On The Stairs
by Marion Husband
The place they’ve sent me is haunted.
I told Father Archer and he said, ‘There are no such thing as ghosts,’ as though I was a little child. No such thing as ghosts plural, only the one and Holy, and I don’t think Father Archer believes in Him as much as he ought to. The man should come to this new place they’ve sent me. If he stands quietly on the stairs he’ll hear them. The ghosts get quite agitated on the stairs.
I used to live in a house that looked as if it could be haunted, a house with cellars and attics and bedrooms sized for dying. That house looked north over the cemetery, its sash windows ever ready to spy on mourners. You’d think it was just the place for ghosts. After all, they only had to slip across road and up the narrow, yew-shaded path. But I don’t suppose they’re looking for convenience. They’re looking for something of themselves, something they’ve left behind. I’ve lived with them for some weeks now, and I think I’ve learnt that much, at least.
My name is Mary. I could say I’m nineteen because that’s how old I am in my head, but I’d only get caught out. For instance, I’ll let slip that I remember the war, the smell of floral-papered walls burning and the heart-breaking sweetness of rationed chocolate. I’ll give myself away by remembering the roughness of Todd’s uniform against my face and the words he loosed on me to get me into his bed. Men, I think, use different words nowadays. They don’t have to mention love or death.
Todd said, ‘You say you love me, but if I’m killed…’
I laughed, imagining Todd regretting my intact virginity as he plunged from a fiery sky. He thought I was strange for laughing. My laughter made him want me more.
In bed he said, ‘I didn’t think you’d do it,’ and I said, ‘No, neither did I.’ Such conversations give me away. So, I’ll tell the truth. I’m not nineteen, and there are ghosts in this place they’ve sent me.
Shall I call them ghosts? Often they seem more substantial, and the younger one smells so strongly of carbolic soap he makes my nose itch. He is also very beautiful. He wears a white shirt open at his throat, sleeves rolled to his elbows showing off tanned skin and a white band where his watch was. His name is Paul, although the other one calls him love and sweetheart. The other one wraps him in his arms and the two of them form a snake-hipped shadow on the wall. Kissed and made-up, the air around them becomes cold, their shadow a still, dark stain. It’s a scene they return to often, even though they know the ending. I don’t know how they can bear it; the cold is as tiring as sadness.
My house, the one that should have been haunted, was sold. I found out when I asked Father Archer if I could go back there. He blushed. I have never seen a grown man blush before. He cleared his throat and looked past me and said, ‘It’s not there any more. They knocked it down.’ I thought of the demolition ball swinging through the cracks in my old room, the pile of red brick rubble beneath the shuddering yews. I thought they would leave the trees. I had an idea that they would form part of a memorial, the rubble cleared for a black marble plaque. Todd was famous, after all. I had an idea that they might want to commemorate the place where he was happiest.
I can’t go back, then. I must remain here with my beautiful ghosts. Every day the help comes with her smell of yesterday’s gravy and bumps through them on the stairs. Her bucket fumes pine-green bleach and I imagine the ghosts disintegrating in the caustic vapours. But they stay, oblivious, snared in their arguments. Their voices rise, and on cue, Paul shouts, ‘All right, if that’s how you want it. To hell with you.’ They soon make up. The emotion that cracks Paul’s voice will soon be soothed over with exasperated caresses. I’ll find them later in my bedroom and I’ll watch them from the door.
Todd was in the RAF. He flew bombers over Berlin and a tiny MG around Kent lanes. He wasn’t beautiful like the ghosts, he was squat and square; he smoked a pipe that made his eyes crease into permanent wrinkles and gave the impression he was about to say something hurtful. He said he was so scared in his bomber that his tongue turned to metal in his mouth and sparked electricity against his teeth. Fear, he said, tasted of molten iron. Smiling through his pipe smoke, his eyes would melt into their creases and he’d reach out to squeeze my knee. ‘Don’t worry – my kisses are as cold as ice cream.’ I told him I wanted to be burnt and he laughed, still clutching my knee as though it was a joint for the oven.
Todd had sparse black hair, Brylcreme shined and scraped over the high dome of his head. You’ve seen photos of him, those egg-head portraits in black and white on the inside covers of his books. I look and look at those pictures and try to remember what I saw in him. I trace my fingers over the glossy paper and remember that his skin was as dry as sand-stone and smelt of ashtrays, that his belly wobbled white as blancmange. I remember that his wife was as polished as a Tiffany diamond and wonder what he saw in me. I was squat and bookish, so I suppose he saw something of himself. He kept a photograph of me stuck inside his bomber, or so he said. I think I was too plain to be displayed. Todd had a reputation to maintain, after all.
The ghosts come from the war before Todd’s. I know because Paul sometimes appears in his uniform, standing at the backdoor with such a look of expectation on his face my heart races for him. He calls the other one’s name and for a while it’s as though the house is shocked into silence. Then there’s the sound of running on the stairs. I feel the other one’s excited heat rush past me as Paul slowly lowers his kit bag to the floor. Sometimes they stay locked in each others arms for hours, sometimes time plays its ordinary trick of changing minutes into seconds and the other one takes Paul’s hand and leads him up the stairs. Nothing is said, the scene is played with well-rehearsed delicacy. Paul has waited and waited for this time, I want it to last for him. I want the other one to hold him for hours, to make time wait as Paul waited, even though when time stands still like that cold creeps into my bones and can’t be shifted. Days will pass before I’m warm again. The only heat comes with the brief suddenness of their rows, flaring too hotly and dying too quickly to make much difference.
When I’m cold like that I wrap myself in Todd’s coat. The cloth smells of Gold Flake even now and I press it to my mouth and nose and inhale greedily. When Todd visited me in my house he would hang the coat on the newel post then go through its pockets for his pipe and pouch and matches. Ready, he would look up the long flight of stairs and sigh.
‘We could go dancing.’ I remember he turned to me. ‘Am I too old?’
I took his hand and began to climb the stairs. ‘Take your wife dancing,’ I said. ‘We have better things to do.’
I never had children, does that go without saying? I thought there’d come a time when my body began to miss them, that my frustrated womb would begin to play old maid tricks. Instead I just ran dry. Todd and I lay side by side in my bed, the two of us dry as tinder. If we caught fire we’d burn like books on a Nazi bonfire. I would turn to look at him, see the blue evening shadow on his cheek and wonder if he missed the taste of molten metal. He was old by then; he had turned the fires of Cologne and Dresden into Boys’ Own stories. I wanted to ask if he missed the spark of electricity against his teeth. I never did. I watched him smiling into sleep, afraid to disturb him. I never asked him if he loved me, or if I was too old for dancing. Such questions are impertinent, aren’t they? And I had dried up by then, it seemed too late for sentiment.
Paul sits at my kitchen table and plays solitaire. He wears the white shirt, showing off his golden skin, and from time to time he’ll look up at the other one and smile.
‘We could go dancing,’ the other one says.
Paul laughs. ‘No we couldn’t.’ He bows his head over the complicated lines of hearts and spades and the other one stands behind him and kisses his neck.
‘If we could, I’d take you. Show you off. I’d tell everyone on the dance floor…’
‘Sit down.’ Paul twists to look at him. ‘Talk to me. Talk to me about things that could happen.’
The other one knows what could happen, and of course they’ve both seen what will happen. He leaves Paul alone and goes into the yard to weep. Paul turns another card, his impatience snapping against the table, bending creases in the sly face of Jack. I know the next scene bores him, I can see the frustration in his eyes. In the next scene he longs to be away, for the taste of metal on his tongue. The other one can’t understand this longing. He’s heard they use bodies to bolster sandbags and that the dead bob bloated from the mud as though they’d heard it was judgement day. The other one doesn’t know about the spark of electricity against his teeth. His fear is as dull as earth. I follow him into the yard and stand with him. We are comrades, he and I. We know what it is to wait.
The ghosts visit each scene in and out of turn. Sometimes they begin in the middle, or almost at the end. Sometimes they begin at the very start as though afraid to miss something that may have changed their fate. In the same way I play through my memories. But it doesn’t matter where I begin or end, I’m still standing here, in this same, haunted place.
I told Father Archer about the ghosts. I said that he might like to send them away. They deserve their rest in peace, I think. He said that there are no such things as ghosts. The man should come here, to this place they’ve sent me, and listen on the stairs.