The day is ending and the light coming down, with a blue clarity the cars and the shop windows only seem to intensify. We’ve been given one last job – male, suicidal – which, given the hour, the proximity to the hospital and everything else, should finish us off.
I’m absolutely and completely ready to finish. It’s the end of the fourth day and I’m as glassy and flat as any of the puddles we step across.
I haven’t been to this address before. A single, weathered pine door set back between two shop fronts on the high street, diminished by the neon vibrancy of the kebab restaurant on the right and the spot-lit sports shop on the left. The intercom is as battered as the door, the paper strips behind each plastic button written over so many times or so blurred with damp you can’t read the names. I take a guess that the top button is the top flat, and push.
After a moment, a voice crackles on. Instead of simply buzzing the door open when I say ambulance, the voice chats on in a voice as unreadable as the name plate.
‘Can you let us in, please?’ I say, leaning in to the grille. ‘Just for a chat. Only I can’t hear you very well.’
The voice carries on.
‘I’m sorry but I really can’t hear you,’ I say. ‘Can we come in and say hello? Just for a moment? It’s starting to rain.’
The door buzzes; we go through.
Into a surprisingly high-ceilinged hallway, lino-clad stairs leading up, a row of letter boxes on the left hand wall, every one twisted and bent apart with a crowbar.
There are only two flats per level, so we guess the flat we want is four floors up. I can’t figure spatially how the whole thing works. I guess the building must go back a-ways, then branch out over the shops left and right in a T-shape. But the atmosphere is so deep with shadow, you could tell me this building exists in a dimensional plane of its own and I’d believe you.
The stairs are about as steep as you can get without actually being ladders. The light switches work on the next two storeys, but cut out too soon, so we have to use our torches.
Eventually we make it to the top.
A hatch in the ceiling with a pull-down ladder.
Graffiti on the wall, names and numbers, Jeremy: Neighbour, July 11. Where ARE you? A list of light bulbs – when they went in, how long they lasted; the scrawled face of a smiling devil.
‘You can go away now. I don’t want you. I’m suicidally depressed and I’m going to kill myself. I don’t need anyone’s help.’
‘I’m sorry to hear that. Richard, is it? Richard – I’m Spence and this is my partner Rae. We’d just like you to open the door so we can talk to you. No-one’s going to force you to do anything you don’t want to do. No strong-arm tactics. We just want to see if there’s anything we can do to help. Is that all right?’
The door opens, and Richard looks round the edge of it, just half of his face and the fingers of one hand visible.
‘There. You’ve seen me. Now you can go,’ he says.
‘Hi, Richard. I’m sorry you’re not feeling well. Can we come in and have a chat?’
‘I’m fine. Honestly. Well – I’m just about to throw myself out of the window, so only fine in that sense, but I really don’t need any interventions or clever talk or powerful drugs because I’ve done all that and quite honestly it’s all bullshit. Okay? Does that compute? I’m a worthless piece of shit and I really think I should just be culled. Which I’m perfectly able to do myself. So thank you for your time but honestly there’s nothing to be done.’
‘Can we come in and chat, Richard? Just for a moment.’
‘Be my guest’ he says, but doesn’t move away from the door.
‘We can’t really come in until we can see you properly. I’m sorry to sound a bit suspicious, but you know what it’s like...’
I shrug and smile as if people concealing machetes was one of those regrettable social slips one just had to live with.
‘I know what you mean,’ he says, letting go of the door and moving further inside the flat.
He lifts his t-shirt up and does a turn on the spot.
‘Nothing to hide, officer,’ he says, then puts his hands on the top of his head and retreats into the bedroom.
‘Sorry to be such a pain,’ I tell him.
‘No, no. It’s fine. You don’t live with a bunch of psychopaths for neighbours like I do’ he says. ‘I’ve been broken into five times. They knock on your door at four in the morning and whisper through the keyhole. I know exactly what it’s like.’
The flat is as crapped up as any I’ve seen. Scatterings of dirty laundry, crates of crushed beer cans, curling stacks of paperbacks, lank yellow curtains, abstract pictures sellotaped to the wall – crude, fractal paintings, vividly coloured swirls of pastel.
The homeward bound traffic surges below us in the street like waves against the beach.
Richard sits on the edge of his unmade bed and starts puffing away on a hefty electronic cigarette that looks more like a cook’s blowtorch.
‘I just can’t decide how to do it,’ he says, blowing smoke off to the side. ‘I mean, I spent weeks trying to figure out how to tie a noose properly. It’s more difficult than you might think. Because that’s the best way to do it. Quick. Hypoxic. End of story.’
‘I don’t know about that,’ I say, sitting next to him.
‘Do you want a seat?’ he says to Rae.
‘No, I’m fine, thanks,’ she says, leaning in the doorway. ‘I’ve been sitting all day.’
‘Maybe you can swap over after a while,’ says Richard, and puffs pleasantly on his e-cigarette.
I ask him about his medical history. He says he’s not been taking his meds because they don’t work. No-one’s interested, he says. He doesn’t have a support worker. What’s the point?
‘What we’d like to do is take you down the hospital to chat to someone there.’
‘Why? What are they going to do? Make me wait around for hours then send me home again? Or call the police and have me thrown in a cell, naked, under a blanket?’
‘The thing is, there’ll be someone there at the hospital – one of the mental health team – someone much more expert in these things than me. They’ll be able to talk to you in depth about how you feel and your whole situation.’
‘Why? I know what my whole situation is. My whole situation is I’m a fucking waste of space. A Waste of Space. That’s it. That’s all there is. I’ve thought about it a lot. It’s no biggie. I’m high up here. It’d be quick.’
‘I think you should give yourself a chance to get better, Richard. Obviously we’re limited what we can do for you here. I’d love to have a magic wand and fix all your problems, but if they’ve got them they’re not handing them out. Why not come down the hospital and talk to someone there?’
‘What do you care? This is just another job for you. You don’t know me.’
‘We do care, though, Richard. If we didn’t we wouldn’t be in the job we’re in.’
‘We wouldn’t have climbed all those stairs,’ says Rae.
‘What do you need to take with you?’ I ask him, hoping the practical question might tempt him towards the door. But Richard just laughs and looks at me. He reaches behind him, finds an army surplus cap with a low brim, pulls it down on his head, then puts on a pair of rectangular sunglasses. He stares at me a moment.
‘Why don’t I just throw myself out of the window and save everyone a lot of trouble?’ he says.
‘You could do that. But you might land on someone and kill them. I know you don’t want to hurt anyone.’
‘You think hanging’s the thing, then?’ he says. Then he laughs, a strange and dry thing, as sparse as his beard. He reaches over and pats me on the knee.
‘Don’t worry, mate. I’m not expecting a leaflet.’