The hallway is brisk and well kempt, its carpets swept and sprayed, white walls above the dado, aquamarine below. But there is a man lying on his side up the stairs from the bottom step to the sixth, inert and out of place, as if a giant child had been called away mid-game and left a figure there.
‘I said goodbye to Stanley when I left for work this morning. He was standing at his door, holding on to the frame, looking a bit confused, you know, but then he’s been like that for a few weeks now, so I didn’t think anything of it. Do you know what I think? I think he must have made it to the stairs and lain there till I got back just now.’
His neighbour, a generously proportioned black woman who lives in the flat above, leads us over to him.
‘Stanley?’ she says.
He twitches and looks up, then after a second or two of clownish focusing, repositions his glasses and gives us the old-school thumbs up.
‘What’s all this, then?’ he says.
Up close to him now and we can see the neglect. His windcheater jacket looks like it has been pulled from a skip, torn in a couple of places and fixed with safety pins, the lining poking through, and at every place of contact with the world - on the back of his jacket and trousers, round the pockets and sleeves, there is a grimy shine of dirt. His fly gapes open; he has a brown shoe on his left foot and a black one on his right, both unlaced.
‘What’s going on?’ he says.
‘Well, that’s what we want to know,’ says Rae. ‘Have you hurt yourself, Stan? Are you in pain or anything?’
He considers the question, then raises his eyebrows and shakes his head.
‘No. No – I’m absolutely fine. What’s this all about, Hope?’
‘It’s a funny kind of fine, though, Stan. Lying on the stairs like this. People are worried about you.’
‘Are they? How kind people are.’
‘So what are you doing on the stairs?’
‘I felt a bit off.’
‘In what way, off?’
‘Just – off.’
Hope is standing over us all, her arms folded, a guardian angel / security guard hybrid.
‘He’s been on the slide for months now, but I’ve not seen him as bad as this before. He doesn’t seem to have any oomph about him at all. He must be sick, but he won’t see the doctor. What can you do?’
Rae asks Stan if he’ll come out to the ambulance and let us give him the once over. He agrees, demurely, like a vicar accepting an invitation to tea.
‘But could I first get my keys and shut the windows?’
We help him to his feet and hold on to him either side as he sways slowly over to his front door. He smells bad, unwashed, a rank margin about him you could chip with a hammer. He pushes open the door, and we follow him into his bedsit room.
I remember reading a description of the moment Howard Carter and his team broke into Tutankhamen’s tomb – the rush of foul gas as the breach was made, the way they gradually made sense of the wonderful clutter of objects around them. The difference is that instead of ornamental caskets and golden effigies, here there are dozens of carrier bags stuffed and tied-off at the handle, boxes of junk, newspapers lined up in columns and stacked up on every horizontal surface. The walls of the bedsit are clear, with the exception of an alternative suit of clothes, even filthier than the ones Stanley is wearing, hanging from a picture rail, next to one small picture in a gilt frame – a pastel study of a series of lock gates on a canal lined with dark poplar trees. The gate in the foreground is open, inviting you to make your way up river.
If this really is a tomb – and it certainly doesn’t seem a place where you could expect the living to be found - then its occupant has woken up and been moving around. Between the seamy bed and the sink, the sink and the armchair, the armchair and the door, there is a narrow channel of access kept clear by the simple action of walking. Everywhere else is utterly silted up with junk.
‘I’ll just get my keys,’ he says, and puts his hand straight to them.