He’d been here before. The stairs were spiralling up, out of sight. The journey to walk them exhausted him. No matter how much he exerted himself, he still found himself at the bottom of them. He continued and pushed on, but got nowhere. Each look above was greeted by the same scene of endless stairs, going up, up, up. He was out of breath and paused for a moment, he looked above, and then below. He’d made absolutely no progress. How was this even possible? He’d been climbing for hours now. The staircase was glimmering with a golden sheen under the moonlight.
Just as his body hit a wall of agony and pure exhaustion, he awoke. Sweat poured from his body. He was drenched. Another dream. The same dream in fact, that he had experienced since his teens.
Terry was, other than his reoccurring nightmare, a normal guy. He worked at the local tools outlet and spent his days advising clueless (usually female) customers in which glue would be most suitable for that furniture repair, or which paint for the damp bathroom ceiling. He found great enjoyment from his work. It wasn't a managerial position, and he’d always discerned that it wasn’t all it was cracked up to be anyway. He was happy enough.
When Terry had met the love of his life, he was on his hands and knees, helping a dear elderly customer pick up the screws and nails she‘d clumsily dropped onto the hard floor. Chloe had rushed over, to find a kind, older store worker already there, calming the lady down with his sincere words. Chloe found herself holding the dear lady’s hand, as Terry did the clearing up. The lady treated them both as if they’d literally just saved her life. So thankful she was, for their kindness.
Chloe had gone to walk away, but found herself hesitating. Struggling to know what to say, she produced a made-up scenario to which Terry would have to assist. Chloe had only gone into the store for a drill, but she came out with damp-proofing paint, and treatment for her garden shed. She’d spent a small fortune. And she’d forgotten to get a drill.
Chloes visits to the store became more frequent. They clearly experienced a “spark” between them, and a fairly short time later, they were happily married, with a large stock of every DIY product any woman could wish for.
Terry couldn’t explain his nightmares. His parents had unfortunately died, but he had one living brother who they saw occasionally. On having a heart scare in hospital, and being instructed to make some ”huge lifestyle changes” , Chloe felt this was the opportune time to have him over.
John dutifully helped Chloe load the dishwasher after the meal. Chloe then broached the subject. Johns demeanour immediately changed as Chloe explained what she knew of the dream, and how it affected Terry. She looked intently at him. He slouched a little. “I dont know for sure Chloe. But someone was injured in his class in Secondary school once. I think they were quite close. Maybe it’s something to do with it? But you mustn’t tell Terry I said anything ok?”
That night, the dream returned. Terry is there again. Same staircase. Same exhaustion and frustration as he pushes himself up and up, but gets nowhere. The glistening blinds him as he suddenly hears a voice. It’s John. “You did this Terry. You did this. One day you’ll pay for it”. Terry awakes suddenly. That’s never happened before. This time, Terry can’t get back to sleep, he tosses and turns for the rest of the night.
In the morning, John doesn’t stop long. He gratefully accepts a strong coffee and quick bagel, then sets off for home. Terry walks him to the door. “I heard you last night, you know” John whispers. “Maybe your subconscious is trying to tell you to make amends....” he quickly exits the house, not allowing Terry an opportunity to reply. He’s stunned. He can’t believe his brother has just said that. He stands, mortified. So John hadn’t forgotten.
Chloe knows something is wrong. “What’s wrong love?” She attempts to appear completely unaware of what may have been said. “I’m fine. It’s just...”, he hesitates. He takes a deep breath. “There’s something I’ve been putting off for a long time. And I think I need to, well, make it right”.
He walks, still stunned, through to the bedroom and reappears in his smart church clothes and an overnight bag packed. “Darling, I need you to just trust me. I promise everything’s fine. I’ll be back tomorrow. And I’ll tell you everything then, ok?” Terry kisses Chloe tenderly on the forehead. She says nothing. Terry senses her resignation and holds her face in his hands, “I love you”. Then he leaves.
Terry wasn’t entirely sure where to start. But he knew the principal at the school was still there. So, that was his starting point. He’s eventually ushered in to see the very elderly principal Mr Heeds. He recognised Terry after a few moments and seemed genuinely delighted to see his previous student. “Good grief boy, you’ve changed!” exclaimed Mr Heeds. Was he always this short? Terry had remembered him much taller. And straighter. And a bit scarier if truth be told. Terry intends to get straight to business.
Mr Heeds chuckles as they enjoy reminiscing times past. “Dreadful affair though, with that poor girl wasn’t it?” And there it was. Clara. Her name was Clara. “Have you any idea where she is now? I’d love to get in touch” Terry is almost stammering. For a few moments there is silence. “I think her Mum helps out at the homeless centre in town” he has a look of sadness on his face. After pleasant thank you’s and goodbyes, Terry waits around for over an hour, placed in reception. He muses over all the displays to pass the time until a secretary appears with a neatly produced folder, containing photocopied prom pictures and paper clips. ” I trust you will deal with this material delicately in your article” she states.
He abhors it here. Even after all these years, the school still had an stiff upper-lip air about it. He’d hated it then, and he hated it now. John, his brother, had rebelled from day one. Terry was more subservient, and preferred to keep a low profile. He kept his circle small and tried to stay as far away from John as possible.
Terry sat in his car for a while, unable to contain his emotions any more. Once he’d started crying he couldn’t stop. Once he’d flushed out every tear, he looked at himself in the rear view mirror. Man alive, he looked rough. He flicked through the folder and there she is, page 14, looking radiant, beautiful and ravishingly gorgeous. Clara.
Thanks to google maps, the homeless centre wasn’t difficult to find. It helped that he’d actually met Clara’s Mum, albeit briefly when he’d collected Clara that night, although his gaze was transfixed elsewhere. She was a single Mum and crying with tears of pride when her daughter stepped carefully down the stairs, in a beautiful golden yellow evening gown.
Entering the homeless centre wasn’t a pleasant experience. He wished hed changed before coming here, why hadn’t he thought of this? He headed for the soup kitchen and apologised for interrupting, but did anyone know where Mary was? The kitchen was fairly chaotic, but one lady looks up. “She‘s out the back, on her break” the lady points to the back of the kitchen, the door open. “Thank you”, Terry offers. He wants to stay and help out, but he’s got to get this over with, so he can get back to Chloe and move on with life again.
Mary is sat on the step outside the kitchen, smoking a cigarette. Her face is wrinkled, worn and tired. Mary recognises him. “My goodness me, look what the cat brought in!” Mary struggles to her feet, stubs out her cigarette and gives Terry a big squeeze. He’s so moved by her affection he’s overcome, yet again, by tears. “I’m so sorry” he sobs, “I’m so sorry I didn’t stay in touch with her.” She squeezes even harder. She knows he’s sorry. He was just a lad. “I’m pleased you came” Mary finally speaks.
They sit together on the steps and do the usual small- talk. So, where do you live now? Are you married? What do you do for work? Any kids? Then it was Terrys turn. This was his chance to start to set matters straight. He needed to know where Clara was now. He needed to see her face to face, to hold her, to say sorry- for everything, all of it- for being a rotten friend for never calling, and somehow explaining why he hadn’t, although he knew no amount of explaining would condone his lack of presence. Where was she now? Was she married with children? He hoped so. They’d be just as beautiful as her. Her house would likely be perfect, just like her. He just yearned for her to know how sorry he was.
He hadn't realised, but Mary had stopped talking and he’d been deep in thought for several moments. So, how was Clara these days?
Mary looked stunned and hurt. “Terry- how could you say that?” Terry was confused. He was clearly taken aback. Mary started crying. “The funeral’s on Wednesday, you know that, right?”
For a moment, Terrys world collapses and he falls to the ground. Everything goes black.
He awakes to kitchen staff crouched around him. “You fainted love,” Mary states, “here, have some of this.” Terry is handed a plastic cup with juice inside it. “At least he’s getting his colour back” one of the ladies exclaims. Once feeling himself again , Mary says shes finished her shift now so has got to get home. Terry, still feeling a bit woozy but detirmined to find out more, offers Mary a lift home. She shrugs and agrees, walking with him to his car.
His gleaming BMW looks extremely out of place here. Mary is almost embarrassed to climb inside it. Terry automatically starts heading towards the house he remembers from his teens. Mary quickly redirects him. “We didn’t stay there long” she explains. They leave the outskirts of the town and move closer towards the inner city. They pass parks, with gangs of youths gathered in, on top and around all the graffitied playing equipment. There’s loud music blaring ,colourful speech, smoke billowing from every corner and everyone looks suspicious. As Mary directs Terry around the tiny, cramped roads, his heart sinks further and further. They eventually stop at a cluster of high-rise buildings. Mary thanks him for the lift and hesitates before getting out. “I’d invite you up, but,” she just looks at him and then looks out there at the flats in front of them. He understands. He is rather fond of his car after all.
Terry has to ask. How? Why? What happened? Mary sinks back into her very comfortable, leather seat and closes the door quietly. “After the accident,” She begins, Terry senses beads of sweat appearing on his face, “she had to be in hospital for a long time. She had to learn to walk again. Her back was broken in several places, as well as her legs and one hip. We almost lost her several times.” She pauses, her lips trembling. “I lost my job as I had to take several months off work to be with her in hospital. And even when she was finally able to come out, the council could only house me here and there’s no workin‘ lifts. So, she got hooked on her pain meds and then worse stuff, and met up with some bloke who worked at the hospital, and she just went from bad to worse.” Mary was now shivering and holding herself in an attempt to ease some of the emotional pain. It wasn’t working.
She stopped. Terry feared she’d maybe never said all this out loud to anyone. “She disappeared from the hospital one day and no-one knew where she was. Then she turned up at the homeless centre. One of my friends volunteered there and told me. So, I started working here, just to see her and check she was Ok. She never let me help, she never let me do anythin. She wanted to be left alone. And then...” Mary gulped. Terry, by now is holding her arm and tears are literally gushing down his face, unable to take it all in. “Then she couldn’t take it anymore.” Terry looked at her. Surely she wasn’t saying what he thought she was saying? “She thought it was poetic justice. To end her life the same way it kinda ended it before. She threw herself down the stairs at the hospital. She left a note on her. It was to me.” She reaches inside her bag to her purse and brings out a worn but well-kept folded piece of paper.
Terry can’t breath, let alone talk. Mary places the note carefully back inside inside her purse, closes her bag and exits the car. She turns and puts her hand on Terrys shoulder. “I do...forgive you” and gently closes the door behind her.
Terry watches as she walks past all the kids and the noise. All he can hear is his heart pounding in his chest.
His brain takes him straight back to that fateful night. He can see Clara as clear as day at the top of the golden staircase. He’d returned with cocktails for them both and was impressed at himself as he managed to climb the stairs, holding two drinks and still holding his gaze on the most beautiful vision he’d ever seen. He couldn’t believe she had said yes to him. He was a no-body. And she was an angel. Just as the glistening array of golden and white lights fill the room, he sees him: John. The joy immediately replaced by anger, as he sees John wink directly at him from above, and kiss Clara. She doesn’t stop him, or pull away, she kisses him back and they embrace passionately. The next few seconds happen, it seems, in slow motion, as he runs past the top step and throws himself at John, glass smashing into the ground and starts punching. John falls back and consequently knocks Clara off her feet. She stumbles over the top of the edge and falls to the marble flooring below them. Both brothers look at each other in shock. Terry goes to run down the stairs, but John grabs his arm and yanks him away “you’ve got to go” he shouts. Terry looks back- her body laying lifeless in a pool of blood. “GO!!” He screams and pushes Terry through the door to the other side of the hallway. Terry stands alone in the empty room, supposedly off bounds to students. He hears the screams and shouting. All Terry can see is her lying there, in his mind and cannot remove that image. He stays in the room, stunned, for what feels like hours until John returns for him.
That night, everyone that was there was questioned. Clara was rushed to hospital and the students were informed in assembly the next day that she was in a critical condition, in a coma and all contact was to be checked through the principal first. Terry and John never spoke about it ever again. Until last night. Over 30 years later.
Terry starts driving. He needs to get away and out. But from what? From where? The demons in his head were causing the pain, not the street. How could he ever escape what he’d done? It was his fault and his alone that her life was irreparably changed because of his anger, jealousy, stupidity. He’d married Chloe who thought he was a good man. But he wasn’t. And now not only was he good for nothing scum for never telling anyone the truth about what happened, or even attempting to stay in touch or explain or apologise- but now he’d also killed her. Because of him, her life went down the drain. All her hopes and aspirations, dead along with her on that fateful night. He was the worst person he’d ever known.
He sends a text message, against all advice, whilst driving, to his dear wife. He didn’t deserve her. She’d never forgive him and why would she?
He accelerates and drives over the edge of the bridge. As he falls he sees Clara’s face. She holds out her arms to welcome him to the darkness of the watery depths.