The Golden Stairs
Ash was ten years old the first time that he ran away. He had stood with Eoin in the stationary shop when Eoin had let go of his hand to lift the papers and books he needed for school. He had stood there for a few moments before the crowd cleared just long enough to show the doorway lit by the outside sun like a shining block of white. He walked away slowly; because experience had taught him that if he ran he attracted Eoin’s attention and he was pulled back, even if it was only to do something like eat his vegetables. He walked quietly to the door and looked back as Eoin’s head moved back and forth as if explaining things to him, despite that Ash was no longer there.
Once in the street, surprised that he had gotten so far, he had run into the crowd, just as far as he possibly could. The people had bustled and jostled and sometimes people looked at him to find out why such a small boy was wandering the streets on his own. No one stopped him.
Eoin had given him his own tube pass as a sign of his added maturity, and clutching it in his hand Ash had swiped it through the machine, having to stretch to reach, and then descended the tall escalators, past the busker who stood at the interchange between the Circle and Victoria line playing Oasis songs.
The jostling of the crowd and his own lack of desire of having a place to go saw him board the first train at the platform, and grabbed a seat clutching his rucksack on his knee. It didn’t hold much, just a bottle of watered juice, half a sandwich left over from his lunch that they had wrapped up, a notebook, a broken biro, and half a letter that his mother had sent him from Africa that was addressed to “her darling Eddie,” despite that no one had ever really called him that.
He had sat on the train for an hour, constantly circling the city centre deep underground until the crowd parted as they had in the store and revealed the image of many beautiful women in elaborately draped white gowns descending a white stairway with the words “Burne-Jones Exhibition at the National Gallery.” Then it was gone as the train moved on.
He turned to a woman who sat next to him, with her nose buried in a thick brown covered paperback, her tongue stuck out of the corner of her mouth, “excuse me,” he asked politely, “which is the stop for the National Gallery?”
She didn’t look up from her book, “Leicester Square, love,” she said bluntly, then taking a mint imperial from a bag she had stowed in her pocket, she popped it in her mouth, flashed her eyes to the map on the train wall, and with her tongue back in the corner of her mouth returned to her book without missing a beat.
When he left the Tube he asked a tall German tourist for directions to the National Gallery, the man squinted at him but in broken English and much gesturing had given him directions.
The National Gallery was abuzz with people, overcrowded like an ants nest, the air full of bubbling languages not all of which he understood, he climbed the steep marble steps among all the tourists and a few disaffected art students. A security in black stood at the door. “Excuse me,” he asked, “I’m looking for the Burne-Jones exhibit.”
The security guard looked at him and guided him to the correct gallery and he had sat there until closing time staring at the image of the draped women, talking to themselves as they descended and the more he stared at them the more he could see. He could see which of the ladies had laurels in their hair, which smiled and which frowned, and the tiny doves in the oculus of the ceiling making the entire building look like a dovecot filled with beautiful maidens being used to entertain some diffident lord with the musical instruments that they carried, barefoot down the sand stone stairs.
“You can buy a print, you know,” one of the tourists said sitting next to him, “so you can study it at home, are you here with school?”
“My dad,” Ash had lied, and then stood up, “thanks, for telling me, about the print I mean.”
The woman looked magnanimous, “the gift shop’s downstairs,” she said and like the woman on the train with her tongue firmly wedged in the corner of her mouth, she didn’t even watch him leave.
Alexis, when he undressed, dumped whatever money was in his pockets on his dressing table amongst bottles of aftershave and talcum on lace doilies and folded antimacassars before he climbed into bed, his arm draping across where Ash lay so stiffly on the wide mattress, he never noticed when Ash took it so Ash had money.
The print was expensive but easily stuffed into his rucksack. He also bought a post card of another painting he had seen that had only captivated him when he had seen it on the shelf- it was called Love Amongst The Ruins.
He had eaten supper in a noodle bar, slurping pork ramen and drinking green tea before leaving them with a full belly and a heavy heart.
He sat on a bench in Leicester Square and wondered what his options were now. He didn’t know what to do. “You lost?” a man said behind him. He just lowered his head and stared at the laces of his black Clarks shoes, “come on,” the man said, he was a police officer in a blue gilet with a chequerboard design on his hat, “I’ll take you home.”
Ash didn’t speak as the police man took him to the station, he just sat there in reception, turning down cups of tea before the desk sergeant went rooting through his bag, “Eddie?” he asked, “your name’s Eddie?” And part of him wanted to say no, no one calls me Eddie, it should say something that my mother knows me so well that she calls me Eddie despite that everyone calls me Ash, that my mother left me here with my brother and he touches me because she went on a spiritual journey and never came back, but he said nothing instead. “Oh, your address is here, I’ll call and get someone to pick you up.”
Alexis had been silent in the car. He had come to get him, not Eoin, and buckled him into the car with a look that promised violence, because he was not afraid to hurt Ash to prove his point. He stripped him and locked him in the bedroom, but before he was done he tore the print to shreds, leaving Ash only with the postcards that Alexis hadn’t known that he had bought.
After that he ran away every chance he got. He would wait until Eoin lost his attention and just walk away, he would sit on the Tube and just travel it sometimes all day before he returned to the house and Eoin’s disappointment, sometimes he visited galleries and stared at representations of art, and sometimes he sat in St Paul’s Cathedral and wondered how to pray.
Sometimes Eoin found him, sometimes not.
Sometimes Alexis was in when he returned.
Those times were the worst of all.
Alexis would grab him by the arm, cuffing him with hands that felt like bricks until his eyes would swell, his lips would split and his ears rung. Then he would throw him into the cellar which was dark and dank and cold. Ash never knew how long he would be down there before Alexis would come in begging forgiveness with kisses and soft caresses that hurt more than the blows.
Sometimes the kisses and caresses would be furtive gropes, scratching finger tips, manicured nails, barbed wire rough tweed, Paco Rabanne for men that caught in his nose and throat and more than once futile penetration.
Ash found himself staring at the concrete floor of the cellar, at the bricks in the walls with their splashes of old white lead paint and wondered if this was all that there was.
Once he had picked the paint off the wall with his fingernails, swallowing it down, not because he was hungry but because it might mean he was free.
Eoin had poured milk down his throat until he was sick, vomiting up the poison and the chocolate milk all over the kitchen. He had been laid in bed, naked, ice cold and shivering, next to Alexis who had touched him and kissed him and reassured him, but to Ash the words stung like whips.
He never felt clean, and only when he sat in galleries in front of some painting and stared into the canvas did he even feel free. Installation work held no charm for him, but he would buy postcards of famous works of art, kept in a postcard album that he kept between the mattress and base of the bed he was never allowed to sleep in and wondered sometimes, as he stared at the line of Dorigen of Britain’s back, if the edges were sharp enough to slit his wrists with.
Once he stood on the platform of the Tube, the tiled walls making it look like a giant public urinal, and thought how easy it would be to step in front of the train, and the question was not why, but why not with a terrible sense of apathy, and before he could make his mind up the train pulled to a stop and he climbed on board.
Sometimes, however, when he lay in his simple cot in St Lucy’s, and it was always in St Lucy’s and never in London, as the sun fell upon his white quilt cover and the other boys were stirring outside his latched door, sometimes when the spring smelt sweetly, he was glad he was alive. Those times were few and far between.
He was not allowed to travel on school trips.
Extra curricular activities were strictly forbidden.
He was failing his classes.
He had long since come to the conclusion that he would be dead at twenty and saw no use in what they were trying to teach him. He would walk out of lessons and Alexis’ money and influence saw that he was never expelled.
He told someone once, that his brother climbed into his bed, licked the line of his jaw and touched him, there. The counsellor had frowned and written “congenital liar” into his file.
Ash never tried to open up again.
In the Butterfly Club he was beautiful and desired, icy and feared. It was all he could be. He was a beautiful doll, because whatever had once been inside him was now long since gone.
Duncan is a small man who sweats profusely. He has shining orange hair and a brick red face. His hands are short and pudgy. “Please, Ash,” he says, clinging to the edge of his jacket, “just please.”
“I’ve said all I need to, Duncan, you can’t afford me anymore, you’ve given too much as it is.” And he has, he has lost his wife, his job, and mortgaged his house in the hope of one more time, one more hour, Ash could arrange it but he won’t. He can’t stand Duncan and his platitudes, his promises of love and onion smelling breath.
“But, I love you.” Duncan protests.
Ash laughs, a cold sound without mercy or amusement, “love is for losers and fools.” He says and then without an expression to mar his marble perfect face he walks to the carpeted stairs and the roped off area where his brother awaits.
“Ash,” Duncan calls. “Ash,” he calls a second time, “please, Ash. I have money.”
Ash studiously ignores him. “Is he a problem, Ash?” Alexis asks, “because he’s not useful to me anymore.”
“No,” Ash answers calmly, “he just needs some fresh air.”
Alexis waves his hand and the bouncers move in to remove Duncan. Predictably, like an automaton following a program Ash sits on Alexis’ knee, Alexis mouths the side of his neck, predictably Ash moans, but he is not worried about his brother’s hand rubbing him through the cloth of his jeans, he is not worried about the prickling mouth pulling at his neck, he stares across towards the wall and wonders if he’s ever seen the sea.
can this count for my nano wordcount?
it's funny the way the muse works aint it