The two decorators who found the body are smoking out on the stoop. The brilliant afternoon sunshine picks out the white of their overalls and the white flecks of paint in their hair and beards. There is already an ambulance parked outside; a diamond blue haze ripples around it.
‘They’re up there,’ says one, screwing up his eyes and studying us, as if he meant something more than he was actually saying.
‘Way up there,’ adds his mate, gesturing straight up at the sky with his cigarette. ‘The very top.’
We head inside. This Georgian building was converted into flats many years ago, and only a few flamboyant scraps of cornicing and ceiling rose survive. They sit like architectural ghosts, haunting the shadows beyond the alarm console, fire extinguishers, and the notice that says Absolutely NO visitors. Contravention of this rule will result in immediate eviction. The old staircase rises up in front of us like the abused backbone of a magnificent fossil, crudely over-painted, the treads shod with lino, the edges conscientiously nailed with strips of corrugated plastic.
We climb six flights until a brisk nip at the top and the staircase narrows into something more discrete, the access to a garret, presumably where servants would have slept under the roof.
‘In here, guys.’
A tiny landing of curious angles, an open door – and lying on the floor inside, curled up on his side, the body of a man, his face congested, scrunched up, as if he died trying to push something out, and the effort overtook him, puffed him up, and turned him into the veined approximation of a person.
‘We were just about to stand you down,’ says Jack, one of the two paramedics first on scene. ‘He’s still warm but of course it’s hot up here…’ he pushes the hip at the body and the whole thing rocks ‘… it’s rigored, we’ve got pooling here, and here. So – thanks for coming, guys. And sorry for the long haul up.’
We turn and walk back down.
The hostel feels vacant. It feels as if every living thing has been carried away, leaving just a corpse upstairs and random bags of trash by the doors on some of the landings. Reaching the top of the last flight down, the fierce afternoon sunshine scours the street just beyond the doorway. The two decorators are standing at the top of the stoop now, looking in. One of them is making a phone call; the other nods and smiles as we come out.
‘The police will be here soon,’ I say to him as I pull off my gloves. ‘They’ll want a word about all this.’
‘No worries boss.’ He takes off his cap and shakes out his long black hair. ‘It was a waste of a beautiful day, anyway.’