Going Downstairs

By Charles Etheridge-Nunn

There was a muffled cry. “Tim, I’m trapped under a carpet.”

Again?”

Those times were intentional. This time I woke up here.”

Have you been drinking, Kev?”

No.”

“Oh.” Tim moved his head from under the pillow, bleary eyed and confused. “Then why are you trapped under a carpet?”

I don’t know.”

Why can I hear you? You live on the next floor up.”

Oh yeah,” there was a pause. “I don’t know.”

Can’t you, can’t you just get up?”

Tim could hear a strange scratching noise under something. He sat up, eyes closed, he could still see the brightness.

No,” came the reply, and the rustling stopped. “Can you help me?”

Tim sighed, “Well, I do have to collect my Giro today, but I can give it a try.”

He opened his eyes and saw the ocean. His flat had a brilliant sea view, but today, with the ceiling and sea-facing wall missing, he noticed it more than usual. He rolled out of bed and hit something soft.

Ow!” came from under Tim, still muffled.

Kev?”

Yeah. I think that’s my arm. Yep, that’s definitely it.”

Oh.” Tim, faced the sky, then took in the radiance of the morning and the fresh sea air.

Could you move? My circulation’s not really very good down here anyway.”

Tim stood up. Then, he realised his foot was probably still on some part of Kevin, he sat on his bed.

The room, normally a mess of empty bottles, take away boxes, bean bag chairs and a half-made computer, was now combined with Kevin’s room of mostly the same kinds of items. In fact, Tim deduced, Kevin must have lived roughly where the hole in the ceiling was. As did everyone on the top few floors.

Hello?” Kev cried out. “Are you still there?”

Tim looked at the mess of rubble, blanket and carpet. Kev must be under there somewhere. He took the swiss army knife out from his pyjama pocket and unfolded the small saw-like thing. “Just yell if this hurts, I’ll try not to cut you.”

What?”

Tim plunged the saw-like thing into the carpet and started sawing. Eventually he hit Kev.

Ow! That’s my face!”

Tim looked down, he had cut a line about two-foot long and could now see beard, random bits of stubble and round John Lennon glasses.

What are you doing down there, Kev?”

Kevin was busy taking in the lack of ceiling. He had loved the Chinese style lampshade once hung there.

Do you reckon you can get out?” Tim asked.

Probably. I’m quite thin.”

I’ve heard this. I’ve heard you’re very thin. Even for a thin person.”

I’ll try and reach my arms.”

Kevin struggled with the carpet and eventually found his other hand. Between the two of them, he was pulled out of the hole in the carpet like an ugly, gangly, bearded, half-stoned baby.

They both sat on the bed, Kevin pulling a cigarette out of his jacket pocket, blew the fluff away and lit up.

What were you doing in my carpet?” Tim asked.

The best I can figure,” Kev puffed on the cigarette and stood up, “The top of the flat fell down.”

Hence the lack of roof.”

Hence the lack of roof. But could you not interrupt me?”

Sorry.”

And I think I fell down here with the floor and my sleeping bag and bits of the carpet.”

Oh yeah.”

I was in a bit of a state last night, I probably didn’t notice.”

Maybe you were tunnelling for safety and that’s how you got under the carpet.”

I have tunnelled before when drunk.”

The camping trip.”

I was panicked then too.”

Your survival instinct isn’t great.”

I think I only inherited the flight genes.”

Tim looked behind him at the walls still standing leading into the rest of his flat. “Want a cup of tea?”

Sure.”

Tim walked through the door, careful to stop it from falling over, then to his kitchen where he stared dumbfounded at the kettle.

You know,” Kev followed him, looking at the floor, “it’s only with all this daylight you can really see how much dirt there is here.”

Kev.”

I guess that’s why you always had the curtains pulled.”

Kev.”

What?”

There’s no electricity.” Tim flicked the plug socket on and off for effect.

Oh. What about the gas?”

I don’t trust the gas oven.”

Do you think the neighbours have electricity?”

Kev and Tim both realised they might not be the only ones who experienced the building falling apart. In fact, being part of a gigantic tower block, many people probably noticed. They might even know what was happening.

I don’t think the electric kettle would work on a gas oven anyway,” Kev sighed.

Oh, okay.”

We should go outside.”

Yeah. I need to get my Giro.”

Do you think my dad’ll be able to send me money? The petrol station will probably be closed now. I’m not going to bother going into work later.”

The pair walked, kettle in hand out of the flat and towards the lift. Tim’s flat looked like it was in the healthiest condition, the others were either missing entirely or still falling apart. Daylight struck Tim and Kev from all angles, seagulls were already nesting in what had once been a small bathroom from upstairs, now in the middle of a neighbour’s lounge.

Tim walked to the edge of one flat. He had never seen inside any flat but his, or even spoken to his neighbours. With the walls almost all gone from this floor, it was like he could see into their lives. The carpets, the furniture, the pictures. He would steal things but his pockets were full of stuff already. Closer to the edge, he finally saw the side of the flats. Part way down there was a massive chunk taken out of the building, making a line pointing to a crater which had swallowed most of the square.

Hey, hey look at this.” Kev called.

Okay, but I’ve got something big here.” Tim walked away from the destroyed skyline and joined Kev in looking down the lift shaft.

There’s no lift.” Kev waved his hands like a game show assistant, showing the empty lift shaft.

Tim smiled and led Kev to the edge he was standing on before “That’s nothing. There’s no Brighton. Well, there are bits, but it’s all flat.”

We live on the Downs, it’s all hills.”

You know what I mean, the buildings are all smashed up.”

Yep.” Kev kicked a bit of rubble off the edge.

So how are we going to get down? I need to get my Giro.”

And I need to go to work, it’s my day to cover at the petrol station.”

Really?”

Is it Tuesday?”

No.”

Then I’m not working, but you need to get your Giro. And being this high scares me.”

Tim sat, legs dangling over the edge, “We should get down soon. This building doesn’t look stable.”

I can feel a slight incline to the left.”

Tim looked at the floor, then at the sea in the horizon, the sea was at a diagonal angle to the flat. He got up and started looking around. “Where are the stairs? I’m not used to this place missing all the walls.”

They decided to walk back to Tim’s flat and leave as if they were going outside normally. Following the line of the corridor and pretending the walls were still there, they made their way to the steps. Tim even stifled a wave at the imagined attractive woman living a few doors down from him. She didn’t smile back, even in his imagination.

As they started to walk down the angled stairs, Tim looked back “Should I get any of my things?”

At this rate they’ll be at the ground soon anyway.”

Fair enough.”

The stairs still smelled of urine and decay, but the cool morning air dispelled enough to allow them to walk down. The cracked tiles of the spiral staircase leaned slightly, causing the pair to slip once or twice with each rotation. Kev stopped to take a photo of a bloody footprint with his phone.

Where d’you think all the people went?”

Dead maybe.” Tim leaned against the angled wall, “Might have gone.”

Why did they leave us behind?”

Maybe they forgot. Like when you went to work without your shoes.”

Kev looked at his feet, then at the bloody footprint and carried on.

Several flights of stairs lower, the sky was no longer visible and the acrid stench of the steps grew. They were ten floors away from the bottom now.

What if there’s zombies?” Kev asked.

There aren’t zombies.”

Why not?”

They’re not real.”

Oh.”

Oh.”

Yes, oh.” Kev confirmed.

No, my oh’s different.” Tim pointed down the stairs at collapsed walls and rubble blocking their way.

They both examined the wreckage for a moment before there was a creaking from above. In the distance, there was the noise of bricks and glass hitting pavement. Tim knew his old room must have been part of it. His clothes, his cds, the entire run of Star Trek: The Next Generation lovingly taped off the telly and filed away.

I don’t know if we can get down.” Kev said.

Well we can’t live here, bits are falling off. Let’s see if the fire escape’s still there.”

The pair walked through half-demolished walls, some of their movements causing the building to make distant crumbling noises. Eventually they reached the point where a fire escape should have been. Tim looked at its’ broken form on the pavement, scary freedom below him but inaccessible. While lost in his thoughts he almost didn’t notice the Asian man walking past.

Hey!” he shouted downwards.

The man stopped, looked at the building and back at Tim “What are you doing up there?”

There are two of us. We woke up here and need to get down.”

Do you need help?”

Yeah, that’d be great.”

Kev returned from his brief disappearance, looking thrilled “There’s a kettle!”
“A what?” Tim asked.

A working kettle. A gas kettle. Hell, there’s a whole flat down here, looks untouched. Books, food, tea. We could stay there for ages before having to move on.”

Tim took this in and looked down at the Asian man trying to find something to help their descent.

What’s going on?” Kev asked.

There’s a man down there.”

Someone that’s not us?”

Yes.”

What does he want?”

To help us get down.”

But… The tea.”

Kev looked down at the man pulling part of a fire escape towards the flat.

Nidhish?”

Nidhish saw Kevin and dropped the fire escape ladder “I thought I recognised you. Your friend there is banned from my shop.”

I didn’t realise it was you, Nidhish. You look small down there.” Tim said.

Have you got any Golden Virginia?” Kev asked.

Nidhish cast his eyes towards the crater which engulfed even his modest newsagents.

It was destroyed. I was at the cash and carry when it happened. Trapped under a ton of sweets.”

A whole ton?”

No Timothy.”

So no Golden Virginia?” Kev chimed in.

No. I bumped into some other survivors on the way to check on my shop. They’re going to the beach.”

Why?”

Almost everyone in Brighton is dead. There are some people looting in town, but they’re very violent and messy. It’s a nice day, so I suggested the beach.”

Will there be ice cream?”

Nidhish shrugged and stood up, ready to keep pulling the ladder towards his former customers.

Hang on Nidhish.” Tim said. “I think we’re staying here. At least, for a bit.”

Kev was already inside, boiling a kettle of water and humming his tea-preperation tune.

I’m not going to wait for you to get tea, I might lose the others.”

Come on up then, there’s probably three cups.”

No, there’s, like, no one around here, if I lose these people, I don’t know if I’ll see anyone else.”

There’s us.”

There was an awkward silence. Eventually Nidhish said, “Okay, well if you’re fine up there, I’ll be off.”

He walked away, turning into a run when he saw his friends. Tim could just about catch sight of them, young, bathed in sunlight, exploring the ruined world ahead of them. The kettle whistle returned him to the shade with Kev and a flat which smelled of old lady.

Which book’ll you read first?” Kev asked, pouring Tim’s cup of tea, black with three sugars.

Tim looked across the book shelves but could not focus. He was still thinking about the outside.

Kev sat down on one of the two giant old chairs and slurped his tea, taking in the surroundings. Tim sat on the other sofa.

Do you reckon we should’ve gone outside?” he asked.

Nah,” Kev said. “This place is fine for us. It’s got everything we need. Big supply of tea, lots of books. We’ll have to share the bed, but it’s big.”

It looked really sunny out there. There might even have been women.”

Kev shrugged, then itched his underarm.

You wanted to leave ten minutes ago,” Tim said.

That was when we had to, like with the bailiffs.”

Are you saying you don’t want to go outside?”

I’m saying I like tea, and books, and Golden Virginia and the outside might not have those things.”

It probably does. It did before the… things that happened out there.”

And it’s bright out there.”

It is very bright.”

I’m not sure if I can deal with other people.”

You haven’t spoken to people other than me and Nidhish for about a year.”

Nidhish doesn’t like me. He banned me from the shop.”

You were stealing. And his shop’s dead now, I’m sure he’ll forgive you.”

There was a silence. Tim saw the memories of a decade watching science fiction, getting stoned and downloading music reflected in Kev’s eyes. Tim had no choice in how he lived, being unemployed was his career. Kev lived off his parents and his part time job and loved mimicking Tim’s lifestyle.

I’m going to go.” Tim said, triumphantly.

Go where?”

Outside.”

No you won’t.”

Why not?”

I hate to tell you this, but it’s Tuesday, you can’t collect your Giro today.”

I don’t care. I can’t do this any more. I’m going.”

Tim stood up from the comfy chair and strode towards the hole in the side of the flat. He sat on the edge and looked at the way down. There was part of a balcony ten feet below him which he could probably reach if he was lucky. If not, the jagged pieces of broken pavement would greet him.

He looked at Kev, who was rolling a cigarette. Doubt entered his mind, risking his health to leave his best friend and his former lifestyle for the promise of something new. He took a breath and prepared to jump.

Kev could roll a cigarette blindfold and one-handed, which was his party trick and helped him pretend not to be looking at Tim, hoping he wouldn’t just.

Tim dropped down and swung onto the balcony, his hands only able to keep his weight for a fraction of a second before slipping. The balcony made a crumbling noise and he ran into the flat, filled with empty, open birdcages and porcelain models of animals. The balcony stayed in place, held up by a few bars of metal. Tim waited for a moment, catching his breath before walking further into the flat.

Kev lit his cigarette and paced around the flat above Tim. He walked up to the hole his friend had dropped down, then to the other side of the flat and back. He rubbed his John Lennon glasses and looked at the cup of half-drunk tea. With a sigh, Kev walked to the edge of the hole again, closed his eyes and dropped down.

Tim was at the front door of the flat when he heard a scream and a thud. Kev dropped sideways onto the balcony. Despite being very thin, Kev’s impact dislodged one of the final metal bars and the balcony started sliding away.

Tim!”

Tim ran and tripped over a birdcage. Kev dragged himself half-off the balcony as it fell away and reached out for something to grab onto. Tim grabbed Kev’s hand and pulled him fully into the flat. There were more distant rumblings from the flat as the balcony, one more jenga piece, had been removed.

Kev stood up, brushing himself off.

Thanks.”

S’okay.”

The pair were silent for a moment, Tim wanting to tell Kev he was pleased they were still together and Kev wanting to tell Tim he was scared they might not be friends any more if they met other people.

Let’s find a way out,” Tim said.

They walked to the front door and stepped into a nearly intact corridor. While one side of the spiral stairs were missing, the other three walls’ worth were there, light making the dirt-encrusted hallway seem pale. Tim admired the ethereal quality the hallway had, even with the broken security doors and decades-old bloodstains near the entrance.

The pair hopped and jumped down the gaps in the stairs until Kev spotted something out of the window.

Tim, look at this!”

We’re almost there.”

You’ll want to see this.”

What is it?”

Your stuff. And mine. Our stuff is out there.”

Kev pointed out of the smashed window, revealing Kev’s bed and walls, Tim’s computer, clothes, Star Trek videos and the lovely Chinese lampshade.

Tim didn’t bother looking, “It’s all broken and smashed, it doesn’t matter any more. We’ll find new stuff.”

Okay.” Kev paused, then said, “You remember you’re in your pajamas, right?”

Of course.” Tim didn’t know, but didn’t mind so much any more.

The last remaining section of stairs led down to the broken inside of the flats, or outside a slightly longer drop to flat, intact pavement. Using the hole in the wall, Tim squinted at the distance.

What are you looking at?”

I can hear people.”

We normally hear people outside. The walls here are thin.”

We don’t hear people when they’re almost all dead.”

Oh yeah. Well, maybe it’s Nidhish and his friends.”

Maybe we can catch up with them.”

As long as he doesn’t tell me off for shoplifting.”

Tim and Kev watched for the people in the distance drawn by the noise of them playing in the sea by the pier. The sun was bright, reflecting off the sea and hindering their search. Kev looked back at the flat the pair had lived in for ten years, then as one they jumped down, out of the flat and onto the pavement.

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One Response to Going Downstairs

  1. Sue Nunn says:

    Send to Radio 4 as an afternoon play?

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