The old man lived alone in a big block of flats. Every day he looked at his left hand all morning, from breakfast till lunch. For breakfast he ate half a dozen pickled eggs all in a row; for lunch, he ate spaghetti hoops, microwaved on toast in winter but cold out of the can in summer. All afternoon he looked at his right hand, then for tea, he ate fish fingers and tinned peaches until his heart felt like it would burst. In the mornings, he tended to burp a lot. In the afternoons, he was more prone to sneezing fits, though often as the day wore on a burp began to play around his lips once more. He had a rocking chair by the microwave but he seldom rocked while he sat and stared at his hands. One day he realised that the time had come to climb up to the top of his block of flats and jump off and die.
He still sat in his rocking chair without rocking and stared at his hands, but as he settled down in the mornings with small, sweet burps rising from within his chest then his gaze took on an especial intensity and purpose. He had not planned a climbing route for many years. He meant to look at his hands for a few moments only, to focus his mind on the act of climbing and to remind him of the look of a rock face or wall where good purchase could be found. Yet he often found himself lost amidst the rifts of his wrinkles and delving into pores without end, his eyes wandering endlessly and forgetting the firm intentions with which he started each day. The memory of a razor-sharp rock which had once sliced open a raw wound across the back of his right hand did not sharpen his mind but cut it loose to float back up cliff-faces he no longer had the strength to climb.
Too often he would come to the end of a day and realise that he had done nothing but reminisce, and reproach himself as he smoked a final cigarette before bed. Some days he grew so angry that he wanted to stub his cigarette out on the back of his quaking hand, as punishment for his idleness. Tomorrow, he would focus his mind, or so he would tell himself as he ladled pickled eggs he did not deserve into his eager mouth. Then the next day would pass in another reverie, and the day after that, and he would grow angry and frustrated and allow himself only four fish fingers and a single slice of bread without margarine, for he knew that hunger could bring clarity to a spoiled mind. but then he would find he was too hungry to sleep, and trudge defeated downstairs to retrieve a pair of cold, clammy fish fingers from the bin and dip them straight into the tub of margarine and devour them, though this made his heart hurt even more than when he glutted himself on tinned peaches too late at night.
As he fumbled spaghetti hoops out of the can after another hopeless, drifting morning, he realised what had to be done. He trembled a little. He needed courage. He rose and shifted himself to his rocking chair. If the juice from a tin of peaches was a rare treat, and semi-precious dried ketchup picked from the snout of the bottle rarer still, then rocking in his rocking chair was the old man’s rarest and most intoxicating indulgence of all. The mad joy that it threaded through his veins was so great that he flinched at its heat within him.
When the old man had been a young man climbing mountains he had often fallen. He felt his hands flatten against sweat-slippery lumps of stone over and over, sometimes as he crept over the top of boulders without rope and sometimes higher in the mountains as he swung from a thread to snap his bones against implacable rock. Over the course of these many falls he had learned a curious thing. If he fell backward and away from the rock then he felt fear, but only fear. it was an animal fear, but it followed an animal logic, driven only by the terror of death. The moments that followed would be confused and painful and terrible, but they would be ordinary, and he would swear and call for help and be relieved that he was not dead. He had only fallen face-first off the rockface a handful of times when he really fucked up and the whole earth seemed to twist beneath his grasping hands and he was gone. a fall backward was a hellish thing, but a fall forward was something else altogether, more awful and more rejuvenating by far, the awareness of his bodily existence racing up to meet him as fast as he raced toward the end of all things on the valley floor. You have to see it coming to be really afraid, another climber had once told him as he panted in shock and pain after a twenty-foot tumble toward a broken ankle. Otherwise, your body doesn’t know that you’re going to die.
The heady death-thrill of a fall with the end in your eyes was discussed quietly among climbers. People did not speak much of falling. To do so was unlucky, unwise. but in the camps strung along the iron backs of the welsh mountains, when the night grew thin and the more superstitious climbers had drunk and smoked themselves into a fearless daze, people spoke quietly of the ecstasy of death, and of the old climbers who had turned one day and walked straight off the face of the mountain and into the air. The old man had never gone on a climb hoping or expecting to fall. No-one’s body would allow such intentions to be carried out, for it was against the very nature of life. in fact, it was remarkable how closely a body could cling to a rock face in a gale, even when the mind that governed it had given all hope of making it down to the valley floor alive. And yet, after he had fallen, he found that the fall was all he could remember of the climb.
The old man knew that a short fall down a couple of stairs would now be enough to kill him, breaking his already failing body like kindling for a fire. Perhaps it was this knowledge of the closeness with death which charged his rocking in his clumsy old rocking-chair with such absolute energy and delight. Normally, he would rock for just a few moments, stopping as soon as whatever misery was troubling him had been shaken away. as the sight of his hands reminded him of all the rock faces he had climbed, so the sight of the floor moving toward him as he rocked forward reminded him of all those he had let slip from his grasp. it was an exhilaration almost too great to bear. If he allowed himself to rock for longer than a minute or two, he feared that he would never stop until he slumped dead in the chair, his heart drowned in adrenaline. The only exception to this rule was during the very coldest days of winter when he would rock gently for hours to keep himself from freezing to death. the rocking chair was a great delight, so great that it would overwhelm him in minutes on any normal day, but in the cold kitchen in winter it was barely enough to keep him from passing out, its usual glories quite forgotten as he thrust his skinny legs against the ground for warmth. Today was a cold day, but not the type of cold which would normally drive him to the chair for solace.
He started slowly, as he always did, pitching himself back by flexing his toes through the worn sole of his trainers. at his wildest, he could force the chair back so far that the crown of his skull touched against the kitchen wall, but it was best to start slowly, and not expend his energy too soon. he lifted himself to a cautious zenith, paused, released the tension in his toes. The downward creak of the chair was an exhalation of breath. He rose again, fell again, rose, lengthening his motions with each stroke whilst still holding some distance in reserve. he felt the familiar flutter, and then the pang, and then the jolt. He felt the sensation of the world dropping away beneath him, from his gut through his legs to the swinging space below.
In this way then the old man made himself brave. He rocked for longer than he would on the coldest day of the coldest winter, pitching backward and forward till his heart pulsed mad in his chest and his mind flashed with excitement and terror. If he was to do what had to be done then he had to be out of his mind, high on a lack of oxygen or an abundance of fear. With each forward stroke of the chair, he imagined himself cast forward into space. He was struggling to breathe, not with the scrappy shortness of breath that came when he tried to climb the stairs up to his flat too soon after smoking a cigarette but with deep, primal gasps. All the air in his kitchen was not enough. His chest heaved harder and harder and he rocked further and faster. the floor was upon him with every thrust. His mind was rattled in his old skull. He could not tell what was floor and what was wall. Plateau of fearlessness. Yes.
As the rocking of the chair ceased, the old man rose. He was unsteady and in a daze, but though he moved slowly and struggled for breath there was no hesitation to his actions. a jar of pickled eggs stood by the toaster. The old man’s hand scooped up the jar, bearing it with the force of momentum as much as with any secure grip, and smashed it on the corner of the kitchen work-surface. the impact made the bones of his arm shudder. Powdered glass and brine sprayed up the wall and over his chest. the old man blinked but did not recoil. The eggs were everywhere, some still intact and some torn to ragged shreds. His fingers had retained the shape of the now-shattered jar, tense and spread almost as wide as they could go, but though his hand trembled from the shock of the blow then his skin was not broken and there was no blood. he knelt in a motion that was almost a fall. he picked up the largest shard he could find and saw that it was sharp. His actions were slowing a little, and for a moment he glanced at the rocking chair as though he was going to return to its comforting frame. then he flung his head back and forward so that the blood thumped in his temples and took the shard with its heavier end resting across his left palm and its rough tapered edge rising up above the row of his whitening fingernails and raised it up and brought it down hard across the palm of his right hand so that his fingers locked in spasm and blood came instantly from within him and down his sleeve and onto the floor. before his mind could be brought to focus by pain he shifted the shard into his bloody right hand and brought down a mirrored stroke across his left hand. The mirroring was not exact, and this cut slashed shallow across the ball of his thumb and the outside of his hand below the smallest finger as the shard slipped from his grasp and to the floor.
For a few seconds, he looked at his old hands and felt nothing much, though there was a growing pain chewing at the joints of his knees. He hoped he had not slit the tendon of his left thumb, for he would never be able to roll a cigarette without it. He moved his thumb experimentally a little, and now the pain came, and the thumb began to shake and would not stop. He would remember now, he knew, what he was supposed to be thinking about. If he got lost in the uncertain depths of his mind then the sight of these fresh scars would bring his mind back to the moment and his present task. There was a lot of blood now, and his head was so light it felt as though he was drifting from his shoulders. But the old man had been wounded many times before, and he was not worried by the loss of blood any more than he was by the loss of breath. he rose up and went to the sink, wiping off the worst of the blood on the seat of his tracksuit bottoms as he went.
The jet of water from the tap ran cold and hard against his skin. The cold of the water made him gasp, where the pain that enveloped him had not. His hands made small, animal movements, juddering in relief as the shock of the cold made the skin and the flesh contract about the open wounds. The ugly mismatch between the cuts was even more obvious once the worst of the blood had been swabbed away. Old people, the old man knew, did not heal so well after a cut or a fall as the young. Yet he had found that as he aged his body had desiccated so that cuts to which blood would have once sprung endlessly now ran dry in a few moments. He had wondered, before, if this had something to do with the ever-slower progress of his blood around his veins and arteries, and the way in which, on a cold morning, his extremities remained yellow and lifeless until he had stomped downstairs and clamped his fingers around a mug of tea and pulled on his other pair of socks. He was in a great deal of pain now and the flow of the blood, despite the withering of his flesh and his heart within it, was scarcely slowing.
If the old man removed either palm from the flow of the tap then blood bubbled up and out of his arm to obscure his view, but under the stream of the water then he could examine each cut clearly. Neither was clean, but the cut to his right hand was rougher and deeper than the fitful gash scored across the left. There was a tiny island of pinkish skin in the middle of the wound. As he looked at it he made it change in his mind from an island in an ocean to an oasis in a desert, from blood as water to blood as sand. A shock of pain came upon his left hand and he thrust it back under the flow of the tap. The pain reminded him of his purpose, and he focussed his attention again on the island or oasis of skin in the middle of the cut on his right hand, slashing it through the column of water above his left to clear it of the blood which was already muddying the edges of the wound. The flow of the blood was lessening now, though the pain remained the same. As he refocused his attention on the cut he imagined it as the broad road which ran down the eastern side of the estate, and the tiny scrap of skin as the roundabout which interrupted its rapid progression in a broad hummock of weeds and abandoned shopping trolleys.
His mind moved easily from this point of reference to the wider web of smaller streets across the estate, picturing b-roads and back-alleys unfolding through the creases of his hands, adopting old scars to new purposes as grit-boxes and Chinese takeaways and the debris of the estate. There was a great ache spreading from both cuts down his arms, underpinning and extending the fresh, sharp pain in each palm. This lower, deeper ache would remain for weeks, probably, even if the cuts healed well. Even when it was gone, if it ever truly went away, the old man knew that he would not forget how agonising the pain was in this moment. Every time he looked at his ruined palms he would remember that he was no longer permitted to waste his days away dreaming of old mountains he could no longer reach the base of, let alone the peak. Tomorrow and the day after and each day that followed he would plan with purpose and direction, and his mind would be kept clear and focused on the present moment by the sight of the scars and by pain and the memory of pain. Soon he would plan his route to the top of the towerblock.
Soon he would cast himself off.