L A S T N I G H T
A T T H E
S T A I R W A Y S
© Jon Lymon 2012
When you’re a teenager at war with yourself, the first casualty isn’t the truth. It’s your mother.
She’s the one on the front line, witnessing first-hand your self-doubt turn to self-hate. She’ll see you off your food and on your bed for hours on end, staring out of the window, wishing you were someone else somewhere else. She’ll see your tears and you’ll swear her to secrecy with a ‘Please don’t tell Dad.’ And she won’t. Not at first. She’ll keep it to herself. Until the self-hate turns to self-harm. That’s when she’ll draft in your father, if you’re lucky enough to have one around. His opening salvo will be warning shots along the battle lines of, ‘Get your act together, son, or else…’
And you either get your act together, or else you find yourself standing in a doorway about to take the biggest risk of your short life.
Lloyd Parker found himself standing in that doorway, intense heat radiating through him as it pumped up the stairwell down which the footsteps were fading fast, their owners accepting their fate while Lloyd paused on the top step, questioning his.
‘This is it,’ the man standing next to him spluttered, the whites of his eyes totally red, the veins in his forehead and neck throbbing in four-four time, gums leaking blood over his teeth, causing him to spit spots of red onto Lloyd’s multi-stained white shirt when he spoke.
Lloyd didn’t bother wiping them off. What was the point? He knew there was worse waiting for him at the bottom of the stairway.
Alcohol didn’t need to audition to secure a major role at Lloyd’s eighteenth birthday, but calls had gone out to see if people were willing to chip in for some speed, Es, a bit of gear, ‘that sort of shit’. Lloyd was exempt. It was his night, and any extra incentives would be his for free whether he wanted them or not.
How many of these incentives actually found their way into his bloodstream was just one of the questions Lloyd struggled to answer as he stumbled home afterwards. He couldn’t remember much about the night, and nothing about how many substances he’d voluntarily imbibed or been forced to. He also couldn’t remember buying the kebab that had stained his fingers chilli sauce red.
The red marks across each of his palms were also a cause for consternation, although he felt no pain from them, numbed by the sheer weight of impurities flowing through him. And was it sambuca or something else that was making his torso feel so hot?
But most worrying of all, he couldn’t work out why he was walking home alone. The plan had been to spend his first night of official manhood in the loving arms of his girlfriend, Sophia, sharing his single bed in his parents’ house.
Where was she? He couldn’t remember saying goodbye to her, or his best friend Will, who should have been walking with them to his parents’ place just a few roads from Lloyd’s.
This had to be an initiation, Lloyd concluded. His friends were testing him, seeing if he was ready to be regarded as a man. He was eighteen now. He no longer had to follow the set path that was the education system. It was time to go his own way, and go it alone, and this was his first test. They’d all be waiting outside his house, applauding him as he stumbled into Roots Walk. Sophia would run up and plant a tonguey kiss on him. Or better still, she’d be waiting in his bedroom, naked under the duvet (shit, he’d forgotten to change the cover to one less childish). Fuck, no matter. The lights would be off, her clothes soon following them. And Lloyd would prove himself a man.
He walked in auto-pilot delirium, fairly convinced these thoughts of him in bed with a naked Sophia should be giving him more of an erection than he was experiencing. He was slightly less convinced that he was heading in the sort of direction that would enable him to reach his parents’ semi before daybreak.
His thoughts meandered as wildly as his legs and feet. Alcohol had a tendency to exacerbate his self-loathing, and already on the trip home he’d berated himself for his failures. No job, no future, no girl he had any chance of holding onto (Sophia was way out of his league, he was just thankful she was being slow to realise it).
Above all, Lloyd was doubting his decision to turn his back on university. It was a big risk he’d taken, one that had prompted a permanent emptiness to take up residence in his gut. Nothing but nothing was on the horizon, nothing save unemployment, insecurity and invisibility. At least university would have provided a three-year buffer between him and all this nothing.
He regularly swallowed and prodded his ears, trying to rid himself of the ringing sound in his head. He was certain that the noise wasn’t all down to the thumping music the American DJ had seen fit to subject them to all night. There were screams in the mix too, yells and the smashing of glass. And occasionally a blink would spark a vision of the venue’s lightshow turning circles above a heavily armed and legged dance floor, mono faces pulling serious expressions, bodies employing questionable moves, intermittently lost in the mist of dry ice and the intense contrast of a strobe light.
The turn out had been strong, Lloyd recalled with a smile as he zig-zagged. School and college friends, associates, hangers-on, wannabes, they’d all made the effort, rendering his pre-night nerves and fears of no-shows redundant. Of course he knew the night wasn’t all about him. It was more about marking the end of an era, the parting of the ways, the champagne smash that launched them onto the great sea of life. But Lloyd didn’t want this generic milestone to take all the credit for the healthy showing. It was his eighteenth. And he’d been a popular member of his secondary school and college, an enthusiastic socialiser who’d been to countless eighteenths over the past year, invariably the first to arrive and the last to leave. Always willing to stay for just one more drink, smoke just one more cigarette, take to the floor for just one more dance, or try and negotiate his tongue’s way into just one more girl’s mouth.
‘Stay for one more, Will, just one more. Come on, mate. You know I’d do the same for you.’
Lloyd didn’t know why that line suddenly occurred to him, only that it sounded exactly like the kind of thing he’d say.
Where was he, Will? Will, who failed spectacularly to get the sorts of grades universities liked, and who had descended into a depression that manifested itself in majestic mood swings, gruelling silences and Trojanesque drinking. Together, as summer darkened into late summer, Will and Lloyd had ventured into Turpenton’s many public houses to get ‘off their tits’, Income Support in pocket, the desire to blot it all out on their minds. Often, they’d bump into Lloyd’s older brother Nick who drank and dealt in The Anchor with his friends John and Luke who all mercilessly ripped the piss out of Will’s acne and Lloyd’s poverty.
‘Leave him alone,’ Lloyd would say, standing between Will and his aggressors.
‘Don’t be a dick, bruv,’ Nick would say. ‘John’ll destroy you without breaking into a sweat.’
John was the kind of bloke who looked tall even when he was sitting down, being several inches over the six foot mark, a target Lloyd was still hoping to reach through a combination of stretching exercises and frequent vegetables.
‘I’m not having him rip the piss out of my mate,’ Lloyd would counter.
Will would then try and pull him away, suggesting they go and drink somewhere else and John and Luke would advise Lloyd to listen to his boyfriend, and come out with some other homophobic comments before Nick escorted his brother out, with a ‘go drink somewhere else, dickheads’ parting comment.
Lloyd’s eighteenth birthday had provided him and Will with a glorious opportunity to forget about all that, and put the mire their lives were in danger of slipping into onto the backburner. Born on the 31st August, Lloyd’s date of birth made him the last of his school and college friends to reach the numerical landmark, good reason for a locally based celebration before everyone headed off in the different directions that life was forcing them in, some over the hills to faraway universities, others down the road to mundane jobs. It seemed like only Lloyd and Will were going nowhere.
The route home Lloyd assumed he was taking was never advisable after dark, and many made alternative arrangements even before dark. Turpenton was a town derided by those who’d never been there, and occasionally berated by those who lived there. At its centre was a mass of unimaginative, grey concrete office blocks with nothing to offer the architectural world and little to offer anyone else beyond space for unremarkable insurance firms, solicitors and small-time businesses.
With car parks outnumbering green parks four to one, and extra wide roads squeezing the pavements against the crumbling walls of unkempt front gardens, it was clear that Turpenton had been built for the car first and the pedestrian second. Anyone brave enough to walk from the outskirts into the centre was forced down into a network of grey, foreboding and piss stained subways that gave vehicles free rein on the surface.
But the cracked and cocained subworld of the underpass of the underclass Lloyd was about to enter was the only option if you lived south and wanted to avoid the swaying, shouting cab queue at Turpenton East station, or the night buses rammed with swearing, sweating and shouting knife wielders with forked tongues, or the unpredictability of the illegal cab drivers who plied their lecherous trade up on the surface.
Lloyd descended into the subway, recalling it had been the scene of several murders in the last few years. He couldn’t remember if there’d been three in the last four years, or four in the last three. Either would have been enough to send a chill down his spine, had it not been enveloped in his beer jacket, that cloak of warmth and invincibility that embraces the drunk.
As Lloyd’s steps echoed through the subway, he tortured himself with visions of shining knives wielded by dirty hands being thrust into his meaty flesh and slicing through a pulsing artery, giving rise to a fountain of blood. He thought about those murders (it was three in four, no, four, definitely four in three), the murderers apprehended and jailed now, their places, their sleeping bags, their blades in this subterranean hostile hostel taken by murderers-in-waiting who used the underworld as a pisser cum shitter cum bedroom cum lounge cum training ground.
Lloyd glanced at sleeping bags stirring like writhing slugs in the dank recesses, the grey and graffitied concrete pillars serving as resting posts. A man was sitting with his back against one pillar, his head tipped back, eyes watery and vivid, watching a lane of liquid slowly make its tearful way down another pillar from the surface. So entranced was this man by this trickle from the sky, he didn’t notice Lloyd walk past, mentally prepared for an approach or attack from one of the urchins. Lloyd felt armed and invincible, his beer jacket fashioned from chainmail, the house keys he gripped in his pocket poison-tipped daggers ready to be swiped at an addict’s throat, and swiftly followed by a winding blow to the gut and a knockout knee to the chin. Lloyd was ready to teach the losers down here that not everyone who lived up there was easy-pickings.
As he walked unchallenged, Lloyd felt the haze of inebriation bowing before the irresistible force that was the hangover. And Lloyd knew the hangover that awaited him was an express delivery from hell. He squinted at the path ahead, recognising the steps that led up to street level ten metres in front of him. Their familiarity relaxed him, but as he approached them he froze. Someone was behind him. Running towards him. Shit. He felt an inexplicable thrill. This was more like it. Finally, some action. The subway was about to live up to its reputation. A drug-addled assailant was preparing an assault. Maybe a fifth murder in four years (or would it be the fourth in five?)
Lloyd steeled himself for the shouted ‘Oi’, swiftly followed by a profanity-filled threat, spat with bad breath through a matted beard.
Lloyd imagined the runner wielding a pick-axe, ready to bury it in the back of his skull, Trotsky-style. Lloyd considered turning to pre-empt the assault, catch the assailant by surprise with a stab to the chin, but that would risk taking the pick-axe to the forehead.
He slowly walked up the first few concrete, phlegm circled steps, knowing each could be his last. Whoever was behind him, their heavy breathing was now audible. Lloyd clenched both fists, wishing one rock-like super-powers that would fell the mightiest foe with a single blow, wishing the other bravery and accuracy as it gripped the keys.
His assailant-to-be took another step nearer and Lloyd swivelled, clenched fist ready to connect with a jaw or gut. Instead, he saw an ashened-faced man in a pin striped suit, shirt undone to his waist and stained chilli sauce red all the way down the button strip, carelessly folded tie leaking out of his trouser pocket like the head of an abducted snake. He appeared to be running for his life, or home to his wife (both equally serious), taking the steps up to street level three at a time.
Lloyd watched the guy, admiring him for risking the subway alone and in a suit, as red a rag as you could dangle in front of the tramps down there. Lloyd ran up the final few steps and called after the guy, ‘Hey, what you running from?’ But the guy’s head wasn’t for turning. Lloyd looked back down into the underpass but saw no one.
The fresh air at the surface invigorated the alcohol and other substances that still swilled around his system. Such was the impact of the air, it was several seconds before he realised that he’d wandered into the road and had played chicken with an obviously drunk and clearly illegal cab driver who had eyes only for the trio of unrestrained girls in his rear view. He shot the cab’s tail-lights the fingers and a few choice words before taking a left onto Mayweather Avenue, then right into Roots Walk, the cul de sac that housed his parents’ home.
Theirs was the first house on the right, their semi-attached neighbours to their right a family who’d been threatening to sell-up for years. Left of Lloyd’s house was home to an unsightly and almost certainly unhealthy electricity generator that constantly hummed as if in permanent deliberation over whether or not to break out of its fenced-in suburban isolation.
A few steps down the cul de sac, Lloyd froze. His father was sitting on the doorstep, the yellow front door half open behind him, his sleeping head using the door frame as a pillow that was as unforgiving as he’d be to his late son.
Lloyd’s father had always been strict and struggled to hide his disappointment with the way both his sons had turned out, especially Lloyd. The troubles started soon after Lloyd became a teenager. His parents racked their brains, trying to figure out what they’d done wrong. Doctors were consulted and they referred Lloyd to consultants who were content to frown, pontificate and spin clichés. ‘He’ll grow out of it - it’s just a phase’.
At this stage, Lloyd’s father usually shot to his feet or slammed his fist on a table if one was within reach.
‘It ain’t normal for a thirteen year old to steal his father’s car and bring it back five hours later with a hundred extra miles on the clock and a full tank of petrol. Is it? It’s illegal for starters. And it’s bloody frustrating,’ his father told the latest member of the medical/legal profession to be assigned to Lloyd’s case. ‘I wanted to tear strips out of him when he came home, but somehow, it ended up with me thanking him for the petrol.’
‘Lord knows how he afforded it,’ his more placid but no less emotional mother added. ‘He had no job, being so young. Not even a paper round. But he’s always been a very difficult boy to tell off, hasn’t he?’ She’d turn to her husband, who’d nod without listening.
‘I’ll give you another example,’ Lloyd’s father would say, leaning towards the doctor/lawyer to accentuate the importance of the point he was about to make. ‘A year later, he goes missing for a whole weekend. November I think it was. Thankfully, he didn’t nick the car this time, but we heard nothing from him until he got back late Sunday afternoon, looking like he’d been dragged through a hedge backwards, forwards, upwards, whichever-wards you bloody like. I wanted to knock seven bells out of him. But he says, ‘Dad, Dad,’ all enthusiastic and then drags me out into the garden. Freezing it was. Minus something out there. But do you know what he did?’ Lloyd’s father always paused at this point to ensure he had the undivided attention of the person/people in the room. ‘He showed me how to make a fire from ice. A fire from ice,’ he repeated whenever he didn’t get the wide-eyed looks of amazement he wanted. His wife always looked amazed even though she’d heard the tale hundreds of times before. ‘You wouldn’t think it was possible, would you?’ she’d add.
At this point whoever was listening would invariably shake their head and write something with an expensive pen.
‘You have to make the ice into a lens shape or something,’ his father would add, watching the pen flit up and down. ‘And then you hold it up to the sun. It’s clever, really clever. But it’s mad that a boy his age would know that. Crazy.’
If Lloyd’s mother sensed her husband losing his calm, which he often did, she’d grip his hand, the signal for him to let her talk. ‘He’s a very clever boy,’ she’d say, hoping that would positively influence whatever was being written. ‘He’s still very young. The reason we’re here is because we’re worried where all this might lead, you know. Whether the risks he’ll take will get bigger and bigger until he hurts himself. Or someone else.’
As Lloyd cautiously approached his front door, he saw his father’s mouth wide open in snoring shock. He crept up the short drive and slowly glided around the sleeping obstacle, fearing the sudden flick of an opening eye, followed by the sharp grip of a clenched fist hauling him in for an eyeball to eyeball, a holy father to son questioning along the lines of ‘what time do you call this?’ and ‘what the hell have you been up to, me and your mother have been worried sick.’
Lloyd knew he was a constant cause of consternation for his parents, but lately, having seen an improvement in his behaviour and signs of a return to common sense, they had begun to loosen his leash, little by little. That hadn’t stopped his father setting the curfew for 2.30am which, after much negotiation and pleading for clemency (I’m 18 now, I’ll probably have to queue to get a cab back with Will) Lloyd had managed to push back to 3.00 am. It was now 4.30.
Lloyd crept past his father into the house and paused at the base of the staircase, distracted by the faint smell of smoke drifting out of the lounge, the scene of many a skirmish between work-tired father and loose-cannon son. Its door was ajar, letting Lloyd slip in without so much as a hinge creak. His mother was sitting awkwardly upright in a floral chair, wrists drooping off the cliffs of the armrests, the nico-stained fingers of her left hand scissoring a cigarette that dripped ash onto an aged, pockmarked carpet. The still rising smoke suggested she’d only recently fallen asleep. Lloyd blew on the tip several times to kill the flame. “Love you, mum,” he whispered, regretting each and every drag of the cigarettes he’d smoked that night, and the liver rotting pints of Gates and the necked shots too numerous to recall, all now thumping their revenge against the inside of his skull. Seeing his sleeping mother before him prompted strange feelings of guilt in Lloyd. Why was he so desperate to waste the life this woman had given him?
Lloyd wondered if him being a difficult son had contributed to her looking older than her fifty-three years. Had he been such a handful in his first few years, such a disappointment and nightmare that his parents abandoned all plans to extend their family beyond him, their second son?
These were the last thoughts of Lloyd Parker on the occasion of his eighteenth birthday.