There is a battered old works van parked on the verge by the corner of the block of flats we have been called to. As Rae pulls up behind it, a section of plasterboard seems to walk itself around from the side of the van, and it’s only by looking closely that we see a pair of legs and scuffed white trainers staggering along beneath it. We jump out of the ambulance, I grab my bag, and we follow the board.
‘Do you need a hand with that?’
‘No. Thanks. I’m okay.’
A thin boy in a fat man’s overalls, he’s struggling to make the distance. It’s like watching an ant carry a leaf.
Suddenly from round the corner of the block strides a man whose geometric proportions seem more in keeping with these things.
‘There you are!’ he says, planting a great calloused mitt on my shoulder and leading me forwards at what he considers to be a more appropriate pace. The boy drags himself after us with the board.
‘We didn’t know what to do. We haven’t got a key. He was supposed to let us in this morning like he always does. I bet he’s fallen over or something worse. Do you think it could be serious? I suppose you’ll have to break the window. I don’t mind doing it. I’ve got a hammer. Or I could put my shirt over my arm. I don’t mind doing it.’
‘Let’s just have a look first.’
Rae darts ahead into the little lobby, looking for the key safe.
‘Nothing,’ she says. ‘I’ll try the laundry room and wherever.’
‘We were given the number to a key safe,’ I tell the builder, who has rescued the plasterboard off his assistant and leant it against the wall. The boy tries unsuccessfully to straighten up as he staggers off to fetch another.
‘I’ve not seen no key safe,’ says the man, smacking his hands clean on the back of his tracksuit trousers. ‘I’d say he definitely needs a key safe, though. He’s always falling over, from what I hear. You should see it in there. Life of Grime, mate. Life of Grime. Terrible, really. Shouldn’t you be breaking in? Isn’t this what you’d call an emergency?’
‘Have you managed to make contact with Mr Jeffries?’
‘I’ve been banging on all the windows, shouting through the letterbox, but I can’t say I’ve heard much back. He likes to keep his curtains drawn. He’s a strange old fruit. Nice, but a bit – you know - strange. I don’t know what the proper word is these days. Look. I’ve got a tool kit somewhere. Do you want me to smash the window and climb through? I don’t mind.’
Rae comes back into the lobby and says there’s no key safe anywhere and none of the neighbours are answering. Before I can say anything else the builder takes off his shirt and drops it on the floor.
‘It’s a tough door, that one, but I’m happy to break it down. Do you want me to do that? Come on. How else are we going to get to him? Unless I go in through the window. But it’s cheaper to repair a door than a window.’
I foot the bottom of the door. It gives, but the centre feels solid. The mortice lock must be on as well as the Yale.
‘Here. Let me do it,’ says the builder. ‘You’re the brains of the operation, I’m the brawn.’
The boy has dropped off another board outside. He comes into the lobby and settles in to watch, glad of the break, wiping his forehead with the palm of his hand and leaving another long smear of plaster dust. He nods at the two of us, and then encouragingly at his boss.
The man gives a little rocking motion from one foot to the other - testing the solidity of his parquet floor base, or dancing up the aggression inside himself, it’s difficult to tell - then with a determined set to his shoulders he turns sideways on to the door, draws his right arm inwards across his body, and with a bullish grunt launches himself off his left foot and crashes into the door. There is a resonant whump as he connects, a shock wave that ripples through him. It’s like watching a jelly smacked with a wooden spoon.
‘Are you okay?’
The builder walks away from the door, rubbing his shoulder.
‘I’ll go through the window,’ he says.
‘Just a minute.’
‘It’s no bother. I’ve got the tools. It won’t take a minute.’
He turns towards the boy, who jerks back upright and drops his arms like a puppet suddenly thrown back into the action. ‘Don’t just stand there like a lemon,’ says the boss. ‘Get me my tools.’
‘I’ll just have a quick go,’ I say, putting my bag down.
The builder turns to me.
‘Don’t kill yourself,’ says the builder. ‘That’s a solid door there. I’ll go in through the window and we’ll be inside before you know it.’
‘I’ve done a few of these.’
‘Seriously mate. One second and we’re in.’
‘Yeah – but – there’s a technique.’
I swing my leg up and bring my right foot smashing in to the centre of the door. There is a great cracking and splintering of wood; the centre holds, but has moved inwards half an inch. I kick it again, and the door smashes open.
‘Ambulance!’ I shout, and we all charge in.