It wasn’t long after the incident with the lady at the end of the bed that I undertook a solo adventure to the bottom of the tenement.
The five of us lived in a one-bedroom flat in a granite tenement. My brother went to school in the daytime. I didn’t go to nursery so stayed at home. The front door to our flat was left unlocked and open so that I could go down the one flight of stairs to the landing toilet. Nappies were for babies.
The stairs were my playground. In the daytime, I had them all to myself. I’d use them as tracks for my circus train, roads for my Dinky motor cars, and an assault course for my imaginary friends and me.
One day, I left the toys upstairs and raced down the eight flights to the ground floor. I flew around the eight one-eighty bends, gripping the bannister and whipping myself round and down to the next flight. I reached the ground floor dizzy, out of breath, and grinning.
On the left, down a short corridor, was the front door that led out onto the street. I turned right and walked the few steps to another set of stairs. These stairs had no smooth bannisters made of wood and wrought iron. These stairs were made of stone and curved down between stone walls into darkness. There was no light bulb and no switch on the wall.
I could not see how far down the stairs went. The only way to find out was to descend. I had stood at the top many times and never dared to go farther.
I didn’t stop to think. I stepped down one step. Then another, then a third. I glanced back and saw that the corridor was still visible and bright with light. Everything below was dark.
I skipped down three more steps. I turned with the staircase as it curved under the hallway floor, which was now above me.
With each step down, it got darker. Every time I looked up to check, the archway to the corridor seemed like it was closing as it grew narrower and narrower. After a few more steps, I couldn’t see directly into the hallway anymore. The rock walls did not reflect much light.
It was dark above and dark below.
I felt blind. My throat tightened, making it hard to breathe. My heart fluttered in my chest, and I felt my guts do a long slow roll inside me. I was going to be sick.
I glanced up and saw nothing.
I heard the rasp of my breath as it squeezed past my throat. I needed to go back up.
I glanced down and saw nothing.
I’d come so far. I had to be more than halfway round the bend now, hadn’t I? I wanted to see the bottom.
Was that a scrape of a shoe on the stone above me? I looked up. Was there something there? Darker than the dark.
I told myself that there was nothing up there, that it was a game. I heard breathing and couldn’t decide if it was an echo of my own or someone else.
I couldn’t go up. I had to go down.
I touched the curving wall to my left and took another step down. I probed down with my toe to find the next one. It was too slow. The pressure of the presence behind me (imagined or real, game or not) made me hurry. Each step down became quicker than the last.
I bombed down the steps. I had no bannister to grip. I didn’t think I’d be able to stop. Things got bright as I rounded the bend and looked up with squinty eyes to see a square of light floating in mid-air. I stumbled, having reached the bottom, somehow kept my feet, rushed toward the door, grabbed and turned the handle, banged the door with my hip, and flung it open.
I saw a grassy slope that ran down to a red brick wall. Interesting shapes poked up out of the long grass. I immediately forgot about the dark presence on the stairs. I ran forward to explore.
Eventually, after what seemed like ages, I knew I would get into trouble if I didn’t go home.
I went in the back door and closed it behind me. I shuffled forward until my toes touched the bottom step. I looked up into the darkness. I twisted round to look at the square window of light that led out to the garden. I knew I’d come back.
First, though, I had to climb. I had to traverse that area of darkness halfway up. I hoped the presence would not be waiting for me when I got there.
I lifted my foot onto the lowest step and kept going.