Tuesday, October 25, 2005

The Seventeen Steps

Of the ephemeral and futile nature of all human endeavour, there are few reminders more poignant than an empty church at a funeral service and the congregation at Mother's consisted of just two. There was the deceased's younger sister, her grief artfully concealed beneath a chic black mantilla and there was me, her only child. We stood there side by side like an orphaned and friendless bride and groom, as a sour-faced clergyman of indeterminate denomination spouted some mumbo-jumbo over a coffin containing the corpse of a person upon whom he'd never set eyes. It was a thoroughly miserable affair, as funerals should be, but mercifully brief and made quite tolerable by the dry, comforting strength of Aunt Myrtle's slender hand, warm with the promise of mutual consolation.

It happened many years ago, but I don't think I shall ever forget the night Mother was taken from me and I'll be haunted always by the memory of her cartwheeling down the stairs, seventeen of them in all, very narrow, quite precipitous and painfully uncarpeted. I've counted them automatically most days of my life as I've climbed and descended, down for breakfast, up to bed. When I was a small boy, I used to see how many I could jump from - I think I managed eight before the fear of shattered ankles got the better of me and I sought solitary pursuits inherently less dangerous and found pleasanter notions with which to exercise my fertile and overly vivid imagination.

She emitted a funny little gasp of surprise followed by a querulous sort of moaning sound as over and over and down she went, helplessly enslaved by gravity yet miraculously defying the constraints of middle age, like a gymnast in the grey Olympics. It was a very brief but quite superb performance, disappointing only in the clumsiness of its conclusion. Not for Mother the crisp and stylish upright standstill, feet together and arms spread widely, chest thrust pertly forward, a saucy smile for the judges. No, she just collapsed in an ungainly heap with a dull thud and lay quite still, like a pile of dirty laundry abandoned in the hallway by a slatternly maidservant. Nil points, I thought stupidly, staring down at the unmoving bundle.

It was so quiet I could hear the clock ticking downstairs in the drawing room and the sound of shallow, urgent breathing coming from the bedroom behind me. I became absorbed by the frequencies and characters of the two distinct rhythms, transfixed, counting, counting, on the verge of hypnosis. Then I came to my senses.

"Mummy!" I shrieked, bounding recklessly down the treacherous staircase.

She had me relatively late in life and was overjoyed when I appeared to be perfectly normal and healthy and not the monstrous freak she presumably thought she'd been expecting. She called me her 'little miracle' and promptly gave up her teaching job and a decent income to devote her time and energy exclusively to my care and early education. We lived happily enough together, just the two of us, in ever-encroaching penury in her four-roomed cottage by the common, sharing a bed from the day I was born until the day I left for university.

I never knew my father and I suspect that Mother met him just the once. Family legend has it that he expired at the very moment of my conception and poor Mother lay trapped beneath his corpulent carcass for almost two days before managing to wriggle free. She used the story of the incident as a kind of cautionary tale, another alarming chapter in the altogether terrifying saga entitled the Facts of Life, a new episode of which she recited to me each Sunday morning from my thirteenth birthday onwards.

She'd lie beside me propped on one elbow while I gazed at the ceiling, rigid with discomposure, as she explained in graphic detail the sordid mechanics of how I came to be. For a long while this weekly experience left me almost permanently unsettled but Mother was always on hand to alleviate my agitation and gradually I became accustomed to it.

I put two fingers to her wrist, searching for a pulse but could feel nothing. I put an ear to her face and felt the faintest whisper of breath against my skin. A tiny stream of bright red blood trickled from the corner of her mouth; her eyelids fluttered weakly, rapidly, like a frantic moth trapped in a jar. She was alive, though barely. All was not lost. I scooped her up easily in my arms and with a weary sigh began once again, slowly, to count the stairs.