The additional notes to the job are succinct: man, hates himself. We see a police car outside the entrance to the flats, so there’s no need asking for anything else. I park up behind it, slowing to a crawl to allow for the crowds of lunchtime shoppers to make room. We jump out and ring the intercom.
‘Has someone been murdered?’ asks the owner of the shop next door.
I shrug and smile. We’re buzzed through.
Dove Court has an out of time feel. The arcade of shops beneath the Thirties flats must once have been smart haberdasheries, milliners, gentleman’s outfitters. But those high end businesses have been superseded by charity shops, gift shops, everything under a pound shops, the arcade’s former glories detectable only in faint architectural traces – a fan of leaded glass there above a doorway, the elaborate black and white mosaic beneath our feet.
The lobby to Dove Court is protected by a substantial oak door. It has a besieged look, battered and scoured by the intervening years. There is an automatic closure arm above it, a mechanism so fierce it only allows us the minimum of width or time before it slams shut again.
In contrast to the bright high street, the lobby is cool and shadowed. There is a rounded oak desk to our left, but the last concierge must have palmed his last threepence fifty years ago. Now the office behind it is boarded up, and the counter littered with uncollected post. There is a cakey scent to the air, a spidery-footed mustiness that would have even the most negligent surveyor reaching for his damp meter. But at least the lift works. We head up to the fourth floor.
Incredibly, the first and second floors seem to be given over to offices – a furtive little import/export business, a herbalist with a human figure covered in arcane symbols and a name scrawled in thick green ink. The lift passes on up and then judders to a halt. We are confronted by an elegant wooden board with gilt arrows pointing left and right. The flat we need has no number but we could guess which one it is; the pane of glass in the front door has been put in and replaced by a rough piece of plywood; the lock edge of the door has recently been reinforced.
We knock once and step inside.
The tacky grab beneath our boots confirms what our noses already tell us: this is a filthy place. The carpet, such as it is, has a patchwork flowering of puce, brown and black stains; bin bags spilling with rubbish are placed here and there, clouds of flies bustling up as we pick our way around them; empty bottles of vodka are interspersed with two litre plastic milk cartons filled with urine; there is a half eaten plate of macaroni on the floor beneath the computer table, so dreadful even the flies seem to be erring on the side of caution.
A long, thin man in a shiny grey nylon shirt is sitting up on a camp bed. He pushes his filthy glasses back up his nose and smiles at us, a ghastly expression, involving a dropping of his scrubby white jaw and a generalised exposure of a rack of glistening teeth. A police officer is standing with his hands tucked inside his stab vest, looking at him. The contrast between the two is profound: the man, in a state of utter degradation, the police officer, fit and sharp and powerful. We nod and say hello to them both.
‘Guys, this is Henry. I’ve only just got here myself so I can’t tell you much. We got a call to a possible suicide, not sure where it originated. Your man Henry obviously has a few problems at the moment – I’ll leave you to get some more information whilst I just go over here – and open… this… window.’
We need to work quickly – for our benefit, not the patient. It doesn’t seem as if Henry has taken an overdose or hurt himself in any way, but he obviously can’t stay here.
Henry puts his hands together in an attitude of prayer.
‘Please help me,’ he says. ‘I’ve reached rock bottom.’
Rae sends me back down to the ambulance to get a chair.
I’m as quick as I can be. Back at the front door I try the ambulance trick of taking off my gloves and using them to stop the door closing, but the robotic arm is so fierce it spits them straight out onto the pavement. It’s just started to rain and the air is wonderfully clear and fresh. I look out for the inquisitive shop keeper, but he’s gone back inside. The crowds along the street are busy and bright and full of the affairs of the morning. The contrast is dizzying - the shoppers on one level, the destitute man on another, living in close proximity but as removed from each other as two entirely distinct species.
I troop back upstairs with the chair. Henry throws his arms and legs about in a panic about leaving his bed. It takes some firm persuasion and tactical manoeuvring to get him into the chair whilst maintaining minimal contact. Once he’s on board we wrap the blanket around him. We leave enough to make a little hood – ostensibly to guard against the rain, but in reality to put something between me and his fetid hair.
‘Bit of a fly problem you have here,’ I say as Rae straps him in.
‘I know,’ he says, struggling to free his arms. ‘It’s those bloody foreigners.’
The police officer shakes his head grimly, and holds the door.