The 13th Step

Steps leading up to  a building (black and White)

Photo by Library of Congress on Unsplash

The taxi drops me at the bottom of the garden. I slowly climb the steps, their curves and ridges familiar beneath my feet. When I reach the tenth step – the big, flat one – I stop and gaze up at the house, at the paint peeling from the fascias, the estate agent’s sign nailed above the window. Angry clouds hang over the tiled roof.

I hear the wind rustling the leaves of the cherry tree, the rumble of traffic on the busy road. A child skips along the pavement behind me. For just one moment I let myself believe it is her.

A clap of thunder breaks my reverie. I climb the steps: eleven, twelve, stepping over number thirteen, just as Alice used to do. Her steps were lighter than mine.

“Race you,” she would shout, giggling as she ran up the steps, pigtails flying. She was so full of life, so free of cares, but never did I see her take the thirteenth step.

“Why do you do that?” I asked her once.

She looked at me, her mouth set in a firm line, before shrugging and pulling a face, her freckled nose screwed up, eyebrows furrowed.

“You know there’s no such thing as bad luck, don’t you?” I asked her.

Again, the shrug, that cheeky, mischievous look on her face. I batted her away, laughing as I sent her off to wash up for tea.

But I was wrong after all.

Inside, I throw my keys onto the side-table, ignoring the flashing of the answer-machine. I flick the switch on the kettle and wait for it to boil. The rain patters on the windows. She was born on a Thursday and it’s a Thursday again this year. Somehow, it makes it all the harder to bear.

Thursday’s child has far to go. I used to say the rhyme to her when she was a tot.

“What does that mean, Mummy?” She looked up at me, her eyes wide. “Will I go to the moon?”

“Who knows?” I said, pulling up the bedcovers, tucking her in tight. “Why not, if that’s where you want to go.”

She looked serious then. “I don’t know,” she said. “Maybe the moon. Or maybe Africa.”

I like to imagine she’s in Africa now, working with the elephants and giraffes. The posters, faded with age, still hang on her bedroom wall.

The kettle boils and I lift the teapot from the shelf and wipe it out before pouring in a splash of hot water. I put the lid on and swish it around, feeling the warmth of the liquid seep into the porcelain.

Alice made us a cup of tea once. She poured a thin, brown liquid from the pot, a look of triumph on her face. I took a sip and declared it the best tea I’d ever tasted, willing her father to do the same. He wrinkled his nose behind her back but smiled as he accepted her offer of a cup.

The house was different the next morning. I felt it before I opened my eyes, a stillness that made my heart flutter even before I raced to her bedroom door and saw the curtain blowing in the breeze.

I toss a teabag into the pot and pour the water on, breathing in the earthy scent of the leaves. My hand brushes against a glass as I reach for a mug. I am hit by a surge of longing for the tang of gin, the bitterness of vodka, the escape into oblivion. I steady myself against the worktop, clasping the mug to my chest, a fragile lifeline.

I can still hear the bang of the door as he walked out for the last time. It was only when I awoke, head in a pool of vomit, that I realised why he, too, was gone.

I walk into the living room and pull the sale documents from the pile of papers on the coffee table, read them through one last time.

Head in hands, I rock myself.

I reach for the photograph standing in its frame on the table, see her smile, ever-constant, never-changing. I place a kiss on her cheek and reach for the phone.

I listen to the voice on the other end of the line, calm, polite, professional as she tells me the buyer is ready to exchange. Am I?

I glance at Alice’s picture again. Around me the house shifts and settles.

“Yes,” I say, slipping the contract into its envelope.

It’s time to move on.

I hang up the phone and sit alone in the house I once loved, imagining it filled with life again. I gaze out the window, watching as a rainbow forms, arcing over the rooftops.

Just as quickly, it is gone again.


Julia Graves

Writer and teacher living in Valencia, Spain. Author of It’s Complicated, a collection of short stories about women, life and loss