Even though we’re carrying just about every bag we can think of, there’s still room in the lift for the workman and his big pot of paint.
‘Much to do?’ I ask as we go up.
‘Snagging,’ he says. ‘A couple of pipes here and there and we’re done.’
‘Must’ve taken a while.’
‘Couple of years, give or take.’
There are so many flats in this block, he was probably a young man when he started. His hair and moustache are wiry and gray, like he fashioned them from old brushes.
The lift stops at our floor and the man steps out to give us room.
‘Take it easy,’ he says. ‘Hope everything’s all right.’
Mr Westland’s son Kevin lets us into the flat. He seems sad, a little strung-out but otherwise quite chatty.
‘I wasn’t expecting this,’ he says, leading us through. ‘I told them on the phone I knew he was dead. I just needed the doctor to come and write the certificate.’
His father is lying back on the bed, his hands in his dressing gown pockets, his legs crooked over the side with the feet planted evenly and neatly side by side on the rug. Except for his ghastly pallor and unnaturally slack expression, you would think he had sat on the edge of the bed and then lain back for a snooze.
‘He died yesterday,’ says Kevin. ‘But I knew nothing would be open so I waited a bit.’
Mr Westland is fully rigored, and I know the Coroner’s people will have a job getting him out in this position.
I say to Kevin that we just need to finish our paperwork and follow procedure, so could we do that in the lounge? He nods and shows us through.
The flat is scrupulously tidy, the only decoration on the walls a silver and black silhouette of a man and a woman kissing in the middle of a heart-shaped motif, and then two oil paintings, both science fantasy themes, one, the surface of an alien moon with a ringed planet low on the horizon; the other, a castle keep set against a deep blue sky, a line of sunlight rising up its side.
‘I used to dabble in oils, things like that, you know,’ he says, taking a seat. ‘It’s good ‘cos you can keep going back and adding stuff.’
We explain that as Mr Westland hadn’t seen a doctor in a while, it was classed as an unexpected death. The next step would be to get the police along, who’d handle things from then on.
‘Oh. Okay,’ says Kevin. ‘Things are more complicated nowadays, don’t you think? I mean – he died of old age. I just wanted to get the doctor along, not all this. I’m sorry to waste your time.’
He tells us he’s been looking after his dad for the last five years. Mr Westland had Alzheimer’s, so it was a little difficult, especially lately.
‘He wouldn’t talk so much as make odd noises, you know. I had to feed him, wash and shave him, keep him cheerful. It was quite hard work. And there’s no-one else around. I didn’t ever marry, so that was that. My mother died a while ago, all my nephews and nieces live around the globe, in Australia and the Far East. So I’m it – the last of the line. Sad, really, you know.’
There’s something so tentative and self-effacing about the way Kevin talks, the dry tone of his voice, the padding of all the conversational you knows and that sort of thing that, combined with the heat and quiet hum from the radiator and the muted city sounds from a hundred feet below us, the effect is intensely soporific. I struggle not to yawn, especially given the sensitivity of the situation. It only makes it worse, so I get up and walk about, using as an excuse the view from the window.
Rae rings for an ETA on the police.
A little while, apparently.
I stare out of the window, at the seagulls gliding through the air.
‘Sometimes they land on the balcony and look in,’ says Kevin. ‘I think they’re interested in the plastic bags out there. They want to know if there’s any food inside.’
‘Beautiful birds, when you get up close.’
‘Huge great beaks.’
‘I wonder what they’d be like to eat?’ says Rae. ‘I wonder if they’d taste of plastic?’
‘Pizza and kebabs and plastic,’ he says. ‘And that sort of thing.’
‘Great view of the sea from up here.’ I say. ‘It’s so – interesting.’
‘Did you know that sound travels faster underwater than through air?’ says Kevin. ‘I read that in a book.’
‘Yeah. So when whales sing to each other, it travels miles and miles. But then I was thinking – wouldn’t that make the sea really noisy?’
‘I suppose it depends how many whales there are. And whether any other creatures sing.’
‘You’ve got all those crabs giving it plenty of that’ says Rae, making clack-clack gestures with her fingers.
I rub my eyes, then sit down again.
‘Just a few more questions about your father,’ I say, picking up the board again.
‘Go on,’ says Kevin.
‘Was he complaining of feeling unwell? Any pain, or sickness?’
Kevin shakes his head.
‘He stopped eating and drinking a couple of weeks ago. Then his breathing got shallower. It got to the point where I could hardly make it out at all – and then I really couldn’t, and I knew he’d gone. Old age, I suppose. He didn’t want to carry on any more, and I can’t blame him. He’d had enough.’
‘And you didn’t report it because you were waiting for the surgery to open, is that it?’
‘Pretty much. I couldn’t see the point. He didn’t like a fuss.’
Kevin watches me fill out the rest of the form.
‘Dad moved in here thirty years ago. Now I s’pose I’ll have to find somewhere else. But I can’t blame the council. Flats like these are in short supply. Never mind. I ‘spect something’ll turn up.’
There are more shrieks from outside. We all stop to watch as the seagulls come round again, gliding past on cupped wings, flicking their heads, past the bedroom with the dead man, past the living room, the edge of the tower block, and on and out across the intricate and anonymous muddle of the city below.