Ragged breaths tore through his lungs and out through his throat. They made clouds in the air and for a brief moment seemed to blot out the sun. Steadying himself with both hands on one of the balcony rails, he regained control of his breathing. His skin against the freezing metal of the railing burned. The clouds died down to a few puffs thrown out by his nostrils.
Slowly but surely the needles in his chest subsided, gone the way of the dark spots that had crawled across his vision. Looking out over the city he could see that the sun was still there. In point of fact it was a startlingly clear day. But for the curdled yellow disc that hung in it only a pale blue painted the sky.
Four flats to do today. The lift had been broken and he’d had to take the stairs. Ten flights had taken it out of him and he already knew it would be a struggle to get back down after the job was done. But the job had to be done. He had been paid. Straightening his arms he pushed himself from the rail and stood straight, the fresh air starting only to sting rather than burn.
He rubbed the backs of his hands one after the other, stamped his feet and turned to enter the first flat. The door was unlocked as he’d expected. There was no reason for it to have been barred. Thieves and vandals didn’t venture past the ninth floor. Nobody did. Shuffling inside, he let the door swing into the wall as he went. They could bill him for damages, should they want to come see him again. Leaving the door open he moved forward through the cramped corridor. It was small. So very small that he found he had to tuck his elbows into his sides in order to move smoothly.
Despite his best efforts the cuffs of his jacket scraped along the walls and brought up small geysers of dust. Flecks of long-dried paint fell here and there. Finally, he emerged into the living room. From what he could see it was the only room. In the corner furthest away from him he could see a slatted wooden door slightly ajar, a dull white shade of tile barely visible on the floor suggesting there might be a toilet wedged behind it.
There was a sofa in the room with a blanket draped across it. Two figures were hidden somewhere there. He didn’t take the time to register the size or shape of them, only peeled off two slices from the loaf of bread beneath his coat. Placing them about where he thought their heads might be he took a moment to wheeze. Ambling over to a squat table in front of the sofa he rummaged around for a while, retrieved a glass that had been tipped over and hidden under a dozen magazines and unopened envelopes.
On his haunches, he uprighted the glass and poured a little water from a plastic bottle produced from his coat into it. Standing up again he heard creaks and moans that didn’t all belong to him. He shuffled back out onto the landing of the flats, moved into the next one.
And the next one. And the next one.
By the time he got back to the first flat the black dots in his vision had come back and he had to take a moment to sit down in the hallway. A thousand flecks of paint and plaster powdered his shoulders as he slid down the wall. Chin resting in the crook of one shoulder, he looked into the living room. The only room. The glass of water on the table had overflowed. All of the papers arrayed around it had turned into pulp.
He got to his feet, staggered over to the table. In as swift a movement as he could muster he gathered up the slices of bread he’d laid on the figures on the sofa and began to tear them to pieces. Dropping them into the glass of water he wobbled on uncertain legs back out to the other flats to get the other piece of bread he had left.
It was always the worst part to drink it down. Not because the thing itself was unpleasant, but because it made him have to see. He’d made the decision not to uncover the two under the blanket on the sofa. He’d made the decision not to look in the bathtub. He’d made the decision not to look under the sink.
But they always made him see. That was why he was there.
It made him sick, like it always did. And like he always did he made sure to hold it in till he stumbled away from it all. He made sure he was a few floors down before he let it up, bile mixing with something else he’d rather not have thought about.
From there he straightened himself up and went to the Rose and Crown for a swift pint.
The council were buying this one.