I am lucky enough to rent a beautiful Victorian house in vibrant/violent Kentish Town. I’ve been there a few years now and have had (with my flatmates) the bottom two floors, while the top floor was taken by a man in his sixties called Michael.
Michael had been a librarian at the University of London and was something of an artist. I only know this from second parties however, because Michael was the image of a hermit. He would be perfectly pleasant if spoken to directly, but would go to great lengths to avoid your eye in the street and often the only sign we had of his comings and goings was the faint scent of pipe smoke in the hallway. He had lived in the house for 33 years and nobody had ever been allowed up to his floor.
Late last year, I started to notice that he hadn’t picked up his post. Not thinking too much of this I assumed he had gone on holiday. Then one morning I smelled a faint aroma of raw chicken coming down the stairs. After shouting his name a few times I climbed the stairs for the first time, all the while the aroma turning into a stench. Before I turned the handle on the door I knew what I would find.
Michael was lying face down on the floor of his bedroom wearing a shirt and some greying underpants, his body was purple and bloated. He must have been lying there for some time. The ambulance came within a few minutes and they called in a ‘purple plus’. The police arrived shortly afterwards to process the scene, though now that the open windows were funnelling the smell through the house, the stench was so bad they had to do it in short bursts. They found a half-completed crossword that had been filled in two weeks before and that was their best bet as to time of death.
For two weeks, Michael had been lying dead above my bedroom and no one had known. I felt a mixture of shame that I hadn’t spent more time with him and thus noticed sooner and fear that one day I might die alone with no one to miss my passing.
Michael’s family arrived the next weekend, and it was strange to see their reaction. They apologised to me for having to find the body, but were far more apologetic about the state of the flat. It looked like Michael hadn’t cleaned the place in years and there was an inch thick layer of dust on everything. I wanted to tell them that I would much rather have seen a flat in a mess than a flat with a corpse, but I guess it was just their way of dealing with the loss. I smiled, nodded and got them cups of tea until they left, one of Michael’s paintings under their arm, the one thing that would be saved from the dump, the one piece of remaining evidence that Michael existed at all.
After gutting and remodelling Michael’s flat, our landlady wanted to rent the place as a separate flat, but we managed to persuade her otherwise. We finished painting yesterday and today began to move our books upstairs. Michael’s bedroom, which he lived and died in is becoming a study with books lining the walls from floor to ceiling. I think the librarian in him would appreciate that, at least I hope so.