The Back Stairs
With my heart racing almost out of control, I was catapulted out of my sleep from a disturbing dream. In it, I was forced to walk along a narrow ledge above a horrendously high precipice, and then the ledge twisted drastically before turning into an equally narrow bridge spanning an inky black chasm.
I didn’t want to move across it but I had to get to the other side, I just had to, otherwise, there would be a god-awful calamity.
Then the bridge narrowed, even more. My foot slipped and I almost tumbled over the edge. Thoroughly shaken, my immediate reaction was to go back the way I had come, and I desperately wanted to do that, but I couldn’t because all that was behind me was tightly packed darkness—worse still, it was closing in on me.
Something forced me to look down at my feet and I experienced a fresh wave of panic, I couldn’t see the bridge, it had disappeared in the engulfing blackness. It was as if I was suspended in midair without a foothold or anything to grasp on to, and then I started tumbling into the abyss.
As I mopped my brow with the sleeve of my pajama top, I yelled, ‘Jesus, Mary, and Joseph what the hell was all that about.’
Gerty stirred jerkily beside me before snapping on her bedside light.
‘For cryin’ out loud Padraic, you’ve been jumpin’ about in this bed all night mutterin’ some woman’s name and now you’re blasphemin’, I’ll not have it I tell you. I’ll not have any more of it. If you and your old bones is messin’ about with some floozy in that there village, then off you go and sleep in the spare room, away with you.’
I didn’t even get a chance to reply before she tossed me out of bed to the floor. She’s a large woman, but I didn’t think she was as strong as that.
As I gathered myself together a door slammed downstairs followed by another and another. Gerty looked at me without saying a word, her eyes said enough. She thought I’d left the back door open, again. Okay, maybe I had done that on a few occasions after returning home from the pub, but I wasn’t in the pub last night, I’d spent the evening in front of the television with Gerty and our three dogs, and all of them were now making a hell of a racket howling away in the kitchen.
‘Padraic Molloy, you go down there and shut those darn dogs up before they wake up the dead,’ Gerty hissed and promptly turned out the light, leaving me standing in the semi-darkness and somewhat confounded by her reaction, as she’s normally a pleasant soul. As my eyes adjusted to the dim light I saw it wasn’t far off six o’ clock, so I decided I might as well get dressed and start the day. No point in trying to go back to sleep now, not since I’d been ousted to the bloody spare room…she didn’t even tell me which one…there’s four standing empty since the children left.
I pulled on my trousers, shrugged into a warm pullover, shoved my feet into my carpet slippers and then padded downstairs to where the dogs continued to howl intermittently. What struck me as strange when I reached the hallway was all the downstairs doors were open except for the front door, that one was firmly closed.
Which doors slammed one after the other?
The noises definitely come from below, not from the upper story. I thought no more of it and let the dogs out. Then I fired up the AGA and put the kettle on to boil, fully intending to bring Gerty a cuppa in bed, to sweeten her.
As I made the tea I heard Gerty move around upstairs so I went up with my peace offering, but she wasn’t there. Her side of the bed was empty and neatly made.
Crikey, I must be in the flippin’ dog box if she’s made her side and left mine alone.
Assuming she was in the bathroom, I called out that I’d left her a cuppa and hurriedly finished off my side of the bed, narrowly avoiding Twizzel (Gerty’s extremely rotund and bad tempered tabby cat) as he slunk past to do something somewhere in one of the upstairs rooms.
As I turned to go back downstairs I was stopped in my tracks by the smell of fried bacon wafting up to me, it made my mouth water. From my vantage point on the landing, I could see the light in the kitchen flickering out from underneath the door. Hmmm, I thought I’d flicked it off, a habit of mine, a habit that irritates the hell out of Gerty.
Taking a deep breath I pushed it open to find Gerty standing by the AGA, busily turning bacon and sausages over in her favourite cast iron pan.
How on earth did she get past me?
Confused, I blurted out, ‘I didn’t see you come down.’
‘For Christ sake, don’t tell me you came down by the back stairs.’
‘You know you shouldn’t use them…you know most of the steps need replacing.’
I waited for her to say something but she didn’t even turn around. God, I hate it when she does that.
‘I’ve told you time and time again there’re dangerous. Why won’t you listen? Why do you always have to be so pigheaded?’
Still no reply, the only sound was the bacon and sausages frying. Now I was bordering on exasperation.
‘Am I talking to myself?’ I said to the back of her head. Surprise, surprise, she didn’t bother to even nod. Obviously, I’d turned into another life form, most likely an earthworm. ‘For goodness sake woman how long am I going to be shunned this time? I didn’t mean to wake you, I was dreaming, you can’t hold that against me.’
Looking over her shoulder she coldly said, ‘Go out to the hen house and fetch the eggs, I don’t have any in the larder.’ Her eyes indicated an empty wooden bowl on the oversized pine table.
Gerty won’t condone buying in eggs from those new-fangled mass-produced places and insists we keep a dozen hens of our own. I don’t mind as they keep her happy, and sometimes much to her annoyance, the local fox as well.
As I walked along the edge of the table to fetch the bowl, I was struck by a sudden moment of nostalgia.
Most days after school our five children and their friends used to sit around this table, happily stuffing their faces with Gerty’s homemade soda bread and thick blackberry jam, and more often than not, deep wedges of pie made from the apples she grows in her orchard. Sadly, the children are long gone now, all grown up and getting on with their own lives. Maybe someday their kids will sit around this very table, just like their parents did before them. Maybe someday…but I won’t hold my breath as all five of them now live in far-flung places and they hardly even telephone, let alone visit.
‘And top of the morning to you too,’ I said truculently to Gerty’s rigid back. Without saying another word I jerked on my waterproof jacket, picked up the bowl and started across the yard toward the hen house. I was so miffed I didn’t even notice I was still wearing my slippers.
The early morning mist swirled around my heels and the blackberry bushes, which were full, almost weighed down by their bounty. Only a few days ago a couple of tourists from some unpronounceable place in America admired their abundance while reveling at their luscious flavour, claiming the ones they got back in their own country were tasteless in comparison. Humph, of course they’d be tasteless. In order to thrive, blackberries need a nice fresh climate, just like Ireland has. Everyone knows that except the tourists, that is.
As I approached the hen house I heard someone calling my name.
It was a whisper, very small and barely audible, repeated more than once. I tried to hear where it was coming from; all I could hear was the sound of my feet crunching on the pebbles as I stamped them without even knowing I was doing so. I began to doubt I’d actually heard anything at all. Nevertheless, I continued to glance around, curiously seeking the source of the voice. I looked back at the house but the mist had risen, obliterating over half of it.
It’s an old house, built nearly one hundred years ago and apart from modernising the kitchen and bathrooms, it hasn’t changed much since. Originally it belonged to my parents, so having grown up in it I knew every nook and cranny, well before I married Gerty.
It has five bedrooms, three bathrooms, two receptions rooms, a large homey kitchen, a smallish scullery and a couple of other less important rooms, mainly used for storage. When I was a young boy the roof used to be my favourite place to play. I loved charging around the widow walk with my brothers, pretending to shoot plundering invaders. With two turrets and five chimney stacks, the entire rooftop provided a wealth of hiding spaces enabling us to launch ambushes not only on each other, on our friends as well.
Nowadays I often go up there to smoke my pipe and gaze out over rolling fields intertwined with hedgerows and dry stone walls, all leading down in various shades of green like a massive patchwork quilt to the Atlantic Ocean. On a morning like this the ocean would be lapping gently against the shore, at other times it roared with such ferocity you’d swear the waves were about to break through the walls of the house.
In the distance, I heard the far-off call of a horn as a boat passed. It reminded me to go down to the beach after breakfast to search for driftwood because I was doing up the old nursery garden for Gerty, not that I thought she deserved my efforts, not just then.
Then I heard the sound of a cow lowing, which was odd, as we don’t farm anymore and haven’t done for many years. Handling a large dairy herd became economically unviable after Mad Cow Disease rampaged throughout the Irish countryside. So we made a decision, albeit a hard one, to sell off most of the land to a developer who wanted to build a hotel complex with fancy things like spa’s, whatever they are, and indoor swimming pools. However, to date, it hasn’t been built. Don’t know why, but we were paid handsomely for the land and the interest on the investment allows us to live comfortably enough, our needs are simple.
As I gaped at the house, the mist quickly swallowed it with the exception of the upstairs middle-landing window. Then the heavy drapes that hung there suddenly shot open, almost violently, and one of them snapped right off its rod.
Then I heard a scream.
My heart began to hammer so loudly I could hear it banging in my chest like a large base drum. The reality of the scream overwhelmed me. It shook me to the core, as it was Gerty’s voice. My hands began to shake so much I dropped the wooden bowl. Not bothering to pick it up I raced back to the house as fast as my old legs would allow.
Reaching the kitchen door I slammed through to find the kitchen empty. Not even the smell of bacon remained. With my heart hammering even louder, I flung open the door to the hallway and every light in the house started to blink on one after the other like a huge Christmas display. The doors started slamming, upstairs and downstairs. Then a thunderous pounding reverberated from underneath the floorboards. At first, it sounded more or less rhythmical and then increased in volume until I could hardly bear it.
The lights and the pounding were now in unison. I wanted to run away from the cacophony but I knew I couldn’t, I had to find Gerty.
I charged back through the scullery door and there was Gerty at the top of the dodgy back stairs.
Damn it. Why won’t she listen to me and stay away from them? The carpenters are coming next week to make a start. She knows that.
I must have looked away but only for a split second. When I looked back Gerty was lying at the bottom of the stairs with one of her legs twisted in an unnatural position. Her head seemed to be folded to one side and she was staring up at me with a quizzical expression. She appeared to say something but not a sound came from her lips. I put my hand out to her, and then there was nothing there, just empty air. My chest felt like a heavy weight was pressing down hard on it, making me fight for each rasping breath.
Then I heard my name called out.
‘Paaadraic, Paaadraic,’ it sing-songed, over and over. I followed the sound all the way to the top of the dodgy stairs, and for a beat, I thought I was hallucinating because Gerty was standing at the top beckoning to me to join her.
‘What the hell are you up to you daft women?’ I wheezed despite the fact that I was still in shock, ‘I’m not going up those bloody stairs, they won’t hold my weight.’
‘Paaadraic, Paaadraic,’ the voice sang out again, this time from somewhere near the family room.
Then I felt something tugging at my trouser leg—it was Gerty, she was on the floor by my feet, and she looked terrified. Try as I might I couldn’t do anything to help her as I was frozen to the spot.
All of a sudden her eyes clouded over and she slumped back against the lower step. Then I sensed something or someone behind me. I spun around and saw Jamie our now retired postman watching me. He often pops in on his way to collect his early morning newspaper. I shouted to him, ‘Call an ambulance, do something, for God sake man don’t just stand there!’
He came forward, took me by the elbow and tried to lead me away. I shrugged him off and then heard myself bellowing in a surprisingly clear voice, ‘Help me, Jamie, Gerty’s had a fall. Help me help her!’
The pounding stopped and the lights went out one by one. A vacuum of silence amid the early morning half-light engulfed the house. I reached again for Gerty, but all I could see was the empty space where she’d lain only a few seconds ago. Then Jamie said something barely credible.
‘Padraic, come along and I’ll make you a cuppa. Gerty is gone, man; she’s been gone this fifteen years.’
What the hell is he talking about? Gerty isn’t gone. She’s…oh my God, he’s right!
‘What date is it Jamie?’ I heard a voice say, ignorant of the fact that it was my own.
‘February fourteenth, Gerty’s anniversary,’ Jamie answered patiently as if he’d told me this on numerous other occasions.
Suddenly the air became very cold and I felt something not quite solid brush up against me. Then I smelt Gerty’s distinctive eau de cologne. An icy kiss glided across my cheek and I heard her say, ‘You should have fixed those darn stairs sooner Padraic. It was your fault…all your fault…see you next Valentine’s Day.’