The Thirteenth Floor
I was sick in bed with the flu when the police came.
Something about a missing woman, routine enquiries they said, with rain running off their hats. Going house-to-house, knocking on doors. Asking if anyone had seen the woman in the photo one of them held; the rain dripped from her picture too.
It was a blurred snapshot of a young woman: three-quarter profile and a half smile. Blonde hair, maybe sixteen, white teeth, pink cheeks. She looked like the girl next door; someone’s daughter.
I dragged my feverish hair behind my ear and didn’t invite them in. No, I said no, I don’t know her. I’ve never seen her before.
Except I did, but the girl in the photo didn’t look much like Nancy. Nancy was nothing but skin and bones when I knew her when she was twenty-one going on fifty.
Six months before the police turned up she’d lived with me and Grebo and Steve in the squat halfway to the sky in a tower block between the North Circular and the railway bridge.
The squat wasn’t one of the pseudo-glam things you see on TV nowadays; it was the thirteenth floor of a council block with chronically broken lifts; burnt tinfoil on the stairs and piss - and worse - on the landings. Somehow Steve had got the keys to a flat there…but that’s another story.
What matters is that it was the 1970s and no-one had Facebook or a mobile phone; if you were planning to meet someone you made plans in person, or phoned them up…if you had a phone. Otherwise you queued up at the phone box on the corner by the Top Rank club, pushing two-pence pieces in the slot and hoping that the person on the other end would pick up.
No, the squat was vile. But me and Steve rubbed along alright; he was a nice bloke – not the sharpest knife in the box but a decent sort. He worked on his cousin’s fruit and veg stall up the market: all the old ladies loved him. The two of us fell into being a couple; it’s funny how things turn out.
Grebo on the other hand…well, they say if you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all…but he was a bugger. He was one of those blokes who shouldn’t drink but he did: and plenty of it. He often got handy with his fists when he’d had a few, and – let’s be honest - even when he hadn’t.
Nancy always got the worst of it. A slap when she wore a short skirt to go out. Another one when he’d run out of money and she wouldn’t hand over her Giro so he could score a bit of speed to sort out his hangover. Another one when there was no money left for food.
She went and left him – all of us – one day. The night before we went the lads had both gone out, leaving the two of us alone; she confided to me that she thought she might be expecting. Missed her monthly visitor, she said, and didn’t know what to do. Grebo was hardly father material and she didn’t want to go to the doctor, not with her needle habit, and just hoped the problem would go away.
I tried to tell her it might be nothing – she was so thin by then, not taking care of herself, barely eating…We sat up and talked half the night with me doing my best to give advice but Nancy looking like death and scratching her arms from the withdrawal, until Steve staggered home just after three and wanted to kip. I reluctantly went to bed and promised I’d talk to her in the morning.
She was gone when I finally got up in the middle of the afternoon. I thought she might have gone to her mum in Barnet to get her head together for a day or two; but she’d not taken anything: her eyeliner and works were still on the kitchen table and her knickers were pegged on the line over the bath.
Grebo took it badly. Said they’d had a row when he’d got home in the morning, and pointed out to us where she’d scratched his face. Said she’d gone off god knows where, the silly whore. He yelled that he’d find her, track her down and then she’d be sorry. He stormed into his room, turned the radio up and slammed the door.
A day later Grebo turned up with a bottle of whisky in his pocket and great black suitcase saying he was moving out. We heard him thumping and shouting, it sounded as if he was trying to fit the world into the case, drinking and raging all the night, saying how he had to get out of the place since the silly bitch had upped and left.
He scared Steve and me half to death; we couldn’t sleep and listened all night to him slamming about in his room.
In the morning Steve told me he knew a bloke out Finsbury Park way who had a room in another squat. We moved out that same afternoon with all our stuff in carrier bags and got on the bus. Thank God Grebo was asleep and didn’t hear us leave.
We hung around at Finsbury Park for a couple of months, until we heard Steve’s grandma had a fall and he decided he needed to move in and look after her: he was always a good lad. So we moved in to the back bedroom of a two-up two-down terrace in the shadow of that same tower-block; it was all lace curtains and candlewick bedspreads; heavy with the smell of cats and mothballs.
When the police left I realised Nancy hadn’t gone to her mother’s; there was a reason she’d left her knickers, works and makeup behind.
I always wonder how Grebo got that heavy suitcase down from the thirteenth floor when the lifts never worked.