‘Yesterday, upon the stair,
I met a man who wasn’t there
He wasn’t there again today
I wish, I wish he’d go away…’
Antigonish – Hughes Mearns
Shaun stumbled out of the cab, tripped and hit the concrete much harder than he would have wished.
“Shit,” he hissed, feeling asphalt imprints on his palms and a sharp pain wrench his knee. Behind him, in the eight-seater mini-bus, his friends cackled and whooped.
“Shaaaaaauny you fucking loser,” howled Daz, his head appearing in the light emanating from the open door. “Fucking lightweight, can’t handle your beer, son!”
“He fell over, he fell over,” chanted Dave and Bubble before collapsing into hysterical laughter and banging on the sides of the taxi.
Shaun stood up, trying to pretend his palms didn’t sting like hell and brushing down his jeans. Was that a hole torn in the knee? Fuck. Reaching into his pocket he pulled out a crumpled five-pound note and threw it at Daz.
“There you go, geezer, that’s my share for the cab. Or you can give it to you mum and tell her here’s that fiver I owe her for that shag the other night,” he smirked and ducked out of Daz’s reach as his mate tried to swing a playful punch at him. Dave and Bubble howled even louder and as the cab began to pull away, Daz shouted out the door. “I’ll fucking have you next time, son!”
“Yeah, yeah, whatever mate,” Shaun called, but the cab was already pulling out of the car park and he could just about see his friends faces, flashes of pale pressed up against the window, as they turned the corner and out of sight.
Shaun laughed softly, giggling at his own joke and knowing he would definitely be on the end of one of Daz’s pranks next time they went out. Still, he was a big man, he could take it.
Turning, he looked up at the block of flats behind him, rising out of the ground like some black monolithic beast. Lights were dotted here and there over the face of the beast showing that not everyone in this rank building were asleep.
I bet that fucker next door is still awake, playing his fucking shitty metal music all bloody night, thought Shaun, glancing up to see if his neighbours light was still on. Not that he had any chance of seeing anything from here. The fifteenth floor was out of sight from where Shaun was standing.
God how he hated this place. And he hated Gail more for forcing him to live in a shit-hole like this. If it wasn’t for her and that slimy fucker she was now dropping her knickers for, Shaun would still have been living in her nice house out in the suburbs. Instead now Slimebag ate meals at the table where Shaun should have been eating, slept in the comfy bed where Shaun should have been sleeping and screwed the woman who Shaun should have been screwing.
“I can’t do it anymore, Shaun,” Gail had said, that sickening self-pity in her eyes as if it wasn’t her who had been fucking someone else. “I can’t cope with the drinking, and the lies and having to do everything around here. I’m tired of paying for everything and I’m tired of your bloody idiot mates.”
And so that had been that. Out with Shaun and in with Stephen The Slimebag, who had probably been poisoning Gail’s head for months at work, complimenting her on her hair, buying her lunch and telling her how she could do better. Sly fucker.
Fuck him, thought Shaun, and fuck her too. He walked over to the entrance to the flats, shaking his head when he realised the security lock was busted yet again; the keypad was hanging from exposed wires and giving anyone access to the building. He went in, making a mental note to call the caretaker in the morning, although little good it would do as the security system had been vandalised four times since Shaun had moved in three months before. Cutting across the entrance lobby he pressed the call-button on the lift and waited, leaning his head against the wall and closing his eyes, praying for the alcohol haze to disappear soon. A few seconds passed and he realised there was no sound coming from the lift shaft, so he stepped back to check the light. Dimly lit numbers showed the lift was still on floor fourteen.
“Come on!” Shaun groaned and hammered at the call button with his fist. When still nothing happened, he cursed and aimed a kick at the lift doors. “Doesn’t anything work in this fucking building?”
He stomped over to the stairwell, grimacing as he opened the door and a strong stench of urine hit him full on in the face. Shaun hated having to take the stairs. Not only did he have to try to climb his way up endless flights of steps, the stairwell was poorly lit and only had very small, narrow windows all of which had been covered with spray paint.
Shaking his head and muttering curses to Gail, Shaun started up the stairs, gripping the handrail to steady himself. He avoided looking into the dark corners, where dank puddles of piss and rain water pooled together, reaching out across the floor with watery tendrils threatening to grab at his ankles.
By the time he reached the fifth floor, Shaun was already out of breath. The booze wasn’t helping either. He felt the woozy storm cloud infesting his head and he stopped for a moment, praying for it to fade but knowing that nothing but a good few hours sleep was going to lift this feeling. Gritting his teeth, he carried on, feeling the weight of each step bearing down upon him.
Just as he reached the tenth floor and he thought he was about to burst a lung, the light above him began to flicker. Shit, he thought and then all the lights in the stairwell went out completely, plunging him into darkness. He waited in the gloom, hoping that they would flicker back on. Suddenly he heard footsteps from somewhere above in the stairwell and he felt his heart skip in panic. He didn’t really like coming across the building’s other inhabitants during daylight, let alone on a darkened stairwell where anyone could and probably would pull a knife on him. The estate was rife with gangs, and the Dalston Boyz – named after the apartment block, Dalston House – were notorious for hanging around and intimidating the residents, despite being little more than teenagers.
A light from one of the floors above flickered back on and Shaun looked up through the gap in the middle of the stairwell. For a moment he thought he saw a shadow pass overhead, then more footsteps echoed down.
“Hello?” he called up and regretted it immediately. Way to go Shaun you prick, he cursed himself, why don’t you just announce that you’re on your way up, give whoever it is ample opportunity to jump you? He was definitely in no fit state to defend himself.
Creeping halfway up the staircase, he stopped and craned his neck to look upwards, listening intently for any signs of movement coming from the floors above. In a split second and appearing so quickly it made Shaun cry out, a hooded figure flashed into his line of sight, before the lights went out again and the stairwell was shrouded in darkness once more.
Shaun shrank back against the wall. Fuck-fuck-fuck! He hadn’t been able to see clearly enough to tell whether it had been a kid or a man, the lights we just too dim and all he had seen was someone wearing a dark hoody. He hadn’t even been able to see the hoodie’s face. He waited, with his back up against the wall and heart hammering in his chest. With a buzz, the light on the tenth floor flickered back into life, making Shaun jump and he stumbled and fell back on the steps. He lay there for a moment, trying to catch his breath which seemed stuck in his throat before exhaling deeply and letting out a low giggle.
Fucking idiot, he thought, shaking his head at himself for getting spooked so easily. If the fellas could see him now they would literally be pissing in their own pants. He would never live this one down, not in a million years.
He struggled to get up and glanced up the stairs, straining to listen for any signs of movement from the floors above. He was going to just have to front whoever it was. If it was just one kid, surely he could look after himself, drunk or not? Creeping as stealthily as his alcohol intake would allow, Shaun carried on up the stairs with the lights now flickering sporadically, lighting up the stairwell for mere seconds before throwing it back into darkness.
Eleventh-twelfth-thirteenth. No one lurked on these floors. Shaun felt his muscles slowly beginning to relax and his heart beat stopped racing as he passed by the door to the thirteenth floor. He climbed the next flight of steps, nose wrinkling in distaste as a sweet stench pervaded the air. On the mid-landing, the dark puddles had stretched out from the corners and reached almost to the top of the steps. Shaun grimaced as his feet squelched in fluid he didn’t even want to think about. Fucking great, he thought, he could see these shoes going straight in the bin together with his ripped jeans. Carefully stepping through the puddle, he stopped at the bottom of the staircase, immediately noting the wet, dark footprints leading up the steps. Following the trail with his eyes, Shaun jumped at the sight of a dark hooded figure standing on the next landing, right at the top of the steps and with his back to Shaun.
The hoodie didn’t move. If he had any idea that Shaun was literally just behind him, he didn’t show it. He just stood, perfectly still, with his hands by his side. He was fairly tall, but there was still no way of knowing whether he was a teen or man. Everything else about him was pretty nondescript; dark denim jeans, worn slightly baggy, white trainers although from the back Shaun couldn’t tell the make. That was it.
Shaun stared up at the hoodie, his lips moving wordlessly as he struggled to know what to say or do. He felt stunned into stillness himself, just standing there, with his wet shoes and now-ripped jeans, staring up at the immobile figure. Water dripped somewhere behind him and the noise of droplets spattering against the floor made Shaun blink. When the hoodie still didn’t move or acknowledge he knew Shaun was there, Shaun finally said the first thing that came into his head.
“Oi, oi fella, y-you gonna get out of my way?” He had hoped for a voice of steely bravado, but in the cold, darkened stairwell it sounded small and weak. Still the hoodie didn’t move nor make any sound in response. Shaun could feel his guts flipping and his bladder twitching in fear. He could look after himself, but this was ….. just creepy. What the hell was this guy doing just standing there? And why didn’t he turn round and confront Shaun?
“I – I’ve got a blade you know,” Shaun stammered.
Suddenly the hoodie moved, making Shaun flinch, except instead of turning around and brandishing a real, not imaginary knife, the hoodie walked forwards across the fourteenth-floor landing and disappeared through the door leading to the flats. Shaun watched amazed as the hoodie simply walked away, before he scuttled up the steps to the landing and peered anxiously through the window that looked into the corridor beyond.
No one was there.
The next day, Shaun was awoken by the shrill sound of his phone ringing, cutting through his head as if some demon animal was raking its claws over his skull. At first he couldn’t catch his bearings and feeling cold and wet, he half-wondered whether he had fallen asleep in the stairwell. Wrenching open his eyes, he realised he was cold because he was naked except for his underpants and lying curled up on the floor in his bedroom, with his back pushed up against the closed bedroom door and he was wet because he was drenched in his own sweat. Somewhere in the bedroom, the phone was still ringing.
Shivering and aching all over, Shaun tried to sit up, feeling waves of nausea swim in the pits of his stomach as he moved his head so he sat very still for a moment, clutching his temples and trying to fight off the sick feeling. Still the phone kept ringing.
Crawling very slowly across his bedroom floor, Shaun slithered in search of his phone and realised that the noise was coming from his jeans, that had been discarded next to his bed. Rifling through the pockets, he found his mobile just at the point when whoever it was decided to end the call.
“Fucking typical,” he groaned, checking the caller display and seeing Daz’s number on the screen. He hit the call button and Daz picked up straight away.
“Shauny you fucking lightweight, where are you? Thought you were going to meet us in time for kick-off?” Daz boomed down the line. Shaun could hear laughing and jumbled chat in the background.
“What?” grumbled Shaun, rubbing at his eyes and trying to focus on the alarm clock by his bed. “What time is it?”
“It’s bloody half three already. Don’t tell me you’re still in bed? Fucks sake, Shauny, you must be getting old, you really can’t handle it anymore can you?”
Raucous laughter, unmistakably coming from Bubble and Dave, drilled in Shaun’s ears and he held the phone away for a moment, feeling as if any more noise might make him throw up on the bedroom floor. It took a few seconds to realise that Daz was still talking, his voice sounding tinny in the receiver.
“What did you say, mate?” Shaun asked “Sorry, couldn’t hear above Bubble and Dave’s big gobs.”
Daz sighed. “I said, get down here fucking pronto, you loser, you’re missing the game. If you hurry, you might just make it in time for the second half.”
Shaun winced. He didn’t even know how he was going to stand up, let alone make it down the pub within half an hour. “Alright, alright, mate, be there as soon as I can.”
“Put your fucking knickers on, you big girl and just hurry the fuck up.”
The line went dead.
Shaun reached over for his jeans and then remembered tearing the knee out of them last night when he fell outside the cab. Oh yeah, fuck, he thought, before noticing his trainers lying underneath his crumpled jeans. Frowning, he grabbed one of them and lifted it up in front of his face, turning it over and examining the sole.
“What the …..” he gasped. Blood stained the entire sole of the shoe. He picked up the other one, noticing the same. It had also smeared up the sides as if he had just dipped them both into a vat of blood. Or a puddle of the stuff.
Unwanted images flashed into Shaun’s mind: a darkened stairwell, lights flickering above his head, feet squelching in a puddle of water and piss that had engulfed the mid-landing. Except it hadn’t been water and piss had it? Shaun shook his head.
“No,” he whispered. “No. No. No.” He threw the trainers, one after the other and they hit the bedroom wall, patterning the blue paintwork with dark red streaks. Feeling the tidal wave reaching up from his stomach and drowning his throat, Shaun stood up quickly and catapulted himself out of the room, only reaching the toilet just in time, where he threw himself down in front of the bowl and released a torrent of foul-smelling vomit against white porcelain. He retched and retched until long lines of bile and saliva hung from his open mouth and trailed across the toilet seat.
After the sickness had cleared, he showered quickly, relishing the sting of the hot water as it washed over his skin, then he dressed, grabbing anything that didn’t need ironing and shoved his phone and wallet into his jacket pocket. Putting the crumpled, ripped jeans and bloody trainers into a plain white carrier bag, Shaun left his apartment, with the intention of chucking the bag into the large communal bins outside Dalston House. He didn’t want those things anywhere near him and he couldn’t imagine anyone rifling through Dalston’s bins unless they wanted a used needle in their skin.
Rushing along to the end of the corridor, Shaun smacked his palm against the call button and waited for the lift to make its way up to the fifteenth floor. His leg shook impatiently as he stood there.
“Come on,” he hissed. Suddenly the door at the end of the corridor swung open and Mick, Shaun’s metal-loving neighbour, huffed through the door, beads of sweat peppering his wide forehead. He sniffed when he saw Shaun standing in front of the lift.
“Not fucking working again, is it. Better take the stairs. Still at least you’re going down and not up. Those stairs are a fucking killer.”
Shaun stood back and let Mick pass, watching as his tall, burly neighbour stalked down the corridor, wheezing with every step. Seeing his neighbour in distress would usually raise a smile for Shaun, but not today. All he could think about was having to take the stairs again. He waited, staring at the door to the stairwell which was still swinging slightly from Mick’s entrance. In his jacket pocket, his phone rang again, the sudden noise making him jump. Fumbling to get it, Shaun saw Daz’s number flash up again. He stabbed at the receive button with his thumb.
“I’m on my way, stop bloody calling me.” He hit the end-call button before Daz could say another word and pushed at the door, shaking his head. If Mick had managed the stairs, then there was obviously no one hanging around out there, but Shaun did think it was strange Mick hadn’t mentioned seeing all the blood just before the fourteenth floor landing.
Fuck it, he thought, if Fat Mick can do it, so can I.
Pushing through the door, Shaun stopped on the landing, hearing nothing but the creaking of the swinging door behind him. Were the lights out again or did they just not come on during the day? Shaun couldn’t remember for sure; all he knew was that the stairwell was dark, uncomfortably dark, and he didn’t remember noticing before how dark it was in the stairwell during the day. Cautiously he stepped forward, peering over the side and looking down. Everything was still and quiet. No shadows moved. No lights flickered.
Put your fucking knickers on, you big girl. Shaun could hear Daz’s words whispering in his ears and he shook his head and laughed to himself. If only the fellas could see him now. He could imagine their cackling and the tears streaming down their faces in hysterics at how scared and how stupid Shaun was feeling. He smiled, hating how false and tight it felt on his face.
Go quick. Don’t stop to look at anything. Just keep your eyes ahead and keep going, he thought, taking the first flight of steps two steps at a time. He glanced up momentarily as he reached the mid-landing and saw the door to the fourteenth floor below him.
Don’t stop. Keep going.
He clattered down to the fourteenth floor landing and refused to look through the window in the door to the corridor beyond, keeping his eyes firmly fixed on his feet and making sure he didn’t miss his footing in the gloom.
Oh god. Oh god. Please don’t let there be any blood. Please.
Treading carefully down the next flight of steps to the mid-landing, Shaun exhaled deeply when he looked down and saw the floor was free of blood. In fact, it was completely dry. No puddles of water or piss, although dark putrid smelling stains in the corner told him that someone had no doubt relieved themselves here. Still, he thought, smirking, it’s gotta be better than blood.
He almost skipped across the mid-landing, turned to go down the next flight of steps and came face to face with the hoodie who stood at the top of the steps, head bowed and quite still, with his hands by his sides. Shaun gasped in surprise and horror, stumbling backwards, bag flying out of his hands and landing on the floor with a sharp crack to his lower back. He cried out in pain, but could not take his eyes off of the figure in front of him.
The figure slowly stepped up onto the landing and Shaun desperately tried to scramble away but found he could not move. Reaching down the figure touched Shaun’s leg and immediately Shaun felt his bladder loosen. Oh no, he thought, feeling the dampness soak through the material at his thighs and he looked up as the hoodie loomed over him.
Staring into the hood and seeing nothing but impenetrable blackness within, Shaun began to scream, and scream and scream.
Shaun’s eyelids fluttered. Somewhere far off he could hear banging. Constant, un-relentless banging that seems to resound around his head and make his teeth judder. He felt cold again. Really cold, as if his very core had been replaced with a block of ice that was freezing his innards and spreading out to touch its cold fingertips to bone and muscle. As his eyes finally flickered open and unable to ignore the banging any longer, Shaun ran his hands down his chest to find he was fully-clothed and not practically naked like the last time he had woken up freezing cold. When was that? Today? Yesterday? Last week? He struggled to remember but the memory was hazy and jumbled as if he had spent another night on the beer. Maybe that was it, maybe he had too much to drink again yesterday.
Gail was right. The thought spiked into his head, however he couldn’t quite think who Gail was. He could remember the name and he knew it was someone he should remember, but thinking about this Gail – whoever she was – made the pain blast across his temples as if his very skull was trying to burst through the skin.
Stumbling to his feet, Shaun found that he had thankfully passed out on his bed, although the dull ache in his body told him it had not been a very comfortable sleep. Following the sound of the banging, he shuffled towards the front door, seeing a dark shadow moving through the frosted glass. The shadow moved and this time hammered against the door so hard that Shaun could see the door moving in its frame. He stopped, closing his eyes and seeing flickers of images in his head; a dark shadow was reaching for him, he was on the floor and he couldn’t move and the shadow was touching him, actually wrapping its cold fingers around his leg and touching him. Shivering, Shaun’s eyes flew open, trying to banish the images from his mind. He didn’t want to open the door. He didn’t want to let the shadow in. He didn’t want it to touch him again.
“Shaun!” The shadow’s voice sounded muffled through the door. “Shaun, for fucks sake I know you’re there, I can fucking see you. Now open the bloody door will you!”
Daz! Shaun remembered the voice of his friend and pulled at the latch, opening the door slightly to see his friend’s face, eyebrows knitted together furiously and mouth set in a thin, grim line, before it softened visibly and the anger turned to one of clear shock.
“Fucking hell, mate, you look bloody awful,” Daz stared.
“What? Do I?” mumbled Shaun, rubbing his knuckles across his head as if he could massage the pain away.
“Yeah you do,” frowned Daz, shoving at the door and forcing Shaun to take a step back. “What’s going on? You sick?”
Daz pushed into the hallway, closing the door behind him. Even the sound of the door shutting echoed against Shaun’s skull and he leaned back against the wall to steady himself. Daz stood back and studied him, his eyes wandering over Shaun’s face.
“So what’s going on? You had flu or something? You look fucking terrible.”
Shaun forced himself to focus on his friend’s words but his head was spinning in some deep whirlpool and he was sure he must still be horrifically drunk.
“Sick? Flu? No…..no…just, you know, too much to drink I guess,” he murmured. His tongue felt thick and dry in his mouth, making his words sound slurred.
“What?” Daz snapped “you mean you went out last night? With who and why the fuck didn’t you tell me? I’ve been trying to reach you all bloody week. Look at the state of you, Shaun.” His eyes narrowed. “Were you on something? Is that it? I fucking told you to go easy on that shit.”
He stalked off into the living room, muttering something under his breath and Shaun followed, hearing the sound of his feet shuffling along the carpeted floor. Every footstep felt like he were wading through water.
Daz was standing in the living room, shaking his head as he looked all round. “Bloody hell, Shaun, look at this place. I knew you were a lazy sod, but this is just disgusting. How long have you been on the smack and who the fuck are you doing it with?”
Shaun just stared at Daz, puzzled. “What are you talking about? I’m not doing anything. I just had too much booze that’s all. I think you were right, I can’t handle it anymore.”
“That still doesn’t explain why you haven’t answered my calls? What’s going on?” Daz glared at him.
“Nothing’s going on, nothing at all,” Shaun said, suddenly feeling so tired he knew he would have to sit down before he fell down. Shuffling over to the nearest sofa, he collapsed onto it, frowning at the pile of clothes and newspapers stacked up across the cushions. Daz was right, this place was becoming a right shit-hole. If he still lived with whats-her-face then she would have cleared all this up. Who was that again? Shaun blinked, trying to picture her face. His mum? Yeah, that’s right, his mum. Although the thought still niggled at him as if he knew deep down that it wasn’t quite right.
“You expect me to believe that? I don’t hear from you all week and you say nothing’s going on? You were meant to meet us down the pub. I called you. You told me you were on your way but you never showed. What the fuck happened? Now I turn up here and you look like you’re at death’s fucking door or something and you tell me everything’s fine?”
Shaun looked up, confused. “What are you talking about? I did come and meet you. Didn’t I?” As soon as the words left his lips, Shaun knew that wasn’t right either. He remembered leaving the flat, remembered seeing Mick, remembered speaking to Daz on the phone…but the rest? Shaun desperately tried to reach into his head and unlock what was nothing but a dark blur. He must have met them. He must have.
“I don’t understand…” he began.
“No nor do I, but whatever it is you better fucking sort yourself out. I thought something had happened to you. We all tried calling you but you never answered. I even came round on Sunday night to see where you were but you must have been out, doing whatever it is you’ve been doing.”
“For the last fucking time, I haven’t been doing anything!” Shaun practically growled the words out and his voice didn’t sound like it was his own. It was deep and menacing and he immediately saw a flicker of fear pass across his friend’s face. “Sorry, sorry mate. I didn’t mean to….look I just don’t know what’s going on but I swear to you I haven’t touched anything. I just thought….I don’t know. Maybe I have been sick. Maybe that’s it, maybe I’ve had a fever or something?”
Daz bit on his bottom lip, eyes laced with uncertainty before shaking his head. “Well whatever it is, maybe you should go see a doctor or something. People just don’t lose a whole week from the flu. It’s not right. Just sort yourself out will you, Shaun?”
Shaun watched as his friend walked over to the door before turning and giving the room the once over again. “Get this place cleaned up. The council would have a field day if they came in and saw what a state you’ve made this place.”
He started to go before looking back at Shaun, his face a mixture of pity and disgust. “For god’s sake Shaun, get yourself cleaned up too. And stop wearing that fucking hoodie. You look like one of them little bastards from the estate.”
And then he was gone, leaving Shaun to stare down at what he was wearing; a dark blue hoodie, a hoodie that he didn’t remember ever buying, a hoodie that he didn’t even know he had. Somewhere, in the black recesses of his mind, a memory sparked into life; of someone else, something else wearing the very same hoodie and the sound of someone screaming, screaming, screaming. Shaun covered his ears with his hands and squeezed his eyes shut.
When he opened them again, sometime later, he was foetal, curled up in a ball on the sofa, with the hood pulled up over his head. Sitting up, he looked around, taking in the jumbled piles of clothes, dirty dishes and crumpled up old newspapers. Frowning he stood up and wondered where the hell he was. He vaguely remembered someone else being here but couldn’t remember who. Maybe this was their flat? But he didn’t recognise anything and trying to remember just made his head explode with splinters of pain that made him want to collapse again. Probably better off not trying to remember, he thought.
Shuffling across the room, he stared into the mirror above the old fireplace. Inside the hood, his face looked dark and sallow. His skin looked almost grey and engrained circles shadowed his eyes. Did I always look like this? he wondered before feeling that now all too familiar agony pulse through him whenever he thought too hard about anything.
Stop thinking, stop thinking.
He looked round the room again, knowing that this wasn’t his place. If it ever was, he didn’t really care. He just knew he didn’t belong. He knew instinctively that another place waited for him now.
Heading out of the strange flat, he walked down the corridor, past the lift and ignoring the buzz and hum of the machinery as it pulled and pushed the lift up and down in the shaft. He pushed on the swinging door, ignoring the creak as it swished back and forth behind him. As he entered the stairwell, lights flickered overhead and from somewhere came the drip-drip-dripping of water in some dank corner.
Fourteen-fourteen-fourteen, he thought and for the first time in what seemed like an agonising eternity, the pain did not shatter through his skull. He pulled the hood down so it almost shrouded his face and smiled.