Filthy Altitude Air

     I’m not sure where I am. It is dark, and cold, and dusty, that much I know. And I am lying on coal; hard anthracitic lumps are pressing through thin clothing into my back, as I lie fakir-like in this bolthole of mine. Looking around, not moving my body only my head, I can just about make out that my hiding place is a dank little rectangle, person sized and closed in tight but for the open side to my right which drops away into a tunnel – rail or sewer, I’m not sure – where my pursuers are advancing. I’ve been able to hear their footfalls moving towards me for so long now that it feels as though they must be crawling not walking, for surely no-thing or no one whose legs were still attached could move so slowly. And I can still hear them, but I have others things to concentrate on now. Peeking out through clotted lashes I can just begin to make out the curve of the far wall. It is dirty like old city-centre limestone, caked and flaking, with a neat little iron ladder set into the stone. Each croquet rung is perfectly rusted into place. And on my side of the tunnel, just above my head, is another ladder. This one’s for me.

     Wriggling in my coal-scuttle I ease the thin black cotton trousers down over my hips and inch them off with my toes, all the time keeping my breath to a shallow whisper. It’s not too difficult to undress as the material is old and loose on my legs; cold air slides over my thighs and through my intestines, and curled there it plays for a while. Searchers march by below as I lie on my back, on the coal, with my legs naked and taut. They march slowly on. I am still. Quietly I pull on a pair of blue-gray trousers and, taking off the dusty shirt, I cautiously struggle into a work-faded but clean red T-shirt. Stuffing the old clothes into a canvas bag I push it under the soot-rags and rubble in the corner. And for a moment I pause, the heavy steps are beginning to ease away from me now, beyond me, to take one last moment of safety in this one-man bunk bed of mine. For the first time that I can remember, or that’s how it seems, I attempt to inhale an ordinary breath. But the air here is cold and thin and clogged with ash. It is so very thin, and my head begins to spin and shrink from the coldness of air, a filthy ice cream head rush, and I know now that I must crawl out and up or not at all. No, I have to go. I have a meeting, an appointment, a rendezvous, a tryst of some kind in someplace that isn’t here. And I am late. I am close-by but I am still late. And I know that I must crawl. That’s what the ladder is here for. Up in the dark, above my head, there is a manhole and breath after breath that is where I am going.

     To reach the room he had to walk along a tiny brightly lit corridor, although in truth it was little more than a gently slanted laundry shoot. The walls were immaculately wallpapered, tight close-petalled roses fought for space within Regency-esque patterned borders, and fully fitted with skirting boards and a picture rail despite the ceiling being no more than four feet high. Doubled up he pushed on up the corridor, surfacing in tight hamstrung strides. The corridor served as the ultimate servants’ entrance, laborious and polite, which enforced a walk of deference. His bowed gait could have been misconstrued as a hunched swagger if he hadn’t been so cramped in there, but at least the air was getting thicker as he reached for the door. Breathing was a necessity he’d forgotten how to take for granted.

     He stood in the children’s bedroom.  The room was on split-levels, the highest floor being where the door was so that, on entering, you could look down upon the large bunk bed fixed to the opposite wall. The walls themselves were white with a rug of salmon pink spread across the wooden floor, a large rug really with swirls of ochre and peach that for some reason made everything look as if it were carved from wax. The walls were smothered by adult-orientated childish paintings with smudged over-sized handprints; the floor was clutter-free and toyless. It was a pristine place and devoid of childhood. And the children, standing neat and side-by-side in the middle of the room, were the same. Quite literally, in fact, for they were genderless Twins: blond, nondescript, four years old and dressed in plain white expensive clothes. This was definitely their room.  They were inanely pretty, the kind of pretty that some people would call cute; biscuit-tin cute.

     Before he could do, say or think anything two adults came in and stood next to him. He presumed that the woman, Madam Stiskey, was their Mother even though she was around sixty years old and had that selfish shrink-wrapped barren look about her. Apart from that she was short and skinny with steel hair swept immaculately back to the nape of her neck, obsessively clean and scrubbed with incongruously pink skin and tight white hands. She had an un-lived in appearance and her breath smelt faintly of chemicals, for Madam was autocratic and finite and dominated those around her through complete indifference. Her husband however, and potentially the Twins’ Father although maybe not, was a completely different kind of creature. He was younger, about forty-five, with a reddish tan and yellow hair and despite being tall he had that kind of solidity to his figure that, whilst he thought it strong and fit, in actuality it’s the bulk one gets from soft living and good quality food and spirits with the occasional over-exaggerated and under-achieved sports. Add to this a garish ensemble of clothes which were at least half a size too small from a stubborn vanity with measurements and you have a bland fleshy man who, quite appropriately, was nameless. Madam Stiskey surveyed the room with one crisp rotation of her neck and turned with a click of her heels. Pausing only to switch her finger across the door frame in a reflex check for dust she left the room as silent as she had found it. Meanwhile the Father, in a physically brusque but conspiratorial manner, moved forward and shook his hand, pressing a crumpled twenty-pound note and an indistinct coin into his palm as he did so. LOOK AFTER THE CHILDREN DON’T TELL MADAM DON’T GET IT WRONG DON’T TELL ANYONE DON’T. And left.

     He closed his fingers over the money, squeezing it into a ball, and thrust it into his pocket. Nothing said but all was understood; the Twins hadn’t moved but looked at him still.

     There was a slight creak in his mouth. With his tongue he gently prodded the upper left teeth, barely touching them before a loud crack resounded in his head. Opening his mouth wide a cold rush of air hit his gums while the air in the room grew close and prickly, sticking the shirt to the middle of his back. A sense of slipping flowed through him and teeth fell into his outstretched fingers, almost three teeth in all but joined together with two long tapering roots. Although mainly intact the crowns were desiccated, honeycombed like bone that’s been adrift for too long. And the fang-like roots were pointed up in sharp accusation, loaded with past guilt, the guilt he’d felt as a child when one of his front milk teeth had hung by a thread from his gums and he’d been too scared to yank it out. His parents had cajoled and nagged and had told him to but he couldn’t. And he wouldn’t let anyone near him either, he couldn’t be touched. Eventually he’d been given a piece of fudge so that the sticky sweetness would distract him and extract the tooth but there were still tears. They’d been poor; it was only after he’d finished off the fudge that he was told it had been his Mother’s last piece. He was made to feel like a thief.

     And now he looked down at the teeth in his hand and the twinned roots pointing up at him whispering thief, thief and the guilt, which had never left him, rose with a roar and whipped around him as though he was eight years old again. Eight years old and shouted at for not pulling his own tooth out, for having sugary breath and for behaving like a child.

     A staccato cough made him spin round, teeth in hand, for behind him, in the doorway, stood a woman dressed in hospital white. I TOLD YOU NOT TO DO THAT BUT YOU INSISTED YOU KNEW IT WOULD HAPPEN I TOLD YOU IT WOULD YOU ONLY HAVE YOURSELF TO BLAME IT HAD TO HAPPEN WITH ALL THAT GREED. She looked like a rounder more institutional version of Madam Stiskey, possibly her sister, with dark brown hair and a softness to the face that could have been misconstrued as benevolence. Before leaving she ran her eyes across me to rest on the Twins. Mary, you’re such a slip of a girl. And left.

     Glee and laughter, which had not been heard before, enveloped the room with warm rosy fun as he swung one of the delighted children around by its ankles. In utter exuberance the child swung round and round and down, striking its head on the edge of the wooden step with a sharp clear sound. The laughter stopped. He let go of the child, broken. Physically it looked perfect, healthier in fact for its skin was flushed and pink rather than powdery and white. It lay there lifeless as though the power had been switched off and yet strangely looked more alive than it had before. But it didn’t work anymore. A thin trickle of blood wended its own little path across the grain and edged its way into the accommodating warmth of the salmon pink carpet. For a second the room screeched with silence, thick and preserved in an instant. But the sudden scream of the other infant punctured the vacuum-sealed moment and dissipated the air to nothing; reality flooded back in around him as the room, and the Twins, clicked violently back into focus.

      Lying flat and peering over the edge, he tried to see what was going on in the room below. He’d fled the kids’ bedroom before the first scream had ended, and had run through the house simply to give his body something to do while his mind grappled with what had just happened. Eventually he’d come to rest in a formal reception room and, short on options, had climbed up to what he thought was an internal balcony, over the main door. Fighting against vertigo it was only after he’d hauled himself up over the balustrade that he’d discovered that it was a fake balcony, an interior folly. But by then it was too late for a change of heart, or mind, for footsteps and voices crowded into the room below him. All he knew for certain was that he was hiding, but he needed more. Peering over the edge he tried to see what was going on.

     The Family were circling in the room below, restrained and embittered they pulled in together and stopped. And just for a moment, and despite the vertigo pumping in his skull high up above, for a moment a gentle quietness descended. ONE IS WORTHLESS THEY WERE A PAIR GODDAMIT A PAIR. The Family started to buzz and fly around the room, a familial gyre spinning out and in and out again with frenetic momentum. Only Madam Stiskey stood fast and sure at its eye. The room was richly decorated with French and Regency furniture, full-length gilt mirrors hung upon each wall. The colours of the room were various and strong although subdued by age and long dark velvet curtains hung where the windows should’ve been. Empty gold braid hung formally at their sides. On the floor was a brightly patterned rug with a table in its centre, adorned by a golden lamp with a green glass shade and a delicate silver pull-chain. From the height of his vantage point the whirling Family looked small and caricatured in their rococo stage-set; a diminutive murder-mystery drawing room that looked more like a spinning top from above. Amongst all the furore it seemed that the Father was angling for a little leniency, nothing soft you understand just enough so as to not make such a fuss, but Madam was barking for revenge. Nothing else would do; her child was broken and someone had to pay. That’s all there was to it: there’s a price to pay, a debt to be collected. Her child was broken. The wooden step was chipped. And the carpet was stained. Someone will pay. THAT CARPET WAS PRICELESS YOU KNOW AND NOW ITS RUINED RUINED FOREVER FATHER LEFT ME THAT I HAD TO PUT UP WITH HIM ALL THOSE YEARS I DESERVED THAT FUCKING CARPET AND NOW LOOK AT IT. And the Family flew in all directions, lashing through the heavy curtains that hid door-less doorways not windows and spread throughout the house.

I am to be hunted again.

     When the room was empty he tried to climb down. His vertigo thumped out a steady beat as he eased his legs over the railings and began to lower himself down. Still about fifteen feet off the ground his toes searched for purchase on the somewhat robust picture-rail, his legs floating free like a child’s on a swing pushed too high, flailing against air. It is always easier to climb up than it is to come back down. He managed to get both hands gripped around the base of the balustrade whilst standing tiptoed on the picture rail, and for a moment he was in control. Exposed but in control nonetheless. Whether he over stretched in an attempt to reach the top of the door frame with his right foot, or whether he awkwardly twisted the fingers on his left hand as he tried to descend, is all irrelevant now. The only thing of any consequence was that he fell; he slipped, for whatever reason, and he fell, pitching backwards into open air. And as Time is wont to do, one of those odd moments of clarity happened. Not as vision or revelation, not really something you could ever truly categorise as spiritual, but a moment that was at once fleeting and studied. Maybe it is at this point that some people experience what they describe as ‘life flashing before their eyes’, when they see dead relatives and past lovers, old homes, lost children and forgotten holidays all played out in photo-album-cum-flicker-book triteness. It may be near Death but it all sounds a long way from being revealing. But that didn’t happen here. Instead his moment of clarity, his elongated instant, was when he noticed the ceiling. Why? Probably because at that particular point in Time that was all he could see; the rest of the World was waiting behind him for his fall to end. The ceiling was off-white and papered with an embossed geometrical pattern of a square with four minaret shapes spreading out from each side, and in the middle of each square was an emblematic rose that reminded him of a shield boss from an Illustrated Children’s Encyclopædia that he’d read when he was young. Linked and repeated, the pattern spread from the corner of one eye to the corner of the other. The ceiling paper had obviously been pasted over the old cracked plasterwork below it for there was a network of raised ridges that wove like tributaries, like humid veins across his entire flat field of vision. Slowly he traced the meandering course of one of the papery arteries as it wove amongst the roses and minarets until it finally disappeared under a cornice. And it was then that he continued with his fall.

     His skull beat his body to first impact by striking the edge of a wooden step a fraction of a second before the rest of him hit the wooden floor. There wasn’t any pain. There was only cold, not even nausea showed up as the cold flooded in as quickly as the air rushed out. But now he couldn’t see the ceiling anymore and for some reason this bothered him. He missed it. Instead he slowly, and with immobile intensity, watched a thin trickle of blood crawl past his eyes and soak greedily into the soft rug that he’d just missed. His eyes rolled so that all he could see was the ceiling again as the rug continued to drink up his guiltily spilt blood. But the air was too thin and his lids were too heavy and the ceiling fled from his crime. Am I too old to cry? Another broken child (is that too much to claim?), and never enough to breathe. Starved in a bubble of neglected anorexic air he gladly closed his eyes.