The Stranger on the Stair: A Christmas story in six parts
Sunday 22 December 2013
By DJ Taylor
On the south side of Eccleston Square half the street lamps had failed, and the darkness, welling up around the area steps and the unclaimed dustbins had a peculiar, Mirkwood-like denseness. The white-robed Jesus that for the past three weeks had perched atop the Christmas tree in the window of the Catholic Truth Society was listing dangerously to one side and, trying to examine it, his foot slipped off the pavement edge into three inches of coal-black sludge. None of this, he thought, augured well. But then Christmas itself was not a time that augured well, either for their individual selves or the tribute they imagined they owed each other. Their first Christmas had been spent with Amanda’s parents, the week before Mr Marjoribanks had been taken away.
The one after that had involved a teetotal guest-house in Rhyl. This year they were going to Amanda’s sister in Cambridge.
There was a light burning on the second floor. This was unexpectedly reassuring. It meant that at least Amanda was on the premises, might even have bathed, packed, have taken the car and put some petrol in it.
As he negotiated the steps to the front door (who had fixed the wreath on the knocker? It hadn’t been him, or Amanda, or Mrs Hardy in Flat B. Perhaps it was the mysterious Levantine gentleman on the top floor), his phone buzzed. The text, unhappily, was one of Sullivan’s best performances, possibly the best ever. It said simply: “EY want pitch.”
Sooner not later. He keyed in the reply with his right hand as he forced open the door with his left. And a Merry Xmas to U2.
The hall was much as he had left it: wide; cavernous; poorly lit. On the window ledge lay letters addressed to people who had quit the building decades before. But there was also human traffic. He heard the sound of her breathing before he saw her: a thin, pale girl with a kind of tea-cosy on her head, sitting half-way up the first staircase with gloved hands clasped over denimed knees.
“What are you doing?” he asked, just about politely.
“Waiting for someone.”
“Well don’t wait too long,” he said, reassured by her voice, which appeared to have come straight from the mistresses’ common room at Cheltenham Ladies’ College.
Amanda was standing by the open door. “I didn’t have time to get the petrol,” she said, “and I promised Santa I’d bring the Bacofoil and some chestnuts. You’ll have to go to the mini-mart and get some.”
It took him a moment to remember that Santa was not the presiding spirit of tomorrow’s gift orgy, but Amanda’s sister. k
There was nothing for it. There never was. He put down his briefcase, limbered up a little, like an athlete awaiting the starting gun, and plunged off down the staircase. The girl shimmied to let him pass. As he barrelled along the side of Eccleston Square Gardens, another text hummed in. “How r u fixed 4 Boxing Day brainstorm?”
When he got back – there had not been any chestnuts but he made do with a tub of brandy butter – the girl had gone but, through the open door, he could hear the sound of Amanda’s voice raised in animated conversation…
By Jenn Ashworth
‘You must leave,” Amanda was saying. “He’ll be back any minute.”
“What if I don’t want to?”
“Don’t make a fuss. I’ve told you what he’s like. We’ll sort this when we get back.”
He hesitated, convincing himself it wasn’t possible to eavesdrop on the threshold of your own flat; the place was his – he could loiter here for as long as he liked with impunity, surely? And anyway, he wasn’t loitering, merely unbuttoning his coat and kicking off his muddied shoes so as not to tramp dirt through the hallway. He crept in, leaving his briefcase and brandy butter by the front door.
Amanda wasn’t the type to be conducting an extra-marital affair: she’d no doubt consider the subterfuge entirely undignified and hilariously middle-class. Her style would be to inform him, over some inedible lentil-and-chickpea concoction at a terrible vegan café, that they were now having an open marriage, and did he mind if she invited Marcus – no – Mario around for a long weekend at the end of the month? And anyway – he bristled – what was he like? He was at the door that led into the kitchen, about to burst in, when the second voice murmured again. He didn’t catch the words, but he caught the tone all right – self-pitying and whiny. Someone walked across the tiled floor. A cupboard door opened and closed.
“Don’t be like that.” Amanda was brisk, confident. As if she were speaking to a child. “Here, take a key. You can use the place while we’re at Santa’s. Watch the television. There’s a box of wine in the fridge. Help yourself. He’ll never notice.”
“It’s not the same.” The voice was female – high-pitched and sulky, the recalcitrant tones of a teenager. He grasped the door handle, felt a hand on his shoulder, and nearly jumped out of his skin. Sullivan?
“Ah, there you are! I was going to knock, but the door was open…” Mrs Hardy clasped his arm and tugged him towards her.
“I wouldn’t usually. I know you’re always so busy. But,” she pulled him away from the door to the kitchen (a sudden silence descended in there; he couldn’t help but feel Amanda and her guest were listening) and along the hallway, out of the flat, talking to him all the while, cajoling and flattering. “No, no need to slip your shoes back on dear, it will only take a minute. Bring your briefcase, if you must. A light bulb. It seems to be stuck. I wouldn’t ask, only no one wants to spend Christmas sitting in the dark, do they?”
He was about to protest but Mrs Hardy had managed to propel him along the hall and into her flat. She pushed the door closed and locked it.
“You can’t be too careful,” she said, “can you? There are always people drifting in from outside, hanging around the stairwells. Have you noticed?”
She didn’t wait for him to answer, but picked up a bottle from the coffee table and brandished it at him. All talk of the light bulb seemed to have been forgotten – and indeed, the place was illuminated brightly, every lamp and light in the place shining.
By Dan Rhodes
“No thank you,” he said, putting up a hand in protest against the approaching bottle. “I’ve got a lot to be getting on with.” She poured him a glass anyway. Dismayed by his own weakness, he sat in an antimacassared armchair, wished her a merry Christmas and took a sip.
It was, of course, sweet. He tried not to pull a face.
“I don’t know how you can drink that stuff,” she said, pulling a face of her own. “I won that bottle in a raffle.”
He felt glad to have alcohol in his system, though. By the second sip his palate was attuned to the sugary assault, and before he knew it his glass was empty, and being refilled. He allowed himself another.
Why not? Not one to ever miss an opportunity to emasculate him, Amanda had insisted that she would be the one to drive.
“Knock it back,” said Mrs Hardy. “I need to make space in my cupboard, and trust me – you need a drink.”
She was right, he thought. The only way to get through a weekend with Santa was to drink, and here he was, getting a head start. This Christmas was going to be the opposite of Rhyl. Santa! He wondered why it had taken the men in white coats so long to take Mr Marjoribanks away; naming your daughter after Father Christmas was surely a solid hint that all was not well.
Another, larger, glass of sherry came and went. With each one the drama unfolding in his own flat slipped further away, and when there was a knock on the door he was ready to greet Mrs Hardy’s acquaintance with festive bonhomie. She answered, and moments later was back holding a parrot in a cage.
“Meet Popkin,” she said. “I’m taking him in for a relative who’s going away. I have a feeling you two will get along rather well.”
“Tosser,” squawked the parrot.
“Did that parrot just call me a…?”
“I’m afraid so. Naughty Popkin,” she admonished.
“Naughty Popkin,” parroted the parrot.
So his social life had come to this. His high spirits deflated, and his thoughts returned to Amanda and her whining companion. He was going to walk in there like a man, like Sullivan would, and demand a full explanation. Gone was the sap who would be pecked into running for chestnuts, or come to grief while examining lopsided Jesus puppets. He said his goodbyes to Mrs Hardy and strode purposefully down the hallway in his socks, briefcase in one hand and almost-empty sherry bottle in the other.
When he got to his flat he saw that the brandy butter was still there. He awkwardly picked it up, then opened the front door. When he saw who was in his hall, he said, “Hello.” Not the way Sullivan would have said it, but the way he would have said it, when he was quite drunk and not sure what to think. The brandy butter fell from his grip, and splatted out of shape on the floor.
“Honestly,” snapped Amanda. “I send you out for chestnuts and you come back in this state.”
But he was not looking at Amanda.
By John Walsh
He was looking at the girl. And wondering where he’d seen her before.
Without her tea-cosy hat, she was transformed from the waif he’d seen on the stairs into a pre-Raphaelite beauty. An explosion of red curls framed her pale, pretty face. Her blue eyes were wide and startled.
Without her anorak, her slender frame, in a cashmere sweater and tight jeans, drew his enraptured gaze. But so did the tiny beauty spot above her right eyebrow that stirred a faint, ugly memory.
“I’m not in any state,” he said defensively, aware that, in his stockinged feet, he must look comical. “I was merely visiting Mrs–” k
“Is this sherry?” asked Amanda derisively. “You’ve started drinking sweet sherry on Christmas Eve?” How hilariously middle-class, her tone implied. How uproariously middle-aged, too. Only three years into a marriage, and her husband was showing signs of irredeemable naffness.
“Aren’t you going to introduce me?” he said, looking round for somewhere to put his briefcase. When he turned back, it was clear that a brief, guilty look had passed between them.
“This is Maggie Toogood,” said Amanda. “We met at life-drawing class in Flood Street.”
“Hi,” said the girl. “I was passing by and thought I’d drop in to pay my seasonal compliments.”
Inside the flat, the telephone shrilled. Amanda went to answer it.
He looked at the girl. God, he thought, she is sensationally pretty. But the tiny beauty spot bothered him. He was sure he’d seen this face before. In a newspaper? On an advertisement hoarding? On television?
“Forgive my asking,” he said. “But when I saw you earlier, I had no idea you were waiting to see my wife.” A door opened downstairs and a muffled cry of “Tosser!” floated up the stairs.
“Nice neighbours you have here,” said the girl, unruffled.
“I just wondered,” he went on, “How did you get through the front door?”
“I had to see someone else in the building,” said the girl simply, as if that explained everything.
Amanda came back to the front door. “That was Santa,” she said. “Snow is threatened in Cambridge. We must go now if we’re going, or the roads will be treacherous.”
“I’ll start packing the car,” he said, suddenly reluctant to leave the two women together. Their story didn’t ring true. When had Amanda ever taken an interest in drawing?
As he dragged his heavy Globe Trotters suitcase down the steps, and opened the boot of his BMW, a movement caught his eye. Glancing up, he saw a dark figure at the third-floor window looking down at him – and hastily drawing back. It was the mysterious Mr Aziz, the inscrutable, possibly Egyptian neighbour who kept himself to himself and never responded to friendly overtures. Where would he be spending Christmas?
He went back upstairs for Amanda’s case. She and her beautiful friend were nowhere to be seen. Could they be in the bathroom? Whatever for?
He seized the suitcase, the John Lewis bag containing the Christmas gifts and the boxed bottles of Taittinger champagne, and bumped down the stairs, out to the car.
As he hauled the suitcase into the boot, a shadow fell across him.
Mr Aziz stood behind him, smoking a tiny cigarette around which a tiny blue cotton thread was twirled.
“Can I have a word?” he said, in surprisingly good English. “It’s rather urgent.”
By Matt Thorne
“If you could just come inside with me for a moment,” Mr Aziz continued.
Frank stared at Mr Aziz, considering whether to follow him. For one paranoid moment, he wondered if Amanda might have sent him down as a deliberate distraction. But it was impossible to imagine Amanda even talking to Mr Aziz, let alone involve him in subterfuge. And Amanda had been the one urging them to get going. Maybe she was frightened about what this Maggie girl might confess to him.
He closed the boot and followed Mr Aziz back towards the house. As they reached the door, Amanda and Maggie came out together.
“Darling,” Amanda said, addressing him in the way she only ever did when she wanted something, “I know this is a bit of a nuisance, but would you mind terribly if Maggie came with us to Santa’s? She was planning to stay here alone over the break, but she’s feeling a little down and…”
“Do excuse us,” Frank said to Maggie, “I need a private word with my wife.”
Maggie didn’t reply, but her thin smile made Frank feel he had spoilt some game. He was aware of Mr. Aziz hovering, with increasing impatience, alongside him. Wanting to buy himself more time, he decided to introduce the man to Maggie. Mr Aziz looked furious at being trapped in this way.
Frank took his wife by the arm and led her out of earshot. It had always been one of his biggest concerns that Amanda might have inherited some of the Marjoribanks’ family madness. Though he teased his wife about this, and she always seemed game, there had been past occasions – particularly in the early days of their relationship – when she had vanished without explanation for weeks at a time. But this seemed new. A whole secret life. Was it possible?
“What’s going on?” he asked.
“What do you mean?”
“Who is Maggie? I mean, who is she really? Your lover?”
Amanda laughed. “I wish. You don’t recognise her?”
She leaned forward and whispered a name into his ear. It was the name he’d heard pronounced through Dolby speakers a thousand times, a name so significant he could tell it excited his wife merely to say it out loud. He looked over to Maggie again, trying to connect the famous name with the woman in front of him.
“But how do you know her?”
“Don’t make a fuss,” Amanda told him. “I didn’t meet her at art class, I met her in Dr Spindler’s waiting-room. She’s suffering from delusions. Well, who knows, maybe they aren’t delusions. But she thinks someone’s after her. She was so agitated that I told her she could hide out here while we were away at Santa’s. After all, no one would believe someone like her was staying in a place like this. But now she’s changed her mind and she’s afraid to be on her own.”
Frank was aware of Mr Aziz at his shoulder. He left his wife to her exciting new friend and followed Mr Aziz into the house and up to the top floor, waiting while the man, with a great deal of ceremony, unlocked the door.
By Helen Dunmore
Mr Aziz did not speak until he had re-locked his door, shot the bolts top and bottom, and put on the chain. His neighbours liked to lock out the world, thought Frank, as Mr Aziz led him into a living-room lit by two candles on a low table. Mr Aziz steered him to the sofa.
“Please, sit. I will make coffee for us.”
The room was extraordinarily peaceful. The gibbering of the parrot, the drill of Amanda’s voice and the sickly slosh of sherry in his stomach all receded. He closed his eyes, drifting on a sea of alcohol and groundless hope. Perhaps Maggie – whoever she was, he didn’t believe a word Amanda said any more – really would take Amanda far, far away, infinitely farther than the temple to academic pretension that was Santa’s proudly unkempt and freezing Cambridge home. Sullivan, he thought, Sullivan, where are you?
Mr Aziz returned from the kitchen bearing a tray. On it there was a small coffee pot and two cups a little larger than those found in dolls’ teasets. Frank caught back his critical thoughts. Tiny cups were probably part of Mr Aziz’s culture.
Mr Aziz knelt, held the coffee pot high and poured a thin, fragrant stream accurately into each cup. He held one towards Frank with a glancing smile.
“It’s so… Zen-like in here,” said Frank, “I mean, no clutter.” As he spoke, he suddenly knew what he really meant. No tinsel, no clusters of pine cones nor reeking bowls of pot pourri, no cards, no sherry, no John Lewis bags of wrapped presents, no festive parrot blurting obscenities –
There was no sign of Christmas at all. Frank lifted the cup to his mouth, and, as delicately as he could, sipped at its translucent rim.
“Zen-like?” said Mr Aziz, rather severely. He sat back on his heels. “I suppose you think I do not celebrate Christmas.”
“Oh no, of course not, not at all. We always put up lights for Diwali at the office –”
“If you don’t mind my saying so, my dear sir, you are talking the most absolute rubbish.” Mr Aziz laughed softly, appreciatively. “Claptrap to the utmost degree. You are worse than Mr Sullivan, who always speaks in riddles.”
“Sullivan! Christ! Do you know him?”
“Not only do I know him: he is my most intimate friend. He will come shortly, when all those others have departed. Mrs Hardy, I believe, has a meeting at the Spiritualist Hall at nine o’clock, at which Popkin will be most welcome. He will improve the occasion. More coffee?”
A second cup, even more intense. There was something in it. Cardamom perhaps? His heart bumped in his chest.
“Is he really coming?”
“My dear sir, be calm. He will come when you least expect him. Listen! There is your car. Your wife and her friend are, I think, on their way. Mrs Hardy’s door – Did you hear it? Ah, now we are alone.”
They were alone. Ice gripped the city, while in the window of the Catholic Truth Society the white-robed Jesus leaned at an impossible angle. All sound died as the clock hands edged forwards. At the stroke of midnight, from the depths of the house where no door had opened, Mr Aziz and Frank heard footsteps. Neither heavy nor light, confident and unhurried, they came on up the stairs.
“Doors are nothing to him,” whispered Mr Aziz, and he grasped Frank’s hand in his as they waited for Sullivan.
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