The worst fears of the neighbours gathered outside on the pavement are realised: Jack is, in fact, dead. Once the door is broken in and we step inside the house calling his name, we find him sitting in his chair, one leg crossed over the other, his head tilted back and his eyes half open, looking like a man pretending to be asleep so he can keep an eye on proceedings. The two police officers go back outside to tell the crowd what’s happened and to find out any more information.
I start looking for personal details – date of birth, registered doctor, medication and so on. There are hundreds of packs of toilet roll and cleaning products neatly stacked in the mahogany cabinet, the utility cupboard and over the fridge. Just as I find a Tupperware container with his medications and repeat scrips, we hear voices in the hallway. The brother has arrived. We hear the policewoman ask him to take a seat on the stairs.
‘I’m afraid I’ve got some bad news,’ she says. ‘Your brother Jack has died.’
There is a ghastly, muffled sob, and the policewoman says: ‘I’m sorry for your loss, Harry. I know it’s not much consolation, but it looks like Jack died peacefully. Do you want to come in and see him?’
After a pause, the door slowly opens.
Harry stands on the threshold of the room, peering across to where his brother is sitting.
‘Let’s make a bit of room here,’ I say, and move a couple of things. Harry must have visited this room a thousand times over the years but now he shuffles uncertainly across the threadbare carpet like he doesn’t know the place at all. He stands quietly in front of his brother, and then stoops forward, as if he’s going to kiss him, but seems to change his mind, and reaches down to pat him gently a couple of times on the shoulder instead. He lets his hand rest there a moment, then turns and looks helplessly back at us.
‘I think it was quick, Harry,’ I say. ‘You can tell by the way he’s sitting. No sign of any distress or pain or anything. I’m sure he died sleeping in the chair.’
‘Yes. Well. He liked his chair.’
‘Would you like to sit down, Harry? Can I get you a drink of water or a cup of tea?’
‘No. Thank you. The taxi’s outside waiting.’
‘We’ll sort that.’
‘You’ll tell him?’
‘Don’t worry. Come and sit a while.’
Frank helps him into a chair. He perches on the edge of it.
‘I came over as quick as I could. Do you think - if I’d got here sooner...?’
‘Jack’s been dead a good few hours I should think.’
‘I couldn’t get hold of him on the phone. I don’t know why I waited – I knew something wasn’t right. I should’ve come over sooner.’
‘It wouldn’t have made any difference.’
It wouldn’t surprise me if Jack suddenly gave a little snort and sat up. But aside from the obvious pooling of blood in his arms there is something else, something more unsettling - a cold vacancy, a complete absence of those myriad ticks and traces of life we subliminally read but never really notice till they’re gone.
‘He only ever used to go shopping at night,’ says Harry, and we all nod as if it explained something. ‘Fifty years as a machine operator for Cluttons in Bedale Street. We grew up together. I’ve known him all my life.’ He shifts uncomfortably in the chair. ‘Obviously.’
‘What do I do about the paperwork? You know – the certificates,’ he says.
‘The coroner’s office will give you a call tomorrow,’ says the policewoman. ‘Don’t worry about that now. Just get some rest for now.’
‘Right. And they’ll call me, will they? I don’t need to call them?’
‘No. They’ll call you. I’ve got your number.’
He struggles to stand up and the policewoman gives him a hand.
‘I’ve got a taxi waiting,’ he says, then glances once more across to his brother, and shuffles back out.
‘Look at this,’ says the policewoman after a moment, pulling a wad of forms out of her pocket. ‘I’ve got all the paperwork on me already. This is my fourth in as many days. I’d stay that side of the room if I were you, guys. I think I’m jinxed.’