Shahezah the witch raised her hooked staff high, high above into the sky, unlatched the hasp of a cloud and, with an ear-splitting crash, pulled down the stairs that led to the attic of heaven.
The hairs on my neck sprang up, and my head cracked in pain. I looked for Gabbie. She was in the crowd that had formed, drawn from their picnics and outdoor gatherings and exercise routines. They strained their eyes upwards, along the diminishing silver chain of risers, upwards, to a tiny distant square of darkness which sat polyp black on the pure blue sky.
‘I am Shahezah,’ the witch announced to the growing throng, ‘and this, this is your access to the afterworld, the hope and reach of all humankind, the desire and dream of you all. This is the portal to paradise, the freedom from fears and grief, the ascent to the light. This is the attic of heaven.’
She stood with one foot on the first step as she spoke, a hand on the railing that bordered one side of the staircase, her hooded robe flowing faintly in the breeze, her staff standing tall and erect on Mother Earth.
The crowd, now large, stood still, awe struck at this extraordinary sight. They had had no warning. The witch had arrived and acted unannounced, unheralded. She had simply appeared and, like a busker in costume, drawn a crowd by performing a totally breathtaking act.
Then Shahezah said ‘Come, climb with me. If you are brave and strong enough, come and see the light!’ And she began climbing the steps.
The crowd murmured and a mass began to mill towards the staircase. The mob became dense around me, shoulders pushing, feet being trod upon, as slowly the crowd like a stream in a storm funnelled towards the stairs.
I looked at Gabbie, who seemed equally stunned by the scene, judging by the lines on her forehead.
She said, ‘Shall we?’ I nodded, and we joined the throng needling its way to the bottom of the ladder. Why? It was quite simple. Never had such a thing been seen, never would this opportunity arise again. And never was the promise so great or visible.
We held hands as we were jostled by the crowd. When we reached the first step we thought to kiss each other, in celebration of the moment, but were pushed up by the momentum of the horde. So our last step on earth was unceremonious. I let Gabbie go before me, and, grabbing the stair rail behind her, I looked down and glimpsed a spot of the grass where the ladder rested.
The stairs were made of a shining metal, I thought perhaps carbon laced steel, but in reality I had no idea. It might have been an element undiscovered on our earth.
The climbing was slow due to the crowd. I looked up and down. Many people held selfie sticks, or just took pictures with their arms outstretched. It was a clear day; the photos would be good. The climbing paused every now and then, again due to the crowd, and at those moments I took the opportunity to touch Gabbie’s back, and she’d turn and smile and ask me if I found it as compelling as she. Or we’d catch that missed kiss, a brief but passionate recognition of the excitement of our sudden joint adventure.
We were quickly at tree height. For the first time in my life – and the last when I thought about it – I saw the tops of the woodland beside the park where the stairwell stood. I could see the city skyline protruding over the horizon and the expanse of housing in the foreground. Closer to us, more and more people were running to the staircase, adults, children, teenagers. An old woman dressed in purple cardigan waved to a young family as they began their ascent. To one side a woman hugged a man with one arm and with the other held two toddlers close to her side.
I stepped onwards, following Gabbie’s feet as she climbed. An air of excitement still rippled along the stairway. People were chatting now, asking how others were going, restating how exciting it all was, and wondering what it would be like at the top. Would they fit though the manhole? (‘Not with your gut,’ chided one person, but it was friendly). Was it actually lit, up there in the attic, even though it looked dark from down here? How far away was it? How was there a hole in the sky when astronauts just travelled up into space? Whatever the answer, it was going to be thrilling to find out.
At one pause I tried to catch sight of Shahezah. I stood on my toes to see above the heads of those above me, but it was no good. I leaned out over the edge of the stair rail, but again without success. When I tried again, I thought I caught a glimpse of her staff way above us, but I was not sure. Then the climbing started again.
It grew arduous. Gabbie and I were fit – we’d not long come back from trekking the Himalayas – but this was a grind. Always up, always stairs, and no relief. At least at Thyangboche there were coffee stalls in rickety wood shacks selling sweetened black coffee in cracked cups. But not here. Here it was all up.
I looked down. We had come a long way. I could make out the flashing blue and red lights of police cars and ambulances. Why ambulances I could not gather, maybe to tend to anyone who fell or was too exhausted. I wondered if they would try to stop people climbing.
I looked up. I could only just see the hole in the sky between the bobbing heads of those in front of me. Was it larger now, or were we not close enough? I tapped Gabbie on the butt. She turned a smiled vaguely, then turned back. She didn’t talk much in Nepal, not on the track anyway. Not on the climbs. She focussed all her might on the climb.
It was not long before we came across the first ones to sit down. A woman in shorts and t-shirt sat on a stair, her head leaning on one of the uprights, her eyes closed. A friend stood a step below inquiring after her well-being.
The queue slowed to overtake them. As we did so we clung to the railing to make sure we didn’t topple off.
The number of seated people increased the further we climbed. Soon there were groups of them, lined on the side of the staircase, teary- eyed. Some looked up at us with broken, desperate eyes. Their skin was pallid, and perspiration covered their brows. What to do, I wondered, as the two of us passed them awkwardly.
Then we encountered people coming down.
‘We’ve given up,’ they said.
We manoeuvred past them carefully, arms around each other, grasping the railing, taking care lest a foot slip. We gave them thin smiles. We too were tiring.
But we were determined. We had come this far. Would we turn back? Should we? How far back was it?
I looked back down the steep incline. All I saw were heads. People forged their way upwards, people seated in exhaustion, the backs of a couple who had just passed us on the way down. I couldn’t see the ground. I couldn’t see the earth. We had left that hours ago. We were committed.
Up ahead it was obvious how the crowd was thinning. We had passed too many now who were sitting defeated on the stairs, or had commenced their descent in the sparse hope of returning. I know what it’s like to descend a steep slope. It kills the knees. Gravity pulls your body down and the task is less about walking down than it is about staying upright and not falling.
We were way up, I can’t say how far, but there were wisps of cloud though which we could occasionally see the distant earth beneath us like a patchwork of green quilts, when the staircase started to sway. I almost fell, and bent back waving my arms for balance. Gabbie was thrown on to the railing. Fear shot up my spine and I twisted in a last effort to avoid falling. I just caught the railing and hauled myself to a safe position, and clung on.
Gabbie sat with her eyes shut, her arms tightened around a baluster, her knees crimped beneath her chin. I crouched on the stair below her, clinging to a baluster. My nose was close to her knee. I kissed it lightly, but she did not react.
The swaying grew worse as a wind picked up. It was chilled, and violent, assaulting us in bitter gusts from all directions. The staircase rose and fell, jumped and twisted. Sometimes my feet left the step and only my hands were connected to the staircase. I heard screams all around. A body up above me fell. I glanced in horror as it disappeared from sight, but the stairs suddenly dropped, and I was suspended briefly in the air, until gravity crushed me back on to the metal. Gabbie screamed; I think I did too. The stair twisted. I was at ninety degrees and about to fall when it righted itself and I fell backwards into a baluster. I kept my grip though, with whitening knuckles and stubbornly worked my way closer to Gabbie.
Then the sleet started. Thick rain, ice crisp in its sharpness, whipped our faces and clothing. It was accompanied by a howling wind. I buried my face in Gabbie’s knees; she had burrowed into her locked arms. The rain slashed at our backs and jolted us with thunder and malice. Soaked clothes clung to our bodies. Our ears were deafened by the storm. I clung to the uprights, as the wind and water worked to untangle me and send me spiralling to an invisible abyss. I heard the wails of fellow climbers, the screams as their bodies were wracked by the stinging rain, and the stairway swung like a leaf in the storm.
I thought, this is what hell is, the pursuit of heaven, and waited for the wind and rain to take me.
A voice called though, and I looked up. The cankered leer of Shahezah bent low to me and I heard her scream, ‘The brave and strong! Get up. Be brave!’
She wasn’t holding on. She had her staff in one hand and rode the violent undulations of the staircase as surfer might a wave. The rain spat at her cowl, but she was oblivious. She grinned and howled up and down the stairs, ‘Get up, my children, arise and walk!’
I couldn’t fathom if this was encouragement or mockery. She was either taunting us or marshalling our wills. I berated myself for having given myself over so easily to the witch’s temptation of paradise back on earth, having no idea what I was in for. She’d duped us. We had envisaged an exhilarating ascent accompanied by seraphim and singing choirs; instead we’d been given bitter rain and imminent death. I felt utterly stupid.
A body belted past me, its scream swallowed by the tempest.
The witch said, ‘You falter here or you live at the summit!’
A hard truth. Energised by bitterness I attempted to rise, but the stairs bucked and sent me flying into the air then rose to meet my plummeting body. I stumbled down some stairs and managed to grab a baluster. I heard Gabbie scream my name, and saw her extend her arm to me. Rain whipped my face. My body ached and shook with cold. The stairs swung sideways, and my feet slipped. But I held on, my body half over the open edge. Then the wind lifted me and I caught Gabbie’s outstretched hand and she dragged me back on the riser as a wash of splintered rain thrashed at my face and skin.
I roared, and rose once more. The stairs jolted again, like a wild beast attempting to upset me, but I hung on and let my knees manage the movement. I took a step up. The wind howled. I howled back and it spat at me with lacerating torrents. I reached for Gabbie. She was shaking, and crying, and stuck to the railings. She yelped as the stairs dropped and rose, bashing her frame on the metal stairs.
She flung her arms about me and shoved her head into my shoulder. I held her and the railing, and in this manner we recommenced our climb. They weren’t going to defeat us. We’d get there and find out what the hell this was. I held her close, and she walked backwards in time with my steps. When the stairs bucked we squatted and rode the motion. We closed our eyes against the rain and felt it claw at our flesh.
Shahezah passed us, descending. I heard her call to others to let her pass.
A thought hit my dulled mind. Was she leaving us? Was she returning to earth? Had she brought us here to torture us, and was now leaving us to a grizzly fate? She quickly vanished, and I felt alone. Battered, near death, trapped in a miserable choice of up or down, both equally ominous. I paused, and the rain ran needles into my neck.
At least that had a taint of hope. Witch or not, up held some mote of prospect: down, we would doubtlessly flounder and fall.
I groaned against the storm, let it lash my face, and drove my legs up a step. Then another, and so on.
I do not know how long I kept this up for, with Gabbie clinging to my chest, egging each other on. She gave me a determination, if not to get to the top, at least to exhaust our joint reserves in the attempt. I don’t recall if I screamed or cried in the effort, or remained stolidly quiet. I heard nothing save the odd scream of a person flung earthwards in the dark. I saw nothing either. Rain at this level is the cloud, and the clouds blackened my vision each time I risked opening my eyes.
But I do know, after however long I had struggled up these tortuous stairs, it slowly became easier. The wind declined, the rain diminished and eventually it was clear.
A brilliant sunshine washed over our backs and sought to dry our hair and clothes. I opened my eyes and immediately shut them as the sunlight burst into my eyeballs. Gabbie and I settled for a while on a stair. We still held on to each other, and me to the railing, but the staircase was now still. I gradually reopened my eyes, slowly to accommodate the light, squinting at the brilliance that was Gabbie sitting one stair above me. I smiled at her. She returned the favour, and we hugged hungrily, one hand on the railing. She said, ‘You’ve survived this extremely well.’
I looked at myself. Battered hoodie and leggings, worn out runners. The flesh on my hands haggard with the scars of the storm. A trick of the light, no doubt. An expression of relief. I kissed her hair. It was smooth and dry, soft like it had just been cleaned. I thought, ‘Are we safe now?’
We were through the storm. We were bathed in warmth. We felt unexpectedly, strangely invigorated. No doubt this was relief at surviving the storm. But the truth was, we were perched on a narrow staircase in the middle of the sky, some – what, kilometres? – above the earth. Were we still even connected to the ground? Were people still down there, wherever it was, still trying to get on and start the ascent? Would I have started had I known what we had had to undergo?
I looked up through narrowed eyes. The manhole was still there, but it was larger, more visible. I thought I saw someone at its edge, peering down at us, but maybe it was another trick of the light, a chimera of longing for our strange ordeal to end.
I calculated how far we might be from the manhole, how long it might take to reach it. My concern was that the sun would be as unforgiving as the storm had been. That we would fry up in here in the unbridled heat. That, whereas the storm had threatened to drown us, the white sun would desiccate us, and leave to die on the stairs with distended tongues and suppurating blisters on our necks.
This turned out to be the case. I won’t relay the details, but suffice to say the climb was arduous, raging against the insufferable heat, our bodies pleading for liquids. But in this stage, two things were different. The first was the vista. We could see our goal. The manhole above was clearly nearer to us than it had been before. The target was real and in sight. We were approaching an explanation to the mystery of this infernal stairwell.
The second was the sight – the vision – of Gabbie. The higher we climbed, the lovelier she became. I had always loved her, but now it seemed something had changed. It was as if the latent forces of beauty that had formed her features had been let loose to finish a job that I had no idea needed finishing.
She turned and said, ‘Look at me, I’m burnt to a cinder!’
But she wasn’t. She was angelic, pure skinned and radiant. My heart burgeoned with a levity that outshone the crackling sunlight. Her smile was as grand as the earth we had just left. ‘You look extraordinary,’ she said. ‘What about you?’ I said, and we both smiled at each other, strangely ignorant of what and who we were or what we were doing.
I checked up and down the stairs. There were far fewer of us now, I could see perhaps half a dozen, maybe less. I didn’t bother counting. I wondered what had become of the rest. Had they survived the storm? Had they been thrown off? Or had they given up and gone back? A tremulous sense of triumph flitted through my brain. Were Gabbie and I to be congratulated for getting this far? Or pitied? I couldn’t say.
There was only one thing to do: climb.
So we did, and felt the burn and fatigue o fthe unrelenting heat.
But after some time – I have no idea how long, it could have been days for all I knew, so disoriented had I become – we arrived at the long-promised manhole.
It was about a metre square. It was totally ordinary, wholly unprepossessing. It had no adornment or gilt edges or any other accoutrement that might be expected to decorate a trapdoor to heaven. It was just like the manhole in the ceiling in our pantry, but larger: square, wooden and slightly stained with age.
The stairwell continued into it. As we clambered up hands came out to assist and a voice said, ‘Here you go,’ and I was aided off the stairs.
My legs were jelly, my skin burned and my head pounded. I looked around, stunned, unable to comprehend what this was. I searched for Gabbie, who was seated on a long lounge. She was sipping a drink from a large cup. She smiled and waved and a strange but gentle lustre light about her lifted my spirits. I flung myself next to her, and for the first time in what seemed a lifetime I was able to rest my body. My legs shook, my arms trembled and the cool air of the space we were in flaunted its comforts across my quivering frame.
I snuggled close to her. We were nose to nose. I thought she was crying, but no, it was a giggle. A light-hearted and childish titter that was somehow apt for the moment.
‘We did it,’ she said. ‘We did it.’ And we hugged and laughed and tears of relief streamed down our cheeks and never did I feel she was more wonderful than at that moment. She had not suffered the same sunburn as I had. Her arms and hands were smooth and glowed with vitality. Any stain of perspiration in her hair had dissipated, and her locks flowed luxuriantly about her shoulders. Her eyes were clear and alive.
A voice said ‘Here, Mr Anderson, drink this.’ A woman wearing what looked like hospital scrubs was offering me a drink, from the same sort of large mug that Gabbie had been sipping from.
‘I’m Beatrice, but please call me Bea,’ the woman said, and then added, ‘It’s a kind of energy drink.’
I thanked her and looked at her more closely as she stood over me attentively. Her outfit was like scrubs, but far better. In my dazed state I struggled to see how; maybe it was the cut of the leg, or the high grade of fabric in the tunic. I was about to remark on it when I took a sip of the drink, and immediately an energy surged through my leaden limbs. It slated my thirst in a single mouthful, and an internal sense of rejuvenation ripped through my body. I felt strong again, like I could conquer the stairs a second time for the sheer fun of it. I felt golden, alive.
Then I realised, she had used my name. I said, ‘Excuse me, but how did you know my name?’
‘I’ve seen your photograph,’ she said.
‘What photograph?’ I said.
‘Come and join us when you’re ready,’ she said, ‘and I’ll show you.’
I looked over to where she had indicated, and saw a group of similarly clad people working on something at a large desk. They had computer screens up and were looking at the screen and then the people in the room and chatting to each other.
Nonplussed, I looked about the room to try to get some bearing on where we had climbed to. It was an attic. Above me were the rough timbers of the roof work, the rafters and batons and the sarking behind them. Cross beams kept the angled woodwork strong and formed a regimented series of triangles from one end of the space to the other.
It was cavernous. Lit by mainly globes that were strung from high in the ceiling, people milled about. There were a number like me, sitting in couches, sucking on straws which poked from large mugs. People like Beatrice scurried around attending to them. To my right – where I had seen the desk of people – were banks of computers and other administrative items.
Just as I turned to look left a group of the people bent down to the manhole and heaved a grey-haired man into the attic. Despite his muscular appearance, he fell on the floor and shook, gasping for breath, his body contorted with effort.
Two of the personnel lifted him and carried him to a row of beds that lay on my left. They placed him in one and hooked him up to what I surmised was a bank of devices to monitor his vital signs.
Someone said, ‘I reckon he’ll be the last.’
I could see the blood pressure cuff and other tubes that linked him to the machines. I watched the heart monitor. His heartbeat wavered. The monitor sporadically blipped with a beat, then flat lined. The staff gave him oxygen, and inserted a drip. The air was feverish with concern. But after a while the blips began to triumph. They were not strong, but they increased in frequency, and the periods of flat line reduced.
Watching this, I figured the attic was a sort of triage space, with its rest areas and ICU beds and admin areas, when one of the staff called out to a colleague across the way.
‘Judith, I don’t think he’s going to make it.’ A woman hurried across the space and checked the patient’s signs – his pulse, and eyeballs, the machines and the charts at the end of the bed. The heart monitor showed a regular rhythm, and I saw the man breathe in deeply and sigh. He looked good, he’d make it
After a few minutes of close analysis and consultation with the three attending bed staff, Judith said,
‘I agree.’ She wrote something on a chart and then said, ‘You can send him back.’
I watched in disbelief as one of the nurses opened a door beside the bed while the other two picked up the body and flung it into the sky.
I leapt to my feet and yelled at them.
‘What are you doing? That guy was getting better!’
Bea came over. ‘No, it’s okay Mr Anderson, he didn’t make it.’
‘What do you mean he didn’t make it? He was alive and you just chucked him out of the window! He’ll die on impact!’ I felt like hitting someone. I wanted to scream. This was insane.
But Beatrice just smiled. “Oh no,’ she said, ‘he’ll live. We’re sure of that. Judith is very good at assessing incomers.’
I was appalled. I looked at Gabbie who had risen and stood beside me, holding my arm.
“Did you see what happened?’ I said, and she nodded. I turned to face Beatrice. ‘What is this place? How do we get out?’
She smiled again and said in a calm voice, ‘Let me show you.’ She indicated we should follow her, but we stood our ground.
‘Come,’ she said.
‘What for?’ I said. ‘What are you going to do to us? Are you going to throw us out the window like that poor man?’
‘Good heavens, no,’ said Beatrice. ‘You’ve arrived. Come, let me show you.’
Gabbie and I stared at each other. I looked about for some escape route. A short distance away was a skylight, with a short set of stairs leading up to it. That, and the great staircase we had climbed seemed to be the only exits.
‘Please,’ said Beatrice. ‘If you’re able to go you can, but please let me show you the photos I mentioned. It’ll help you understand.’
I glared at her. ‘No one’s going to trap us, or lock us away?’
She laughed. ‘Goodness what a thought, Mr Anderson, we’ve never ever done anything remotely like that. Come, please.’
Keeping a distance, we followed her to the desk where her colleagues were working. She said, ‘Samson, could you bring up the photos from the newspapers for Mr Anderson to see?’
When he had done so he pushed back from the screen and Beatrice said, ‘Come and look. It’ll be a bit shocking for you, but you’ll understand what’s gone on. We’ll stand back and give you plenty of room.’
Each of them – Beatrice, Samson, and two others who were there – took a few paces back, leaving the screen open for us to view. We approached it warily.
On the screen was a newspaper with the heading:
PARK EXPLOSION: THE 18 WHO DIED
Beneath that were rows of headshots with names underneath.
About half way down I saw me, and my name beneath it: Jonathan Anderson, 29.
Two photos further along was Gabbie: Gabrielle Jones, 29.
I gasped and stepped back. Gabbie looked at me, her hand over her mouth. I took her other hand and we looked at the other people about us who had been with us on the stairs. There was a man on a nearby couch. He waved at us and smiled. I turned to scrutinise the screen. There he was above me: Steven Kelly, 42.
Beside him was another man. Aaron Fletcher, 35.
There was Mohammed Jilal, 48, and Sabrina Hanson, 47. Dok Mai Anurak 24 and, probably her husband, Boon Nam Anurak, 28.
One of them, a silver haired man looked exactly like the man that had been thrown out the window. Simon Curtain, 52.
I stared open mouthed at Beatrice. She stepped in close and said, ‘Gabbie, Jonathon, please, take a seat.’
We sat, as she explained.
A couple days ago you were exercising in Hamden Park, and there was an explosion. Quite a few people were injured and eighteen people died. Seventeen actually, Contrary to expectations, Mr Curtain has regained consciousness and will make a fairly full recovery; this news article is from yesterday. But the point is, you, Gabrielle and you, Jonathon, were two of the victims. Along with your fellows here.’ She waved her arms in the direction of Steven Kelly and the others. Steven waved again.
I looked at the floor, searching for some reference point, struggling for an answer.
‘What about the stairs?” I said.
Beatrice smiled that radiant smile again and said, ‘Dying can be a slow or quick process. It can be easy or it can be arduous. Mr and Mrs Anurak shot up here in a jiffy. You and some of the others took longer. You fought harder. Your determination either way was fierce. You need have no worry. Death is for the strong and brave.’
‘But what about that man, that Mr Curtain?’ said Gabbie.
‘As I said, he’s alive and, well, not well just at the moment, but he’ll get better.’
‘You mean you –‘ said Gabbie.
“We threw him back to life. He fought hard to get here, but Judith could see it, he wasn’t in a state to stay.’
‘So all those people who fell off the stairs as we climbed on -’ I said.
‘Were people surviving the blast,’ said Beatrice. ‘People returning to life. Life on earth I mean.’
I stood up.
‘So,’ I said, not wanting to say it, ‘we’re dead.’
Beatrice nodded, and said, ‘And you’ve never looked better. You’ve noticed how radiant Gabbie is, I take it?’
I had. We looked at each other. We smiled, a taut smile that squeezed tears from our eyes. We hugged and held each other close and tight, so tight the heavens wouldn’t have been able to separate us. Her body was warm on mine, her scent as refined and exquisite as the sky after rain, her skin lush and pure. She whispered, ‘You look so handsome.’
When we finally let each other go I said, ‘But what about Shahezah?’
‘Who?’ said Beatrice.
‘Shahezah, the witch who pulled the stairs from heaven and lead us up here.’
‘Is that what you call her?’
‘That’s who she said she was,’ I said.
Beatrice looked at me with a solemn face. She said,
‘A figure in a black robe, with its face hidden in a black hood –‘
‘And a hooked staff,’ I said.
‘Hook/blade, a staff maybe. No one these days would know what a scythe looks like.’ said Beatrice.
‘Why did she call herself Shahezah?’ said Gabbie.
Beatrice shrugged. ‘I don’t really know. I suspect working down by herself there can be pretty lonely at times, so she mixes it up a bit. She’s actually quite playful when she’s on a break.’
My mind flashed to her face on the stairs, when she had exhorted me to continue in the storm. The haggard lines in her brow, the dark and lipless mouth.
‘And she went back down –‘ I said.
‘To carry on her work,’ said Beatrice.
Gabbie and I sat down again. Thoughts whirled in my head. But the truth of it was undeniable. I had urged Gabbie to come for a run that day. I could have not done so. We could have gone right instead of left. We could have … should have … But we didn’t. we were there in the green grass maintaining a good pace when boom, the sky flashed and the ground broke around us. What caused it, what did our corpses look like, how many were injured, who did it? Et cetera, et cetera. We had no idea.
Whatever the answers to these questions, the irrefutable fact was, we were here. We had arrived here after an arduous ordeal and now … Well now, as Beatrice had said, we looked fabulous. Or at least Gabbie did. There were no mirrors here, so I couldn’t see myself, but I was aware the sunburn on my arms had disappeared, and I felt strong and fit. Maybe there are no mirrors in heaven. I said to Beatrice,
‘Bea, I don’t see any mirrors here.’ I felt silly for saying it, but after the enormity of what we had been through and what had just been revealed to us, I sought the inane.
She smiled accommodatingly, and said,
‘The splendour of the heaven, is to behold the life in others, and not seek it in yourself. Others will behold the life in you. In this way we sustain the life of the world, and engender the peace of being. In many ways it turns out, percipi est esse.’
I turned to Gabbie and stroked her hair, our faces close.
‘Hello, beautiful,’ I said.
‘Hello, beautiful back,’ she said.
We turned to Beatrice. ‘What happens now?’
‘Now,’ she said, ‘we do stage two. Which is a lot easier than stage one. You’ll see over there some racks of clothing. Pick some out, enjoy yourselves, go crazy. There is no end of choice. Then, when you’ve got something you like, you walk over to the skylight at the far end of the attic. You saw it before when you were looking for an escape route, Jonathon.’
‘Don’t be embarrassed. There are six stairs there – and I apologise for yet another staircase, but it’s only six this time I promise. We call it Jacob’s ladder. It’s our little joke.’ She paused to enjoy the humour, and then continued, ‘You climb the six stairs, open the skylight, and let the marvel begin.’