Once upon a time – so the story goes – there lived an old man all alone, cold and miserable, in a deep forest. Actually Dave lived in a well-heated flat at the top floor of a large apartment building. Since his wife’s death his daughter visited once every two weeks, filled his fridge with very healthy food and took his washing. Slightly wheezing he spent his days shuffling from bed to chair, to kitchen, to window. Any more exertion caused a nasty bout of coughing. Emphysema, the doctor had called it and given medication. Radio and television he used sparingly but he enjoyed the view from his windows. Tops of cars driving in and out of parking spaces, heads and shoulders of people entering or leaving the front gate, children flailing their arms while speeding on skate boards. From his bedroom window he could see a cluster of trees, a well-fenced pond and a mostly empty playground. Above – clouds, lots of them, always changing shapes and so near that he felt like reaching out to touch them.
There was a small balcony, bordered by a waist-high concrete wall. Before his wife had placed too many plant pots one could have put a chair out in the sun. Dave spent careful time tending the plants through the seasons, in his wife’s memory. Sometimes he had the extra job of cleaning fine dust from all balcony surfaces which had blown in when the wind was in that direction, from the crematorium at the cemetery behind the trees. Then Dave’s wheezing had become a real bother. The bird table, protruding over the balcony’s ledge, which he had installed ages ago at his wife’s wish, brought some diversion. He loved to watch the busy little visitors from the sky.
One day Dave noticed more activity on the balcony. Two birds were constructing a nest in the big bush in the corner where the branches had grown well above the concrete wall. Not many weeks later one bird was patiently sitting in the nest, looking at Dave without apparent fear. Eventually, as expected, small cheeps could be heard from three yellow wide open beaks. Fascinated he spent hours watching how the parents flew in and out with titbits of food for these three ever-hungry little ones. They grew larger, shaking their shiny feathers as their home became decidedly crowded. Now they were more daring, scrambling towards the rim of the nest, with flapping wings. Until the inevitable had to happen. Dave watched, agitated and helpless, how one of the fledglings balanced on the nest’s rim, lost his foothold and tumbled down into the abyss, out of sight.
Strangled wheezes emerged from Dave’s chest. He had to sit down. What could be done to save this innocent creature from the dangers of solid ground? He must rescue it. Years had past since he had left his flat as the endless flight of stairs was like a prison gate. Could there be a way out? Perhaps he could divide the trip somehow? There were landings on each floor where one could rest. A chair was needed. Of course that folding canvas chair from ancient fishing trips might be useful. Through tight lips a little smile appeared. “ I could do that” he loudly told himself. The light weight canvas chair was found and dusted. Shoes became more of a problem since Dave’s feet had swollen considerably over the last few years. Never mind; he would keep his slippers on. Nothing could stop him now.
Shouldering his chair he walked through the door and slowly, step by step, made his way down. It was surprisingly easy. Having managed three floors his heart was racing and he unfolded his chair for a rest. Not bad. Not bad at all. He continued his journey till he arrived at ground floor. Such a heavy front door! It felt like moving the boulder from the grave of Christ. Unsteady steps took him along the foot path around the building, anxiously keeping his glance on the ground for the little bird. Looking up to find the location of his balcony he felt dizzy and had to steady himself on the trunk of a nearby tree. Against the overwhelming height of the building the clouds looked quite small from his new position.
Dave could not find the little bird. Slumped on his chair he contemplated the situation. “What are you doing here grandpa? Lost something?” A young woman with a boy in school uniform asked. “You lost what? A bird?? Well well. I suppose he fell into this tree and his mum is looking after him now. Or else the cat got him. – Shall I walk you back into the house? It’s getting a bit chilly.” At the entrance the woman and child skipped up the stairs till a door clanked shut.
Dave now readied himself to climb a mountain. Firmly gripping the railing he mounted the first stair with one foot, then let the other follow. How many times would he have to repeat this? The first landing came into sight and soon Dave flopped into his chair, with trembling legs. What did it matter how long the climb would take? After all, no one was waiting for him at home.
Little by little Dave conquered each floor. People would overtake him with hardly a glance, others managed a greeting. On level three a stout woman panted up the stairs, carrying two bags of shopping. An orange tabard flashed under her flapping fleece jacket. “These stairs will kill me! It looks as if you have sussed it out. A chair. Good idea. Do you have far to go?” Her door clanged shut, only to be opened again shortly afterwards. ”Good, you are still here. I thought you might like a cup of tea.” She handed him one of two mugs. Together they slurped. He really had needed that drink. Dave learnt that her name was Moira and that she worked at the local grocers. “I would love to retire soon. All that standing makes my feet swell.” She looked at Dave’s feet. “I wish they would allow me to wear slippers like you.” When she collected Dave’s empty mug she added: ”If you ever want anything from the shop, just let me know.”
Refreshed Dave continued his ascent. Only two more flights to take. Nearing the summit his steps became more determined, till finally he reached his door, panting, flushed, elated. The flat appeared different; smaller, brighter. On the balcony he found the nest empty. His little protégées had flown.
The next day felt different. Dave’s mood was almost festive. These birds had shown him the way into a new life, full of possibilities. He decided to make his way downstairs from time to time, especially as a wooden bench near the building’s entrance had not escaped his attention yesterday where the sunshine might be just right. These journeys were now carefully planned and prepared. Dave put on a clean shirt with his best herringbone jumper, he neatly combed his thinning hair and completed the outfit by folding a new white handkerchief into his pocket, from a box of long-forgotten Christmas presents. Only the old slippers had to remain on his feet.
As time passed Dave had become a well-known feature in the apartment bloc. His wife had always said that he was a good listener. Garry on the ground floor had invited him to watch the football one evening and his wife Susan had also made him very welcome. With their two children of school age the flat was decidedly crowded, which reminded Dave briefly of the birds nest on his balcony.
Whenever Moira on level three was at home, she appeared promptly on the landing to ask Dave in, for a cup of tea and ginger cake. There were always problems with her daughter. “The school has telephoned to tell me that Vicky is playing truant again” she burst out. “It’s easy for them to say that I should exert better control when I am out working and she just disappears for hours.” Moira points at a heap of hair-and make up things on the table. “Where does she get the money to buy all that stuff? – certainly not from me!” Tears gather in her eyes. “What ever can I do? You should hear her language towards me!” Wistfully she added: “It’s not easy to be a single mother. A man’s firm hand is what she needs.”
One evening Dave dozed on his well-worn sofa to the sound of his radio, when the door bell rang. A most unwelcome sound since Dave considered the privacy of his own flat out of bounds for neighbours. Only at the second, more insistent, ring he heaved himself up grudgingly. Moira of course. Shaking, she pushed her bulk through the door, her eyes red from crying. “Now it’s happened, what I have always feared. The police has brought Vicky home. She was caught shoplifting at New Look. For once Vicky looked frightened. Thank god it was just a caution, but what might happen next?” She walked to the window. “The police car is gone now, but everybody must have seen it. The shame!” Dave stood in front of her, his lean body bent forward, like a question mark. “A cup of tea?” that always seemed to help. When they had both emptied their cups and Moira had dried her tears she was reluctantly ready to face her own home and Vicky.
The seasons passed while Dave watched the life from his chair on the landings. The orchestra of sounds echoing up and down the stairwell amused him: the percussion of footfalls from heavy boots, tapping children’s steps, the staccato of stilettos, clapping flip flops. Then intermittently the cymbals from bunches of keys and the boom of closing doors. Voices – harsh, soft, loud, faint – Dave now recognized most of them.
On level four, just below his flat, a group of students had moved in and there was music spilling out at the most unexpected hours. The sound of a saxophone, endlessly rehearsing the same piece over and over again, added to Dave’s sound collection. Did he play in a band? Moira hated the noise, but Dave absorbed it all. The role as passive, friendly observer suited him well and he in turn seemed to do some good just by listening.
One recent afternoon when the autumn sun had warmed him on the bench outdoors, he lazily watched the group of boys with their skateboards on the road. Of course it was the youngest who again fell over. This time it seemed worse than usual and he painfully limped to Dave’s bench, with blood trickling down his leg from the knee. Dave knew him. It was Garry and Susan’s boy Steve, perhaps ten years old. Since both of his parents would be out at work, Dave did his best to console him. He bandaged the wound with his white handkerchief and talked to the boy, till he became calmer. “The gang,” Steve motioned to the group of skateboarders, “they say that you are an old geezer and…and that you have one foot in the grave.” Dave permitted himself a thin smile. “Well, as you can see I have both feet firmly on the ground.” As if to confirm this he glanced down to his slippered feet. “You know, Steve, I was just like you when I was your age. Skateboards were not invented then but I was an excellent swimmer. I won prizes with my school team.” “You won prizes?” Steve glanced at him doubtfully. “Yes, honest, and I used to look just like you then.” Uncomfortably Steve shifted a little further away from Dave. “And you know, Steve, you may not believe this now, one day you will also become an old man and then you will look just like me.” In horror Steve searched Dave’s face, with its deep wrinkles, a mole on his cheek, a tooth gap just visible behind flabby lips. “No, never!” Steve’s injured leg jerked as if he wanted to kick Dave. Then he hurried off to find the comfort of his friends and settled on the kerb near them.
From his favourite bench a few days later Dave noticed a different atmosphere. The skateboarders raced up dangerously close to him, laughing and making rude noises with swimming movements of their arms. “Hey granddad, show us your medals! Want a go on a skateboard?” A conker hit his back, then another one and a few more. Confused and frightened he lifted his hands to his face, wheezing heavily. He scrambled up from the bench and shuffled towards the entrance of his building.
In the hallway a fierce bout of coughing overtook him. He felt his foot slip. Was it a marble? A conker? Wet mud? He lost balance and crashed to the stone floor, hitting his head against the edge of the first stair. Susan found him there, unconscious, with blood streaming from his head.
At the hospital Dave never regained consciousness. His funeral at the cemetery behind the trees was well attended. Dave’s daughter was surprised how many people from his apartment bloc had made time to shed a tear for “Upstairs Dave” who would be missed. “If only he had stayed in his flat my father would be happily alive now” his daughter said. Not everybody agreed.