The logo for the Woodfield housing estate is an oak tree powering up between the D and the F to spread its canopy right and left over the word. But if the keywords of the logo were maybe ‘shelter’ and ‘protection’, the architects have fixated on the ‘protection’ and translated it into a spread of buildings with the charm of a bunker, the openness of a castle and the joie de vivre of a prison. Three blocks to the Woodfield housing estate, then, each with a sylvan name, each rising up in a generous slab of brick, and each with a parallel sequence of walkways running their length, between stairwells that rise up to the flat roof like gun turrets. And if the logo is based on an oak, it’s not a species that’s been seen round here recently. Nature has retreated to an embattled straggle of drought resistant plants in the flower beds that edge the car park, everything meanly bitten down, strewn with takeaway cartons and drink cans.
We go to buzz the intercom at the bottom of the furthest stairwell, but the door’s held open by a traffic cone so we go up unannounced. The familiar stairwell ambience. You could bottle it. Squaleur by Givenchy. I can imagine the advert – a glamorous model running down the stairs two at a time, shirt undone, chased by the paparazzi. Something like that. As credible as the tree logo, anyway.
Mrs Po lives here with her son, Chen, in the middle flat on the top floor. He meets us at the door, a slim, powerfully built twenty year old soberly dressed in a dark blue suit.
‘Thank you for coming,’ he says, giving us a polite bob of the head and shoulders and then moving some stuff so we can get in the door. ‘Mother’s upstairs in the bedroom. I’m afraid she’s been unwell for a few days now. She’s diabetic and can’t afford to be sick like this for long. I rang the doctor and he said you’d be coming.’
‘Let’s go and say hello.’
Mrs Po is shivering under a mountain pile of duvets, knitted covers and coats. In fact any layer that might possibly give any warmth has been dragged onto the bed. There is a litre bottle of mineral water and a plastic bucket down on the carpet; around the bed, tacked up on the walls, are a disparate spread of Chinese prints, scroll poems, 3D pictures of the Last Supper and out of date calendars.
Chen talks to his mother in Cantonese, and after a pause, she slowly pokes the top of her head above the layers. Chen kneels onto the bed and helps sit her up.
Mrs Po is a petite woman made completely round by wearing just about every article of clothing she owns. It makes me think of how we used to make snowmen – rolling a snowball so that it grew fatter and fatter the more layers of snow it accumulated.
‘I feel hot just looking at you,’ I say. Chen translates. Mrs Po swipes the air dismissively.
We check her over. She has a temperature. Frank sets up the chair and we help her out of the bed and onto it. She agrees to take off some of her coats, but insists on putting on an extraordinary hat – something like a waste paper basket knitted out of turquoise rope and finished with a spray of plastic flowers.
‘Her lucky hat,’ says Chen, moving more stuff so we can manoeuvre out of the bedroom. He wheels aside a tall, rectangular box on wheels.
‘That’s the weirdest shopping trolley I’ve ever seen,’ I say.
‘It’s for my drum kit. It’s got all my stands and sticks.’
‘Cool! A drummer!’
‘Not for much longer. I’m thinking of giving it up. I’m getting tired of hauling all this shit up the stairs.’
‘Have you thought about the harmonica?’ says Frank, putting Mrs Po’s meds into a plastic bag.
‘Often,’ says Chen. ‘Oh. By the way. Sorry about the smell.’
‘Tiger Balm. I’m afraid mother is mad about tiger balm. She thinks it will cure all her ills. She uses it for her rheumatism, her asthma, her migraines - everything.’
‘I like the smell.’
‘Really? I suppose I’ve forgotten what it’s actually like, I’ve been around it so long. Mother used to make me wear it to school. It’s even good for exam results, apparently. Although not so much in my case.’
‘Bit like ginseng, is it? A magical herb?’
‘More bigger magic,’ says Chen, holding the door open for me as I wheel Mrs Po out towards the stairwell. ‘And I suppose you can’t have too much of that.’