I’ve no doubt these were once fine houses. But the tide of urban prosperity has fallen right away in the last two centuries, leaving the buildings decrepit, semi-derelict, the fine clothes and gorgeous attitudes that once graced the street nothing more than the echo of a smart shoe on the rubbed stone flags leading up to the door.
The array of bells on the side is so chaotic it’s difficult to figure out which is number five. I press the middle one and hope for the best. After a long delay, the door release rattles, and we go inside.
It’s colder inside than out, and outside is freezing. There is a massy sense of damp in the hallway, colonising the far corners of the ceiling, feeding on what warmth there is in the bare, energy-saving light bulb.
None of these bedsit rooms have numbers on their doors. The only difference between them is the number of kickings each has taken, or the disposition of litter on the landing, a bike without wheels, a stained mattress, a carved plank of wood I could swear was a wormy old stocks. Three floors up I stop and call out Number Five? After a pause, there’s a shuffling and grunting, and the door in front of us opens.
Mike is a fifty-year-old man who could comfortably stand in a casting line-up for a biopic of Charlie Peace. Consumptive, greyed, gripping the collar of his shirt, he nods once and shows us into his garret. It’s a mean affair, magazine pictures peeling on the walls, a coverless duvet on the sofa, a coffee table piled with cans, scattered letters, a composting pyramid of fag butts.
‘My chest hurts’ he says, dropping himself down on the sofa, jabbing a yellowing finger into the belly of the butts to find one with enough of a draw. Everything’s so damp I can’t imagine he’d be able to light it, though. Or even strike a match, because surely this atmosphere is incompatible with fire. With life.
Rae is attending and asks the questions. I stand back a little, ready to help, but ready to go, too. I know that Rae will want to get him down to the ambulance as soon as she can, for our sake as much as his. You wouldn’t want to stay in this place longer than absolutely necessary. You can hear the spores rustling with interest, orientating themselves to the heat from our necks.
The patient stands up and pulls his coat on.
I open the front door and pat the wall trying to locate the landing light, but it’s absolutely dark and the switch isn’t where I thought it was.
I take out my pocket torch and shine it about. And then, for some reason, I direct the beam up the stairs that carry on opposite.
Nothing there.Which, given the feeling I’d had, is somehow worse.