Steps to Heaven - Excerpt

One, and two, and three, and four, and five...   Joel climbs the steps leading to his holiday let in East Looe, a sleepy, coastal town in Cornwall.

And six, and seven, and eight, and nine, and ten…  His shopping is beginning to weigh heavily – just a couple of things: a loaf of bread, some ham and cheese, butter, jar of coffee, sugar – basics to help make his stay a little more comfortable.  It’s not a lot, but the climb along the steeply winding paths from the Co-op to the bottom of the steps that would take him further aloft to his accommodation perched somewhere on the hill above the seaside town has left him winded.  He is considerably better after his long stay in hospital, from which he had chosen to convalesce in Looe, but he is still ‘a tad’ unfit.

 

Eleven, and twelve, thirteen, fourteen, fifteen, sixteen …

 

“Good morning.”  A woman he recognises as staying in the house next to his passes him on the steps.  She is dressed in a pale pink padded coat which make her legs clad in caramel leggings appear spindly.  He thinks she looks a little like a Popsicle.  A bobble hat holds most of her blonde wind-whipped hair in place and a small rucksack, which is casually flung over her shoulder, catches a bit more.  The rest flies about her head in a frenzy, whipping her face … and his, too, as she passes him on the steps.

She catches his eye and grins, a little self-consciously, as they pass each other.

“You off to the shops, then?” he asks, more to be polite than for any real desire to chat.

“Ahh, yeah,” she replies and stops to engage the handsome stranger in some banal conversation about the particularly cold spell they are experiencing.

“Not at all like last year, is it?” she says.  “Don’t you think the sun shining on the sea makes it look almost Mediterranean, all blue, and deliciously inviting, but frigidly deceptive? Many times this month (and remember it’s been so cold it’s snowed, but not here in Looe – too much salt in the air, chases the snow away, don’t you know), anyway, I’ve been so tempted to take the plunge, but d’you remember the young man who dived in to retrieve his girlfriend’s watch this time last year when it wasn’t as cold? Anyway, he wasn’t in for too long but still had to be rushed to Derriford – hypothermia, you understand.”

Joel cuts into her rhetoric, anxious now to get to the top of the stairs and the relative safety of his temporary home, and somehow he convinces her to carry on down the steps.  He watches until she turns the corner at the bottom.  Then he turns away, takes a deep breath and resumes his climb.

Fourteen, fifteen… no.  Where was I? Twelve… no!

He looks back down, tries to re-count the steps he’s already climbed but can’t be sure he hasn’t counted that one already.

“Oh, dammit!” he exclaims, and with a resigned sigh he retraces his steps, “Sixteen!  It was sixteen.”  Once at the bottom, he looks up again at the mountain of steps. 

“What kind of fool builds a town all over such a steep hill?!”  he grumbles to himself. “And what kind of fool decides to recuperate in said place?”

One, and two, and three, and four, and five – quicker so as to make it up there.

And six, and seven, and eight, and nine, and ten, eleven, and twelve, thirteen, fourteen, fifteen – all in strict marching rhythm, helps him to concentrate. 

Lifting his right foot, placing it on the step and shifting his weight to his right foot; lifting his left foot, bringing it up and forward to the next step, counting as he climbs, deliberately, in time.

Sixteen, seventeen, eighteen, slower now, the burn just beginning.

“Keep going!” Puffed, he breathes the words.

Nineteen, twenty, counting all the way.

Twenty-one, twenty-two, twenty-three, twenty-four, twenty-five …

He hears the kids before he sees them and keeps his head down, refusing to make eye contact, counting his way up the steps, mouthing the words… twenty-six, twenty-seven, twenty-eight…

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© 2015 by Phoebe Wilby.