As we turn into the road, three children and a dog have been standing look-out. They catch sight of us and run ahead along the pavement, the terrier barking furiously, pushing itself forwards on the lead with such force it’s like they’re holding a rabid dog at the end of a pole. Groups of people stop to stare as we pass. Windows open, people lean out, all with the same expression. In fact, everyone’s so interested it makes us nervous. Maybe they don’t like visitors. Maybe they’ll kill us, stuff us, and hang us on the end of terrace display along with the other trophies: the milkman, the postman, the Jehovah’s Witness.
Two men in shiny black puffa jackets smoke and stand guard by the gate of the house we want; a large woman with an unfeasibly contoured figure waves and carefully lowers herself down a step. A couple of seagulls land on the roof – it’s like the whole world has been alerted.
The two men stand aside; one of them holds the gate open for us and grunts as we pass.
Half-way up the steps, the woman gasps: ‘It’s John. It’s John’s heart.’
The little front garden is crapped-up with rubbish, heaped up around the threshold like the house spat out any junk it couldn’t eat through the battered front door.
‘John? John? It’s the ambulance, John.’
There are shouts and screams like there’s a fight going on upstairs. But the woman doesn’t seem to pay it any mind, so we don’t ask.
John is sitting on the sofa, his hands spread on his knees in a position of studied calm only undercut by his rapid breathing and a flush of panic on his face.
‘Anxiety,’ he says. ‘Sorry.’
Suddenly a teenage boy as large as the woman stomps into the sitting room; John looks up and tries to smile reassuringly but it doesn’t work.
‘What the fuck...?’ says the boy. He seems angry. He rolls his eyes about the room like a wounded lion looking for something to bite. His paws are bunched into fists.
‘It’s okay, Josh,’ says John. ‘They’re paramedics. Mum was worried ... about my heart.’
‘Yeah?’ he says, ‘Yeah?’ - and stands over us for a second, breathing hard. But he thinks better of it and suddenly turns and crashes back out of the room.
‘Oh my God! Oh my God!’
It’s like tag-interruption. The boy goes out and a woman comes in, one hand over her mouth and the other reaching out to touch John on the side of the face. ‘What is it, John? What’s wrong?’
‘Nothing, Jean, nothing. I just had some bad news, that’s all. I’ll be all right.’
‘Are you sure, doll? Are you sure?’
She turns to us.
‘You take good care of him,’ she says. ‘He’s very precious to us. Check his heart, and everything. Okay? I don’t want him to die on us.’ She turns back to John. ‘Don’t you dare. Will you? You promise? You won’t die on us? Please, god.’
John smiles but looks tearful.
‘Could you just wait outside for a bit?’ I ask the woman. ‘Sorry. Only we just need a little space – and quiet – so we can get the whole picture. Is that all right?’
The woman sighs and fishes a cigarette out of her pocket.
‘I’ll make some tea,’ she says, the fag bobbing up and down in her mouth. ‘Shall I make some tea, pet?’
‘I’ll make it just how you like it.’
She goes out and starts crashing around in the kitchen, swearing.
We sit down either side of John on the sofa.
‘There. That’s better. Now. How are you feeling, John?’
‘Better. I’m better, thanks. It was definitely anxiety. I’ve had the attacks before. I know what to look for, all the signs. It’s just – I had some bad news – very bad news. I think what with that and everything else it just took me by surprise.’
Suddenly the sitting room door bursts open again and another guy rushes in.
‘What’s wrong, John? They said you was having a heart attack. Are you all right? I saw the ambulance and I thought fuck – he must be dying. Are you okay?’
John holds his hand up to stop him.
‘I’m okay, mate, yeah – thanks. Don’t worry. Let me just talk to these guys and I’ll tell you all about it.’
But this last interruption has breached the dam wall. Everybody pours in - the two guys from the garden, John’s wife, the kids with the terrier, and finally the woman from the kitchen, who starts shouting for everyone to be quiet and spills half the cup in John’s lap.
John leans past me to get a cloth.
‘I think you’ll be the one needing a paper bag in a minute,’ he says.