Stairway To Heaven

The First Stair

 

The first step is always the hardest.

 

It takes so much energy to make that initial move, to risk rejection, and it gets worse the longer you leave it.

 

He’d almost left it too long.

 

From where he sat he could see her across the crowded room, the life and soul of the party. Everyone wanted to be with her, bathed in the golden rays of her personality. She was so goddamned beautiful. They hovered around her, the girls fluttering and the men guffawing. Every word she let pass her lips set them all smiling, basking in her beauty. What chance had he?

 

Someone noticed him. They pointed him out and laughed, the alcohol giving them the illusion they were being discreet. The blood rushed to his neck and his fists clenched, but then she turned and saw him there.

 

His heart leapt in his chest. Beginning to stand, a warm smile readied itself on his lips, to die when she frowned. When she shrugged and turned away he found himself stranded, half way between sitting and rising, the smile frozen in place. Finishing the movement he stood up the rest of the way, embarrassed.

 

He left his wine on the table and walked out of the room, not looking back.

 

The Second Stair

 

The foyer of the hotel held an art exhibition, so he pretended to look at the paintings and sculptures. They were terrible modern stuff and he didn’t understand what he was meant to see in them. To him they just looked like random splashes of paint, but he knew she painted, so he continued to feign an interest in them.

 

When she appeared in the foyer he knew, without needing to turn and look. Her presence warmed him and brought a ray of optimism. When he did turn she caught his eye. Her walk had always been so graceful, like a dancer. She floated across the hallway, the sea-green chiffon dress reminding him of waves on the sea.  He took half a step towards her - and stopped.

 

As soon as he realised where she was going he knew he’d got it wrong again. He couldn’t speak to her on her way to the toilet – worst possible timing. When she came back out; he’d do it then.  She didn’t notice him, standing there in the shadows.

 

After a moment he moved to the other side of the foyer, to be closer to her when she came out. She was a long time. Was there another entrance he didn’t know about? Had he missed her? Another chance gone.

 

Then the door opened and she came out with a crowd of girls, all laughing and looking at a photo one of them had taken with her phone.

 

“I can’t believe you did that!” one said and she grinned, her face lighting up with mischief.

His heart missed a beat.

 

She giggled, said something he couldn’t quite hear, and they all burst out laughing. One of them darted a sly glance at him, whispered something in her ear. She blushed, but didn’t look his way.

 

He lost his nerve. Stepping back into an alcove he let them pass him by.

 

The Third Stair

 

Feeling like a fool, he reached into the inside pocket of his jacket. He drew out an old photograph, creased and stained, but oh so precious. Just looking at it helped him.

 

At the public bar he ordered a double brandy, downing it in a two fiery gulps which burned the whole way down. Shame and elation jostled for supremacy, but elation won out.

The warmth seeped through him. The brandy cleared his head and strengthened his determination. He turned back towards the party room.

 

This was her going-away party. She was leaving the country for a new life in New Zealand, where he wouldn’t be able to follow her. Without the article in the society rag he wouldn’t even have known about it. This was truly his last chance.

 

He strode across the foyer, through the swing doors and into the noise and heat.

Bodies gyrated on the dance floor, pretty girls hung off the necks of scrawny, pimply men, hips moving sensuously as they gazed into each other’s eyes. They belonged to a world he could never have been a part of – would never be part of now. Perhaps there was a time, years ago, when he might have been able to fit in, but too late now. There was no changing the past.

 

Conversation was impossible once the music started, but the brandy still ran hot in his veins, so he searched for her amongst the dancers and those standing around pretending to hear each other. Had he missed her? Perhaps she’d left while he was ordering his drink.

 

Then the dancers parted and he saw her again, wrapped around a tall, dark haired man. With flushed cheeks and bright eyes it looked to him as though they had just been kissing. The man looked pleased with himself. Secure. Confident. Smug.

 

With clenched jaw, he tried to force himself to be objective. The man wasn’t the usual spotty, greasy type. From a woman’s perspective he might even have been good looking.  Perfectly matched, her tall, willowy body formed itself against his slim, muscular one. She looked happy.

When he realised he hadn’t been breathing he made himself take a deep breath and unclench his jaw. And his fists. When did he clench his fists? It must have been a reflex action. That smug, handsome face just begged to be punched.

 

With a supreme effort he stepped back again, behind a pillar.

 

The Fourth Stair

 

The cool of the stone helped to soothe some of his anger. He leaned his head back, closed his eyes, willing his pulse rate to return to normal. There was once a time when he wouldn’t have been able to control himself, when he would have gone in with fists flying, maybe the neck of a broken bottle in one hand. That was how he’d ended up in prison.

 

That was then, but this was now. The exercises from the prison doctor helped and the anger ebbed away. Perhaps the brandy had been a mistake - that’s where he’d gone wrong. He was lucky, because if he’d done what he’d felt like doing, they’d have locked him away again, and this time they would have thrown away the key.

 

Rage bubbled up again, a furnace never far beneath the surface. He would never go back inside. Never.

 

Breathe. Think about the good things. Think about the job you have waiting for you now you’re out of there. A place of your own and respectability.

 

As the control came back his senses each came back too. First came touch, the cool stone of the pillar, then smell – the sweaty bodies, perfume and aftershave, smoke from someone’s clothing.

 

Next came sound. He might have preferred that one to stay away a little longer. The heavy bass line brought on one of his headaches. All he heard when the rage was on him was the rushing noise, like a tube train coming into a station. It drowned out everything else.

He opened his eyes, not focussing at first, just trying to let them adjust to the flashing lights.

 

As the focus came back it was her back he saw, annoyance clear in the stiff set of her shoulders as she stalked away from him. She must have been trying to speak to him, maybe to ask him if he was all right.

 

Another chance missed.

 

The Fifth Stair

 

Now he had no idea what he should do. He stood and watched her walk away. In seconds she disappeared into the crush of young people, leaving him hollow, empty, bereft.

 

He pushed his shoulders away from the column and straightened up. Facing him a window looked out into the dark night, showing his reflection. He didn’t much like what he saw.

 

Tall, stooped, dark hair greying and thinning at the temples, crooked nose and too many lines. A fight in the jail years back resulted in a broken nose which never set straight, despite the prison doctor’s rough setting. The lines weren’t laugh lines, just dark crevasses across his forehead and around his mouth. The scars of worry and grief.

 

His reflection showed every one of his years in prison, and all the years since. The years when he tried and failed to get a job, to get some pride back, to be human again. This was his last chance to be a part of something special. Would he just let it pass him by?

 

No, he wouldn’t. Straightening his shoulders he gritted his teeth and tried to push his way through the sweaty crowd in the direction she had disappeared. Bodies jostled him and pushed him from side to side, but he kept his eyes fixed on the place he thought she’d disappeared.

 

A girl danced into him and staggered, losing her balance. His hand shot out to grasp her arm, steadying her. She turned to thank him with a laugh that didn’t quite manage to get out. Her eyes widened as she took in his appearance, his broken nose and the scar on his neck where someone once tried to slash his throat.

 

She pulled back, yanking herself free of his grip, and cradling the arm, as though he might have hurt her. He was sure he hadn’t. Almost sure, anyway.

 

The Sixth Stair

 

She was with the same man again, standing close to him, a bottle of some sort of alcopop in her hand. The man held a pint of Guinness.

 

Of course he did: that was a part of the image.

 

He took a moment to watch the two of them. The man, with the body of an athlete and a suntan he couldn’t have got locally, wore clothes that looked expensive - quietly good without shouting out money. It made him realise how gaudy and wide his own tie might seem, how dated the double-breasted jacket and the shiny stripes.

 

After a moment’s hesitation, he approached them. He was in her line of sight, but she wasn’t seeing him.

 

The other, younger man leaned towards her and she met him halfway, both of them holding their drinks to the side as they kissed, totally absorbed in each other. It was a long kiss and his hand caressed her intimately. They might as well have been alone in the room.

His heart rate picked up again, thumping away in his chest, and a red mist descended.

Then her eyes focused on him. He probably looking as devastated as he felt.

 

She pulled away from her lover, frowning. The younger man turned to see what had broken up their private moment and his eyes lit with fury.

 

“What the fuck is your problem?” He demanded, and the man didn’t have any trouble understanding those words even though he couldn’t hear them over the pounding bass.

 

He raised his hands, palms outwards, trying to show he meant no harm, but the girl’s lover was angry now.

 

“You’ve been stalking her all night,” he snarled. “And now you’re scaring her. So I’ll ask again: what is your fucking problem?”

 

As he spoke, the lover moved between him and the girl. He’d been like that himself at that age: cocky, sure of himself, ready to take anyone on with fists, or broken bottles, or knives.

 

He’d met dozens like this over the years and he knew that if he didn’t do something fast, this was not going to end well. He wasn’t going back inside, not now he was so close.

 

The urge to fight back, to reply to the man’s anger with his fists, almost overwhelmed him. It was an effort to bring himself back under control. He reminded himself the man didn’t matter. He was just an annoyance to be brushed away. The girl was what he was here for. She was the reason he travelled three hundred miles, hitching lifts and walking in the rain carrying his old suitcase.

 

He looked past the man at her face, pleading.

 

The Seventh Stair

 

The girl solved the problem herself. She pushed her boyfriend aside and forced herself in front of him, imprisoning his hands in her own and looking him straight in the eye.

 

“I said leave it, Danny. I can handle this.”

 

For a moment the man thought she’d failed, the anger still boiling in the younger man’s eyes, but then the fire went out and he gave a sharp, unhappy nod, jaw still clenched in frustration.

The girl turned to the stranger, chin lifted, a challenge in her steady gaze.

 

“Well?”

 

He smiled. She had a stubborn, wild streak in her he found himself admiring. He should, because the same streak ran through his own personality. She would be well matched with her cocky boyfriend, well able to handle him.

 

He reached into his inside pocket again, bringing out the photograph. As he moved, the boyfriend tensed up, expecting trouble, but when he saw the photo he relaxed slightly again. Just slightly. It was enough.

 

Now the time had come, the nerves made his hands shake. He straightened out the photo, flattening the creases. There was a coffee stain on it, but he’d got so used to it he hardly noticed it anymore. What would she think of it? Would she even be able to see the picture with the dark blob in the centre of it? He had it so fixed in his mind after all these years every tiny detail shone clearly in his mind.

 

The Eighth Stair

 

He couldn’t meet her eye as he handed her the picture. He was pleased to see the shaking wasn’t quite as bad as it had been – the brandy must still be having some effect. Ever so slowly, she took the photo from him and their fingers touched lightly. He glanced up at her, but her eyes remained riveted on the crumpled photo.

 

Now her hands began to shake. A glistening tear trickled its way down her perfect cheek and her skin paled. She stepped back into the arms of the younger man and he automatically closed his arms around her, supporting her, but at the same time trying to catch a glimpse of the photo over her shoulder.

 

The stranger waited. He had all the time in the world now he’d got this far. Whatever came of this, the first step, the hardest one, was behind him, and now he could attempt to climb out of this hell of his own making. This was his stairway into the light. Even if the shadows dragged him back down afterwards, at least he would die knowing he’d made the effort. At last.

 

She still held the photo in hands which weren’t totally steady. She looked from the picture to his face, then back to the picture again.

 

He held his breath, wishing he knew what was going through her mind. Did she understand? Did she have any idea how much courage it had taken him to get this far? Her face gave nothing away.

 

She raised a tear-stained face to look him in the eye. Her jaw stuck out pugnaciously, eyes flashing fire, ready for a fight.

 

“Where did you get this?” Her voice held shards of ice that froze his soul. He had failed. All she could see, all she would ever see, was a dirty old man in a flash suit with a wide tie and the scars of a fighter. An old jailbird.

 

The Ninth Stair

 

He found he couldn’t hold her gaze. The innocence in her beautiful eyes, despite her anger, made him feel even more soiled and dirty.

Now the boyfriend stepped forward again. He picked up the emotion in her voice and wanted to punish this interloper for upsetting his girl. He knew he needed to speak quickly, before even this slim chance melted away before her the heat of her anger.

 

He tried to speak, but the words wouldn’t come. He cleared his throat and tried again.

 

“I’ve always had it,” he said in a voice hoarse with emotion. “I’ve kept it safe, right here by my heart.”

 

Her mind was making the connections - she had her mother’s sharp wits, this one. She deduced straight away what it meant, but she wasn’t believing it yet. That would be the hard part for her.

 

A sob forced its way from her throat. Her eyeliner started to run, spoiling the perfection of her face, but to him she would always be beautiful.

 

“Why?” She asked. “Where did you go that was so damned important that it took you away from us?”

 

The Tenth Stair

 

How was he ever going to explain?

 

He hadn’t left her, she’d been taken away from him. They said he wouldn’t be a fit parent, not to rear a child, especially not once he’d been locked up for a crime like that.

 

He killed her mother. Maybe not directly – there was no weapon in his hand, he struck no blow - but with him in jail there hadn’t been any money.

 

A severe chest infection dragged her down but she couldn’t afford to take time off her work in the mill to get better. Her letters tailed off and eventually stopped altogether. A neighbour’s letter broke the news, months later. The neighbour blamed him, but she couldn’t put more blame on his shoulders than he already carried.

 

The spite in that letter changed him. With no warning about the contents, when he opened it he found he no longer had either wife or child. The bailiffs took all the furniture and the council took the house back. His baby girl was homeless, fostered out to God knows who, passed from foster home to foster home. He wasn’t allowed to contact her.

 

He had been through hell. 

 

She must have been through hell.

 

But she didn’t just survived, she thrived.

 

Just look at her now, her long dark hair gleaming, healthy skin and bright eyes, expensive manicure and clothes. She made it on her own, with no help. She deserved to know she hadn’t been abandoned.

 

The Last Stair

 

Her eyes filled anew with tears. A lump came into his throat.

 

“Daddy…?”

 

(c) Kerry Buchanan 2019

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