Late at night. Maybe it’s the exhaustion I feel, or maybe it’s the streetlamps shining through the mist, but everything seems fragile and one-dimensional. When I cough, too loudly, I half expect everything to fall back soundlessly, like a poorly built set in a play about Jack the Ripper.
We’re standing outside a Victorian workhouse that’s been converted into flats, trying to figure out from the haphazard cluster of buttons and speakerphones which buzzer to press. In the end we take a guess. No-one comes on the intercom to ask us who we are, but the door buzzes open and we take that as a nod.
We step inside.
The hall light doesn’t work, but the dark ahead of us has a texture and smell to it that tells us it goes back some way. Whilst we’re figuring out where to go next, a light snaps on somewhere overhead, spilling down a staircase to our right.
Up here, mate.
There’s a bitten-down meanness to the place, a scrawl of poverty in the air.
We go up two flights, to an unmarked door without a handle or any sign that anyone lives beyond it at all.
I knock, hesitate, and we go through.
Two men chatting in what seems to be a tiny galley kitchen in front of us. Neither of them make any acknowledgement that we’ve come in. I smile and say hello; one of them nods behind him and says: Through there.
Do they live here? Are they workmen? But at this hour? It’s impossible to tell.
We struggle past with our bags, into another, tiny room, more like a storage facility than a living space.
There are three people there: Janine, sprawled in an armchair; her mum Joan, playing a zombie shoot-em up on the laptop; and Carl, Janine’s partner, mixing himself a whisky and coke from the two bottles on the floor.
‘Hello. I’m Spence. This is Rae. Are you the patient?’ I ask Janine.
‘Well it’s not me, love,’ says Joan, blasting away at the creatures on the screen without looking up. ‘My baby days are over, thank god.’ There’s a hard quality to her face and eyes, which, framed in a fall of lank and greasy ringlets, looks like a porcelain doll on smack. I wouldn’t be surprised if one of the zombies on the screen reached out and claimed her for one of their own.
‘It’s me,’ says Janine.
There’s nowhere to sit, the room cluttered with junk, building materials, old pizza boxes, so we both stand either side of her chair whilst Janine tells us the story. She’s eleven weeks pregnant – Not mine! says Carl, waving his hand in the air then taking a swig from his glass – and she’s been having trouble with nausea and vomiting. She went to the hospital the other day and was on a drip for a while; they discharged her home with an anti-emetic; she still feels nauseous, though she hasn’t actually vomited today.
‘Let’s do your blood pressure and the rest, and then talk about what we can do tonight,’ I say, writing down her details. It’s Janine’s second pregnancy. The first was uncomplicated, except the baby was taken away at a year for adoption. The only other health problems she has are psychiatric, behavioural.
‘It’s my turn now,’ says Carl, putting his whisky and coke down and nudging Joan in the ribs. She hands him the laptop without any change of expression, then settles back on the sofa to read something on her phone. Carl puts some earphones in. He’s more energetic with the gun than Joan; he gets into his stride almost immediately.
All Janine’s observations are normal. I try to persuade her to rest at home for the evening and then see her GP in the morning, but she says she’s worried and wants to go to hospital.
‘What do you think?’ I say to Joan.
‘I’m staying out of it,’ she says.
I look over at Carl, who’s obviously monitoring the situation despite having his earphones in and shooting zombies. He lifts his chin in the air but doesn’t look away from the screen. ‘I’m not getting involved,’ he says.
‘Come on then, Janine. Have you got your pregnancy notes, keys, phone...?’
There’s a spindly kitten staggering around the flat. It appears from behind the sofa and stares at us.
‘Cute kitten,’ I say.
‘You can take that as well,’ says Carl. But then something happens in the game. He grunts, puts the gun down, then reaches down and pulls a slice of pizza out of a box on the floor by the bottles.
‘I love cats,’ I say. ‘We had our one for nineteen years.’
Joan reaches for a whisky and coke of her own.
‘I had a friend,’ she says, pouring out a tall glass. ‘I had a friend, she had ten cats.’
‘Ten! That’s a lot!’
‘It is a lot. But they all died.’
She smiles and looks up at me. ‘Over the years, though. Not all at once.’