‘Wow. That’s quite a collection.’
‘I’ve got a Barbie, but I cut all her hair off with some scissors so I keep her in a sock. I can do flips on the trampoline. Have you come to see Jack?’
‘I think so.’
She hops round on the spot and dances back down the alley, her blond curls leaping and shining in the sun. She’s like some perfect elfin child, a Victorian fairy Photoshopped into an urban scene, skipping along past the carcase of a discarded TV, a sofa in a crapped-up nest of weeds, a garden gnome with jags of plaster where the head used to be, a mattress, a wheel, a box of bottles.
I follow her down a drop of concrete steps to the front door of a plain terraced house. She ducks inside past a woman who stands guard in the doorway. The woman has a mass of yellow hair piled up on her head like a hay rick; beneath it is a black hair band that has slipped forwards onto the bridge of her nose. The Kohl she has lined her eyes with is as thick as the band, so the effect is of a wide black cloth tied round the top half of her head, like the Lone Ranger, or a raccoon. She can only be forty, but without her teeth her cheeks have drawn in to make her look sixty. She is wearing a red and yellow orchid print Caftan, and smokes a cigarette intently, to the filter, in three drags.
‘Thanks for coming,’ she rasps, flicking the fag off into next door’s garden. ‘It’s my nine-year-old, Jack.’
I follow her inside, through a cluttered hallway to a door at the back. She goes to push the door open, but a man shouts from the other side.
‘Hold on a minute. Old man in the way.’
The woman sighs and stares at me, one hand holding on to the handle.
‘Father-in-law,’ she says.
Grunts and scuffles from behind the door, until eventually the voice says it’s okay to come in. She sighs again, and pushes through.
The room is as grey and thick as the dirty brocade curtains drawn across the windows. An energy-saver light bulb casts a rimy light over everything, over the DVDs, the scattered clothes, the computer consoles and the empty Cola bottles. The woman’s husband – a cadaverous twitch of a man in a Liverpool shirt and combat trousers – stands with his arm around his Dad, precariously set up on a bar stool like a ventriloquist’s dummy.
‘Hello,’ I say, with as much positivity as I can manage.
‘All right, mate?’ The old man smiles and stares.
Jack is lying with his legs drawn up to his chest on a boxy two-seater sofa, hugging a Harry Potter quilt around him. He groans and squeezes his eyes shut.
‘Jack’s bad with the stomach,’ says the woman, going to stand behind her son and ruffling his hair.
‘So what’s been happening?’ I ask them.
‘He’s been off school the last couple of days. We rang the doctor when it wasn’t getting any better, and he said get an ambulance.’
‘Has he been sick?’
‘No. He had a big poo this morning. He’s never had trouble in that department.’
She looks at her husband, who seems more intent on operating his Dad to make him seem alive.
‘What about eating and drinking? When did Jack last have anything?’
‘I dunno. An hour ago? Pizza, with the rest of us. But not as much as he normally does.’
‘So – Jack? Tell me about this pain in your tummy. Can I have a look?’
He groans but nods. I lift the quilt up, and then his t-shirt.
‘Can you point to where the pain is?’
He makes a fluttering kind of gesture across his lower half.
‘Can I have a feel?’
He nods. But apart from some anxious wincing before I’ve even laid a finger, it doesn’t provoke much.
‘Okay. Thank you. You can pull your t-shirt down now. And if you had to describe the pain, what would you say? I know it’s difficult. But what would you say – a burning pain? Stabbing? Does it come and go? Or is it on the whole time? Hmm?’
He winces again.
‘Like someone’s hammering down there. With a hammer.’
I take his temperature. Normal.
I write some things down on the board.
‘Has Jack had any pain relief? Paracetamol, that kind of thing?’
‘No. He doesn’t like tablets.’
‘You can get it in liquid form. You know – for kids.’
‘Well we haven’t got any.’
I put the clipboard down.
‘I don’t think it’s too bad. He’s a good colour, he doesn’t have a temperature or anything.’
‘But the doctor said get an ambulance.’
‘I know. Did you say anything about Jack’s breathing? Chest pain, stuff like that?’
‘Well his breathing was bad. He was getting in a right old state.’
‘That’s probably why the doctor said call an ambulance, then. Any hint of breathing problems and they’re bound to call us out. Understandably. But I think the breathing thing was probably anxiety. He seems quite comfortable now. But having said all that, it’s difficult with abdo pain. My guess is it’s probably just a virus, but to be safe we’d better take a little trip down the hospital.’
‘Yeah, I think so. Don’t you, hun?’
‘Whatever you think, love.’
‘I don’t want to take no chances.’
‘Okay. Let’s get your stuff together then.’
‘Are we all going?’ says the husband through his Dad.
‘No – there’s really only room for Jack and Mum. But I’m sure everything’s okay. No doubt they’ll send him back home pretty quick.’
‘You go,’ says the husband. ‘I’ll stay here with the old feller.’ The old feller swivels his head and grins.
I pick up my bag, but just as I’m turning to go out of the door, another figure steps out from under the stairs, a young girl, thickly built, bloodless and white, like a farmer’s daughter kept all her life in a barn. Folds of flesh bulge out of the sides of her loose silk shift, her hair teased out in clumps, one single black eyebrow in a ragged crayon line across her forehead, and a mouth drawn back in a stumpy smile. She puts her arm across the door and leans in to examine me closely.‘Leave him alone, Babs,’ says the mother, banging some trainers onto Jack’s feet. ‘You’re staying here to look after the kittens.’