An elderly woman with a vigorously red face and a manner as sensible as her jacket greets us as we come out of the lift. ‘Thankyou both for coming so quickly,’ she says. ‘This way.’
She leads us into a flat so cluttered it is like we are walking into a gigantic box of junk. Piles of magazines, newspapers, cartons of medicine, books, bundles of paper, frameless pictures, empty frames, broken frames, equipment parts – all in stacks on either side of a hallway that was narrow to begin with. In fact, the only surface vaguely free in the flat is the ceiling; the walls are a patchwork of photos and crudely written lists with phrases underlined such as: don’t forget Wednesdays or check pocket for keys.
‘I’m Stephanie. I’m a visitor from the Salvation Army,’ says our guide, leading us through the maze of rubbish like a native with a machete. ‘I’ve started coming to see Emily every week, just to help out with shopping and whatnot. A bit of company. Poor Emily’s not herself today. I’ve not seen her this confused before. I don’t suppose she’ll want to go to hospital, but she’s not coping here on her own. Anyway – see what you think. She’s through here.’
We pass a curling photograph on the wall by the kitchen doorway: a thirty year old woman in a bird’s nest hairdo and tight sweater, posing with her arms around a young boy in front of a black clapperboard house. They both squint confidently out past the photographer, from a blazing forties sun into the foxed half-light of the present.
Emily is sitting in a partially collapsed chair, the enthroned Queen of Decay. Scoliosis has rounded her posture so that she can hardly look up as we say hello, but she tries, lifting her hand slightly.
‘Hello Emily,’ says Rae, picking out a route so she can kneel down in front of her. She touches her hand and smiles. ‘It’s the ambulance, Emily. What’s happened?’
‘Thankyou for coming, dear. I don’t mean to be a nuisance,’ she says. ‘I think the problem is I just need a poop. I haven’t had one in four days and I’m rather sore.’ She pats her abdomen, which does look swollen.
We give Emily a check-over, and then set to persuading her to come with us to hospital. She tuts, rubs her good eye, then suddenly leans forwards.
‘When I took this flat on – some thirty years ago – as soon as I walked through that front door I could sense it. Something was not right. I simply knew that the person who had lived here before had not died a natural death. So I said to the managing agent – a rather smarmy man with damp hands – I said “How did the former occupant die?” He said he didn’t know. So I said “Well, I’m almost positive it was not a natural death.” He muttered something along the lines of “That’s not the sort of thing we go around telling our clients”. But. When I came back to the flat I met a man on the stairs, a man who used to live on the top floor. I asked him about the woman who lived here, and he told me her name was Dabb. Mrs Dabb. And when I asked him did he know if Mrs Dabb died a natural death he said..”
At this point Emily assumes a stage-Cockney accent, widens her eyes, and leans so far forward that Rae has to put both hands against her shoulders to stop her falling out of the chair.
‘.. he said “Nah, she did not. She tried twice to kill herself. Then it was third time lucky.’