The moment Frank puts his hand on the latch of the gate, a monstrous dog rears up behind it, slamming into the wooden slats, barking viciously.
‘Jesus Christ!’ says Frank, jumping back. ‘The size of it!’
The dog stops barking just as suddenly, and presses its piano-sized head up against the top, breathing hard and looking at us with a cold, shark-black eye.
There is a brief stand-off as the dog – surely the bastard offspring of a Shetland pony and a wolf – stares at us, gauging distances, thicknesses. Then it starts again, coming at the fence with every ounce of hatred in its body. The pine slats shudder.
Just then, a woman appears in the yard. She strides up to the beast, slaps it on the nose and takes its place at the fence, peering at us over the top with much the same expression.
‘It’s only Jessie,’ she says. ‘But come round the front if you don’t like dogs.’
We pick our way along the alleyway, past car parts and carrier bags, and meet her at the front door.
The house would feel crowded if you wore a jacket; as it is, every surface and corner, shelf and recess, is comprehensively junked-up, an accumulation of stuff in settled, dateable layers. We pass a sitting room given over to a wall-sized TV screen and a white leather sofa whose three occupants seem to have absorbed the hue and form of the cushions they lie amongst. They barely look up as we pass.
From the top of the stairs we can hear the anguished groans of a young girl.
‘Baby’s coming,’ says the woman, following behind us.
‘Can I ask what relation you are?’ I say to her. If she had said Great Grandmother I’d have believed it; she has a coarse, desiccated look, a pulling in around the mouth and eyes, and a hint of ash when she shakes her pony tail out.
‘Her mum,’ she says. ‘Jake’s the father. He’s up there.’
We go on into the room of a young teenage girl, fluffy, white, heart-shaped photo frames on the wall, My Little Pony figures on the window-ledge, and a crowd of Care Bears and cuddly Disney characters set four deep along the top of the chest of drawers, jostling for position like some nightmarish audience ready for the show. A small girl is lying on her left side on the bed, her legs drawn up to her swollen belly, her arms clutching her knees. Her eyes are closed, and her damp yellow hair has fallen across her face. Jake, her partner, is sitting on the edge of the bed, one hand draped on her leg, a mobile phone open in the other. He looks up as we come in, and springs away to the side as if we’d caught him cheating.
‘How often are your contractions, Julie?’ asks Frank.
‘I don’t know. It just hurts. Mum!’
‘It’s okay Julie. Listen to the man.’
‘Has everything been normal up till now?’
She still has on her tracksuit bottoms. They look dry.
‘How long has she been like this?’
‘I don’t know. Since about six?’
I know Frank is thinking the same as me. Delivering a baby in this cramped little room would be less than ideal. And taking into account all the variables - the partner, the dog, the people in the room downstairs - the chances of an uncomplicated delivery seem remote.
‘Let’s ride this one out and then we’ll get you down to the ambulance,’ he says. ‘The hospital’s only round the corner.’
‘I’m glad we didn’t have to deliver that one,’ I say to Frank in the cab, clearing the job off the screen.
‘It would’ve been all right,’ he says. ‘We could’ve used one of those Care Bears as a pad.’
Another job comes up immediately.
‘You have got to be kidding.’
Birth imminent, the other side of town.
The other side of town, and even though it’s only five minutes away, for all the differences there are between the two places it may as well be the other side of the world. Whilst the streets of the first estate were set close like the high-sided runs of some penal colony; the feel here is of light and air and space, the sun smiling in an arc across the neat grass verges and gardens of Spring blossom.
Mrs Jessop is on all fours in the bedroom, naked from the waist down and panting to avoid pushing and delivering too fast. Mr Jessop is by her side, rubbing her back and whispering encouragement. We break open the maternity pack. She declines Entonox. The baby’s head bulges out slowly, then after a moment or two the rest of the body follows. She turns and takes the bloody infant on her breast, sobbing and laughing; we help her clear the baby girl’s face; she swaddles her, and lays her on to suckle.
Half an hour later, the midwives arrived and in charge, we’re sitting in the kitchen as a family friend makes us tea. The Jessops have only just moved here. The place is stripped out, back to bare board and plaster. The basics of the kitchen units are in, but everywhere else there is a sense of a bright new home being worked up from a sound base. The main wall of the kitchen is covered in writing – a happy graffiti to be painted over soon and worked into the fabric of the house like domestic white magic – all by the friends and relatives who’ve stopped by to help over the last few weeks, making everything ready for the baby.
‘It’s going to be a lovely place,’ says Frank, looking out into the sweet little garden and sipping his tea. ‘Good choice.’
I look over the graffiti wall again, the signatures and messages, the cartoon flowers and smiling faces. I wonder how many babies will be born today, across the world. And I wonder what’s been written for each of them, and what’s been done, in the days and weeks and months before they came.