Alex, the manager of the language school, meets us at the door. He waits, ministerially clutching a radio and clipboard, whilst below him on the stairs a cluster of teenagers argue about where to go tonight; they scarcely seem real, as sharp and freshly made as the office blocks, restaurants and loft-style apartments that tower above them.
‘Can we talk a moment in the office, please?’ says the manager.
The students part to let us through. Alex leads us inside.
A secretary smiles as we pass through the security point into her glass-fronted domain. Some more students wait on one side to let us through. When they show the secretary their passes, she resumes her usual demeanour, glowering through the glass, checking her list, ticking names, depressing a lever with her foot. They all try to see past her into the office as they jostle through the turnstile. A young Chinese boy stops and says: ‘You know, I’m feeling perfect tonight, Miss Angela.’ Before she can look up, he throws himself through the gate and hurries out to mass with the others in the street.
‘I want to keep this as low key as possible,’ says Alex, sighing, and putting his radio and board down on the desk. ‘Matteo is sixteen. He’s only been with us two weeks, but no trouble up till now. Here are his medications – some kind of anti-depressants. As you can see he’s not up to date. This evening when he came down for his mail he was acting a bit strangely.’
‘In what way?’
‘Going up to people – people he doesn’t know – and smiling. Right in their faces. A bit aggressive, actually. We had a special package to give him – a plane ticket, to join his father in Italy later this month. He ripped it up and scattered the pieces all around. When we tried to talk to him he was laughing and shouting, very loudly, upsetting the other students, which we cannot have. As I say, he’s only been here a couple of weeks, so I can’t say I know him all that well, but he’s certainly done nothing like this before. It’s very out of character. We didn’t want to call you, but I’m afraid in the end we had to act in the best interest of Matteo and the other students. We’re not sure what he might do, you see.’
‘Have you spoken to his parents?’
‘I spoke to his mother, briefly. She’s on a plane to Cyprus so the line went off. I’m afraid I’ve only managed to get voicemail for the father, but I’ve left a message. He’s on some kind of European business trip at the moment.’
I look at the pills container that Alex has given me.
‘Any chance you could look up on the internet and see what these are?’ I ask the secretary.
She swivels on her chair.
‘Chuck ‘em here,’ she says.
Alex folds his arms. ‘We have almost four hundred students boarding with us at any one time. We have a lot to think about. I can’t take risks with anybody’s welfare.’
‘Anti-psychotic,’ says the secretary, leaning back from the screen and tossing the pills back to me.
‘Brilliant. Thanks for that. Shall we go and see Matteo, then?’
He leads us through a main corridor to the lifts. Whilst we wait there, a student comes up to me and asks about a sore on her eyelid.
‘Is it bad, do you think? Do I need hospital?’
‘It looks like you might have a sty coming.’
‘A sty. An eye infection. It’s not serious. But maybe you should see your doctor, anyway.’
Alex frowns at her and shakes his head.
‘The nurse is on duty at eight thirty, Ruksana. Speak to her then.’
She shrugs and moves off with her friend, just as the lift arrives. I hear her say sty? again, and they put their heads together and laugh.
Alex leads us along to Matteo’s front door.
‘He’s probably sleeping now,’ he says, hesitating with the master key.
‘I’m afraid we have to talk to him, though.’
He nods, pauses, raps smartly on the door, calls out Matteo? then opens the door and we go in.
Matteo is face down on the bed, the uncovered duvet rucked up around him in a deep V. The way he is sprawled there, with this pattern of discarded clothes, a shoe, phone and iPod, books and empty Coke bottles right and left, he is something like a spaceship crash-landed on a foreign planet.
‘Matteo – we need to talk to you. Sit up, please.’
Alex reaches over and tentatively shakes him by the shoulder.
‘No history of trauma? No falls, no banging of the head or anything like that?’
‘Not so far as I know.’
‘And the only past medical history you have is of some kind of mental health problem.’
‘That’s all we have on record.’
Alex puts his radio and clipboard down on the bed and shakes Matteo by the shoulder again. When he talks to him he talks in Italian. It gets more of a response. Alex stands back as the boy slowly pushes himself into a sitting position.
‘He says he's sleepy.’
Matteo sits there on the bed, his cheeks flushed, his dark eyes shining in the hard overhead light of the room. His black jeans are ripped across one leg; he has one brown suede pixie boot on, the other foot is bare; his velvet shirt is heavily creased.
‘Matteo?’ says Alex. ‘Matteo?’
‘Can you translate for me, Alex?’ I say.
The room falls silent for a moment. Suddenly there is the sound of laughter out in the corridor, a shout, the chorus of a song. Matteo pushes his heavy fringe away from his eyes, and slowly looks up at us as the voices die away.
'Cosa?' he whispers.