Bill, the manager of the housing association flats, is using some gaffer tape to fix the black rubber cover back on to one of the key safe boxes outside the main door.
‘Thanks for coming,’ he says, straightening up with an audible click. ‘I don’t know what we’re going to do about Jack. It’s the second call today.’
He shows us inside to the lift. It’s already on its way down, disgorging with a shudder an ancient couple who smile at the three of us with amiable confusion.
‘It’s his breathing, in case you didn’t know,’ says Bill, leaning in to me confidentially. ‘Asthma, but he won’t leave his dog. It’s a terrible mess up there, so watch where you put your feet. If you need me, I’ll be down in the office. Don’t expect he’ll go, but see what you can do. All the best to you.’
We ride up to the tenth floor and find our way along booming corridors smelling of chlorine to a battered blue door standing half open. Just below the knocker there is a scrap of paper taped along all four sides. It’s written out in a blocky, green scrawl: ‘no callers papers sales no jahovers witness.’
As I’m reading this, a barrel-shaped terrier waddles out through the gap to meet us. Its body is so inflated it can only move by leaning from side to side, an arthritic kind of sculling action it performs with a grim set to its face. The dog’s eyes are cloudy like worn-out plastic buttons, and its muzzle sprouts a mess of fine white wire.
I push the door open a little more.
The dog – without any change of expression - leans aside to let us pass; its claws clack behind us as we go in.
The air in the flat seems to be made up of two distinct odours - dog piss and filter cigarettes. They fill the atmosphere in visible layers, geological strata of neglect folded one into the other, lain down over many years. Our boots crackle as we walk across the parquet floor.
There is a wheeze coming from the front room. I push the door open.
Jack is sitting in an armchair, leaning forwards, propped up on his arms, his elbows turned out and his hands in.
‘I’m not going,’ he says.
Jack looks dusty, a shop dummy dressed in a fright wig, chequered shirt and braces, then forgotten about in the storeroom.
The dog catches up with us and plops down on his right foot.
We fix up a nebuliser; Jack pulls it over his head in one practised movement.
‘You can’t go on like this, Jack,’ Rae says. ‘You must want help, or you wouldn’t have called for an ambulance.’
‘I don’t want help, I want oxygen.’
‘But we can’t stay here the rest of our lives, can we? You need to come with us, see a doctor, get your meds up to date. You need attention, Jack. I’m afraid you really absolutely cannot stay here.’
‘Well what about Millie?’
‘Millie’ll be fine,’ she says, scratching her behind the ears. ‘Bill says he’ll look in on her.’ Rae flicks me a look –mental note: speak to Bill before we leave. ‘The important thing is to sort your breathing out. One step at a time, Jack. You’ll be no good to Millie if you – er – pass out.’
Jack looks up at both of us.
‘She’s had her walk this morning. I took her out on the mobility scooter.’
‘So she’ll be ok for a little while whilst you come up the hospital. There are ways and means, Jack. We’ll sort it. Important thing is to get your asthma under control.’
He studies us. The silence is underwritten by the spluttering hiss of the nebuliser.
‘Well – okay,’ he says, finally. ‘But I’m not staying in.’
‘Let’s cross that bridge when we come to it.’
And I suddenly have an image of Jack as a painted blue figure on a willow pattern plate, escaping over a rickety wooden bridge in his mobility scooter, Millie in the basket in front, their hair and ears flapping behind them as the housing association pagoda gradually shrinks away below the tree-line.