I stood for a moment, watching him retreat somewhere beneath. As soon as he cleared my view I started down the second ladder. In my condition, I had no choice but to trust this man. A tear in my jeans caught on a loose screw on the ladder and ripped further. Unable to disentangle myself gracefully, I tumbled the final metre or so into this underground antechamber, falling onto my side. There was no styling it out, but I managed to break the worst of my fall.
“Here,” he appeared next to me and grabbed my wrist to help me up. “Sorry for skipping a step, but I wasn’t going to leave you in pain at the end of a ladder for the sake of bloody ceremony. Besides, there’s no one here to report us. Unless you’re here to report me, which would be terribly cruel of you considering I’m about to make you tea.”
“Uh…” was all I could manage in my pain and confusion. Report him to whom? And for what? If he wasn’t worried about who I was, then I was safe, for the time being.
“Like I said, no problem. I’ll get you some bread and beer.” He walked off, leaving me to rest on a small work stool by the ladder. “I’m Stephen, by the way. And you are?” He called through from an adjoining room, followed by the sound of a kettle rumbling as it was switched on.
I hesitated for a moment. I felt the engravings on my knuckledusters. Jaycee’s knuckledusters. “Jaycee,” I croaked. I may have to trust him, but not completely and not for long, I told myself.
“I’m making you tea, Jaycee,” he said, “but first, here we go.”
He brought through a flimsy metal tray with two crackers and two thimbles of beer. I, or should I say Jaycee, stood and he placed the tray on the stool where I had just been perching. “Bread and beer, be welcome here,” he said.
“In good faith and good cheer,” I replied. The words felt bitter. I’d said them too many times of duty and not enough of pleasure. Or perhaps it was that my relationship with this man was already premised on a lie. A lie that, if he had any part in my burial, might already have known.
We each took a cracker and a thimble of beer and fed each other the bread first, then the beer. The most superstitious believed that, were a crumb of bread or a drop of beer to fall on the floor, the meeting was doomed and should be instantly avoided. Some would go so far as to never see that person again for fear of what might come.
“Right then, tea. Given we don’t know each other, you can make it yourself…” Stephen brought through a fine china cup and saucer, a choice of two kinds of tea in unopened boxes, a teaspoon, an unopened box of sugar, and a lemon all on a small metal tray. He disappeared again and came back with a boiling kettle, a bowl part-filled with cold water, towels, and a second mug for himself.
The tea was very welcome; to be honest I probably would’ve accepted any show of kindness from anyone given the state I was in.
Stephen took a sip of his tea. “You need a shower. I have one through the shop. The workshop, I mean. I don’t sell stuff. Not anymore, anyway.” He studied me, though it didn’t feel sexual; it was almost utilitarian. “I have shoes you can have, too. Do you think you can stand?”
I hadn’t yet begun to make the tea. This was all happening very fast. I didn’t normally take showers in men’s homes without having been there fifteen minutes. Already, the warmth of Stephen’s underground home was uncomfortable on my chilled skin, much like when a hand that’s been in freezing water feels scorched by something lukewarm. I wasn’t ready for a shower, but looking at my frozen feet (which were, gratefully, less blue) and fearing their loss, I rested the empty cup back on the tray and stood. Every muscle cried out, every nerve screamed with pain as I rose, carefully and gracefully as I could. Goodness knows why I cared about style and grace right then. Had I been able to see myself at that point, I might have realised the folly in it. Still, I followed him through to the other room.
Stephen’s ‘shop’ reminded me a little of my mum’s old shed. Mum would often be in it, whittling wood, building some contraption to water the plants so she didn’t have to, or sometimes growing something illegal. The main difference between the shed and this was in size. Despite the lighting, the room was huge, and some corners were not well lit, perhaps masking its true size.
Stephen set the shower running in a small bathroom behind a moveable wooden screen in a corner of the workshop.
“I don’t have a… changing room,” he admitted. “But this screen moves, so. You’ll know where I am… I’ll be playing that piano.” He pointed across the room. “And… I don’t have any clothes that’ll fit you very well, but we’ll make something work, okay? Here’s a towel.” I nodded mutely and stepped behind the screen, pulling it across to cover the area. The sound of an exotic tango played on an old piano playfully entered the cavern. It was a welcome distraction from the pain I had been struggling to ignore.
There didn’t really seem to be any controls; it was apparently set to some singular warm temperature. Steam started to fill the room. I removed the remains of my clothes but kept hold of the knuckledusters, just in case. Stephen’s show of kindness wasn’t enough yet. Something in him warmed something in me. Another kind of warmth, more internal. A common understanding, perhaps.
I tested the water. The shower was set up to be like a natural waterfall, with the corner behind the screen designed as a wet room. Warm water flowed from a ledge high in the wall, crashing down onto a sort of flooring made of pumice. Standing on the rough surface was sore, and the water made my wounds sting at first, though this quickly passed. I closed my eyes and imagined a hotel I had stayed at a long time ago. My parents had taken me away on my first holiday. Every time they went swimming in the pool, I always tagged along with them to the Jacuzzi. I liked the bubbles, and how they felt on the soles of my feet and the small of my back. The sacral nerve, I learned later. Right at the base of the spine. It’s that bit that tingles when a masseur knows what they’re doing. Anyway, sometimes my parents wanted some alone time, but that was fine – I found another water feature I liked. There was this tall stack of fake rocks in the centre of the pool with water pumped up to the top so that it crashed back into the pool at various points. Or on top of my head.
While I was dreaming, piano music had started from the other side of the screen. It flowed softly, a melancholic tune providing an ideal backdrop for such memories.
A loud crash shook me from my reverie. I didn’t know how to turn the shower off, so I gripped my only weapon and stepped carefully out of the water, grabbing a towel to wrap around my waist. The music had stopped.