Before I started in this job, I used to picture bailiffs bashing in people’s doors and dragging furniture out into the street.
Of course, it isn’t like that really. We’ve sent this tenant a letter to let her know we’re coming, all correct protocol with the London Housing Association that I work for. I have two bailiffs with me but, really, all we want to do today is to ensure that this tenant, Ms Jones, knows about her debts, and hopefully sort out a means for her to pay them. That’s why I’m here: as her Housing Manager. Hopefully, I can agree a payment plan with her, something to help her out of this mess.
The bailiff with the kind face takes a deep breath and knocks hard on the door. ‘Ms Jones? Ms Jones, we are here about your unpaid rent.’
I think I can make out voices coming from inside the flat, but as I lean closer I hear someone saying Capital FM!, and I realise it’s just the radio playing. If the radio is on though, I can be pretty sure she’s in there.
The bailiff knocks again, thump thump.
A song comes on a moment later: ‘Everywhere’ by Fleetwood Mac. We’ll keep knocking and hope that eventually she will come to the door, even if she doesn’t open it. She has a right not to open it to us, but I really hope we can speak to her today. That way I have a chance to help. We can let things go for a while – the longest I can remember was four months – but we can’t just let it go on forever. Ms Jones is already three months behind. We’ve sent half a dozen letters already, but she didn’t reply to any of them, so now it’s come to this. If we can’t arrange some kind of payment schedule today, the next step is an eviction notice and I would really hate for it to come to that.
‘Ms Jones?’ the bailiff calls again.
There are footsteps on the stairs above. I step back and look up to see who’s coming. A neighbour from upstairs, nobody that I recognise, a black woman, smartly dressed, probably on her way out to work. There are dozens of people living in this block but now I wonder how many of them speak to each other or even know their neighbours’ names. But she must pass this way at least, most days. ‘Excuse me,’ I call out to her. ‘Do you know the tenant in this flat? Is she usually home at this time?’
The woman comes down the last few stairs.
‘She’s got the radio on,’ I say. ‘We’re assuming she’s in.’
The woman pauses next to us and shrugs. ‘Her radio is always on,’ she says. ‘I hear it every time I go by.’
She loiters for another moment between the staircase and the doors to the outside, sizing us up. But she is busy, she has her own life to be getting on with, and no doubt she’s learnt that it’s best in a big city like this not to get involved. ‘Sorry,’ she offers as she hitches her handbag more securely onto her shoulder and makes her way through the heavy door to the lobby.
We turn back to the flat and the other bailiff knocks this time, his fist bigger, his knock that bit louder. I look down at the file of papers I am still holding against my chest. I’ve been in this flat before; I checked the last tenant out. I can still picture it: the tiny apartment is only a bedsit really, tucked away on the ground floor, hidden under the stairs so you could quite easily miss it. The living room and bedroom are one and the same, the sofa tucked behind the front door doubling as a bed, and there is a kitchen, but only an archway divides the two, so you could hardly even call them separate rooms. There’s a tiny toilet, with a shower attachment that hangs, a little bit crooked, above a plastic bath. And that’s it.
The last tenant, I remember, only stayed a few months. They complained about the commercial waste bins that always somehow ended up against the rear wall of this block, even though they belonged to the restaurant twenty yards away. Then the flat was empty for a good while, until this tenant moved in a year ago. Into this flat, now allocated to me.
The song has flipped over and it’s another tune that’s playing now. I recognise this one too: ‘Beautiful Day’ by U2. Out of nowhere I get a sort of roiling feeling in my stomach and a prickling up the base of my spine. I hand my file of papers to the bailiff with the plain, kind face and walk right up to the door. I bend my knees so that my eyes are level with the letterbox and lift up the flap. With my cheek against the flaky wood of the door I look through the slat of a gap that has opened up.
I see all the post, a slithering pile of it silting up the floor on the other side of the door. No doubt the letters we sent are among it. The strangest smell reaches me in thin wisps from inside, and suddenly I find myself thinking back to last year and the annual inspection I was supposed to carry out. I let the flap of the letterbox fall and straighten back up. My chest has gone tight. I can’t seem to speak.
Now both bailiffs are looking at me, but I can’t find a way to tell them what’s wrong. The older one leans down, copying what I have just done and sees for himself what’s through that narrow space.
He puts a palm on the door, as though to steady himself.
He manages to say something and he says: ‘Oh my God.’
Copyright 2020 Philippa East