There’s an air of melancholy that encircles every heavy step made when coming back after a holiday. I suppose it doesn't help, waking up to a beaming Italian sun and ending the day in the cold grey midlands. Radford looked the same as it always did in winter: dark, cold and desolate. The odd group of ill clad students occasionally flittered past, roaring and laughing as they stumbled and shivered in the icy wind. Most of them dressed in colours of the luminescent variety, vests, and shorts alike with bright glittery paste smudged across their skins. I couldn't be sure if they dressed that way so they could be seen in the dark or merely for their own amusement. The rumbling of the engine drew my attention to the taxi as it shot up the long steep hill towards Radford. I glanced at the meter—it seemed about right. The driver looked back at me through the mirror, almost sensing my distrust. We locked eyes for a moment, before I gave in to awkwardness. Peering out the window again, I noted the sudden change. Instead of young, strangely dressed students, Afghan shopkeepers now swept the streets in their Khet Partug's, bickering with each other in their native tongues. Afro-Caribbean youngsters hovered around, seemingly bored but still alert as they dawdled aimlessly.
“Where abouts am I stopping boss?” the driver asked.
I looked back at him through the mirror and checked the meter once more.
“Anywhere here is fine thanks.”
The man pulled over, switching on his lights as he parked. He read the price aloud as I fumbled for my wallet. Why they do that...drivers I mean. It would be hard to miss those bright red numbers pinned below the mirror, yet every drivers the same. Always reading it aloud like they're calling the lottery. After handing him the exact change to the penny, he counted it, mumbling his dissatisfaction at the lack of tip. He expected it...they all do. He tapped his hand on the steering wheel and waited for me to get out before speeding off. Stepping out I caught a breeze to the face, whiplashing me in its bitterness as I swung the strap across my shoulder. My hamstrings were stiff from the plane and the cab ride, so I paused to stretch them before making my way down the road. My student halls were on a poorly lit path called Denham Street. An off licence on the corner provided the best source of light, but once you passed it you walked in almost total darkness. An open, sorely abused park sat on the left as you entered the street. Filled with the all too familiar distasteful rumours that accompanied the sort of folk who linger there. One glance was enough to take my attention away and quicken my stride, the sound of my lonely footsteps echoing down the narrow road. Voices emerged from the dark, but it was impossible see. It's a strange feeling, hearing but not seeing, especially if you think they can see you, which I was afraid they could. My halls were visible now, lifeless and dull but they were a pleasant sight as I sought to enter what seemed certain safety. From afar one wouldn't think I lived in a student halls. Every night was the same—always silence, no lights, nothing. It's like a hall for mutes. Silence doesn't bother me of course, you learn to cherish the independence it brings...but sometimes it would be nice to hear some life in the place. Approaching the doors I gawked at the rusting entrance dial on the door. It had been a while since I'd had to push in the code. I'd forgotten it a couple of times and had to ring my friend Francis to come let me in. He was always high and never on his phone, so the cold was often my only companion until he came and answered. A lesson I remedied tonight. I pushed open the hallway door and was instantly greeted by the smell of weed, a smell I'd missed in my time away from here. The faint sound of 90's Hip-Hop music playing in the distance crept through the closed door and down the corridor. Approaching his door, I hoped the music would be my ally, as I sought to surprise him like I always did, hoping to catch him off guard. Barging his door open he turned, slowly, gazing at me with bloodshot eyes with nothing but blankness on his face. Of course! He's far too high to be surprised.
“Yo what's going on? How was Italy?” he croaked, his throat dry from the smoke. His room was a real drug den. Paraphernalia was littered across his desk, pipes, bongs and empty plastic weed bags sat all over the floor. The window was open, as it always was, and after he spoke he turned away from me, blowing a huge cloud of white smoke out into the cold.
“Not bad,” I replied. “What you doing?”
“Nothing just trying to make this beat, but the WiFi's gone down and Nick's been out all day.”
He lit another nugget of weed on his pipe as it went from green to black. He spluttered a tad, breathed deeper before releasing it once more into the dark night.
“Let me check, see if I can get it.”
Pulling my phone out, I waited for it to sign in automatically. It didn't. It wasn't on the list either.
“No, I'm not getting anything. Let me ask Jermaine.”
Leaving Francis's room I knocked on Jermaine's door. His room was just opposite Francis and he was sure to be in at this time. His footsteps grew louder as he approached the door and it swung open seconds later.
“Hey how are you? Good holiday?”
He looked like he'd just woken up. Jermaine always did this thing when he answered the door. He would rub his face with the palm of his hand, as if rubbing it woke his senses.
“Yeah it was good thanks. Sorry did I wake you?”
“No no, I was just writing my essay.”
“I see. I just wanted to ask if your WiFi is working?”
“It's not been working all day. I had to go to the library to do my research. Now I'm just writing.”
“You as well? Alright let's see where Nick is.”
Upon hearing the conversation, Francis came out of his room in hopes Nick responded. I heard Jermaine laugh, probably at the state of Francis's bloodshot eyes and stone gazed face. There was no noise coming from Nick’s room so I knocked and listened for movement. There was no response. After a few seconds I knocked again, this time more loudly and calling his name. Why did the WiFi have to be in his room? I mean I don't dislike the guy, but he's real weird. We all tried to be friendly with him, but he doesn’t' want any of it. He waits for us to leave the kitchen before he goes in, just so he doesn't have to see us. One time I came out the halls and saw him walking towards them. We were on the same side of the road and he crossed, he crossed to the opposite side of the road just so he didn't have to say hi to me. Losing patience Francis stepped forward, knocking even louder, almost thumping on the door.
“Nick open the door you fucking cunt.”
Jermaine laughed and I turned in shock.
“What are you going to do if he answers the door now?”
“Ask him why he switched the WiFi off? But the cunts clearly not in there or he would have answered by now.”
Francis tried to enter his room, but the door stood firm.
“Fuck sake, where's this guy gone man?” he asked as he poked the heavy brown door with his foot.
“It's half ten, surely he should be back soon,” Jermaine said, hoping to quell the resentment.
It fell silent for a second, with Francis's sigh the only thing bringing life to the corridor.
“We could call the caretaker?” suggested Jermaine.
Francis turned triumphantly.
“Yes!” he gasped.
He exited, like a man possessed, as he dashed away, the heavy door closing loudly behind him. That was the thing about this place, all the doors were heavy, you couldn't leave quietly if you tried. Even the carpet was so old it didn't absorb the sound of footsteps anymore; it was more concrete than carpet.
“Where do you think he's gone?” I asked Jermaine, breaking the silence.
“Probably Library,” he replied as he leaned on the wall.
“What's that smell by the way?” I asked as I looked around.
“It's the toilet,” replied Jermaine, nonchalantly.
“I don’t know, it doesn't smell like the toilet.”
The smell was hard to place; it was nothing I'd ever smelt before in a strange way. Though it was true, our flat was a real state, after all what can you expect with four male students living in one place. Entering the bathroom, I pulled on the cord and glanced around, looking at the ever-growing mould on the ceiling and walls. Checking the toilet, I ignored the rusting stains and the brown marks of faeces that resided on the bowl. It sure didn't smell pleasant, but the smell wasn't coming from here. The communal door opened and I turned to see Francis stood outside Nick's room once more.
“The caretaker's coming” he said impatiently as he paced up and down.
“Francis can you smell that?” I asked him.
“Smell what?” he replied as he took a dragon sized whiff of the air.
“That smell, I can't describe it, but it's not the toilet is it?”
“I can't smell nothing,” he said as he went back to pacing.
Of course, he lives constantly with the smell of weed, he's forgotten what fresh air smells like, I thought. The communal door opened once more as George, the caretaker, bustled through with his infinite collection of keys.
“Evening gents,” he saluted, as he looked for the key.
He was a big guy, one of those muscle and fat guys. A real nice guy but he sure loved to talk. He would catch you sometimes on your own and if he knew you liked to work out he would talk to you for half an hour about his gym routine and diet. Getting to places on time was hard when he was around. He pushed up his glasses and removed his baseball cap, wiped his head and placed it back on his head again. He always wore a cap; I think he was ashamed of his baldness in a way that often made me feel a fleeting flicker of sadness for the man.
“Right then gents, you know where the WiFi is yeah?” he asked as he glanced at Francis and I.
“I know where it is,” said Francis confidently.
“Alright, I'll open the door and you guys can go in.”
“Is that ok?” I asked, somewhat surprised.
“I'm legally not allowed to enter without the tenants consent.”
“No worries,” I assured him, as he unlocked the door.
The door unlocked and he pulled it open, letting Francis and I in the room. Francis walked ahead of me and as we entered the door shut behind us. The smell was here.... in this room. Now it was undeniable, even Francis could smell it. The recognition of something foul entering ones nostrils is hard even for the hardest weed hitters to feign ignorance to.
“Smell it now?” I asked him.
He held his nose and we both stood still on the spot gazing round the room. It was pure chaos, with clothes and clutter littered everywhere. Leftover dishes and empty cans lay spread about the room, the duvet hanging half on the bed and half on the floor. It made me feel like a tidy person.
“There it is, over there,” Francis said as he located the WiFi box.
He took a step forward and I followed, gazing at the various heavy metal posters that clung to the wall. All of a sudden, Francis’ hand shot out, grasping my arm tightly and disrupting my tranquil albeit nostril disturbed state.
“What the fuck is that?” he shouted as he pointed.
Following the line of his finger I froze. I'd never seen a stranger sight. There, below the bed and emerging from the hanging duvet were a man's bare legs and feet, lying still on the floor. The upper part of the body was entirely hidden by the bed. Before I could muster the words to express my confusion, Francis pelted from behind me, running out the room. His movement sent a domino effect of reaction through me, as I quickly followed, the pair of us dashing out, our eyes wide with shock.
“His legs are hanging from beneath the bed,” Francis panted as he motioned to inside the room.
“What?” said the caretaker as he screwed his face, perplexed.
“We walked in and we saw his legs underneath the bed,” I replied, more firmly.
He pushed past us and we turned to Jermaine, who now looked stunned as he waited outside the door with us. From outside the sound of the mattress being lifted followed by the bed was clear. Only seconds later came the caretakers voice on the phone to the ambulance.
“No he's not breathing,” he said flatly.
The silence grew and ebbed like the pulsing movement of a dying heart. Francis put his hands on his head. Mine had crept their way up my body and cupped my mouth, preventing air from escaping. Tremors ran through all of us.
“No he's deceased. He's deceased I can tell.”
Jermaine almost folded in two, the halves of him resembling a lawn chair. Francis semi squatted in amazement and I paced up and down, my hands running through my hair. Looking at Francis I could see the tears glistening in his eyes. We said nothing to each other. Each of us waited in total silence for what seemed a lifetime. Eventually the caretaker came out and shut Nick's door. He spoke, breaking the silence that had thus continued.
“Alright guys, don't panic, it's going to be ok the ambulance is on its way?”
“He's definitely dead!” Francis burst out.
“Yeah. He had the same look in his eye my dad had. That's how I knew you see. I've seen that look before in a mans face.”
He said it so casually, so unmoved I was taken aback. He folded his arms and the corridor returned to silence, just like that. We all stood there, each one of us struggling to form words to express our feelings. Occasionally the caretaker would check his wristwatch to see how long it would take the ambulance to come. The silence continued, only the sound of the caretaker chewing gum stopped that corridor from being soundless. His phone rang, and he rushed out towards the communal door.
“Wait in the kitchen. The ambulance is here.”
I nodded, and we each made our way into the Kitchen where the silence was like that of an Italian monastery.
“Holy fuck,” Francis finally said. “I just-”
He broke into laughter. I looked at Jermaine in confusion.
“I'm sorry, it's not funny at all I'm just so shocked I don't know what to say.”
Then before I knew it Jermaine laughed too. Had everyone gone mad? Jermaine covered his face with his hands and recollected himself. As we sat there in the silence of the room I heard the voices in the corridor. Muffled voices and clatter followed until the door to the kitchen opened. It was Phil, the resident hall manager. He was a nice enough guy, but I never spoke to him much. He was one of those sarcastic types, a real smart ass that thought he'd made gold in his career. He loved it when the students made a thing of him, though I'd never given him that satisfaction. As he stood in the doorway, I saw, behind him, the trolley and the white sheet on Nick’s body as they rolled him out. What a strange sight. Nick had long brown hair, and parts of his hair sprung out beneath the sheets. His nose was even visible, as it pointed softly under the white sheet like a dolomite from above. The blue ambulance lights were flashing outside the halls and through the kitchen window, and by now a small crowd had gathered as they watched his body wheeled into the back of the van.
“I know you boys have been through a lot tonight, but I need you to be patient. I've cleared a corridor upstairs for tonight as you won't be able to sleep here whilst they investigate,” said Phil, his hands in his pockets as he stood over us.
“Thanks,” I said half-heartedly.
“Thanks,” Jermaine echoed.
“Now the police are here and they're going to come and ask you some questions. No need to panic, just answer them as best you can ok?”
I nodded, and so did the other two. Phil opened the door, and a policeman and a policewoman entered. They nodded at the residence manager who shut the door behind him as he left. Straight away the man stepped forward first, occupying the centre of the room as he too, stood above us. The woman waited in the back, standing by the kitchen worktop. She glanced around, taking in the room and its occupants. He didn't. He pulled out a pencil and a notepad...before looking up at us.
“My name's PC Galloway and that's my colleague PC Blakemore. We're just going to ask some questions ok?”
We all nodded.
“How well did you know Nick?”
“None of us knew him well at all. He stayed in his room most of the time. We hardly ever spoke to him,” I said, my voice shaky.
The others echoed my sentiment and he proceeded to scribble on his pad. He looked longingly at his notes, before looking up.
“Did he ever have any visitor’s round that you saw? Friends? Girlfriend?”
We all shook our heads in unison. In the six months we'd lived there, we'd never seen a soul visit him.
“Did he look or sound depressed? Did you ever see any signs he was being bullied perhaps?”
“None at all,” I said.
“Never,” said Jermaine.
Francis shook his head.
“What happened? Did he kill himself?” asked Jermaine.
“That's yet to be determined,” he responded icily.
A knock sounded on the door.
“Excuse me,” he said as he and his colleague left the room.
We were left there, sat down in a black hole of silence and confusion. Jermaine and Francis broke the quiet and made some small talk, as I continued to stare blankly ahead, trying to take in the situation. This morning I'd woken up in sunny Italy, surrounded by loved ones, and now look at me. I guess that's just life. You can never get too comfortable. Fortune can change in a flash. The door opened again and they came in, once more assuming their prior positions.
“Where were you all last night?” he asked, as he sat down.
The question surprised me. It felt more an accusation than a question.
“In my room,” said Francis.
“Same here,” echoed Jermaine.
He turned to me.
“I was in Italy with Family.”
“When did you get back?” he pressed.
“Two hours ago.”
A silence came then as he resumed his scribble. Looking around the room, I saw the woman watching me before she switched her gaze to the other two.
“Who was it that found the body?” Asked PC Galloway, bringing my attention back to him.
“It was Francis and I.”
Maybe I should let the others talk first, I thought.
“So you two were here last night?” he said, as he glanced from Jermaine to Francis.
They both nodded and mumbled.
“Did you hear anything out of the ordinary?”
“I heard some weird sounds coming from his room, but I couldn't tell what it was.”
The officer straightened, rising by what seemed a few inches.
“What did it sound like?” he asked.
“I'm not sure, like a cat wheezing or something. Did you hear it too Jermaine?” he asked, deflecting the attention over to him.
“Errr, I think so yeah I heard something strange.”
The officer stared for a moment, as the tension grew. Francis could hardly keep still, bouncing his leg relentlessly as he buckled under the constables’ inquisition.
“What did you do when you heard the noise?”
Francis looked at Jermaine and looked back at the officer.
“And you?” asked PC Galloway as he turned to Jermaine.
Jermaine shook his head. “Nothing.”
“So you both ignored it?”
Now it had gotten really uncomfortable. My heart raced for them both, slowly melting under the constable’s verbal assault.
“I guess so,” admitted Francis as he scratched his head awkwardly.
A heavy silence followed, with only the frantic sound of pencil scratching paper occasionally filling the room.
“Your roommate died from an Insulin overdose. He suffered a seizure, which explains the noise you both heard and ignored. He died shortly after.”
Francis and Jermaine both gasped. Speechless at what they heard. I couldn't help but wonder if I'd been there. Would I have done the same? Or could I have saved him? It was impossible to know. Any man can name himself a hero when not presented with the challenge. Being there is always a different story...but still one can only hope.
“Your rooms will be searched as by procedure,” he said as he looked at Francis. “You will be allowed to return to your rooms tomorrow night if you choose. In the meantime you're free to vacate to the rooms provided upstairs.”
“What happens next?” asked Jermaine. “Can we stay up there permanently? I'm not sure I want to come back down here.”
“You'll have to speak to your Hall manager for that.”
“What about the room?” asked Francis. “Will someone else move in?”
“His father will come first thing in the morning, to collect his belongings.”
“And what about his mum?” asked Jermaine.
The constable’s lips curled as he answered.
“His mother died last year, I'm told. It was just he and his father.”
My heart did a somersault into what felt like an empty concrete pool as his words hit home. Francis and Jermaine looked like two men who'd seen the horrors of war. Stricken yet hollow, ashen yet numb, perhaps the deflated attitude a mechanism to cope with the trauma they'd faced. They kept their eyes on the floor and we all made our way upstairs, trudging slowly like a defeated platoon. We got to our temporary rooms for the night. The corridor had been uninhabited, so it was clean and fresh. The only pleasant thing the evening had to offer thus far. Before we retired to our separate rooms, there was a question that had to be asked.
“Will you guys go speak to his father tomorrow?”
“And say what?” asked Jermaine.
“I don't know,” I said.
“Nah, I don’t want him to blame me,” said Francis.
I could hardly blame them for thinking that, after what they'd been put through.
“Do you think we were wrong?” asked Francis.
I looked at him and saw them both watching me, waiting for a reply.
“Wrong in what sense?” I responded, though I knew what he meant.
“Do you think we should have done something? Gone and checked? Knocked the door down if we had to?”
“It's impossible to say. You're not to blame for this. You couldn't have known,” I answered soothingly; wanting to balm them, not burn them.
“I mean how many times do you hear weird noises in student halls right? All the time! I'm not suddenly going to think someone’s dying am I?” blurted Jermaine, almost on the brink of tears.
“No of course not…of course not. Try and get some sleep if you can. I'll see you in the morning.”
“Goodnight mate,” said Francis as he turned.
Entering my room for the night I heard Jermaine wish me goodnight. I responded from inside and got under my duvet, which I'd taken from my room and laid it over me. The mattress had no sheet, something which usually irritates me, but for tonight it would suffice. I have a feeling sleep won't come anyway. Francis and Jermaine continued to mumble in the corridor. I heard them re-enforce one another, each one telling the other they weren't to blame and if it ever happened again they'd be the first to respond. “It was a lesson learnt,” Jermaine said. What a lesson, I thought. It takes a guy dying for a lesson to be learnt. What about his poor father, driving up tomorrow to collect his belongings, knowing he was driving up to a dead son. The thought saddened me. I couldn't imagine that mans pain. First his wife, then not a year later—his son. That's enough to make most hardened men quit. Thinking about it brought tears to my eyes and I closed them hard, hoping to stop the outpour. My mind wandered restlessly throughout the night as I tossed and turned, hoping sleep would come but it never did. At last came the beginnings of dawn so I rose, checking my phone for time. 07.20 my screen said, a reasonable enough hour to rise. Grabbing my bag I began packing, enough for a week or so. It would be best to be away from here for a while, come back when the smell had gone, so I wouldn't be constantly reminded of what happened last night. As my packing drew to an end, I found a black band I hadn't seen before. Then an idea struck. Opening my door slowly I stepped out, shutting it gently so as to not wake the others, if they weren't already awake. Tiptoeing down the corridor and stairs, I made my way to our corridor on the ground floor. The smell was still there, lingering, just as strong as ever despite the fact it had been hours since his body had been removed and the ambulance had cleaned. Holding my breath I walked to his door and tried to enter—they'd locked it. Looking at the black band I tied it to the door handle, so his dad would see it before entering his room. It's not much of course, but it was something. I headed back upstairs to grab my bags. Once I'd grabbed them I opened my door and knocked gently on Francis's door to see if he was awake.
“Yeah,” came a faint voice.
“You're awake?” I said as I pushed open his door.
“I couldn't sleep,” he said as he rubbed his eyes.
“Neither could I. I'm leaving for a few days, I'm going back home.”
“Same here, I booked my coach last night,” he said as he yawned. “Jermaine's leaving too.”
Looks like we all had the same idea. After saying my last goodbyes I made my way downstairs. I thought once more about Nick’s dad, coming to the place his son spent his final moments on earth. How he died alone, instead of surrounded by loved ones. And here we were, vacating, so that when his father came he too would be alone. “He would value the privacy,” I told myself, over and over as if repeating it would make it all the truer. By now I was on the ground floor and I pushed open the corridor door, whereupon I just stood, rigid in the doorway, staring at the black band I'd tied round the handle. Looking longingly around the corridor, the images of the previous night flashed in my mind. A heavy sigh followed and I turned, opening the halls door and stepping out in to the cold. Somehow the light of day did not cheer me. With a heavy heart, I turned right, and made my way down Radford road.