The elderly mother appears before us in the hallway, as flattened and fixed by her pain as the cardboard figure of a wraith in a Victorian toy theatre.
‘They’re upstairs’, she whispers. ‘Please hurry. Please help them.’ Her husband wraps her to him and manages a smile as I excuse myself past them and struggle up the narrow staircase.
My bags catch on the crudely wrought statues, dusty fossils and stacks of books that are piled on every step. Annuals and encyclopaedias on each level, a precariously balanced collection with no book published later than the 1960s, and the drawings and paintings on the wall looking like the work of a precocious ten year old.
The message on our terrafix had read: ?Cardiac arrest. Male, aged 53.
On the landing I can hear a woman calling ‘Hello? Over here. In this room.’ I follow the voice into a close and cluttered place. It feels like I’m entering a big red nest spun from raw information, every smallest inch covered with collages, maps and portraits, every standable space occupied by a crudely designed piece of furniture, a statue or a little pile of rocks.
The voice comes from the other side of the unmade bed. A middle-aged woman is kneeling beside the body of a bearded man, his arms raised up in front of him like the pastiche of a sleepwalker.
‘They’re here now’, she says into the phone she is holding, and immediately throws it onto the bed, of no more use to her. She stands up and looks at me.
‘I don’t think you’ll be able to do anything.’
I touch her on the shoulder as I move to take her place. She hooks a loose strand of hair back behind her ear and steps aside for me to have a closer look.
Her brother has been dead for some hours. Even though his torso is still slightly warm, peripherally he is mortally cold; where his pyjamas have ridden up you can see that his skin is adopting the blotchy patches of post mortem staining as his blood pools. Rigor mortis has fixed his arms and legs in position, and his neck holds his head straight back on the pillow. His face has the colour of ruined sausage - a dreadful, mottled puce, and his tongue pokes out between his lips.
‘When was the last time you saw your brother?’ I can’t quite bring myself to say ‘alive’. Not yet.
‘Last night. About eleven. Then when he didn’t come down for breakfast…’ She looks at me and presses her lips together. ‘He’s dead, isn’t he?’
‘I’m afraid he is.’
‘I thought he might be.’
She turns round and brushes her skirt. Then she adds, quite matter of factly, ‘Mother is going to take this hard. She buried her sister last week.’
At that point the mother comes into the room, and the father peers round the door behind her. A delicate, desiccated couple, they stare over at me kneeling beside the bed as if I were the strangest thing, a polite but terrible angel come to visit from the future to pray beside their child.
‘Can you - help him?’ she asks me.
‘I’m very sorry – but there’s nothing we can do. Your son is dead.’
She shapes her mouth around a fathomless howl and shrinks a little into herself. I look away, and stroke the hair from her son’s face. ‘I’m very, very sorry for your loss.’
My colleague tells her that we will put her son back to bed and make him comfortable. The mother has to be supported out of the room by her husband and daughter. We lift her son back onto the mattress, arrange the sheets around him, close his eyes and reposition his arms as best we can. I find a chair and place it beside the bed. I go out onto the landing and ask if the mother wants to come and sit with her son. She lets me lead her to the chair. The father stands beside her, and steadies her as she leans forward to stroke her son’s face. I go downstairs to get some more details from the daughter.