A man appears at the ambulance window, raps twice, then casts a look up and down the road. When I lower the window, he discretely pulls a bundle of folded white documents from hip pocket and rests them on the edge. It feels as if we’re suddenly in a spy thriller.
The oranges will be ready early this year in Seville
Yes, but many villagers pray for rain.
Instead he says: ‘Hello.’
‘Are you the social worker?’
He nods. ‘My name’s John. Thanks for coming. I don’t know if our man is at home. We’ll just take pot luck, shall we?’
We jump out of the cab and follow him across the road.
John is a relaxed, pleasantly crumpled individual. In his loose black bowling shirt and scruffy chinos he looks as if he’s just been called away from his newspaper and espresso.
‘I don’t know if you’ve been told,’ he says, as we walk up the littered pathway to the main entrance of the block. ‘Mr Gerhardt is a Section Three. No history of violence, but won’t want to go, so be prepared for a lot of discussion. I think we can manage without the police, but of course that’s always an option.’
Mr Gerhardt’s flat looks out front onto a small swatch of grass. All the windows are shut and the curtains drawn, except for a central window that is cracked just enough to let out a hosepipe, which snakes across the patch. At the end of the pipe and spreading all around are dozens of roughly dug holes with dried sticks poked into them. By each stick is a crudely cut notice as big as your thumb, with strange characters inked out in black.
‘His flat’s filled with maps and models,’ says John. ‘He’s just started work on the main event out back. I don’t know what all these sticks mean. Part of the overall scheme in some way. He’s looking for forty million pounds to build a ship to take him to Mars, where he’s been elected to represent earth at the interplanetary Olympics. Him and Tutankhamen.’
‘Worth a punt,’ says Frank, trying to peer in at the window. ‘He could go on Dragon’s Den.’
‘Let’s see if he’s in, first,’ says John, pressing the flat number. After a few goes, he turns back to us.
‘Shall we have a look round the back?’
The C-shaped housing block has at its centre a cracked and scrubby patch of ground, more like an exercise yard than a communal garden. The yard is ringed by a rusty chain-link fence. A family sits out on their balcony as we crawl through a hole in the fence and walk over to the back of Mr Gerhardt’s flat.
‘He’s not in,’ shouts a woman. ‘He went out about ten minutes ago.’
‘You’ll have to catch him later,’ says her friend. ‘With a big net.’ But neither of them laugh. They smoke and stare, and the heat hangs over the yard like the haze on a dry griddle.
John smiles and raises his hand in thanks.
‘Oh dear,’ he says. ‘We might have to re-think.’
Just outside Mr Gerhardt’s back door is the beginnings of a large, crude structure. Planks of wooden decking, bound together at right angles with gaffer tape, and beside it, a pile of scavenged pots, boxes, tangles of string, half a skateboard and some pram wheels.
A woman comes out of the neighbouring flat.
‘Have you come to do something about Hans?’ she says. ‘Because he’s not right.’
‘Yes,’ says John. ‘We’re going to get him some help, but unfortunately he doesn’t appear to be in.’
‘He was out here all last night, moving stuff about, cursing, carrying on. I put my head out the window and I said Hans, please! Some of us are trying to get to sleep. There’re children live here, too, you know. But he just carried on like I wasn’t there. It’s about time something was done. I’m not well myself.’
‘I’m sorry to hear that. But don’t worry. We’ve got things in place, now. Guys – sorry to have called you out for nothing. I’ll stand you down and we’ll have a re-think.’
The woman folds her arms and watches us as we climb back through the fence.
Outside the front of the block again, John has one last look up and down the road.
‘So what does this Mr Gerhardt look like?’ says Frank.
‘Oh – about six foot four. Powerful build. Shaven head. And a rather – I don’t know – intense look about him.’
‘I bet,’ says Frank.