‘I spoke to her on the phone.’
‘How did she sound?’
‘Not good, mate. I think she’s had a stroke.’
The trouble is, Janet’s son Pete was supposed to meet us here to let us in. But whether it’s because it’s early in the morning, or whether he panicked when he took the call, the fact is that in his haste he grabbed a handful out of keys out of the dresser drawer, certain that the right one must be amongst them.
And it wasn’t.
‘We’re going to have to break in,’ he says. ‘It won’t be easy.’
The front door of the house is a solid oak affair, mortice-locked in two places. The windows looking on to the street are all painted shut. I’ve had a quick recce round the back, using a parked car to get up high enough to grab hold of the iron trellis that runs along the top of the wall and pull myself up. But it’s a long drop beyond, into something more like a well than a courtyard garden. I jump back down.
‘Let’s have another look at the front door.’
‘We have to get in,’ says Pete. ‘Careful with the door, though. Don’t smash it to pieces.’
‘You can’t avoid some damage,’ I tell him, wielding a crowbar. But instead of working on the door I smash a little window off to the side. When I reach through, I find it’s been of no use. The keys are not in the lock, and now that we have this little hole to look through, we can see where Janet has left them, in a dish on the hall table, way out of reach.
Janet’s next door neighbour, Anthony, has been brought out by the sound of breaking glass.
‘Hello!’ he says.
‘It’s Janet,’ says Pete. ‘She’s been taken ill and we can’t get in.’
‘No. No I don’t suppose you can.’
Anthony has his hands deep in his dressing gown pockets. He has the detachment of a sedated colonel, his wispy hair standing up in peaks.
‘Want to come round the back?’ he sniffs. ‘You can borrow my ladder.’
He leads us through his house into the courtyard.
There’s a pre-dawn thrill to the air, something smudged and thickly blue. A fountain splashes in the pond over in the far corner, a concrete duck perched on the lip. The noise of the falling water echoes coldly about the space, making the walls seem even higher.
Pete helps Anthony out of the house with the ladder, and they set it against the wall that separates his courtyard from Janet’s.
‘There you are,’ he says.
‘I’ll foot it,’ says Pete.
I hand him the crowbar, the flashlight, and start to climb.
When I’m up on top, it’s an effort not to pitch head first into the void the other side. I struggle to keep my balance whilst Pete passes the ladder up to me.
I drag it up, then pause with it balanced at right angles either side. I feel like Philippe Petit doing the Twin Towers walk; by rights I should stop and do a handstand to the admiration of the crowd, but when I glance down behind me, Anthony has already gone back inside.
‘All right?’ says Pete.
Suddenly a light goes on in Janet’s lounge; a moment later, there’s a rattling of keys, and the back door opens. Rae steps out, Janet next to her (Janet?). They both look up at me, wobbling fifteen feet up on top of the wall.
‘What’s that up there?’ says Janet. ‘A cat?’‘No,’ says Rae. ‘That’s my partner.’