Mr Collins has slid out of his chair onto the floor. He sits sweating helplessly on the rug, like a feverish white elephant in a fisherman’s jersey. The jersey has ridden up as he went down, revealing vast slopes of pale white flesh, four massy limbs on each corner, the legs bound in stained crepe bandages, toes poking out in bundles of cracked and dreadful meat, arms extending helplessly left and right, the left hand resting on a cushion, the right on an ornamental bird cage, where an ancient green budgerigar hops about on the seeded floor pecking affectionately at his finger.
‘The fire brigade shouldn’t be long,’ I tell him.
Mrs Nelson, next door neighbour, next of kin, helps us move what furniture we can to make some space, but really you’d need a small tractor. The flat is packed out with shelves of DVDs, cabinets of photos and ornaments, a sofa heaped up with magazines, books, manuals, and a coffee table banked up with transmitters and receivers, two high aerials extending up to the ceiling.
‘Bit of a radio ham?’ says Frank.
‘Oh yes,’ says Mr Collins. ‘You need something.’
It’s so hot in the flat I want to rip off my clothes and throw a ladle of water on the radiator.
‘I’ve just got to open a window,’ I say.
‘You’ll be lucky. It’s a stretch,’ says Mrs Nelson, perfectly adapted to the environment in a loose Japanese kimono.
There is a gigantic TV screen in front of the window bay; I can just about reach round it to flip the handle of the window, but can’t manage to push it open.
‘I’ll just use this to help,’ I say, leaning over an inch more to retrieve a walking stick from the alcove. As I swing it up I accidentally hook the net curtain line which only seems secured by a pin; it crashes down on my head.
‘Oh my good god,’ says Mr Collins. ‘Mr Bean.’
But when I use the stick to push open the window, the sudden rush of cool night air is worth all the fuss.
As I stand there bathing in the delicious draught, there is a hiss of truck brakes from down in the street.
‘Here they are.’
‘Jesus it’s warm in here,’ says a fireman. They’ve already stripped down to their blue t-shirts, but those are heavy trousers.
‘What’s the plan, gentlemen?’
After some discussion we decide to drag Mr Collins out into the hall on the rug; once there, we’ll have the space to lift him up and onto the trolley. The lead fireman inspects the rug.
‘It’s a good, tough weave,’ he says. ‘I think we may as well lift you with it as well.’
Suddenly the budgerigar squawks, a surprisingly loud sound for such a small animal. It’s a dreadful noise, something like a wire hanger being dragged down the funnel of an ocean liner.
‘What the hell was that?’ says a fire fighter, tentatively lifting a corner of the throw that covers the cage and peering inside.
‘A Mongolian feathered hamster,’ says Frank.
‘I was seriously mis-sold then. Thirty years ago,’ says Mr Collins. ‘Wasn’t I, Bertie?’
‘What’s the bell on the top for?’
‘That?’ says Frank. ‘Bertie gives it a tap whenever he draws blood.’
The fire fighter drops the throw.
‘Don’t listen to them,’ says Mr Collins. ‘Bertie’s a strict vegetarian. I let him out sometimes. I like to watch him fly about. Don’t I? Ye-es. Don’t I? ’
Mr Collins reaches out to the cage again, and we watch as the decrepit bird wipes its beak affectionately against his mitt-thick fingers. The moment passes, and we prepare to move.
‘Come on. Let’s get this rug on the road.’
Between us we manoeuvre the massive armchair out of the way, then grab hold of the rug. We look like some strange version of Twister: four firemen, two paramedics, adopting what positions they can to fit around each other in the restricted space, shifting Mr Collins backwards a foot at a time then re-positioning, calling out tolerances and obstacles, shouting out Stop or Come on, or Go, Yeah, Go, until we’ve made the distance and spill out into the cool vaulted heaven of the hallway.
‘Now then,’ says Frank, straightening up and easing his poor back. ‘If you’re sure you can’t remember the magic word to make this rug fly, Mr Collins – everyone grab a hold, bend your knees, and ...’
On three, he rises into the air.