AN OPEN PEN CHRISTMAS: L’esprit de l’escalier

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We were talking, me and Sue, about why ghost stories were a thing at Christmas, when we got on to what scares us, really. I said playing out the same stuff in every job, relationship, hometown; subconsciously finding people that let me play out my patterns as I let them play our theirs, being stuck doing this. Each New Year’s Resolution really a cover story. Stuck, especially those times that I thought I wasn’t, that I was breaking the cycle, realising too late that the breaking out was just another, subtler way of staying in. For these cycles to be the fabric of your existence, running until your last breath, so that you will not know that you have lived. Suzy said snakes.

Bringing us back down to more everyday fears, Roger, who’d been listening while he dish-clothed the post-grad bar, said why don’t you girls try the A-Block stairs. What’s haunting them, I said. The stairs, he said. I said, That’s the location. Sue said, What’s the story. He told us it wasn’t any ghost story – the undergrads in A-Block had come up with a dare. (The stairs hadn’t been called haunted till then.) At night, you walked from whichever floor your room was on down towards basement level. Except before you started, you had to stay still till all the lights blinked off. Then you walked in the dark, see how far you got, if you could reach the bottom. But whenever the lights come on, you see something. Like what, I said. Just something the stairs show you.

Hoping for a story to tell, we let Roger shutter up, and we crossed to A-Block, with its glass spine of a lift, motionless, and four lit rooms – the only students who’d not gone back for the holidays. I blinkered my hands on a window and pointed out the abandoned entrance hall. Swiping us in, Sue said that when I shat myself, she’d not be able to give me a lift home. She lead the way to the stairwell door: four flights per storey, eight steps each, diagonally completing the sides of a cuboid, other than that, pipes and banisters. Picking off a piece of plaster oddly made my pulse run faster; throwing it at Sue I asked her “Is it just me or did something…?” Her face paled as she stopped to listen, then with a mock-offended laugh: fuck off mate. The way up was still dark, while the way down we’d already illuminated. Hoping to hint at my reluctance, I made the case for either option in a shrugging kind of voice: we could take the lift and start from the top, which would mean we’d done it properly, or save time by going from ground level to basement. Dreamily, despite my chatter, next I said it didn’t matter: pick the former or the – lateral thinking – third option, another option. Wincing like I was dragging myself out of a current, I said we could always pretend we’d gone up or down, and get out of there. I waited for her response, holding the door, telling myself it was to let out the tremendous echoes. Deafening with childish laughter, she leapt in, and I crept after

Clicking fingers at the rafter with the motion sensor light

Step by step, at first, then three-in-one I steeply started leaping

Bounding round the corners keeping Suzy from my line of sight

.

Half for balance, half for feeling concrete’s weird and half-appealing

Smooth and pocked, almost congealing surface did I touch the walls

But to soothe a rising tension did I call to Sue and mention

Being scared? Her condescension made me doubt my wherewithal

.

Tense because the steps kept going, levels’ minus numbers growing –

Hear the student pranksters crowing, giving us the runaround

Yet we’d been for half an hour ravelling this sunken tower

When my instincts overpowered: “Take us back to solid ground!

.

“Peek and cringe round every corner. What was that! We could’ve sworn a

Shadow moved! We tried to warn her someone’s coming. Be prepared!”

At that urgent mental screaming ‘leaps and bounds’ took on new meaning

Looking back I came careening, knocking Suzy unawares.

o

Getting to her feet she knuckled brick dust from her eye and chuckled

Shrilly (courage in me buckled) “Let’s try going back one flight.”

We ascended, smiling, slowly – smiles to prove our shakes were only

Self-aware performing shows; we whispered, “Something’s not quite right.”

.

For the steps went up unceasing; plus the door was gone, releasing

Not just fear but calm, decreasing both our paces to a crawl

Thinking that it might inspire problems for our stairway mire

I went lower, she went higher (Make it crash and reinstall?)

.

Suzy would find “nothing more than ceilings, steps, and walls and floors and

Lights” – she paused to form an extra pale and livid frown

By herself, so faintly humming, gaining height while I’d been plumbing

Sure enough I’d met her coming up; she’d met me coming down

.

Panic sent its prickling flushes down my arms, in upward rushes

Through my brain, a flood that pushes reason into wretched prayers:

Had I piped up even forty, thirty, twenty steps before, we

Might have had a chance to bore free from the mineshaft of these stairs…

o

Could it be, though, locomotion moved the stairs like wind moves ocean?

Might this superstitious notion save us from our plodding plight?

Like a treadmill minus motor, we were boat and frightened boater

Drop an anchor and we ought to pin the water, hold it tight

.

So we slumped down on a stooping step or other, worn to drooping

By the trampling and the looping of a billion drawled footfalls

Firstly, nothing, only distant roaring as of non-existent

Thunder, but then quite insistent: Windows and an entrance hall

.

Frightened, hopeful, we departed – just like that, the trap outsmarted!

Grabbing her I laughed wholehearted; she played quiet; I played the clown

Peering back into the building with the morning sunlight gilding

Banisters and pock-marks filled in gummily, she kissed my crown

.

Held her lips there, started crying – What had been most horrifying?

Knots that tie from their untying? – “Yes,” she sighed into my hair

Roger doing inventory sensed we had a scary story

“Hardly clothed ourselves in glory…” More than that we didn’t share

o

Life went back to ‘something’ normal, as a lover’s passing scorn will

Leave behind a mute, informal threat that disarrays your nights

What that threat was would elude me; Suzy offered doctors whom she’d

Used for “dizziness” she shrewdly put it so I wouldn’t bite

.

Nothing bodily affected anything and yet I texted:

“Aren’t you feeling unprotected? Can’t you sense it?” / “Not at all.”

Though I couldn’t speak it plainly, truth insisted, from the way the

Rhyming nightmares nightly plagued me: Somehow, you are still enthralled

.

Suzy tells me that we’re freely living, moving. Can’t I feel the

Blatant substance of the Real she points to as we drive through town?

Smiling in her car politely, only words I say are ‘Might be!’

Concrete white and grey inside me, spiritually rust-pipe brown

.

Years pile up without real changes (surface merely rearranges)

“What’s today? The blues or rages?” reads a text – see, Suzy cares

Don’t mind her, I’m past offending: whether climbing or descending

Walking circles, never-ending. I’m OK – I’ll take the stairs

o          o          o

MAZIN SALEEM

is a fiction writer. He tweets from @maybemazin

Mazin’s Christmas song for Open Pen:

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