For many years, maybe longer than I care to remember, I've stood sentinel at the bottom step, biding my time until I too will put my foot upon the staircase. The waiting has taken its toll on me, I'm fifty years older than my death and my body has aged beyond the point of my passing. But time stretches out before me, slowly unwinding itself until the moment when I feel I can forgive. But there are knots in its cord, little trickery's that tighten and weave in on themselves, slowing everything just when I think I have a clear run to the end.
I've watched them all, some dressed in the finest clothes, some so poor they appear naked but for a blanket about their shoulders, but most wearing the threads and regret of their final day. It's not my job to judge, I'm no critic or arbiter, I'm just the gateman assigned to facilitate their passage to a better place, where the guilt will fade within their withering flesh and where repentance will be offered as their key to eternity.
The wealthy offer me coins thinking in some way that I might be able to alter their destiny or lighten the scars of their death, but here they are all the same. There are struggles and fights, some won't go without resisting the pull of the staircase, they think because I guard the way I can pass opinion on the choices that brought them here. They think maybe I can pull the string of time tightly so that the knots and curls straighten the very way they want them to, but I can't. I'm here just to calm their panic and soothe their troubled souls as they look up towards the swirling clouds that will lay rest to grievance and calm their anxious minds.
So I keep waiting for them to emerge from the cool mist with bewilderment and fear upon their faces, and I try to give them the best of me. I know how to listen, and there's always listening to be done, as the confusion of their journey finally shakes their voices free from the quiet wrap of death. Mostly what they want is reassurance, and I can listen calmly with an occasional smile and a nod of the head, or I can be silent and still. Whatever I think will suit them best to help carry their troubled souls upwards to the heavens.
There are those whose lives have been taken from them, their resentment causes the steps to shimmer and then fade away into the sky leaving them with little choice but to unburden their hearts to the wind. I have to watch them scratch their wounds as they rerun the endless, punishing loop of memory through their minds until, finally they too begin to understand. Sometimes they look down upon their own bodies wondering if they've been mistaken for someone else and that there's been some terrible mistake.
Often I see them emerge from the haze shaking their heads and moaning soft words of regret, their faces pinched with the torture of their deeds. Those are the ones I know will make the journey, the pain of remorse softening with each act of recognition. And only then will the steps become solid enough to bear the passage of their souls.
But there are those that need more than just the honesty of self-acceptance. I see their pain and the secrets that lie beneath the callused skin of denial, and I know that they will never pass unless they seek my approval. I have to hear all their words and thoughts until I have convinced myself that they are ready to unlearn themselves.
The swirling mist thins to reveal the profile of a man that moves so slowly it's almost as if he's a part of the shadows, but there's something about the deliberation of his step that disturbs me. The lilt of his head, the slope of his shoulders and the cadence of his gait, all elements of a whole that I recognise. He brushes his coat and looks at the back of his hands as if trying to find the memory of who he was. For a brief moment I feel a pulse of anger as he stares at me through the fog trying to understand where he is and who I am. I welcome him to the staircase and watch his face closely as I wait for his confession.
He tells me about the businesses he's owned, the houses he's lived in and the riches he's accumulated throughout his busy life. He talks of his wife and the family that he rejected for a string of lovers that stripped him of his wealth and his dignity. Quite unusually, I feel a thin sliver of contempt when I hear his words, something I've never experienced before. Maybe it's time for me to move on as well, maybe my tolerance for such things has worn.
But my job is not to judge or condemn, I'm here to help and I decide to let patience guide the way, some people have more to admit than others.
The man deliberately looks at his watch to make me aware of his impatience, and then he sighs as if the situation he's found himself in is nothing more than an irritation. I let him talk some more. He clears his throat and begins to unload his thoughts.
"I admit, I made some dubious business deals," he continued, "but at the time I thought there was nothing more important than making money and so I just kept promising too much, I lied to them, of course I did, but hey, that's business right?"
His voice is pitched slightly high and feels over-precise in its enunciation. I wait for him to acknowledge his guilt.
"I had affairs, too many for me to remember, but who hasn't?" he said. "I lied to my wife but what she didn't know couldn't hurt, right?"
I nod my head several times to try in the gesture to show I understand, it's a ploy I've used countless times. He drops his gaze and runs his hands through his hair.
"There are other things as well," he adds.
I wait for him to lift his head and look at me.
"My son past away when he was barely six years old, an accident on the lake, he drowned."
I feet a faint, brief inner disturbance, like the tightening of some neglected muscle. Now I realise I am at the limits of my skill, my concern and compassion stretched beyond anything I've experienced before.
"The boat overturned and he, well he went under, he went under the water, in the lake. There was nothing I could do, I wasn't there, there was nothing I could do."
If I didn't know he was lying I wouldn't have noticed it. The way he presents his explanation as well-established fact makes me sure his certainty and confidence have been rehearsed many times. Lies embedded so deeply they've become the truth.
"I went into the water, but it was too late, it was too late, he'd gone." He lowers his voice and continues. "I told everyone it was a horrible accident, the boat must have turned over, nobody could have saved him, it must have happened so quickly."
The man looks at me intently and for a few moments he's silent, as if he's reading my thoughts. I hold his gaze trying with my eyes to tell him that his words haven't convinced me. In that faint click of connection I invite him to admit to himself that there might be some more to the story. I smile and wait.
The man shouts at me.
"Everything's a mistake, my life cannot be written like this!"
I look towards the staircase.
"If only I could retrace my steps everything would be different, I know they would."
I think he's finally beginning to know what fear feels like now, it's spreading inside him, loosening everything he thinks is safe and secure. I sense a risk that he'll either become overwhelmed by weariness, or trapped in the paralysis of self-pity. And so I wait again.
"I admit to the lies I've told everyone throughout my wretched life. I'm sorry, is that what you want me to say to you, is it?"
I don't know what to say because I feel nothing at all. I don't speak, not because I'm speechless, but simply because I feel nothing at all. In the past, when a confession has reached this point, I will start to talk. It's the only way to force the guilt into something more tangible. Sometimes I try to piece together the bits of their life to make them acknowledge the indisputable wisdom of remorse. But now I feel scared of the repercussions.
He stares up at the clouds and wipes the tears from his eyes.
"I shouldn't have lied to my wife, it was wrong, and I wish she could hear me admit my mistakes."
But we both know he had peered into the pit, into the mire of lies that has lain undisturbed for many years. It had frightened him, it had frightened us both.
"Tell me about the boy and the boat?" I ask.
"What more is there to tell, I've explained everything?"
I tell him not to worry, that the truth will allow him to climb the staircase and to realise the true meaning of peace. I sense that he's on the verge of articulating something important, but then, remembering that it might touch on the delicate subject of his sons passing I worry that he's changed his mind. Again I steer him towards the opportunity to rid himself of the thing that has plagued his life, but he stares past me towards the stairs. We both know about the lie that's lodged deep beyond examination and awareness. We both know that the responsibility for the event was entirely his, and if he can't find the easy words to bring it out from the depths of his soul the defeat will be entirely his too.
"I need to hear more," I say.
There's a widening, panicky surprise in his eyes now.
"Tell me about the boy," I ask again.
He sits down, pulls his knees up to his head and puts his face into his hands. I can hear him sobbing so I sit next to him and put my hand on his shoulder, I suspect this simple, innocent act of kindness will soften his resolve, maybe even help him to understand. He lifts his head, wipes his eyes with the back of his hand and blows a steady stream of breathe from between his pursed lips.
"It was a hot day and there was no wind, it was completely still, that's why I decided to take the boat out. Just the two of us fishing, both of us together, nobody else. You see I wanted to make it up to him, all the time I'd spent working, all the time I'd spent away from home. I was making money for the three of us, so we could be happy. All I wanted was for us to be happy, do you understand that, do you? Well it's the truth!"
"I kept thinking about the future, making and saving money, lying to people so I could make more money, lying to friends, colleagues, business partners, I lied to all of them. But I did it for us you must understand, you must. I wanted the day to come when we could be happy together, I wanted it so badly I'd do anything to make it happen. It became an obsession, this happiness thing."
"So we went out in the little boat and a breeze got up, just a little puff of wind at first, but then it became stronger, like a kind of a squall, and the boat started to rock about. I told him not to worry and that we should row back to the shore so we could fish from the bank instead but the wind was blowing the water into waves and the boat started to sway about. I leant over to make sure the fishing rods were secure and the boat tipped right over, not all that far, it just moved with the weight of me, that's all. And the next thing I know is he's in the water and I'm leaning over to pull him out, and then the boat flipped so it was upside down. I'm holding on to the upturned hull and looking around for him but I could see his head disappearing under the water and then he'd come back up spluttering and coughing. I felt underneath for the buoyancy aid but it had come loose, then it suddenly popped up from under the boat and I clung on to it. By then I was in a complete panic, and so was my boy, but I held on to the float so that I could get my breath. He shouted at me to grab his arm but I was too busy saving myself. He was thrashing about in a panic and I thought he'd sink the both of us because the float's only small and it wouldn't be able to support us, so I watched him scream and then he was gone. I waited for him to surface again so I could pull him towards me, but all I could see was the upturned boat and the white tips of the rough water. He didn't come back up and so I paddled to the shore using the float to keep my face out of the water. And then I just lay there for ages until I could breathe again."
I take my hand from his shoulder and look up to the clouds. I know he's waiting for my attention to turn back to him but I can't find it in myself to look at his face or say anything.
"For fifty years I never told anyone the truth. I stuck to my plan you see, for all those years. I told them that he'd gone out on his own without me knowing and the wind got up and he capsized with the boat and drowned. I told them I found the upturned boat by the shore an hour later. And I told them he'd gone. But now you know what happened, now you know. Of all the unspeakable lies I've told in my life, that's the worst, that's the one that hurts the most. I thought I had it all, but I had nothing."
I look at the man and find the strength to force a smile. He slumps down on to his haunches and starts to cry again, this time great heaving sobs escape him, and his body shakes with the strain of everything he's admitted.
For a second I think about explaining how the process of confession and acceptance works, and about the power of remorse. Then he turns and smiles at me, his face is old and worn with pain and his eyes are wet from a lifetime of guilt and shame. He begins to talk but this time his voice is softer, more polite. I can smell a faint trace of cologne and something earthy, like dried mud. A little silver button on his jacket pocket captures the light and glitters.
"I'm scared," he says, and for a second he looks puzzled.
I search inwardly for the appropriate emotion, but I can't deceive myself, and so I just accept everything he's told me with all the grace and compassion I can muster.
"Don't worry," I say, "we'll do this together, we've waited long enough."
The staircase reforms itself in front of us, and as we join hands my father looks into my eyes. I see a spark of recognition in his face, and I think he's finally realised who I am.