Trouble in the stair well
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Is You There Zomb? by J.B. Pick.

In the film 'The Cat and the Canary' Bob Hope and his eyerolling manservant bundle a murderous zombie into a cupboard; hours later the manservant knocks on the cupboard door. "Is you there, Zomb?" he says. There is no reply.

Three of us were canvassing during an election. We were in one of those tower blocks where nobody will answer the door except to shout through the letter box. I was on the umpteenth floor when Ramesh came up the stairs grey and panting.

"Huff!" he said. "Puff! Huff-puff! There's a corpse by the elevator!" He always said elevator.

I hastened slowly because Ramesh expected me to know what to do and I had never met a corpse by an elevator.

Harry was bowing from the waist and glowering down at a sprawled lump in a dark suit and a green woolly hat.

"I've not seen a bloody soul," Harry said, "except this stiff. What do I do, ask it how it'll vote?"

"Don't tower blocks have caretakers?" I said.

"If they do," Harry said, "I'll find one."

He got into the lift, whoosh, and vanished, whirr, which was surprising because ten minutes earlier the lift wouldn't work.

Ramesh was dancing from foot to foot. "An Ambulance," he said. "Why don't we ring for an ambulance?"

The light wasn't good and the body seemed to have no face. When I heaved it an arm fell loose and the body became a Pakistani or a Bangladeshi flat on his back. There was a faint shift of breath.

"An Ambulance," I said. "Why don't we ring for an ambulance?" Ramesh scattered down the stairs with a lot of arms and legs. I was alone with the ex-corpse. The face was exactly what the word 'livid' had been coined to describe: a leaden pallor like blue death.

"This is a coma," I said to defy the silence. "Don't drugs cause coma? What do you do about drugs and a coma?" Nobody answered.

I crouched there thinking that a body becomes a person only when it moves and talks and lays claim to something. This body laid claim to nothing, was unshaven and wore green socks which didn't match the woolly hat.

Someone was looking at me while I looked at the body. A man in stockinged feet stood in a doorway with his arms folded. His stomach bulged and his face was blank.

"Do you know this bloke?" I said.

He went inside and closed the door.

The man in the woolly hat was neither alive nor dead, like the zombie in the film. Should he be kept warm or cool? Perhaps he needed a blanket? I didn't think the man with the stomach would give me a blanket.

Another door opened and a man in short sleeves came out carrying a bottle and two baked-bean tins. His expression was heavy and sullen. The body sprawled across his path. He stepped over the body and trod weightily to the garbage chute. He dropped the bottle and the two tins into the garbage chute and trod back to his door, stepping over the body.

"Hey!" I said.

He closed the door.

The body made a small unsteady snore which faded and was gone. Its pulse was imaginary and its finger nails were blue.

A whirr and a clump were followed by the whoosh of lift doors and Harry erupted with a well-bosomed lady in a blue dress and a flowery apron.

"She took some finding, this caretaker did," Harry said. "She didn't want to come." Harry was good at dealing with people who didn't want to come. He once dragged an elderly voter to the Polling Station in pyjamas and carpet slippers on a snowy night two minutes before it closed.

The caretaker made a noise like "Gach!"

"I seen this one," she said. "Some dam feller with gold teeth upstairs he makes I dunno what, drink, drugs, I dunno, these men go in, useless men, poor men. Puh! This one no good. Not live here."

"This lady," Harry said, "is Polish. The one on the floor is not Polish."

"Puh!" said the caretaker.

"Can't you do anything?" I said. "About the men upstairs?"

"Do? What to do? Eh? I speak to Police. Police no care, Police no interest, I tell you. This one I seen. Maybe he get better." She shrugged.

"Ramesh is phoning for an ambulance," Harry said.

The caretaker laughed. "Ambulance," she said. "Puh! You see. This one no good. They no want this one. We wait. You see."

We waited.

"Do you often gets corpses on landings?" I said.

"No corpse," the caretaker said. "Such people, yes. I seen this one. Puh! What he do I dunno. Bad men upstairs. So all stick indoors. Safer, eh? Not good here. Puh! One man tell me, each morning I go up on roof and jump." She mimed by bending her knees and jutting out her elbows. "I ask why, he say bloody place go down in ground quicker if I jump." She laughed.

"It's not a bad block," I said, "as blocks go."

"That's what he say. He say blocks go, sooner the better."

The lift whirred, clumped, whooshed and Ramesh fell out followed with less enthusiasm by a folded stretcher and two men in caps and uniforms. The men in caps stood looking at the body.

One of them bent down.

"What do you think, Jack?" the other one said.

"Think?" said Jack, as if that wasn't his job.

"He'll sleep it off," the other one said.

Jack clicked his tongue.

"What's the matter with him?" I said.

"He doesn't like it here, eh, Ted?" said Jack.

Ted laughed.

"So you don't want him?" Harry said.

"He'll sleep it off," Ted said.

"That's not sleeping it off," I said. "That's a coma. He's ill."

"What do you suggest we do with the body?" Harry said. "Down the garbage chute?"

The ambulance men both looked at Harry. They did not like him any better than they liked the body.

"The man needs a doctor," Ramesh said. "He needs the Hospital. It is your duty to take him to the hospital. He needs treatment. He could die."

He seemed to think the ambulance men were foreigners and required things to be spelled out in short words.

"What if he does die?" I said. "What about that? How will that look?"

"He'll sleep it off, eh, Jack?" Ted said.

"You see?" the caretaker said. "I tell you. Pun!" She turned suddenly on the ambulance men and said very loudly, "You take this man. You take him! We no want him here. You take him off dam quick."

The ambulance men stood looking down at the body. Jack clicked his tongue. Ted drew a breath through his teeth. I wasn't sure that the body was drawing any breath in at all any more.

"What's the problem?" I said. "What's going on? What is there to think about? He needs the hospital."

"I'll tell you what's going on," Harry said. "Taking him away would be hard work. That's the bleeding problem."

The ambulance men looked again at Harry. They seemed to like him even less this time.

"What do you think, Ted?" said Jack

"He'll sleep it off," said Ted.

Ramesh was dancing from foot to foot.

At this point the gods or elementals came out of the machine to save the ambulance men. At least they came down the stairs. They came down very noisily, talking in some gabbly language, flashing gold smiles and gold rings and puffing like steam trains. One was very flashily dressed in a silver-grey suit and a tie with gold squares and one of those striped shirts with a white collar. He was very bulky and seemed to take up even more space than his bulk warranted because he moved as if air needed pushing and he was going to push it. The other one was square- faced with greasy hair, a black drooping moustache and black darting eyes. He was wearing a leather jacket and had only two gold rings and a gold wrist watch.

"Oh ha, Mrs," said the bulky one with the gold teeth to the caretaker. "Good, eh, we been looking, oh yes, our good friend, see? Oh yes. You not worry, we his friends, oh yes, we take him. Good. Ha ha." He said something quick and gabbly to the leather- jacketed one. They bent down in unison and there was the body hanging between them like Guy Fawkes on the way to the bonfire.

"Hey!" said Harry. "Where are you taking him?"

"Our good friend, oh yes, we look after, we know his trouble, oh poor man, we take him, very good, ha ha."

The ambulance men looked relieved, the caretaker looked cynical, Ramesh looked outraged, and Harry said "Hey!" once more as if he contemplated taking one or all of them to the Polling Station before closing time.

"Goodbye, thankyou, oh yes, ha ha," said the bulky one, barging past Harry into the lift and the door closed whoosh and the lift went whirr.

"Right," said Jack. "Let's go, Ted."

They went off down the stairs carrying the folded stretcher and without looking at anyone.

"Did you see those rings?" said Harry. "Did you see those teeth? What the hell do we do now?"

"There was a policeman on the corner, "Ramesh said. "I'll fetch the policeman."

"You find him," said the caretaker, "he do nothing. I tell you."

"Where does he live?" I asked the caretaker. "The one with the gold teeth? What floor? What number?"

"I dunno," said the caretaker. "I dunno which floor.. I dunno which number. They know that feller. They not want him in hospital. They not want questions. I tell you."

She gave a quick nod and a smile whicn probably meant something and rolled off downstairs.

"Puh!" said Harry. "You see. I tell you."

"Ramesh," I said, "if you look for the policeman, Harry and I will take the next two floors and see if we can raise the bloke with the gold teeth. Or anyone else, come to that."

"And do what?" Harry said. "Ask how he'll vote?"

"Ask how he'll vote," I said. "And get his number. If we don't have his number the policeman won't be interested."

"Those men are no good," Ramesh said. "I'll get the policeman."

"I dunno," Harry said. He wasn't keen on policemen. "Besides, blokes like that have knives. I canvassed an IRA supporter just after one of them had died on hunger strike. He came after me with a bread knife even though I shouted that I was a Catholic. I only just slammed the gate in time."

"I know what you mean," I said. "But all the same. . ."

So we went up to the next floor, tried all the doors and got no answer except from one old lady who shouted "Go away!" through the letter box in a quavering voice. We went up to the floor above and tried three doors and got no answer. I paused before the last door, took a deep breath and banged on it very loudly and for a long time. "Is you there, Zomb?" I said. Nobody answered.

© JBP 2005


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