I noticed the figure out of the corner of my eye as I went to the bathroom. I’m not at my best first thing in the morning and my eyesight hasn’t been great for some years now. But, as I glanced down the stairs at the front door, there was clearly someone there: outside. “Milkman?” I wondered. Ten seconds, twenty seconds … no movement. “Not the milkman, then.” Although not usually a timid person, I felt a bit uneasy. Why would anybody be standing on my step at six in the morning? There’d been no knock and I hadn’t heard a car pull up or any footsteps on the gravel as I’d lain awake for the previous half hour. I’d been feeling a bit under the weather and had hardly slept a wink, but a full bladder had woken me from a brief sleep and I’d just had to get up.
And now I couldn’t hang on any longer, though, so I slid into the bathroom as quietly as I could and shut the door, controlling the handle to keep the noise as low as possible. “Stupid!” I told myself. “The front door has a heavy bolt, there’s no need to worry.” But my skin was clammy and tingling at the knowledge that somebody was on the step.
Living alone can be difficult at times, especially when you get to my age. My children have moved far away and my husband died nearly 25 years ago, when he was 53, from a massive heart attack. The internet is my main connection to the world, although I’m not housebound or anything; I just keep myself to myself, like I always did, so I don’t really talk to the neighbours. My arthritis has been getting worse and when I go to the shops, I’m becoming painfully aware that it’s taking me longer and longer. But I don’t usually scare easily. At least … I didn’t.
As I opened the bathroom door again, I realised that I was holding my breath and I let it escape through pinpoint lips, with almost a whistle.
The words in my head were the loudest sound in the house. As I stepped back onto the landing, it occurred to me that the person might be able to see me, too, and I froze, staring at the still, dark figure. The blue, frosted glass of the door didn’t give a clear view – just an impression. It was no good – there was no way I could tell which way they were looking. When I moved again, it was toward the wall, hugging it in an attempt to blend with the shadow and I tried to picture the view through my front door from the outside.
Having stood on that step thousands of times, you’d think I’d have a perfect mental image of what could and couldn’t be seen by somebody looking in, yet I couldn’t work out whether the top of the stairs would be visible from the step. Glancing behind me, I considered the bathroom window. It’s quite high up … small and covered by a dark roller blind! They wouldn’t be able to see me because the background would be too dark to make me stand out!! Thank God. But what should I do? I couldn’t stay there, watching. I would have to go and dress.
Cursing my own procrastination, I opened the wardrobe door a fraction; knowing that it would send out a raucous screech if I opened it any further. For at least three months, I had been intending to oil it. But at least I could reach some clothes, which I put on as quickly as I could whilst keeping up the silence. All the time, listening for anything that might suggest that the person on the step was moving, trying the door, leaving me alone, going around the back. Going around the back!! The doors and windows were all locked – a habit I’d developed after a burglary many years before – but they would have a clear view into the house from the back. I’d come up to bed while it was still light; spent a couple of hours reading in bed. So, even though my bedroom curtains were closed, the ones downstairs would all be open.
Of course, I couldn’t even get downstairs without having to walk really close to the front door and there were at least two stairs that would draw attention to my presence. I was trapped. Slowly, I twitched aside the corner of my curtain and strained to see the area in front of the step, even though I knew I wouldn’t be able to see the person properly, but perhaps I could catch a glimpse. No. Nothing. Not even a hint of a shoulder.
Creeping to the top of the stairs, I peered around the banister and instantly saw that the figure was still there – dark, large, menacing. “Why?” I wondered. “What does he want?” This last thought fell like a thud. “He? Why did I think that?” There was nothing to indicate that this was a man … it was certainly somebody tall, but so am I, and the clothes were too blurred to be distinguishable. All I could tell was that the person on my step was tall, very good at standing still, and wearing something dark. It seemed that the whole figure was of one colour, so could this mean that they had their back to me? That they were wearing a hood?
I ventured onto the top step and, holding the handrail tightly, I eased myself into a seated position close against the wall. The very creaky stairs were three steps down and then seven steps down but there was another temperamental one four down. I didn’t believe I would be able to step over the worst one, without setting off the other one. I definitely couldn’t step over two; my hips wouldn’t let me. If I hugged the wall and only stood at the very edge of each step, I might make it down, but I was pretty certain that once I got halfway, if this person turned around then I would be totally visible. My nerves were strained beyond anything I had felt for years and I wanted to cry. If I cried now, I might not be able to stop my sobs from becoming louder and I was just too terrified to take a chance on drawing attention to myself.
If I made it to the living room, I would be able to take the phone into the kitchen, out of earshot, and call the police. I would close the curtains, too, if I made it that far. In all this time, I hadn’t seen the figure move a muscle. The light was brighter now and I was sure they were turned away, standing like a guard on my step. Not looking inwards, but out at the world. “Why?” Again the question reared its head. But I didn’t want to think about that too deeply. I just wanted to get help.
As I shifted my weight to pull myself up using the handrail, I felt a pain in my neck and into my jaw. My vision swam and I felt the sweat pouring from my forehead and the palms of my hands. I sank back against the wall and screwed my eyes tightly shut. My heart felt as though it had swelled to fill my chest and the worst nausea I had ever imagined gripped me and held me pinned. I was so frightened. So frightened that I shuffled onto the next step on my bottom, and then the next. The stair made its customary blackboard screech and I looked at the door, afraid of what I would see. The figure didn’t move and I shuffled again, wanting only to get to the phone. More in need of an ambulance than the police.
I don’t even know how I got to the living room, but that’s where I first opened my eyes. I could feel my head being lifted and felt the hands on my shoulders and my neck. Something was on my face, but nothing made sense and then I was just floating and jolting. Noises … talking … I couldn’t move. My arms were trapped … and then there was nothing.
Waking in the hospital, I felt the cold smoothness of the sheet and smelt the clinical smell so particular to such places. My tongue was like an emery board and I looked around for a drink. In the next bed, a woman in her forties or fifties was watching me.
“So, you’re awake at last!” She seemed surprised. “You’ve been talking in your sleep, you know.”
I cleared my throat. “Is there anything to drink?”
She got out of bed and shuffled over in sponge slippers. She poured me a glass of water from a large jug and watched as I struggled onto my elbows and then to an upright position. The water tasted horrible, like an old metal spoon, but I needed it too much to care.
“Who’s Bob?” she asked.
I nearly choked on the mouthful of water I’d just taken.
“Bob’s my husband. Why? Did I talk about him in my sleep?”
“A little bit” she replied, “but I was wondering because I heard the nurses talking. They said that if he hadn’t been there, you would have died. He called the ambulance. Weird that he didn’t wait around once they came. They said he just stood on the step until the paramedics went in and was gone when they came out. They said he went so quickly, it was like he’d vanished.”