‘And this is the atrium…’ says Callum, making a sweeping gesture ahead of us with his board. ‘As you can see – light and airy, classic with just a hint of modern. All original features, of course…’
He carries on in that vein, Rae just behind him with the bags, me with the chair.
It’s like stepping into a Homes & Gardens supplement on the Thirties. A richly varnished, oak parquet floor, oriental rugs, a couple of intricately carved chairs either end of a marble table, a couple of landscapes in fruity gilt frames, the remnants of bell-hangs, room indicators, the whole space illuminated by two ballroom-sized, arched windows and a chandelier looming down from the masses of ornamental plasterwork overhead. Either end of the hallway are two lifts, both with black trellis gates and brass fittings.
Callum checks his board.
‘Flat twenty,’ he says.
Just as we start to argue about which floor and which lift that might be, an elderly man and his wife appear. They are both so immaculately presented – the man in a heavy tweed coat, Rupert scarf, trilby hat and walking cane; the woman in a Russian coat with black fur trim and some kind of fascinator made of exotic feathers – I could swear I catch sight of a Stage Manager ushering them on, stage left.
The man does a perfect double-take, then says:
‘Are you here to collect someone?’
‘More than likely,’ says Callum. ‘Actually, we were after Flat number twenty.’
‘Twenty, eh?’ says the man. He glances at his wife, who makes so little response she may as well be stuffed and tugged along on wheels.
‘You want the fifth floor, South Wing,’ he says. ‘The Fifth. But I have to warn you. The blasted South Lift’s still out of commission, so you’ll probably have to use the Commercial Lift. Unless you use the stairs...’ He pauses, surveying us with a vaguely disappointed air. ‘I’ll show you to the Commercial Lift.’
He turns smartly on his polished shoes and marches us back in the direction he’d come from, leaving his wife in the middle of the lobby. As we pass the South Lift the man gives it a disdainful rap with his cane.
‘Blessed nuisance,’ he says. ‘Been like it since Noah. Look. Here we are: the Commercial Lift.’
He points with his stick to a much less prepossessing door – a plain steel shutter with a thin rectangle of reinforced glass in the middle. ‘You’ll need to give the door a damned good pull. It’s stiff, you know.’
‘I see,’ says Callum. ‘Thank you very much.’
‘Not at all,’ says the man. ‘No! Harder than that! Harder!’
The door eventually grinds open with a shriek.
‘That’s the ticket.’
And he marches away to retrieve his wife.
The lift is really too small for the three of us, our bags and the chair, but we decide to go for it. Closing the door takes more effort than opening it, particularly as none of us has a clear angle. When it does eventually clunk-to and the lift judders upwards, the three of us have taken on the shape of the space, a vacuum-packed cube of paramedics, Rae flattened against the mirror, me with my nose pressed against the word ambulance on Callum’s back.
‘Do you work out?’ I say to him.
‘I hope that’s the chair,’ he says, shifting his weight.
The lift makes a succession of worrying noises, but finally clatters to a halt on the fifth floor. After the kind of team-work Mack Sennett would’ve been proud to film, we finally manage to force the door open, sprawling out onto the landing along with our gear.
An elegant woman in a black and white dress is waiting outside her door to meet us, back-lit with more golden sunshine, her grey hair a perfect bob, her peach lipstick complementing her pearls. She gives a frightened little start, glances the other way down the corridor, then back to us.
‘Are you the ambulance?’ she says.