The scaffolders have taken their shirts off. The younger one has a smooth, wiry body, and the few tattoos he has up either arm look as fresh and unconvincing as stickers. The two older guys are tried and tougher versions, though. They parade the area of pavement between the truck and the building, great urban silverbacks, territorial grunts and shouts, low-slung bellies on lower-slung jeans, slopping the dregs of their tea into the gutter whilst scrappy England flags snap against the blue sky on poles stuck up behind the cab.
‘Oi oi! Here comes the cavalry!’ they shout as we walk towards the door with our bags. One of the bigger guys grabs the smaller one round the neck and rubs the top of his head with his knuckles. ‘Take him. He’s useless. I think his brain’s gone off in the heat.’
There’s a tray of tea things left on the little stone steps outside the house, china cups on a dark wooden tray, a stainless steel tea pot.
‘Where are our biscuits?’ Frank says back to them as I ring the buzzer.
‘Fackin’ hob nobs, mate. We scarfed the lot.’
Frank shakes his head.
‘You’re gonna need a bigger ladder.’
The tall Regency house rises up behind the scaffolding like an old weathered cake on a seaside theme, a lighthouse set against a cliff of butter cream. The central frontage is a delicate semi-circle, each floor marked with a sash window, the whole building more attractive for the battered face it presents. It looks like a well-loved toy; if the scaffolding was taken away, you could imagine a giant hand unclipping the front, swinging it out, and reaching in to arrange the furniture.
We’re buzzed through.
Inside the hallway a serpentine staircase rises up steeply through the core of the building, a dizzying six storeys, to a skylight visible through the centre, a bright cupola of glass and iron and the segmented sky beyond.
We begin the ascent.
Half way up we hear a woman calling down to us.
‘Keep coming. Don’t give up. Almost there.’
Diana is waiting for us on the top landing. A small, square woman in her eighties, she seems as well put together as the house, a formidable pastel construction, the light pink of her lipstick matching the darker pink of her skirt, her arms folded across a lavender silk chemise, her white hair tightly coiffed like a mother of pearl hat, each earlobe clipped with an ivory button.
‘The silly old fool’s through here,’ she says, turning. ‘He bished his head on the wall.’
We follow her into the flat.
Stanley is sitting on an Ottoman with a bloody tea towel tied around his forehead.
‘Are they here, darling?’ he says, turning his head awkwardly and seeing nothing. ‘Are they here?’
‘Hello, Stanley. We hear you’ve had a bit of a fall. Try not to move until we’ve had a look at you.’
He has a faded military bluster. Prominently displayed on a shelf behind him is a portrait of a man in uniform, straight-backed and serious with a young family beneath the protective wing of his outstretched arm. Time has moved on from that formal arrangement, effecting its usual blessings and depredations, but one thing that hasn’t changed over much is the moustache. Sixty years and still twitching, a bristling little Captain’s nose brush, ready for action.
Whilst I clean and dress the cut over his eye, Frank sits on the edge of a tasselled foot stool and asks him to tell us what happened.
‘This damned slipper,’ he says, stamping his right foot. ‘It tried to kill me.’
‘Well honestly. It’s the stupidest thing. I was getting up to go to the lavatory when this damned slipper..’
‘Well it is! And I give you fair warning, this wretched article is headed straight for the bin. Followed by me, no doubt.’
‘I don’t think it’s that serious.’
‘No? Then why can’t I see out of my left eye?’
‘Because the tea towel has fallen down over it. There. Better?’
‘Oh. Right. Anyway. This damned slipper. It’s been waiting its moment for years and now this. Pitched me head first into a wall. Darling, did I damage anything?’
‘Your head do you mean?’
‘No. The wall.’
‘Darling there’s just the teensiest smudge of awfulness there but I can clean that up. It’s you we’re worried about.’
‘Me? You needn’t worry about me. Tough as old Harry.’
The living room has a studied air, discretely hung with framed prints and paintings of Georgian ladies strolling along the promenade; barges on the Thames; elongated horsemen riding to hounds; decorous skirmishes on the Hindu Kush. Tastefully arranged ceramic pigs ranked in strict height order to a tall floral lampshade and a bronze St George apparently pole vaulting over a dragon.
‘Are we done?’ he says, impatiently bobbing his head. ‘How do I look?’
‘You look an absolute fright,’ his wife tells him. ‘Now be quiet, darling. I have to phone and cancel my appointment with Dr Nick Nack or whatever he’s called.’
She hangs on the phone, playing with the white lead and tutting as she makes it through each of the automated options.
‘Really!’ she mutters. ‘I simply want to be connected.’
Stanley has to go in to have the cut above his eye properly cleaned and glued.
‘Will you be okay on the stairs?’
‘If I can hold on to you I’ll be fine,’ he says. ‘Lead on.’
At the top of the stairs he grips the banister and builds himself up for the descent. I stand in front of him, ready to walk down backwards and play catch if necessary, with Frank on his left holding on to his arm. We’re all set to go when Stanley suddenly shouts ‘Kelly! Kelly!’ as loud as he can down the stair well. Diana comes rushing out.
‘What on earth are you doing? You’ll have the whole building out. Be quiet!’ she says.
Stanley turns to look as far as he can over his shoulder.
‘I just wanted Kelly to see me in all these bandages,’ he says.
‘Oh darling,’ Diane says. ‘Do you really think she’s interested?’
‘Who’s Kelly?’ I ask him.
‘Kelly! The other love of my life.’
‘Come on, Casanova,’ says Frank. ‘One step at a time. Down we go.’