‘She’s in a terrible state,’ says the caretaker of the flats, a man as square and brutally constructed as the building itself. ‘Absolutely terrible. No one had seen her for a couple of days, and I had a key, so…’
The lift springs to a halt and the doors slide back.
‘I expect you’re used to these things, but – er – it’s going to be one hell of a job for you.’
‘You’re not selling it, particularly’ says Frank.
We follow the caretaker over to a battered blue door that shows signs of having been kicked in a few times in the past. He knocks on it twice.
‘Vera? It’s Barry again, with the ambulance.’ Then to us: ‘Not that she’ll understand any of that, of course.’
He pushes open the door.
‘She’s under the table in the living room.’
As we stand in the doorway a dreadfully grey and foetid smell billows out around us and on into the pine fresh chamber of the hallway.
‘I told you it was bad,’ Barry says. ‘Poor thing. She’s been bad with the drink before now, but nothing like this.’
‘Hello? Ambulance!’ I say, and we step inside.
Three thousand years ago the early Northern Europeans, in an effort to buy off their gods and make the harvest work that year, would sometimes lead a person out onto the marshland and cut their throat. Then they would lay the body in a shallow grave, cover it with peat, walk away and evaporate into Time. But the body would be drenched in the aseptic waters of the sphagnum moss, would be drawn down into the deepening bog, that black and anaerobic world – until, shockingly, its tanned leather face is suddenly squinting back up into the sunlight again, another bog mummy for the museum, tucked up on its side, with a long dream of suffering playing across its flattened face for everyone to see.
But now - if instead of taking your bog mummy and carefully lying it in a presentation case, you dress it instead in a torn floral nightie, drop it down on some lino and slide it under a chipped white Formica table, and instead of respectfully placing its grave goods alongside it you scatter round the withered feet a half dozen empty bottles of cheap supermarket vodka, and instead of installing a clinical de-humidifier you take a bucket of cold urine and faeces and slop it generously all over your specimen – this is how you will come to see Vera as we see her now, groaning and wailing beneath the table on the other side of the room.
‘I told you,’ says Barry. ‘How on earth are you going to move her?’