There was a certain bubbling, a fizzing, beneath his feet. Below, he supposed, all their feet. A voltage, as yet unrealised. The sign of the difference that could emerge between the present and the future. Unfulfilled possibilities crackled and strained against some invisible barrier. Waiting to break open. To explode. And it was perhaps this that made the room appear brighter. Not too bright mind, no. Not too bright. At this point it was a pale, blurred yellow. Not yet vibrant. But maybe, oh maybe.
(When he was a child he would stay at his grandparent’s house. They lived in a grand old house with a beautiful staircase. Now, this staircase, almost serpentine in fashion, twisted and turned, was decorated with intricate carvings of beasts, lions and men, small letterings and symbols. And when he closed his eyes and (maybe when in bed, just before sleep) looked back and back, he could just see some etchings, some Latin, or language equally unintelligible, but then when they were forced open once again what was left in their place? Sometimes, late at night he would creep down this staircase. Creak by creak he descended, to the basement, to the study. His grandfather’s study. And as he did the staircase spiralled. A faint glow could be seen. From around the corner, the next corner, from the study; it grew brighter. Goosebumps would dance across his skin at the thrill. Hair on end; in his mind he was the explorer, the soldier. Then revealed – the study’s lights in full and in the centre a silhouette. His grandfather, grandmother, stranger, mother, father? At the last minute he would retreat, scurrying back up to his bed. He would barely sleep after these explorations, guilt and regret would churn in his stomach. And now in moments of solitude his thoughts would return to that staircase, unable to put his finger on what it was that had made him turn back.)
The excitement was palpable. To him at least. But let’s be honest work needed to be done. The room was dulled silver; it lay concealed below a faint but surely perceptible layer of dust. Damp was creeping outwards from the corner.
(He must have been nine or ten? When they set up a stage at his school. Walking into the assembly hall that morning, to see the long planks of wood, some nails, a stranger with a hammer. And being chased out by Mr Jones (or was it James?). This was no place for him. Except of course, it was. Now perhaps some schools had a stage everyday (his secondary school did, but that wasn’t anything special, meant nothing, just was). But this school was small, and to have a stage (why? Why was there a stage? Just to wonder, or to imagine was half of it; the shiver that sent a tremble through his legs) meant something. He returned at every opportunity to monitor the progression of this stage. At first to the door itself, now closed. Off limits. The explorer, the soldier once more, rekindled, reborn, the possibility re-examined he would creep onwards to his spyglass – the keyhole. The door was old and large. The keyhole provided the perfect opening for his little eyes to peer through, for him to gaze upon his stage. His stage which grew with every minute. Then darkness. He almost cried out in a sort of juvenile agony when it fell across his vision, but before he could the door swung open. Mr James (or was it Jones?) looking down at him, arm outstretched and finger pointing. Leave. Red faced our explorer submitted, left slowly, hands in pockets, grumbling to himself (possibly only within his own head), but he left nonetheless. And he sulked. Oh how he sulked. So alone, so misunderstood. How could they not understand? But then how could they? He was him and they… well they weren’t. The ringing bell woke him. Break was over? He realised that his wonderings had lasted for what must have been at least 4 or 5 minutes. Playtime wasted with his needless sulking. He blamed Mr Jones or Mr James. Lessons dragged. And then it was over and he was outside and the stage was there again. However, with the keyhole now watched another plan was needed. Looking around he saw a friend trailing behind a larger group of children as they walked around the building. He frowned for a few moments, then flushed. Of course. The window. On the other side of the building there were a couple of windows that looked directly into the hall. Onto the stage. He recalled how he had pressed his face against that old door, how he had almost let out a little cry just before it had opened. And he felt like a fool. The sudden rush of embarrassment that accompanied these sorts of situations always caught him by surprise. It was as if there was a moment of exhilaration, a slight soaring. Then with clipped wings a plummet, swallowed by your own gut, a glistening of sweat and hard unblinking eyes. It was all quite silly really. No-one had watched him, no-one had mocked him. Yet still his face reddened. As time passed his breathing eased. His sweat evaporated. His heart pumped slower, steady. Perhaps it was not as bad as all that.)
The group he was chatting with had grown. At first there had been himself (of course), the two friends he had come with and another who was already at the party when they arrived. The conversation had been pleasant. Now, with the pack circling, he had become quiet. Smiling he left to pour another drink. As he walked to the kitchen he hesitated, turned around and head upstairs instead. There was a queue for the toilet.
(He turned the corner, around the building. There was a crowd of children at both sets of windows. Clambering and climbing to watch the creation of his stage. His stage. His stage? And was it? He had felt, with a certainty beyond his nine years, that it was his stage. Specifically and uniquely. Now there was this doubt, perhaps it was not his, not anybody’s. Something to share, to stand on with others. And what did this mean, was it a terror or a comfort? Or both? Simultaneously. Contrasting. A duality of thought (not thought, something deeper. Feeling. Instinct?). He pushed his way through the little crowd, mumbling an apology here and there as he squeezed past his friends and classmates. And there he stood. Just looking. The others left, in twos or threes, until it was only him and the window and the stage.)
The guy in front of him was very drunk. All grins and slurred words. There was some nonsensical conversation between the two of them, and then it was over and the drunk guy was in the toilet. Waiting outside he smiled at the girl behind him. She smiled back. The bathroom door rattled. The drunk guy had locked himself in. Everybody laughed.
(The stage was complete in all its somewhat amateur glory. Despite its imperfections it was, to him, a masterpiece of engineering and construction. During assembly he would make sure to sit in the front row so that he was facing it with no one in-between. As the teacher or vicar stood on the stage making their little speeches he could stretch out his legs and run his foot along its splintered edge. There was to be a Christmas show. A big show. Or at least bigger than usual. Of course there was a show every year, but this year there was a stage. And that was something. Each class had a different performance. He had a part. Well, everyone had a part, and in some ways his part was no different to anyone else’s. Except of course it was. Some people in his class (not everyone, and this was important) had written stories. Little stories, or maybe poems, about Christmas or winter. And then some people in his class (not everyone, and this was important) had been chosen to read their stories or poems on the stage. In front of everyone. And he was one of these people. And that meant something.)
He didn’t really need the toilet. He just sat down for a few minutes. Whilst sitting he took out his phone and skimmed an article. There were some scales in the corner so he weighed himself. He washed his hands, tussled his hair, looked in the mirror, and opened the door. It was noisy out there. He smiled at the girl again as they walked past each other. She smiled back. People are generally friendly. Sometimes he worried that he wasn’t friendly. That didn’t seem right. He was. But he was also tired. And these things, these parties. Well they can just push a tired person past that point. Past that point where, yeah, we’re tired but we’re also riding the crest of a wave; we’re just at that age where we can squeeze through those cracks like we couldn’t before, but not so old that the space between those edges seem so vast and empty that there’s nothing left to do or think except contemplate something that isn’t quite brushing up against you yet, but one day, oh yes one day (of course he knew that it wasn’t like this, and when we get small and grey we’re not really small and grey; it’s something you pretend to think when you’re on the top of that wave. But you don’t actually believe it). He was past that point. He was tired.
(The show was progressing nicely. His class were waiting in a side room, the door just ajar so one could peek through to watch the performance and (perhaps more importantly) the audience. His eyes flicked continually between the two. Save for the moments he glanced down at his story. The paper looked so scrappy now. The ink slightly smudged. Sweaty hands (a slight soaring. Plummet. Gut). Crumpled and crumpling. Tentative whispers from his classmates silenced by hissing teachers. This was an important event and rules were to be obeyed after all. The songs and poems and dancing and tripping feet were to be respected. Silence. Not silence. His tinny voice couldn’t carry. Surely not. Absolute silence and his voice. Oh god, his words. Sweaty hands smudging ink. Crumpled paper. This was important. Yes. Not now. Calm down. Itch on his back that he couldn’t reach. This shirt. It restricted, confined. There was some faint dampness on his forehead. Wipe away, but can’t stop it. Sweaty hands. Snakes hissed. Quiet now Mr Jones can’t you see now isn’t the time. Well he’s on last, front row on account of (now, this is important) his reading. Front row. Of all the stage. His entire body damp and attention fixed upon it. Onwards! Giddy parade towards the stage. And him waiting, last. Crumpled voice smudge faced and itched hands scratch at his throat, a gasp caught within. He cannot. His fists were tight around the tattered paper. No. He would not go. Snakes surrounded him. Okay, well. Maybe if he could just push forward, just a little and maybe just look and oh there’s the stage, just a little closer and turn and – oh god the audience full gaze monstrous beast. Plummet. Clipped wings, burnt. He froze at the door, choking on a strangled cry that came out a whimper. His hands were wet jelly. Heart, lips, eyes. Even his hair now tingled. Every aspect revealed. More than naked, his bowels churned for all to observe. Organs bulged out from his transparent skin. He had no secrets. The world watched, grasped his windpipe and squeezed. Up against this breathless terror you cannot succeed.)
The room exerted a pressure. It sweltered. The windows and doors all closed. The walls closing in even as he drank. Just another, he poured another. A wine, red. Not strictly his, but unattended as far as he could see for the best part of two hours. Even as he brought the glass to his lips he knew he did not want it. He finished it in one large gulp. He would regret that tomorrow no doubt. Yawning he turned, searching for his friends. Finding them he wandered over, and with a brief conversation let them know he was leaving. Too tired. Too late. Submerged in some wave. He was shaking his head. No no no. He really must go. He didn’t live too far away, and the air was light and cool. So he walked. The street before him tracked its way down a hill. An easy stroll past the park and lake. To the old cobbled steps and beyond. Home.
(Lying down across a sofa in some office. Was he carried or had he walked? Had he fallen? He felt sick. He felt small. A teacher stood next to him. Smiling. Someone else read his story apparently, gave him the credit of course. It was, you know, a good story. But it wasn’t the point. He felt sick. His parents were there soon. What happened? Hadn’t they seen? Everyone else had. The teacher gave him his paper. Crumpled, tattered, sweaty, smudged. He threw it in the bin. Tired, quite tired. Why? He hadn’t done anything. That was the problem. And would it always be? It was only a stage for goodness’ sake. False altar. Lifeless. But, not lifeless. Not false. Not today. Just think of the clumsy dancers, the singing. The little ones, the big ones. Even his story, but not him. He had left, unable to stand proud with his friends, and be a part of something shared, something private. For everyone and for him. His parents were chatting, rambling even. Perhaps he should talk more and think less. Gruff look from his father there. But a kind smile too. Let’s go home. Let’s forget, or try to, or learn, or probably not. And would that be it? And could he forget? And would he want to? And that evening. And the drive home. And the silent car. Tomorrow’s regret.)
Home. The cobbled ascent, each step. Yes each step. Each. Loud and light across the street. Another party continued. But each step was another and a reminder of. Something he supposed. Holding, pausing, looking back. A party continued across the street. A deep ache throbbed in his chest then spread outwards to his stomach. Early. It was, after all, early. And perhaps, again, too early. It was cool outside. Another weekend, and too early. Rise. Climb the steps. Climb, as before and as again. And each step, yes each step, it reminded him of something before, and each step was a reminder of this one, that is, well, many things. Each reminded him of another step. And each cobbled stone was an etching in Latin. And he realised and remembered. The explorer once more. The soldier. With a smile, he paused, breathing deeply. A lion roared somewhere in the past and he had shirked. Ache and breathe. He ached. The party continued. And he ached. Tomorrow’s regret. Or was it? Look backwards and forwards. Before the door, key in hand. He thought. He remembered that old staircase, and the fear and the descent, and the excitement and the nauseated gut, and how he had been seen and how of course he had been seen, and that old stage, and his story, and that door, and the door ajar, and frozen plummet, and burning shame, and tattered paper, and tonight, and the drink, and that girl smiled at him, and that wave, and leaving, and cool air, and tomorrow. And tomorrow was not regret, and it was not a strangled choke, not yet. It was a fizzing and a crackling, and it may not burst, and it may not burn. But it might. It might, and maybe.