The two women stood at the high head of the stairs - dressed in designer equestrian gear, one with bright red jodhpurs and the other in the smooth textured blood of a riding-jacket. Their whips were barely concealed behind their backs. Approaching them from the bottom of the steep narrow treads, I felt I was fresh from a cradle, toddling precociously, precariously, presumptively upward for the first time.
I saw one of the women tremble as she thought of the correct words: "Get down to the front room - the fire has just been lit." The tone, although understated, retained a richly vibrant confidence about cruelty. Yet, I continued to climb, on all fours now, towards the jackboots planted where the narrow carpet had become foot-loose at the landing's edge. I noted that the stair-rods had worked free and dangled like discarded cutlery after an invalid's wasted meals.
One of them snatched me into her arms and, upon seeing her face close up for the first time, I realised it was beautiful - more stunning than anything in the wildest dozing dreams which seemed to constitute the whole of my assumed existence amid those fitful afternoon naps. The lips were full-red, picked out like a swollen exotic bloom in the midst of her aspirin-crushed complexion. The sad eyes told me more about life's reality than any words: that I was the fleshy, if phantom, child who would hang by my mouth from her suckers, having not been mother-born, but delivered in time for Christmas, my hips just narrow enough to pass down through the constricted soot-walls of a chimney.
The other woman was merely a presence. Her mother? Her eldest daughter? Her own self moulded from an alternate reality for the masquerade of the late afternoon's events? Or, perhaps, myself, grown too readily into full womanhood in the improbable future? And from that same future, I would perhaps recall my inevitable childhood: propped up in a dining-chair, posed for an impossible photograph, the nappies becoming soggy around my loins, in the front room which then connected directly with the street outside. I would perhaps recall being positioned facing a screen which flickered black and white images, hypnotising me into nap-land, where I could be no trouble to those who led their own lives around me. I was to see upon that screen jerking puppets and nodding fingermice, hear the foreign language of pre-speech and the even foreigner songs of an Elder Race that, I surmised, in my misplaced innocence, lived in the upper floors of the big house - where, apparently, I was not to be allowed to wander. I would speculate why the two women often touched each other, their red ripe lips ever conjoined in outlandish botanic cross-breeds. They entangled their long horse-whips into the cobweb arteries of a cat's-cradle game spun by blind crazy widow-spiders. Their limbs twined in tune to their hand-joints which, in turn, played Churches, Steeples and Fingerpeople. Indeed, my childhood lasted longer than expected. But eventually I grew into a man, not the woman I had assumed myself to be. My pair of mother figures never forgave me for this. They flayed my flanks as raw red as their tunics, to match the glowing embers in the front room's grate. I saw their faces, larger than life, staring at me, as I tried to escape up the flue disguised as a ghost of smoke. They stoked the coals with the hafts of their whip-stocks, their tongues flickering like flames.
But, upon the earlier day of which I first spoke, they stood at the high head of the stairs, witnessing the baby-thing that was my body trying to clamber clumsily towards them. They blamed everybody but themselves for this their only child: mutated beyond recognition and miscarriaged with insect-joints, cranking up the stair-rods like an ill-butchered lump of best brisket with a whip-feeler jiggling between the sirloins - mimicking a creature from early children's television. They brayed endlessly, with their necks back-doubled in arches, as the baby-thing continued to step up the twisted nodules of the two women's composite spine. All this was before the nightmares proper started. The landing was as dark as inside the chimney. I knew that because I had just been up there looking for Santa Claus.
Darkening the house would remind me from the likeliest future of the war-time blackouts. But nobody had told me then that I could have had the lights switched on inside the house, once the window-blinds were fastened down. Nostalgia was my game. The past my gift to the present. Darkness my late lamented mother's embrace. I often recalled the grumble of aeroplanes heavily underhung with bombs as they carved the night sky like the Devil's sharks towards the city. My mother and I would squat in each other's arms on this very landing, praying for the man-made storm to pass without the lightning fulfilling its threat. Sometimes, the bombs did land in the vicinity, even breaching the window-blinds with their sudden shafting flashes - dimly illuminating the steep staircase and its inky well below us, the banister and the newel post. We cringed, since we knew that the hallway haunted a ghost, rather than vice versa - and we dreaded to see the ghost's frightened face in the abrupt light. Its fear became no less as the years passed away. The war ended (not before time). My mother died at a ripe age. I had gone on living in the same house, subsisting on an inheritance that had been in the family for at least time immemorial. The ghost had no doubt grown older, less frightened, wrinklier, less visible, probably hanging around the newel post. And light grew scarcer, sparser, sparer. The world outside could have been enveloped in bright summers all year round, for all I cared. The grocery boy, who never seemed to get older, failed to tell me what the hell was going on in the outside world (when he dropped provisions into the coal bunker).
The darkness, one particular late afternoon, was thinner than usual. Perhaps one of the window-blinds had sprung open or the chimney had unexpectedly cleared its throat of soot. But the newel post, an overgrown globe of wood on an intricately carved banister-end, glinted like the dome of one of my bald ancestors: a glimmering from within it - looking like a fortune-teller's crystal ball and then a child's turn-topsy snow-scene toy. The ghost could be clearly seen crouching on the bottom stair, the back of its neck red with the newel post's light that bled into it. Suddenly, the ghost turned on its haunches, droning like the onset of London's Blitz. The beauty on its see-through face was more than could be borne.
The bomb stirred me and, having woken me, proceeded to kill me. When the firemen pulled my body from the rubble, they pinched themselves, since my head was wooden, apparently dislodged from a newel post. The bomb itself was a previously unexploded one from the ancient Second World War Blitz, which soemthing had unaccountably shifted in the chimney. The firemen had pinched themselves, to give my dream some consistency.
I woke in the quiet front room. Only the rhythmic dripping of the large carriage clock on the mantelpiece and, sometimes, the canary's pecking at the window pane through the bars of its cage. If the late afternoon had not been so unseasonably dark, it would have been easier to describe the room's interior. Suffice it to say, it had become old-fashioned before its time. But the newly laundered antimacassars upon the backs of the shabby three-piece suite shone out luminously like gateways to another dimension, one with a skull-print stain in the centre.
As my eyes became accustomed to the gloom, I felt an impression of someone sitting in the wing-armchair who suddenly spoke: "I'm so glad you've come to the front room at last. The fire's newly lit in your honour. Come and sit next to me." The voice was shrill, a bit like a man's who had grown into second childhood with a voice that was breaking the other way. I imagined he had a white beard and red-riding hood. Of course, there was nobody there. And the fire was unlit. I rose with a creak and squeezed the nipple of the wallflower light-switch. The shadeless bulb burst into life, hanging very low from the rose in the cracked ceiling. My eyes were closed, but I somehow knew my way about without opening them. I proceeded to the tallboy, trying to find the dear creature who had spoken to me. Instead, I discovered an oblong box inlaid with finest abstractions of ivory and ormulu.
My eyes were not wilfully shuttered. The eyelids had ingrown the cheek, the lashes embedded in the flesh like splinters of rotted freckles. Yet, without further ado, I lifted the lid and the spokes on the musical braille began to pluck-turn inside the clockwork. My eyes engorged with joy below the pulpy carapaces - and indeed it was a winsome tune the box played, tantalisingly unmemorable with the tinkling of long-fingernailed fairies' harps. A pity I was stonier deaf than both the front room's doorpost and the hall stair's newel post put together. The canary twittered in oblique scales as it followed the tune throbbing in my shaking hand. As if the music-box were about to blow sky high.
Abruptly, I guessed the truth, or the nearest to truth as it was possible to reach: the wartime Blitz had killed my real mother before I was conceived, let alone born - and a continuous programme of dreams was the most that reality and existence could do for me by filling in with extrapolations of cross-skewed memory. An understudy for life.
But, no. They were not dreams at all. Dreams are merely excuses for mismatches and confusions. My eyelids sprung open like window-blinds, with the sound of ripping flesh. I found myself gazing from the Stairwell up, up, up towards Hell and saw the pair of riding-crop women ... looking down at me with a jaded deja-vu ... standing head high at the head of the stairs.
(Published ‘Nox’ 1993)