We’ve pressed the buttons for flat thirty-two but there’s no reply.
Whilst we’re waiting, wondering what to do next, a shambling figure with a can in one hand and the lead of a dog in the other appears behind us.
‘S’up?’ he says, pushing his hood clear with the can-hand, slopping lager onto his straggly head. ‘N’emergency?’
‘Yeah. I suppose it is,’ I say.
‘Wha’s the matter with ‘em?’
‘I don’t know. We haven’t got that far.’
The man looks down at the dog as if it just said something, but the dog, a large and well-padded Staffie, square and bow-legged as an antique footstool, stands as quietly perplexed as we are. The man jerks the lead, then looks back at us.
‘Why don’cha ring?’
‘We have, but there’s no reply.’
‘Maybe he’s out.’
‘Maybe. But maybe he’s in and can’t get to the door.’
The man takes a swig from his can, smacks his lips, jerks the dog lead again. His face is grimy, booze-blasted, his cheeks hollow on empty gums. In the flickering light from this porch he’d make a zombie blanch. I’d guess he was about twenty.
‘Wha’ you gonna do?’ he says. ‘Kick the door in?’
‘Haven’t you got a key?’
‘Me? No. I’m visiting.’
He struggles on the word visiting, like he’s giving a little sneeze.
‘I tell you what,’ I say to him. ‘Why don’t you call your number, and we’ll tag along after.’
He winks, touches the can to his head, points at me with it, then stumbles up to the intercom. He leans right in – so far in, it looks like he’s supporting his weight on his nose. The dog turns its head and looks up at me.
Eventually the man presses some buttons and staggers back. A voice comes on the intercom, thick and incomprehensible.
Whatever it was they said to each other, it has the desired effect. The door buzzes open and we all go in, walking in a group across the echoing lobby to the lift.
If Hell exists you’d probably get there in a lift like this, Dogman as attendant. (Although maybe sans dog. Hopefully the dog would catch a ride in the other lift, the one with heating, lighting, a clean floor and soft music, heading up.)
The man stares at us.
‘All right?’ I ask him.
He shakes his head.
‘How d’ah know y’ar who y’say y’ar?’ he says.
‘You don’t,’ I tell him. ‘I suppose we could’ve faked all this gear, our jackets and the rest of it. Did you not see the ambulance parked on the street?’
‘An amb’lance, ya say?’
‘Nah. I didn’t see no amb’lance.’
‘A big yellow thing.’
‘Well fair play to ya, man.’
He takes another swig from his can, timing the tilt to coincide with the rattling stop of the lift at the sixth floor. The doors grind open and the man staggers out like he’s been sucked there by a sudden change in pressure. Incredibly, he stays upright, and with the dog trotting along behind him, lurches round the other side of the corridor where there’s a terrible volley of swearing and shouting and the resounding slam of a door.
We knock on number thirty-two.
I try the handle.
‘Ambulance!’ I call ahead into the gloomy hallway.
We pass inside.