Staircase

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Photo by Eliza Peyton via Flickr

The first time wasn’t what he expected. Payment, atmosphere, the feel¬ing afterwards, what we build up lets us down. Wallpaper had blistered on the walls, seeped into his rags, moulded. The seat hadn’t been wiped down after the previous, after the sweats, the tears. The doctor’s touch was coarse, and awkward. The food that was given was what others didn’t want. He cried on the way home, alone in the darkness. [private]

The time after that was much the same. A burning sensation behind the eyes, the itching of the teeth, the hollowness of loss and depression, the loss of what, he didn’t now know. The nothingness, for that is all there was, nothing. Nothing except the fight for food, and what was left of memories.

What came before was a blur. Birthdays vague. Parents were voices that were familiar, but the faces changed and warped with each passing day. Youth had crept away in the night, leaving behind only her. On days when the sun managed to break through the thick, grey, rainless cloud, he tried to create new memories, new tenth birthdays, new first fights in the playground. When Tommy cracked a tooth and cried, when Simon ate a worm, when Rosie wouldn’t let him kiss her by the willow tree, kiss him liked she’d kissed Tommy. New summer days, when they hid in bushes and climbed trees, when they poked sticks at a dead pigeon, and everyone felt bad but no one knew why. He tried to place himself in vague histories he had learned. He kissed the feet of Jesus, got lost at sea for a hundred years. Raised children and cattle in Texas, buried the naked bodies of a million men, the snow falling and melting on hand.

When the clouds hung low he searched for God, recited out loud songs he remembered, scenes that he thought were from films, passages from books. He watched the families in the distance skinning the bodies brought back from the hunts, the digging of the well. He drew pictures on the floor with whatever he could find that would draw, old plaster, burnt wood, the leftovers from the canned food; the canned food he hid under the floorboards. The canned food he rationed to last between ses¬sions. Two weeks, for the mind to readjust. Two weeks to fill the void. Two weeks of tinned food. Two weeks of fear. Fear of the hunt, of hav¬ing nothing left to sell, of having only her. Her. Sun shining. Calling his name. Waiting.

He left for the city in the early hours, undercover of rags, hiding his worn out face. Walking the cracked roads, past trees that never grew leaves, bones that were once bodies, now stripped of everything. A few cans of food, always his last, always something he vaguely remembered eating. When mother was watching TV, waiting for father. Mirrored tiles at the bottom of the settee, laughter, from mother, from the TV, father coming home, the smell of hot meat. A few cans, the last bit of payment, his only hope of protection, his only other commodity, the last bit of faith.

The sun shone, but it was cold. It was cold, but he sweated underneath his rags. He saw a bird perched on the branch of a tree. He scratched at his beard through clammy rags. His toes were poking out of his shoes, the toenails that he’d managed to file down with a stone, were yellow and brittle. He looked at his feet and said not long, not long. He remembered her toenails, sometimes red, sometimes brown, purple, green, always shaped, always clean. He was walking by the road, on the dry mud. His eyes searched for something to hide from but he thought of her. Her, in bed, curtains drawn, windows open, the sound of rain, of the music from the flat across the street, her hand on his chest, playing with the short black hair that grew around his nipple. The bed sheets were flowery, her underwear was lace, he could taste her kisses. He talked about things he thought were important, she spoke about what they could be, her voice didn’t sound right, her voice, in his head, didn’t sound right.

He walked until his feet could no longer take it, until he could no longer see. No fires in the distance, no trees, naked and twisted, until he could no longer stand the hunger.

Undercover of darkness he unwrapped his rags, from his face down to his waist. Ignoring the weather, he embraced his senses, the feeling of the air on his skin, the hairs standing up, the sweat running cold. Placing the three identical cans of food he had wrapped around himself on the floor, he enie, meanie, minei, moed, which one to eat. A little game, a wry smile, something for himself, where there was nothing. He struggled to open the can, his bitten down nails unable to get under the ring-pull. When finally he did he took his time, ignoring the taste of cold sauce, and imagining it to be something rich and decadent. After eating he wrapped himself back up in his rags, lay down on the floor, and waited for sleep.

He awoke to the sound of birds, feeling neither relief that he was still alive, or fear that it was approaching daylight and he would be out in the open. He sat up and looked around, making out something moving in the distance, moving further away, to where he did not know. A dead horse, half stripped down, lay slain further off to the right, blood soaked rags pierced on the branch of a tree, blew gently in the early morning breeze. He stretched his arms and legs and dragging himself to his feet he set off for the city.

After passing through the mud fields, avoiding breaking his ankles in the cracks, past the eyeless heads of animals, skinned, eaten, birds picking at the sun cooked meat still clinging to the bones. Past the naked bodies of women, and children, of men, men who’d died first, women after, after first being taken, while the children cried and tried to run away, before the eternal sleep. Past caved in roofs of houses that used to be homes, aban¬doned through fear. Fear of the security men that roamed the cities, fear of their neighbours, fear of themselves. He came to the skeleton frames. Buildings that had once been glass but no more. Glass shattered, melted, boiled; nothing but a frame, bones. The buildings that were occupied, built in a time before anyone that was left could remember, were out of reach, protected. Surrounded by faces from history, carved into a stone that no one knew how to find, or ever thought of looking for. Men and women, once heroes, decoration in a sky line that only a few ever saw. Time had deserted them, there was only today.

The wind howled through the streets. He could see a man on a horse, in the distance. Burnt out car, at the end of the broken road. Fear. He thought about the food hidden in the rags wrapped around his body. He pulled the rags up higher under the eyes. The grey out of sight, the deep blue veins beneath worn skin. The man was getting closer. The sounds reminiscent, picture vague. He turned down a side street, the long route. He began to move faster, ignoring the sharp pains in his shins. He whispered her name. He was eating scones with clotted cream. Mov¬ing faster. She was stroking his hand. Moving faster. It was her birthday. Hey he heard a voice call. Moving faster. Pain. Hey he heard a voice say. It wasn’t her voice. Her voice had changed. Hey. He turned down another side street. Pain began to burn. Movement became more desperate as though with each step he was forgetting how to walk. Left leg dragged behind. Right not strong enough to lead. He crawled into a large rubbish bin. Mould, pulp, rags, rotting food, hair. The Hey he heard was further away. He was in her bedroom. He was, because she was.

He had heard nothing for a long time. His feet were wet. He felt as though he had been to sleep but he wasn’t sure. She was at the front of his mind. He wanted to sleep, to dream. He felt the heavy chalky breeze in the air. An empty can of food rolled down the alley, a bird flew high overhead. Pull¬ing himself out of the bin, to his feet, the pain still raw ran from his shins up his legs. Moving down the alley he softly sang the words of a song.

My lover waits for me at the top of the stairs,

I leave behind all my worries, all of my cares,

Down dark roads, through the grey clouds, cross the sea,

Been walking to my lover who waits patiently for me’

He tried to remember who sang it. Had his father to his mother, had he to his lover, or was it a voice from the radio? He began to cry, mas¬sage his temples, before striking his forehead with a tensed palm. Tears fell. Running his hands over the dripping walls, he came to the end of the alley. He looked left, right, tried to tell the time of day by the colour of the sky. Moving quickly, ignoring the pain, streetlights began to blink, the fluorescent glow of homes further away, beacons in the remains of the city, signs of life, of separation. The further he moved into the city, the more the pain in his shins took hold. The sun had reached its highest point and was now working its way down, soon it would be dark; soon he would arrive late.

When he came to the top the top of the street, he could see a patrolman; his back turned facing the other way. He moved quietly to the corner in the hope he would move on quickly, before darkness fell, before more security began to roam the streets. Waiting. She was at the top of the stairs waiting, in her flowery dress, her red hair. Her red hair was the wrong shade. His sweaty hands shook. He was lying in bed drawing on her back; she whispered I love you. He slowly peered round the corner. Security had moved on. He moved on. Down the end of the street, the basement of a building on the left corner. Two knocks, then one, then two, then wait.

The door opened. The toothless grin of a fading beauty. Hair matted. She stood taller than him. He moved in quickly. Taking a brief look out¬side, allowing the air to hit her face, she stood for a second. The old man watched her as he waited. He thought about touching her hair, about reaching for her hand, about something vague that he could feel. She shut the door and then moved quickly behind a large steel shutter.

‘You’re late.’

‘I know. I ran into security.’

‘Were you followed?’

‘No.’

‘Are you sure?’

‘Yes.’

When he came into the room, the doctor was reading at a small table, under candlelight. His hair had begun to grey, his back appeared hunched, his hands were yellow and the ridges of the skin on his fingers were thick with dirt.

‘You’re late.’

The old man began to unwrap the rags from around his face. The air made his scars itch.

‘I’ve had the water on for hours.’

‘Did you get the shoes?’

‘Yes, but it’s coming out of your food.’

‘How much?’

‘Three cans.’

The old man nodded as he wiped the sweat from his face. Loosened his rags, took out the cans of food, put them down on the table.

‘I would have saved you some of ours, but we’ve already eaten.’

The old man sat down in the chair. The wallpaper had blistered all over. The rot had spread, from the walls to the floor, to the doctor. The doc¬tor’s assistant put the needles in the boiling water. Moved around without speaking. The old man noticed what he thought were crumbs on the table, but he knew it couldn’t be. The doctor sat in his chair waiting. Water boiled. Condensation swelled in the cracks of the ceiling. The assistant turned on an old laptop, the cracked screen lit up, picture flashed on and off like the streetlights on the edges of the city.

‘I turned the electricity off when I thought you weren’t coming.’

‘There was security.’

‘The people need protecting.’

‘The people need food.’

‘Can you still class THEM as people?’

‘They breathe the air, they see the dusty moonlight.’

‘So do the horses.’

‘People do what they have to do.’

‘They do don’t they.’

‘Until the food runs out.’

‘Why would it?’

‘It can’t last forever.’

‘The city will never starve, as long as god’s creatures walk the earth.’
The doctor wiped his hands on his patched up trousers. The laptop screen flashed. The assistant took the needles out of the water, placed them on a clean cloth on the work surface. Naked pine, holes filled with pulp, wet cardboard. The doctor plugged some cables into the laptop. One red. One black. Those cables he attached to a headset. The needles, he fixed into two specific points. Going over to the old man, he unwrapped the rags to reveal the neck. A small wound, not properly scabbed over, pus seeping. He sat back down at the desk, looked at the old man.

‘So?’

‘No.’

‘You can’t take her with you.’

‘She’s all I have.’

‘Why do you do this?’

‘So I can eat.’

‘Exactly. When there’s nothing left…’

‘I told you, she stays.’

Silence. The assistant took the headset. Pulled the springs back, taking the needles out of the way. Fixed it on. Told the old man to take a deep breath. He closed his eyes and inhaled deeply. She let the lever go. Springs shot forward. Needle in the neck. Pain. Tiny drop of blood ran down towards the rag. She wiped it away with a hot towel. He opened his eyes.

‘Ok. We…are…in.’

The picture on the screen halved, moved continually up and down. The doctor flicked the screen, mindful not to increase the cracks. Picture steadied.

‘If it’s not love it’s violence. Lets see what’s in here.’

Fists. Teeth imprints on the knuckles. Mother. Tears. A knife runs across the face. Belt buckle splits open the nose. Screams. Moon light. Fists. Head cracks on concrete. Distant fires. Children cry. Dark alley. Rain. Darkness.

‘Ok. What else have we got?’

Finish line not far. Trees sway in the distance. Crowd obscured. Legs mov¬ing. Tommy just in front. Heart racing. Everything tense. Tommy behind. Mother. Rosie. Her mother. Finish line. Taste orange. Finish line. Well-done son. Well-done son father said. Silence. Darkness. Darkness. A tear ran down the right cheek. Assistant with the hot towel, wiped it away, the doctor wiped it away.

‘Good, give me some sadness.’

Roses in hands, coat wrapped high under the neck. Looking at the watch. Viewing times. People walk by. Smiles. Think it’s her. It’s not. Think she might be. She isn’t. Roses laid to rest in the bin, on top of old newspapers, sweet wrappers. One ticket. Roses in the bin, a tear drops on a petal. Begins to rain. Darkness. Darkness.

The class following. Red and blue of school ties. Outside. Teacher smil¬ing. She’s in class. Face behind a science book. Blonde hair. Knock on the window. Paper says BE MY VALENTINE. Red felt pen. BE MY VALEN¬TINE. Laughter. Hers. Theirs. Even teacher. Laughter. Face red. Hidden in a science book. Laughter. Darkness. Darkness.

Father. Freddie? No. You’re not Freddie? No. Eyes rolled back. Air rattling in a sunken chest. Asleep. Bed wet. Rolled over. One side washed. Rolled over. Other side washed. Hand held tight. Skin oily. Smell of summer on fresh sheets. Darkness. Darkness. Face covered in tears, eyes bloodshot, red. The assistant wipes his face with the hot towel. The old man sits for a while. Vacant. Staring at the ceiling, studying the faces and shapes he can make out in the cracks and stains.

‘Make him his food.’

His rags were damp. The headset was off, needles in boiling water. His hands were still gripping the arms of the chair. His eyes didn’t lift off the floor. Burning sensation.

‘We’re gonna make you something to eat. You can eat. Then you gotta go.’

Silence.

‘Ok, you can eat but then you gotta go. I know it’s dark but you can’t stay.’

Silence.

After he had eaten, after he raised his head, it was time to leave. Back outside. Darkness. While the old man was packing up his food, the doc¬tor went into a back room. He came out, pale, agitated; a pair of shoes in hand. The old man took off the battered shoes, shoes that had become more a part of him than the proceeding years. He took the shoes from the doctor, his hand trembling. He slipped them slowly on to his feet. They were too big, he sighed; better than too small he thought to himself.

‘What’s left doc?’

‘You’ve got a while yet. It’s gonna get harder though.’

The assistant opened the door. She stood still for a while, listened out for security, for anything that wasn’t expected. She turned and nodded at the doctor, hand in pockets, sweaty, twitchy.

‘Ok. You gotta go now.’

‘Couldn’t I…’

‘You know the rules, you gotta go.’

‘But…’

‘I don’t care. You know the rules.

Silence.

‘Don’t make this hard for me. Just go.’

The old man looked out at the heavy night sky, now purple. He turned towards the assistant, then towards the doctor.

‘Just one night.’

The doctor took his hand from his pocket. The shiny steel of a gun, trem¬bled in the doctor’s hand, trembled in the silence of night, between two eyes. The old man hung his head.

‘I don’t want to have to use this, but if you don’t leave.’

‘I just want one night.’

‘You knew the rules, you shouldn’t have been late.’

‘I give you everything.’

‘And you get everything.’ He pointed the gun further in his face, the assis¬tant looked away.

Hands trembled. Eyes closed. A bead of sweat ran down the side of the doctor’s face.

‘Ok. Ok. I’ll go.’

The old man turned towards the steps. The doctor, gun in hand, still pointing, followed. The night was cold. Slowly up the steps. The doctor stood for a second, breathing in the air. Deep. Breaths. He ran his hand up the cold steel of the stair railing. The old man walked slowly, mindful of the pain, of security. As he got to the end of the road he heard the doc¬tor call I’ll see you in two weeks.

He decided to go the way he came, the long route out of the city, avoid¬ing security. In the distance was light. Street light. The lights of buildings occupied, the bright lights of the few. Moving as fast as he could further and further away, towards the ruins, towards the fields, where the only light was firelight. The firelight that they prepared all day for, searched for, fought for. He couldn’t stop until he was out of the city; he didn’t want to stop in the view of those by the fires. Moving it seemed between mans past and mans present, but there was nothing, nothing to move between, because man wasn’t moving, he had travelled as far he could go, stuck in limbo. He was at the end of the road, in a dark room, waiting to be released, waiting for forgiveness. In the fields he hunted for scraps, he killed his neighbour, seeing inwardly, reaching for nothing. In the cities, they never left the buildings; never left the womb, never saw the light of day. They lived the memories of those that had been able to make them. They bought feelings they didn’t understand and lived times that weren’t their own.

As fires burned, in the darkness, in the distance, the old man lay on his back in a dried out ditch. He was a child. Mother he said, mother he said I want some milk, and there he stood glass pint in hand. Glass pint slip¬ping. Mother he said. Mother turned. The pint fell. Milk spread fast over the blue tiles of the kitchen floor. Then. Then it was early morning. The sun was shinning. Dogs barked. Sunday gardeners mowed the lawns. Children ran through water. She was calling his name. He walked out into the hall. She stood hand on hips. Stomach large and round under a dress. Red hair. Waiting at the top of the staircase.[/private]

Reece Choules

About Reece Choules

Reece Choules is a regular contributor to both Litro and The Culture Trip. He lives and works in South London.

Reece Choules is a regular contributor to both Litro and The Culture Trip. He lives and works in South London.

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