‘Be careful’ says Eileen.
I’m perched on a window ledge, holding onto the upper lip of the frame whilst I struggle to reach inside with a long piece of wire and flip the window catch. Even though finally it bounces up, I can’t open the window any further because it turns out the metal arm has been fitted with a security bolt.
‘It’s no good’ I say, throwing the wire behind me then lowering myself back down onto the bin I’d dragged there. ‘Let’s have another look round the back.’
‘Round the back?’ says Eileen. ‘Really?’
I know what she means. If the front garden was overgrown, the back is impenetrable, brambles so vigorous they’ve shattered through the glass of the conservatory and washed up against the back of the house in a great tsunami of thorns and nettles.
The front door is a substantial frame of aluminium, secondary glazed security glass, double locked and bolted on the inside. At least the back door – if you ever managed to machete your way through to it – is a simple, single-panelled affair.
Whilst we look around for tools that can help us through the thicket of brambles, we can hear Eileen shouting through the letterbox.
‘George? They’re coming round the back,’ she says. ‘Won’t be long.’
There’s no reply, of course, nor has there been since we arrived. All we can hear is the radio playing loudly somewhere deep inside the bungalow.
‘A bit deaf’ says Eileen. ‘But you’d normally get him to say something.’
We find a couple of rusted shovels and start beating our way through to the back door. These brambles must be years old; the tendrils thicker than any I’ve seen, great coiled trunks, tough as twisted razor wire..
‘It’s Sleeping Beauty all over again,’ says Rae, chopping and hacking beside me. ‘Just remind me. How did that one end?’
We earn a little space to work. Rae finds a section of old ladder. I rest that on the top of the brambles and walk across it like a precarious bridge. Baskets and old boxes collapsing beneath me, but I make the back door. It’s locked, of course, so leaning back a little I use the shovel to jab at the glass which shatters inwards. Once I’ve used the edge of the shovel to level out the remaining shards, I take hold either side, climb up, and drop inside.
The kitchen is comprehensively junked-up, a high-chair over by the sink to my left with a tartan dressing gown thrown over it, boxes of stuff stacked around, old notices tacked to the wall, piles of newspapers, the bewildering mess of a hoarder. I pick my way out to the hallway, and unlock the front door. I hear Rae coming round that way, so I go back to look for George.
The radio is playing behind a door on my right. I knock and push it open.
A bedroom, with a messy, single bed surrounded by dark and anonymous piles of junk.
I check the other side of the bed, but really there’s only just room to climb out on the side nearest to me, so it doesn’t take long to reassure myself that George isn’t there.
I turn off the radio and knock on a door immediately opposite.
Into a lounge, a corridor of space from the door to an easy chair with a view of the television, but again, generously piled with junk. There are bookcases along one wall with a quantity of antique books. Family portraits, a cuckoo clock with the cuckoo rusted halfway out of its hatch. Dust on everything. Silence, deeper for the radio being off now.
Rae joins me in the room.
‘Where the hell is he?’
‘The door was locked from the inside, though. He’s got to be here somewhere.’
We go back out into the hall. It crooks round to the bottom of a set of stairs, but we’d have trouble getting to them, let alone an eighty-nine year old with mobility problems.
Rae looks in a cupboard.
‘He’s definitely not in the bedroom. Definitely not in the lounge. So he MUST be in the kitchen. I’ll take another look.’
I go back to the kitchen, and stand in the doorway.
A stage magician would understand why I missed him. They know all about the power of distraction, what you can hide with the right amount of confusion, how you often see only what you expect to see and nothing else. I’d been pumped-up with the difficult entry. When I smashed the window and climbed through, all I saw was a place in a mess. There was no body lying on the floor or in any of the other attitudes I’ve come across in these situations. My next mission was to get to the front door, open it, and then search the rest of the house as quickly as possible. I started with the front room, where the radio was playing.
Standing back in the doorway of the kitchen, though, the truth of the matter is like a blow to the stomach.
At some point George had been sitting on a high metal chair by the sink, fetching himself a glass of water in the night, perhaps. He’d fallen head first off the chair, hooking his leg in the frame of it. But the chair was so braced with junk it didn’t topple over. Instead it held him upside down – and worse, somehow his head had become jammed up to the chin in an empty plastic bucket that was on the floor at his feet. He must have fainted soon after, or presumably he’d have been able to free himself from the bucket. And then asphyxiated. In short order – you would hope, anyway.
Picking my way over to him, I can see he’s been dead for a while. I pull his tartan dressing gown back. His hands and arms are puce coloured, stained with pooling blood.
Rae stands next to me.‘Oh my god!’ she says. ‘Poor George.’ And then: ‘Is that a bucket?’