I am glad the warden has come to meet me at the door. The instructions for retrieving the key – a code for the keysafe outside, which holds one key for the front door and one for the main keysafe located in the lobby on the left behind the picture of HMS Hood, master key inside that safe, please pull the rope before you go in, please contact homeline to confirm entry – well, they’re just too complicated, especially when I’m on my own, especially at this hour of the night.
‘All right?’ she says, with a smoker’s rasp. ‘It’s only Cecil falling over again. He’s okay. Haven’t I seen you before?’
The warden has bright pink lipstick and bleached yellow hair tumbling in tightly orchestrated curls about her head. I would guess she’s about sixty, but her tanned face is marked by a profusion of leathery creases, as if she’s lived most of her life outdoors. She is packed into a pair of crease-free navy slacks and a plain white cotton shirt; if it wasn’t for her makeup and hairdo, she could pass for a retired whaling captain.
‘I’m sure I’ve met you before’ she gasps.
I follow her into the lobby. She leads me through a succession of narrow corridors to the lift, where she presses the button and we wait. A gloomy aroma of parma violets and flea spray settles around us.
‘Lonely shift for you,’ I say. ‘On all night?’
‘Me? Kind of. But I’m only out and about if there’s something happening, like tonight. Only if rude boys like you come knocking me up.’ She gives me a dig in the ribs. ‘Mostly I’ve got my feet up with a mug of cocoa catching up on the soaps. You ought to get yourself that Sky Plus, mate. I tell you what – it’s a bleedin’ miracle.’
The lift arrives and the doors open with a worrying judder.
‘That doesn’t look too healthy,’ I say.
‘Oh don’t worry. It’s only broken down about five times this week. And if it goes again and we’re stuck for a while..’ she gives me a dentured leer, ‘.. well, it could be worse.’
We step inside, the lift doors close and after an extended pause we are shaken upwards suddenly.
‘Blimey’, I say. ‘Well, I suppose it beats walking. Just.’
‘And that’s not all. I tell you what. This lift is actually haunted.’
‘Haunted by who?’
‘The warden before the warden before me. If you follow. He hanged himself one night, down in the utility room. Poor fella. I never knew him. Until now.’
‘Have you actually seen him?’
‘Nope. But I feel him sometimes. Like a chilly presence, standing where you are now. So I talk to him. I say “All right, Harold? How are you mate?” But he never answers. He just kind of stands there. I don’t think he’s up to any mischief. I just think he wants a bit of company.’
The lift doors open and we step out. She leads me over to Cecil’s door.
‘Hold on, Cecil. Here comes the cavalry.’ And she lets me in.