. I've spent the whole weekend with the DT's.'
What's that like?'
'Disgusting. I see things - crawling up the walls. I went to A&E twice. I know they're fed up to the back teeth with me. I'm fed up to the back teeth with them - and I haven't even got any back teeth. My last husband knocked them out for me.'
She folds her arms into her stomach and rolls her lips over her gums.

I try to think of a subject that might take her mind off things. I tell her that I think her front garden is looking good.
'Well I want to move.'
'But it's such a nice flat!'
'You can hear everything, everything. Every last word. They like a drink, Jan and Michael. They drink every night. But I suppose they can handle their drink. Not like me. Anyway, I want somewhere without any stairs. God knows I've fallen down those stairs enough times. I'm famous for it. I bounce when I'm drunk.'
'Where are you looking to go?'
'I don't know - anywhere. Anywhere where I can be separate from people. I definitely don't want to live above a big dog. Their dog Pylon's getting old now. He barks and and then he stops and then he barks again - day and night - big, single woofs that drive you insane. When he was younger, he used to be such a playful thing. Jodie adored him. She'd run down the stairs, scoot underneath him, lie on her back and lick his teeth. Now, he's not bothered. Doesn't get off the sofa. Couldn't be arsed.'
Her cheeks twitch beneath the smears of powder she's put on for this. She uncrosses her arms, pulls the belt of her coat even tighter, and then re-folds her arms.

'I hope I get an emergency prescription,' she says, staring out at the shoppers in the high street, 'because this is ridiculous.'

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