Halfway up the stairs isn’t up / And it and it isn’t down / It isn’t in the nursery / It isn’t in the town / And all sorts of funny thoughts / Run round my head / It isn’t really / Anywhere / It’s somewhere else / Instead! A. A. Milne
This was when I had the time and energy for prose (and thought I could write it.) Helena sat on a staircase and for the longest time, I couldn’t get her off it. Then I got lots of advice and I got her down fifteen minutes before the new year. It’s funny. I’m a slush reader and can analyse other people’s work just fine. Only have trouble with mine. It’s not brilliant, but I must admit that when I reread this story tonight I found it passable and at least worthy of resurrection. Reading it gave me a break from politics for five minutes. So that’s something.
She was sitting on a staircase sipping on her lemonade, watching the revellers below. People were seeing out the last day of the old year, if not in style then at least with enthusiasm. They were mix and matching champagne, boutique beer and rotgut and not necessarily in that order. Once upon a time she would have been one of them, a fag in one hand and a vodka straight up in the other, no ice to dilute the taste. She hunched over and wrapped her arms around her. Even though the night was still and hot and sticky, she felt goose bumps, someone was walking over her grave. She shook the negative thoughts off. She was on a mission and mustn’t fail. There were second chances to be had and every moment to savour. Stick to that, Helena, she murmured.
It had been a hundred degrees in the shade earlier. Both front and back door were open and people were wandering in and out of the house to get some relief. Her long brown hair stuck itself to her bare back. She pulled it back and up and twisted it into a knot. Soft tendrils floated down surrounding her heart shaped face. She blew at them and found the cooling bit of breeze delightful. Nice to feel something again. Amazing how fragile the body was, she thought; cold one minute, hot the next. Fragile, she thought following a train of thought best left alone, one misstep, just one and four lives had been lost. She shook herself out of her reverie yet again and reminded herself that she did not have the luxury of meandering on like that. Like Cinderella, she had till midnight, One more chance to get things right.
Helena looked down and watched the object of her mission tossing down yet another beer. Michael Francis was slight and small boned. Couldn’t be more than five foot eight. How had he had been able to toss down so much liquid without floating away? She’d been watching him all night, but had held her hand. She didn’t dare come down too soon. His hair was wavy brown, probably the bane of his mother’s life. She though his eyes were hazel. Hard to tell from this distance and harder to see as the night wore on. Not good looking in the classical sense but a pleasant face or would have been had he not been trying his best to get off his face.
She hadn’t had much use for time lately, now timing was vital. She checked out the Omega watch that her husband had given her on her last birthday; quarter to twelve. Fifteen minutes and she could go home to Ray, have a marriage, a life and a baby. She stroked her stomach. Nothing showed yet, but it gave her comfort to think of that new life that might be readying itself for the new year. It was up to her to give it a chance.
Helena took one long last swig at her drink and placed the empty glass on the stair next to her. She’d spent a year in limbo thinking what could have been said or done to prevent the disaster. She was no wiser now that things were so close. It was still not a given that she would succeed . She looked at her watch again. Michael would leave at five minutes to midnight if she didn’t succeed; she had ten minutes to convince him to stay.
She went downstairs and found some soda that was being used as a spirits mixer. She filled her glass and worked her way through the happy crowd.
‘You’re Michael Frances,’ she said.
Congratulations, love, now who are you?
Hazel eyes were squinting at her. ‘A fan. I’m Helena James and I’ve read your novel, Friends in Need.’ She raised her voice above the frenetic sounds of revelry.
‘You and half a dozen other discriminating readers. That was my one and only child. I’m done with writing, the well is empty.’ He lurched forward and leered, Helena had only read about the expression in novels now she was experiencing it first-hand. A hand snaked around her waist. ‘Wanna share the new year with me honey?’
‘What about those short stories then. Black Mask published them last year. They were wonderful.’ She tried unsuccessfully to ease herself out of his surprisingly firm grasp. He leaned across and planted a boozy, wet kiss on mouth. She placed a palm on his chest pushed. His eyes rolled to the back of his head.
‘Hey, fan. Why not come over to my place? We’ll have a nice literary chat, you and I. Then I can tell you about the bitch who ripped my heart out and left me on New Year’s Eve. I don’t live far from here.’ His head lolled back and forth so hard, she thought it would fall off. Helena pushed him down on a nearby seat that was miraculously free of human contact.
‘Why not tell me now?’
‘What’s to tell’, he said shifting moods. ‘A writer who doesn’t see the signs is no writer. That daughter of an unfortunate mother knocked the pins out from under me when I wasn’t looking,’ he sobbed. ‘When I came to she was gone, so was my dignity and my self-esteem. ‘He pushed up from his chair with difficulty, swaying back and forward. ‘Come or don’t come, all you bitches are the same. I’m leaving.’ He lurched forward and worked his way through the crowd with Helena pushing her way through the crowd and grabbing at his sleeve.
‘Stay and I’ll help you over that hump. You need to talk.’
‘Who the hell are you lady?’ He squinted and leaned across exhaling a beery breath. ‘Where’s your mate anyhow, he dump you too? I’m in no mood for a chit chat tonight. Talk to me tomorrow.’ He got up and slowly weaved his way through the crowd.
She grabbed at his arm. ‘What if there isn’t a tomorrow?’
‘Even better,’ he said, slurring the words. Let go will you, you’re too weird, lady.’ He made a half-hearted attempt at disengaging himself. I don’t give a tinker’s if there’s no tomorrow. It’s a rotten world.’
‘What if I said that four of us will die if you go? You, me, my unborn child and my husband who blamed himself for letting me cross that road, two minutes past midnight one new year’s eve. Helen kept a hand on his arm and checked her watch again.
‘My head hurts. What are you talking about? As if I care.’
‘I think you’d care. If you had a chance to recover from that hangover. Why not stop whining and write about that experience. That’s the best kind of revenge.
It was midnight and people were hooting and kissing. She put her arm around him and led him through the crowd to the spare room where the coats and scarves were kept.
‘Now that’s more like it, shweetie.’
She kept an arm around his waist and dragged him over to the bed. ‘Rest up here and I’ll get you something for your headache.’ She dropped him on the bed.
‘Don’t go, shweetie’, he said. ‘I don’t want to be alone. Give me a new year’s kiss why don’t you, he said as he closed his eyes.
I will, said Helena. I’ll come over tomorrow morning and give you the biggest kiss.
The clock had ticked over into the new year once again.
Helena found herself back at home with her husband Ray. They’d been arguing heatedly about into the night about the offer of an interstate job and how badly she wanted to take it. They had been arguing so hard and so long, that they hadn’t gone across the road to Winston’s New Year’s Eve party. Ray had a job he liked just fine and didn’t want to shift. Hers was the chance of a lifetime.
Helena had had enough. It was a stalemate that wasn’t going to be resolved tonight. She picked up her coat and said, ‘you can stay home and wallow. I’m going over to Winston’s and look at some cheerful faces.’
She was at the door when Ray grabbed her and pulled her back. ‘Okay, love. What about I take a sabbatical for a year see how things work out for you before we make any hasty decisions?’
‘Great.’ Helena smiled. ‘Let’s go’ then, she said. ‘It’s almost midnight.’
‘Let’s not. Let’s celebrate the New Year at home,’ said Ray.
Months later, when Helena gave birth to a baby boy she had an inexplicable urge to name him Michael.