Do you ever think of the time, Olivia, when we were stuck in the stairwell? Of the way I dived through the fire-stop door and down the stairs and you followed me all tap-tap and clatter in those pointy boots of yours, and one floor down, my floor, the exit door was locked? I huffed a little, tried it twice, did a U-turn, led the way back up the stairs, back to the floor where the lecture was, but that door, the one we’d just come through, had locked behind us.
One of your classmates was stepping into the lift, that tall guy with the ridiculous beard, but the corridor was empty. I called, knocked on the reinforced glass. The lift closed. I shook the change in my pocket.
‘Fire doors,’ I said. ‘They should have had a sign.’
‘There must be one open somewhere,’ you were consulting your cell phone, chewing your lip, ‘Sir.’ I didn’t correct it that time; the others had started using ‘Simon’ but not you. You didn’t look up. No doubt you had somewhere you had to be, someone you had to get to, in one of those flats up the road with closed curtains sagging from the curtain rod and a gutter filigreed with rust. I didn’t have the same urgency. There was only the café on the corner that appeared to expect me about this time, and knew without asking I needed a long black and a scone with butter. At eleven, there was another lecture to give. The students wouldn’t turn a hair if I did a no-show. They’d give me ten minutes and vacate the room in one.
‘It just died,’ you said, snapping the phone shut and thrusting it into your pocket. You looked at me then, expectantly. I shook my head and gestured, thumb down, towards my office. I had nothing with me except lecture notes. Your face shifted suddenly; you dropped the bag you were carrying, stepped towards the door, balled your small fist, and thumped on that reinforced glass. Harder than I had, quite hard for such a small person. You seemed to know what you were doing. I imagined you were the sort who woke people up when they over-slept. I stood watching in that cool concrete stairwell with no noise of its own except for the thud of your clenched flesh on hard glass and, in between thumps, tiny expulsions of air past that tiny nose stud. I saw the way your body vibrated like a guitar string each time you made contact. There was no fat on you, nothing loose or unnecessary. Nothing that jangled or twanged.
‘There’s no one there,’ I said.
‘There might be someone left in the lecture theatre.’ Your voice was vibrating too. You stopped hammering, anyway, and just stood looking through the glass at the empty corridor with its polished hospital floor. The only sign of life was a notice board with a large poster pinned to the middle that said ‘I ♥ my penis’ in red. It had been up for weeks – some plea for men to check their genitals – and was still unmarked. In my student days, it would have been defaced within hours: ‘is a weapon’ cut into that hopeful heart, and ripped down by lunchtime. Both actions applauded as political statements. Here, now, there was something coy and faintly onanistic about the poster’s virginity.
‘This is bloody ridiculous,’ I said. Not the poster, not you. The stupid business of the locked doors which meant that instead of lounging in my office marvelling at my student-friendly summaries of New Zealand poets, you were here in this stinking stairwell, getting rapidly irritated with me, and longing to go.
You dropped your head so your forehead touched the glass. I couldn’t tell if your eyes were open or shut.
‘A bloody nuisance,’ I said. ‘Have you ever used these stairs before?’
Spinning on one heel, you faced me, your forehead slightly pink from the cold glass, one eyelid drooping slightly. ‘Never.’
And then there it was again, ‘Sir.’
‘Neither have I. I thought it’d be a bloody good short cut. I haven’t got to know the building yet.’ I was stupidly cheery, making up for wasting your time, for upsetting you, all casual and ‘bloody this and that’. I tried to stop but it kept belching from my mouth in the same way I kept jingling my change. Bloody-chunk-chunk, bloody-chunk-chunk. Irritating you. Yes, you were vibrating with irritation now.
‘Oh,’ you said. Your eyes looking past me to the stairs and then back to the watch. It was a large watch, a man’s watch, a borrowed watch. I guessed the someone waiting for you would be looking at the kitchen clock or the bedside alarm to gauge whether it was really that time.
‘Let’s try another floor.’
‘Great idea,’ I chirruped, chunk-chunk, gesturing for you to go ahead and at the same time wrenching my hand from my pocket and patting your shoulder to emphasise our camaraderie. You shrugged at it lightly, slipped down those stairs and I followed. Ahead of me, your arse on the move: not one string now but six strings, a whole magnificent guitar solo.
It came to me then, a thought not entirely unrelated, if we couldn’t get out, if by some odd chance it was a long weekend and we starved to death in this stairwell, how would the world react? Not families and friends – that was a given – but the world in general, the writing world. Which of us would they miss more? Me with my two books of critically acclaimed poetry, maximum sales 400, one anthology and an extended essay on the work of artist/poet David Herring; or you with your half-baked prose poems with lines like ‘she kissed him with her mouth’? That’s tautology, Olivia. You know that now, don’t you? Kissing is with a mouth, that is an agreed fact. And in the same poem to come back to it, to berate the reader with: ‘she kissed him with her open mouth’. Well, I suppose that’s not so bad, it’s a need to know thing. An open mouth is different to a closed mouth. But all this kissing and mouths, thighs and eyes, affairs which leave you bleeding, hanging even. It doesn’t go anywhere, it’s so deeply familiar, so unextraordinary, the reader has no room to climb in.
In the end, of the two of us, whom?
You. Any day. With your tight jeans and spiky boots and your sullen Janis Joplin voice. They love you at poetry readings. They fall over their hard-ons to buy your slender self-published chapbook with its hand-sewn binding and original ink drawings. They line-up wanting you to caress their copy, sign the title page, blow on it to help it dry. That’s another one of your little contradictions – the fountain pen. It’s an old one, belongs to a father perhaps. You keep it in a narrow red box in the side pocket of your bag. I suspect that despite your shiny, nothing-hangs-out, no-one-sticks-to-me façade you are a person who bristles with borrowed things. Who can forget your title poem ‘Borrowed Boy’ with its plea to a two-timing lover?
Let me dine on your calves, your thighs,
your heart, your eyes
your chocolate prick.
Chocolate. Chunk. Chunk.
You were speaking to me but I’d missed it. ‘Well?’ you said, your heavy bag on the floor by a door exactly like the other two, your hands on your hips. ‘Got a plan?’
What had happened to ‘sir’? You’d tried the door and it was locked like the rest of them. At least you were looking at me.
‘Perhaps my office key?’
Your eyes narrowed. I thought I saw something gleam in their depths. I thrust it deep into the lock. Felt it glide in. Heard it click. I looked at you, my face flushed. You were flushed, too, I’m sure of it. For a moment there I was plugged into the national grid. If I’d reached out my hand I know you would have taken it. You would have shone like Christmas. Instead, I turned the key.
You leaned forward. I could hear you breathe. Tiny breaths for ink to dry by. I turned the key the other way. Leaned to it and listened like they do in the movies. Wrenched at the door handle. Nothing gave. I slid the key from the lock, my face as cool as the glass in front of me now, and turned. Too quickly. We collided or rather grazed each other, and my mouth touched your hair and my hand your hip.
You were fragrant. English meadows were fragrant. Down by the beach in the evening was fragrant. And you. I wanted, suddenly, disgustingly, to eat that hair. Fill my mouth with its scent: faintly floral, salty, slightly decomposing.
You recoiled, harrumphed, toted your bag, the heels of your boots tapping, and breasted the stairs again. You’d heard me grunt, then. For I had grunted I am ashamed to say. It was a visceral thing. I’d been engulfed.
Kiss with the mouth. Was there another way of kissing? I had puzzled this after I’d read what you wrote, light years before the stairwell. Maybe there was another way for the young, I thought. Maybe you kissed with your eyelids. Your winking navels.
I’d asked this in front of the class when I handed the assignments back. I’d talked about redundancy in poetry and how you were all at it. Kissing was an example. And kissing with a mouth was like, well, running with legs. There was a collective snigger. Without thinking, without knowing back then that your hair, pinched back with clips, held such perfume, I sought your face.
‘Is there another way of kissing, Olivia?’
You said nothing, just looked at me as if I were preserved in amber. Then you laughed, and you made them all laugh. That mouth of yours open wide and pushing out a sound not dissimilar to the sound of your boots.
You knew by the way I said ‘kissing’ that I was unfamiliar with the word. It sounded like a fly sucked in while I was running. The ‘k’ as it hit my tongue, the doubled ‘s’ like a small flurry of wings, ‘the ‘ing’ as it whacked at the back of my throat. And you laughed all that while ago, and you made them all hear what you’d heard, your hands flapping around your mouth to stop the hilarity. Or, I suspect, to fan it.
We were at the bottom of the stairs at last and the door to the car park was ahead of us. You took the lead, yanking the handle aggressively, in the same way you’d thumped the glass earlier. It was a tight space. Darker. Colder. The smell was intense and brittle: concrete, chilled air, urine, the whiff of meadow. In the reinforced glass of the door I saw the two of us: the dark and slender stalk of you and, a little behind you, the pale 4-by-2 of me. Reflected back on us I could see the rows of parked cars in the car park, and nobody. We stood like that. Our eyes locked on each other through the metal grids embedded in the glass.
You were the one who turned first. You moved slowly, sadly even. All your fire gone. Your tautness gone. Your mouth set loosely like a week-old rosebud.
You came away from the door and towards me. You knew you couldn’t run. You knew it was hopeless with your cheap boots, your clichés, your fragrant flagrant mouth.
I haven’t seen you since. You made sure of that.
I wish I could. Just the once. I want to ask you again, without a hint of mockery, ‘Is there another way of kissing, Olivia?’ And have you hear the way I say it now. Lightly as spit on a lip, grazing the word. Almost indifferent.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
2008 has been a dream year for Mary McCallum’s first novel The Blue, written for her MA in Creative Writing at Victoria University. It won Best First Novel and Readers’ Choice at the Montana New Zealand Book Awards, was short-listed for the Prize in Modern Letters, has had two reprints, been adapted for radio, and is being translated into Hebrew for the Israeli market. Mary won the Louis Johnson Prize to work on her second novel, Precarious, with publication expected in 2010. She also writes a blog called O Audacious Book and tutors in Creative Writing at Massey University. It was the latter which inspired her short story ‘The Stairwell’.