Roddy Cunningham emerged from the dank, narrow tenement close and mopped his brow.
“I had no idea things were this bad, Doctor Usher,” he said. “We employ a factor to manage all our properties. I don’t understand why he hasn’t mentioned the conditions.”
Roddy looked about him in dismay. The tenements were built so closely together that very little light filtered down. Despite this, washing was strung out on pulleys from windows, many of which were broken and patched with cardboard, the cracks in the rotting frames stuffed with old rags.
“Look at that,” he said, pointing to the open sewage channel which ran down the middle of the lane separating the buildings. “No wonder the water supply is contaminated.”
“And little wonder so many of the bairns die before they can walk,” the doctor agreed.
Roddy mopped his brow again. It was even worse in the back courts, where the children played amidst overflowing middens, and the wash houses and latrines his father boasted about having installed were woefully inadequate for the number of residents living there.
“I don’t know where to start,” he said frankly. “Even if there were enough money, I wouldn’t know how to begin spending it.”
“Frankly, any investment would be a godsend.”
Dr Usher smiled absently at a small girl, and patted the kitten she offered before rummaging in his jacket pocket for one of, what seemed to Roddy, an inexhaustible supply of sweeties, for he’d been handing them out left, right and centre as he made his rounds.
“You’re a good man, Matthew Usher,” Roddy said. “You make me ashamed that I was so ignorant of what was happening on my own doorstep.”
“I’ve no such intention. If I can just persuade you to contribute, I’ll be content.”
“Not just me, if I have anything to do with it. A few of the other landlords are on the board. I’ll tell you what, Doctor Usher, I’ll organise a meeting. You come along and present your case, and we’ll see if we can come up with a plan of action.”
“You mean it?”
“I do.” Roddy shook the other man’s hand warmly. “You have my word on it and, in return, you can do me a favour.”
“What is that?”
Roddy’s smile faded.
“Tell me how Francis really is. I saw him yesterday, and . . .” He gripped the doctor’s arm, his face pale. “My mother Francis went to visit her, but she still refuses to acknowledge that sweet wee wife of his and I’m afraid that if she leaves it much longer it will be too late.”
Matthew Usher shook his head.
“I can’t give you a definitive answer, Mr Cunningham. All I can say is that the prognosis is extremely gloomy.”
“But there are other treatments you could try?” Roddy asked desperately.
“We have exhausted all possibilities.”
“How long before ?”
The doctor pursed his lips.
“Impossible to say, but I confess his decline has been much more rapid than I anticipated.” He touched Roddy’s shoulder briefly. “I am so very sorry.”
“Francis and I have never really seen eye to eye. Mostly my fault,” Roddy said with a wry smile. “You think you have all the time in the world to make amends, then suddenly find out that you have actually very little.” He squared his shoulders. “I appreciate your being so frank. If you will excuse me now, I think I’ll go back to the West End and speak to my mother. I’m sure you have many important matters requiring your attention.”