An older part of town, where narrow streets of tall, bow-fronted houses and shops lead south from the high street and fade into complicated tributaries of mews cottages and alleyways. It has a backwater feel of silt and settlement, where the bones of scavenged bikes lie chained to streetlights, and railings are encrusted with thick black paint like the coral growth on a sunken ship.
A woman is standing by the entrance to some basement steps, clutching a cordless house phone.
‘Do you want me to go down with you?’ she says.
‘No. It’s probably best if you stay up here and wait for the police.’
She looks relieved.
A flight of worn stone steps pitch down at an alarming angle to the mossy flagstones of the courtyard below. A pile of detritus in an alcove, opposite a front door which, by the look of the temporary wooden batons and splintered panels, has obviously been put in several times before. It stands open.
Frank pushes through and I follow.
A long, dimly lit hallway, three rooms off to the right, a closed door at the end.
The smell of neglect – a wretched, spongy sweetness that thrums up from every surface, from the ragged Persian runner, the little wooden bookshelf of cassette tapes and books and empty bottles, the piles of magazines. The walls themselves have a Gallery of the Damned feel: an arrangement of family photographs, an intensely coloured portrait of a dog, a figurative line drawing, a gig poster from the seventies, torn articles from magazines, maps, a mandala – a disparate throw of images, some framed, some simply taped to the wall, all of them slowly cooking, curling and spotting in the fetid air.
A voice from the room at the end.
‘I’m in the kitchen.’
‘Can we come down and see you?’
He doesn’t answer, but we go anyway.
The sudden, sharp smell of white spirit as we near the door.
Frank knocks and carefully pushes it open.
Paul is sitting at the kitchen table with his back to us, his arms resting on his knees, his damp head bowed. Half a bottle of white spirit at his feet.
‘Hello Paul. My name’s Frank and this is Spence. How are you doing?’
He looks up.
‘I’m not a bad person. I’ve done nothing wrong. I don’t want to hurt anyone.’
‘No. I know – I can see that. But what’s happened tonight, Paul?’
‘I’m not a bad person. The man upstairs said he was going to smash me. He said he was going to sort me out. But he can’t – I can’t – it’s not fair. These people. These people, in the world. And I’m not a bad person. I’m not.’
‘Paul? First of all – it smells really strongly of white spirit in here. Have you poured some over yourself?’
‘I poured it over me.’
‘Why did you do that, Paul?’
‘I want to kill myself. I want to burn.’
‘Paul? Would you mind if I just moved that lighter away from you? Only I’m a bit worried about it. I know you don’t want to hurt us…’
‘I don’t! I don’t want to hurt you! I would never hurt you.’
‘I know that. So do you mind if I just… there we go … that’s better. Now I feel a bit safer. Thanks.’
Frank gives me the lighter. Whilst they talk, I’m glancing around the kitchen for a towel or something to throw over him should he go up. Just behind me to my right is the doorway to the bedroom. Maybe I could grab a blanket from there.
‘Paul? Can I ask you another favour? It’s just the smell in here’s so strong I can’t think straight. Would you mind coming out to the ambulance and having a chat there? It’d be so much nicer – you know, with the fumes and everything. A bit of fresh air. Would you mind? Only I’m getting such a sore throat.’
‘What’s the point?’ says Paul, leaning back down again.
I try to see if he has any other lighters within reach but his hands stay slack.
‘What’s the point? They all think I’m useless. They all think I’m a piece of shit. That man upstairs, he said he wanted to smash me, but it’s not fair! I haven’t done anything wrong.’
‘You wouldn’t even have to come on the ambulance,’ says Frank. ‘We could just sit on the basement steps. It’s lovely out tonight. Isn’t it Spence? Really warm. I expect we could all use some fresh air.’
‘If you think,’ says Paul. ‘I don’t care. I just want to kill myself. I nearly did. I will. Just leave me. You can all read about it later.’
‘Come on, mate. Come outside for a chat. Have you got your keys?’
He stands up, a tall, stooped, middle-aged man in filthy denim.
‘This way,’ I say, as if he’d never walked outside down his own hallway before.
We walk up the basement steps.
The neighbour has gone.
The pub opposite seems even more active than before, its light and vitality spilling out across the street. A man is leaning against the wall, talking on his phone and smoking. He watches us as we lead up from the basement, along the pavement and onto the ambulance.
‘I’ll keep the back door open, so we get some air and you don’t feel hemmed in,’ I say.
Frank puts a seat down.
‘I’m not a bad person. I’m not,’ says Paul, sitting down, then combing and re-combing his bitten fingers back through his hair, shining with the damp of the white spirit.
Frank takes a seat at one end of the trolley; I crouch down at the foot of it. We all sit quietly for a moment, a strange triangulation, whilst out through the open door of the ambulance, the last hot night of the summer moves on.