The docks are lit up with arcs of hard white light. Two great LPG containers stand side by side, laddered and banded with steel hoops, vents of steam drifting upwards from their sides like stubby little rockets on a launch pad. A ship stands at the quayside, chaotic squares and jabs of light along its bulk. The dock looks busy, but there’s no one about and nothing moving apart from a radar arm turning, a flag flapping, steam rising.
The flat we want is in a block overlooking the docks.
‘Great view,’ says Frank, blowing his nose whilst I ring the buzzer.
‘Yeah,’ I say. I know he’ll think I’m being sarcastic, too, but I wouldn’t mind living opposite the docks. I’d sit at the window for hours, watching the timber being unloaded, or a sailor smoking against a rail. At least I think I would.
A young woman skips down the concrete steps into the hallway and opens the door.
‘Hi,’ she says. Her demeanour hangs from her like her dress: bright, but fading after repeated use. ‘He’s upstairs.’
We follow her up two flights and into a flat that smells of dog and toast and sickness. There are two huge metal dishes on the sticky floor of the galley kitchen, both of them the size of mixing bowls.
‘However big are your dogs?’
‘They’re well behaved. They haven’t made a sound.’
‘They don’t bark. The worst they do is mumble.’
She leads us into a sitting room dominated by a deep leather sofa and a widescreen TV. There is a Guitar Hero controller propped against it, and a pile of other games stacked neatly alongside. On the wall there are posters tacked up, arty blue prints of American Indians in profile, dreaming of wolves, forests, galloping horses and low moons.
There is a groan from another room.
‘He’s on the toilet. He’s been there for hours.’ She shows us through. As we turn the corner she gives a vapid little spread of her fingers and says: ‘Ta-dah!’
Her partner is sitting on the toilet, bent forward at the waist and supporting the weight of his skinny torso with his hands flat on the floor. His legs and arms are so long and thin, the angles so oddly inhuman, it could almost be a giant insect cramped up over there. A pile of vomit lies between his hands that someone – presumably his girlfriend – has draped over with a square of plain white kitchen towel. He looks up briefly, gives us a pale smile, then tucks his head down again.
‘I hope I don’t get it,’ she says, then walks back into the sitting room to let us check him over.
When we rejoin her in the sitting room she’s standing smoking a spitty little roll-up by the window.
‘I’ve only been going with him a year,’ she says, picking a piece of tobacco off her tongue. ‘Well? Is he going to live?’
I tell her that he has a bout of diarrhoea and vomiting – unpleasant, but nothing that needs hospitalisation. As the vomiting has been going on for a while, we’ll ring for an out of hours GP to come and assess him, maybe even give an anti-emetic. Other than that, the best thing is to let it take its course, keep drinking fluids, start back on little amounts of plain food when he’s ready.
She listens, and re-lights her cigarette.
‘Is that it?’
‘Yep. That’s it.’
There is another groan from the toilet.
‘And how much longer do I have to put up with this?’
‘It’s hard to tell. It could be a few more hours. But like I say – we’ll get a doctor out to help with his sickness and give you some more reassurance.’
‘It’s not reassurance I want, it’s a bigger flat.’
Back outside in the truck, Frank sits leaning forward with his arms folded on the steering wheel whilst I finish the paperwork. Suddenly there is the sound of a great whumping crash from the docks.
‘Oops,’ he says. ‘There’s our next job.’
But nothing comes on the radio, and no-one comes running. The lights blaze on as before, and the white vapour drifts up from the tanks, and the arm of the radar on the ship at anchor spins slowly, round and round and round.