9:2: “Saint Stephen Street”, by Ilan Lerman

9:2: “Saint Stephen Street”, by Ilan Lerman

The wind blows down Saint Stephen Street.

It’s been blowing all day and Arthur can’t remember when it started, but he’s been forgetting a lot of things recently. He does remember that he is waiting for someone. It could be his wife, Helen, coming back from the shop with the pint of milk for his tea.

He watches from the window of his tenement flat as a young woman struggles down the cobbled street below. Her dark hair flies like a tattered flag. She wears a filthy white padded jacket and jeans.

There are flecks of yellow swirling in the wind — ribbons of tiny particles the colour of dried mustard.

The young woman stops to spit in the gutter, then looks up at Arthur and waves at him, as though she knew he would be there on the top floor, watching her. He steps back from the window. It can’t be Jessie. No. She’s not supposed to be coming until Christmas.

He peeks out the window again and the young woman is gone. He looks to the right, along the sharply curving street, up the hill towards the centre of Edinburgh. Nothing. So he looks to the left, down as far as the entrance to Clarence Street with its step-fronted, Georgian tenements. All he can see is a cobbled street. All he can hear is the ceaseless patter of dust against the windows, like the sound of a floor being slowly, deliberately swept.

Arthur turns, sighs, and shuffles over to his chair.

Somebody knocks on the door.

“Who is it?” says Arthur, hearing his voice as a stranger would. Who’s that old man speaking?

“Let me in!” It is the voice of a young girl — petulant, annoyed. She continues to knock even though Arthur has obviously heard her.

He turns and walks into the hallway then, hesitantly, over to the front door. A memory of his daughter, Jessica, plays in his mind, from when she was younger, still a teenager. It flickers and jumps like an old movie. She sits at the kitchen table, holding a steaming mug of coffee and tells him to be careful; to never answer the door to strangers. “Use the spy-hole, Dad.”

Arthur squints into the spy-hole and sees a distended image of a girl wearing a filthy white padded jacket. From a distance, down on the street, he took her to be a young woman. She can’t be much more than fourteen. Just a slip. What’s she doing here?

“What are you doing here?”

“Let me in!” She is anxious now. Looking over her shoulder as though someone will appear at any moment. You shouldn’t go out on your own at night, Jessie. It’s not safe out there. He turns the latch and pulls the door open with a creak.

The girl pushes past him, coughing, and runs into the living room. She smells of tarmacadam and cigarettes. She is all bones and waxy skin. Her eyes are the colour of tarnished silver and ringed with yellow dirt. The yellow coats her crow-black hair in clumps. It is dusted across her cheeks, like wet sand. She flops onto the sofa and wipes her face with the back of her hand.

“Couldn’t get much today,” she says. “Some chocolate. No tea or anything. I’ll try again tomorrow. Seen a place that looks untouched. Hard to get at, though.”

Arthur stands there, brow furrowed, mouth asking questions, but making no sound. He can’t get over the way the girl sits on the sofa as though she owns it. No manners. Jessie would know better. His sciatica sends sharp, pinching sensations from his hip up into his back. Pain grips his whole body, but it’s the pain of memory as he tries to recall Jessie’s face. His mind can only snatch at an empty space.

“Who are you? What are you doing here?” he asks.

“Don’t do this again,” says the girl, rolling her eyes. “You must know by now, eh?”

“Kindly explain,” Arthur stammers, trying to remember. He grasps at air, whispers of memories cascading down out of his reach until a memory of Helen appears. Just a flash in the darkness. A moment. Helen gazes out of the window, at pillars of rain and a boiling sky of pewter-grey cloud. Her hand is up at her mouth, squeezing her cheeks in a motion of worry Arthur has seen a thousand times. It always looks as though she is trying to massage her head into accepting a truth she cannot grasp yet. She turns and looks at him. A tear spills over her cheek, filling the cracks and folds of skin.

The girl jumps to her feet and stomps up to Arthur. Her pale features turn a hot shade of pink. She reaches into the pockets of her padded jacket and pulls out four large bars of Dairy Milk chocolate. She throws them onto the coffee table.

“Two weeks I’ve been coming here and you still can’t remember me! See how you get on without me then, eh!”

The girl stamps out and slams the front door after her. Arthur hears her sobbing all the way down the stairs.

*

There is no tea in the cupboard. Damn woman. She knows to buy two boxes so we don’t run out. The other cupboards are empty: some rice; an empty packet of oatcakes; a blackened lime, dried to a husk. He turns to leave the kitchen, but stops, staring into space for several minutes. He tries to make sense of the rush of memories, but they all come so fast his heart races.

Helen pots a hydrangea on the kitchen table, compost spills onto the floor; Jessie, four years old, plays with her plastic farm animals; Jessie, sixteen years old, slams her bedroom door.

The images whirl in Arthur’s head like a torrent of leaves in the throat of a storm, almost impossible to discern one from another; or new from old. The underside of a dense black cloud swallowing the light above the street; Helen down on the pavement, looking tiny in her green coat, buffeted by wind; lights flickering in the hallway as someone knocks insistently on the front door. Arthur doesn’t know who it can be.

The memories are gone before he can catch them; flushed away by the sound of the wind and the soft hail of dust against the windows. He is left standing.

What was I doing? Cup of tea. That was it.

*

Arthur jumps at the sound of someone knocking on the front door. He lies on his bed, in his blue pyjamas. It could be dark outside, but the torrent of yellow dust creates an eerie glow that penetrates the double-layered green curtains. The bedside clock has stopped. He clicks the lamp switch back and forth, but nothing happens. There is a cold cup of tea next to the lamp. The milk has curdled in it long ago and floats on the surface in a cloudy swirl. Mould, like green wool, has formed around the edge of the liquid.

Still, the knocking on the door and a girl shouting, “Arthur? Are you alive?”

Arthur tries to remember what day it is, but only feels the vertigo of panic when he can’t. Where’s Helen? Perhaps she’s still out at the shops, but…

“Arthur?”

Panic escalates with an erratic drumming in his chest; his heart palpitating. He grips the bed covers, scans the room for something familiar. The sensation brings an acidic taste in his mouth. It washes through his head and, for a few seconds, he can’t even remember his name or where he is. The room around him is a fragmented jigsaw of mismatched pieces. Instinctively, he reaches out to the side table for his mug and is instantly calmed by the smooth, cold, familiar surface.

He drinks. The tea is greasy, bitter and makes him want to spit.

The room slots back together again: the impressionist seascape hanging on the wall – the one with the vermillion sky that Helen bought from the Randolph Gallery on Dundas Street; the heavy green curtains, roped back, framing the double window; Helen’s sea-green dressing gown, hanging from a hook on the bedroom door.

He slides carefully off the bed, allowing his left leg to land first. The pain in his back is a constant. Something he wishes he could forget. Trying to straighten up, the snap of sharp glass in his sciatic nerve brings a memory of hospital, padding through the ward at night in his slippers. The pain in his back then was like a network of thorns. His bladder full, he moved as fast as he could, but it was too late. The ward sister was livid with him, brandishing a cardboard urinal bottle in her hand. Arthur couldn’t find any words as the nurses came to wash him down. He had used the last empty bottle from his locker.

Arthur shakes off the memory and tries again to recall something from the last twenty-four hours. A blinding rush of images speed past like a distant train in the night, but the carriage windows are fogged and he can’t distinguish any faces.

He limps to the front door.

Through the spy-hole he sees a young girl — padded white jacket, ripped up one side. A bruise darkens her right cheek. She carries an orange Sainsbury’s bag. Arthur opens the door.

*

“I was right,” says the girl, stuffing her hand into a packet of smoky-bacon crisps. “The place was stocked to the roof. Must’ve been a storeroom or something.”

Arthur feels the tang of prawn-cocktail flavour sizzle on his tongue. She’s not wee Jessie. I know that.

“Marie,” says the girl. “You want to know my name. It’s Marie.”

“How did you know that?”

“Because you do it every time I show up. I get it. You’ve got Alzheimer’s or something.”

The heat of shame burns Arthur’s face as the realisation comes. He’s known it all along. He remembers Helen holding his hand before he went in for the CAT scan; how they laughed when he couldn’t remember his address — we’ll need to fit you with a homing device.

“What do you remember?” asks Marie nonchalantly, greasy crisp fragments drifting down on to her pink T-shirt.

“I… I’m not sure. Bits and pieces. Sometimes nothing. I do remember that it isn’t Alzheimer’s. They didn’t call it Alzheimer’s.”

“Yeah,” she says, munching, behaving more like a ten-year-old, “but, like right now. What do you remember?”

“You shouldn’t speak with your mouth full.”

“Sorry,” she says through pursed lips, rolling her eyes to the ceiling.

“My wife, Helen. The first time we met. We were both in Holyrood Park; there to see the royals visiting. All the dignitaries, you know, The Queen, The Lord Provost of Edinburgh. All the ladies like peacocks, made up to the eyes in all their finery, but none of them held a candle to your mother.”

“Umm… you know I’m not your daughter, right?” Marie scrunches up her crisp bag and reaches for another.

Arthur pauses, not hearing her, lost in reflection and enjoying the scenery of a memory he can stroll around in. Taking his time, smelling the lavender bushes, hearing the murmur and bustle of the crowd all around. Seeing his wife, then just a stranger, in her white dress and summer hat.

“Arthur,” says Marie, “what do you remember of the last two months?”

The sun-washed memory dissolves, is blown away in a funnel of wind and yellow dust. He tries to remember, but all he can recall is the pain in his head that comes with this process; an endless memory of being unable to remember. His brain is a useless muscle in spasm — flexing and contracting. And then he can’t recall anything. He is caught in the moment, in a strange room, with a strange girl sitting on a sofa eating crisps. He wonders how she got the bruise on her face.

Outside, the wind blows and the dust hits the building like a swarm of flies.

*

Helen will be back soon. I know she will. She never takes this long at the shops. I’m bloody starving and there isn’t a bite in the whole house. Would you believe it?

Arthur paces the hallway, occasionally peering out of the spy-hole, expecting someone to arrive. The hunger in his belly is a claw twisting his guts into a ball. He tries to remember what he had for lunch, but isn’t sure he even had any lunch at all. Memories of Helen’s roast rib eye of beef. Medium rare, with horseradish, roast potatoes and red wine gravy made from the juices. Jessie complaining about the poor defenceless cow. Are you happy, Dad? It’s still bleeding.

“It’s not blood, Jessie,” says Arthur out loud. His voice echoes. He sees reflections in the varnished floorboards of Jessie charging around from room to room, playing at show-jumper. She makes tackety hoof-sounds with her tongue against her teeth.

Arthur looks around the gloomy hallway. All the doors are open. Jessie’s bedroom is silent and dark.

Bedtime, Jessie. Got to go to sleep now. Tomorrow we’ll fly kites in Holyrood Park. There’s a good wind for it.

*

The girl at the door says her name is Marie. She says she has been coming to see Arthur for nearly three weeks now, bringing him food and drink. Something about her is familiar: the silvery lustre of her eyes, the thin, hopeful smile. He thanks her, accepting the bag full of tin cans. Baked beans, sweetcorn, Young’s beef stew, pear halves, bottled water.

“Let me give you some money for the messages,” says Arthur, poking around in his empty pockets.

“It doesn’t matter.”

“No, no. I’ll not see you go short on my account.” Arthur stops, hands still in his pockets. He stares at the girl. Something familiar.

“What’s happening?” he asks, feeling weightless and insubstantial, as though he is descending from a great height. The girl looks at him, her expression showing concern. She takes his hand gently and leads him into the living room. They sit on the sofa together and Arthur’s old memories appear in flashes. He clutches at them, trying to hold on — Helen’s face in low, blinding March sunshine; Jessie aged thirteen, leaving for school, closing the front door.

“Where is everyone?” asks Arthur. “Where have they all gone?”

“They all left,” says Marie. She looks ill. Her skin is waxy and yellow, the bruise on her face a rotten shade of black. “When the storm came, they all said it wouldn’t last. On the TV they said it started in the east; in China. But it got worse. It all happened so fast. It was just wind and thunder and rain at first. It wouldn’t stop. And then the dust started blowing. Everybody left.”

“But you’re still here. I’m still here. There must be others.”

Marie casts her eyes down and away, looks out into the hallway, and then at Arthur. Tears slide down her cheeks, and her hand flies up to her bruise.

“There are others,” she says. “But I try to hide from them now. You’re the only nice one I’ve met.”

Arthur puts his arm around her and draws her in. “Aw, sweetie. It’s all right. Don’t cry, Jessie. Don’t cry.”

“Marie…” she sobs, “my name is Marie.”

“Where’s your mum and dad? Are they not looking after you?”

“They’re gone.” She sits back and wipes her eyes, smearing a dirty mark across her nose and cheek. She winces as she touches the bruise. “They were out when the storm got really bad. Trying to get to the supermarket, but so was everyone else. I think they got trapped somewhere. They never came home. Only people who stayed indoors survived.”

“If it’s a storm then it’ll pass. They always pass.”

“Not this one.”

Arthur stands up, disbelieving, alarmed by what Marie is saying. He walks over to the window and looks out. The scraping and swishing of dust against sandstone continues unabated. The wind casts it against every surface. The ledge outside is pitted all over with tiny craters and tributaries, snaking around the sides of the building. Tiny sandstone particles from the window ledge are caught in the stronger gusts and stream out into the air with the rest of the dust. A slow trickle, like an egg timer.

“You can’t go out in that,” he says. “It’s dangerous.”

*

Arthur searches in the kitchen drawer for a tin opener. Where on Earth does that woman keep the damn thing? Half of this stuff is useless.

He hears retching coming from the toilet and is momentarily afraid, but manages to remember the girl with the bag full of shopping. What’s her name again?

The tin opener is hanging on a hook by the tea towels. He takes it down and opens a tin of sweetcorn.

Marie comes into the kitchen sheepishly. Her face is bone white and running with perspiration. The bruise is a pit of black and purple. “I’ll need to find some water to put in the toilet. Don’t go in there yet, okay?”

Arthur twists the cold tap, but the only sound is the squeak of the washer as he loosens it.

“You’ve none left in the tank. I’ll need to get some from another flat, if there’s any left and I can get in.”

“You’re going to break in?”

“Most of them aren’t even locked. People left in a hurry. You got a bucket?”

“Um…”

“Don’t worry,” says Marie. “I’ll find one. Back soon.”

“Be careful.” Arthur worries as she heads out the front door. He feels her absence as soon as she is gone. The lack of warmth.

He tries, and succeeds in recalling Helen’s face. She puts on her green coat, gathers up her shopping bag. The shiny beige one with the cat pictures on it. She fusses with her coat and her face crumples with worry. Arthur puts his hand on her shoulder.

I don’t want you going out in that wind and rain. A roof tile came down the other day. Smashed on the cobbles.

“I’ve got to get to the shop, Arthur. We’re running out of food. I’ll only be five minutes, but if I don’t go now it might get too dangerous to go outside.”

“Don’t be long,” says Arthur, standing in his doorway, looking out into the cold, grey stairwell. He knows he’s waiting for someone. That much he can remember.

*

“How long have you lived here for, Arthur?” Marie sits next to him on the sofa, drinking from a bottle of water. She sips it gingerly. Her face is chalky and veined; her breathing shallow.

“About thirty years, I think. I’m not sure.” Arthur shuts his eyes and counts. Helen is there, pasting a sheet of green and gold wallpaper, but he can’t think past the year Jessie was born.

“It’s all right. It doesn’t matter, Arthur. It must be nice, in a way. I wish I could forget the last few weeks.”

“All I remember are old things. Many years ago now, Jessie. Before you were born.”

“Marie.”

“Aye, sorry. Marie. It’s all still there, but I’m not sure how much longer.” Arthur stares down at the packet of digestive biscuits in his hands and wishes he had a hot cup of tea to dunk them in. Helen would make him tea and biscuits every morning after she came back from the shops. She’ll be back soon.

He looks up at the girl sitting next to him. Her face is bruised right across the cheek, up the side of her head to the temple and around behind her ear. It covers half of her face like a shadow.

“That looks sore. That bruise. How did you get that?”

“I told you already, Arthur.” She looks away from him, pulling her lank hair over her face in a vain attempt to hide.

Arthur tries to remember what she said, even though he fears the result will be the usual squint into thick, impenetrable fog. He searches for the answer in her face; in the sloping angle of her nose; in the bloodless line of her lips. But she is just a girl — all bony limbs and grubby fingernails. He doesn’t know her and, with an ache in his chest, he wonders where his own daughter is. She was always rushing out the door to school or to meet her friends in town.

She never came home with bruises on her face. At least, I don’t think she did. When was the last time she visited?

Arthur takes her hand and says, “Sorry. I’m a daft old man.”

“If I’m not here, do you remember me? I mean… what if I stop coming? How will you remember me, or what’s going on?”

“You could write me a note.” Helen used to leave notes pinned to the kitchen cupboard. We need tea and biscuits, Jessie. And a loaf of white bread.

“Okay.”

“What I really need is a hot cup of tea. That’ll do no end of good. It’ll do you some good, too. You don’t look well.”

“Next time I go out,” says Marie, “I’ll see what I can do about that.”

*

Arthur wakes from a dream of falling. He is lying on his bed in his pyjamas. It is dark outside, but the relentless flood of yellow dust creates some residual light — a gentle glow like candlelight.

Amongst the hiss of the dust and the howl of the wind, he is sure that someone is screaming. There’s no such thing as ghosts, Jessie. They’re just daft tales made up to scare wee children. Now, go back to sleep.

He sits up, his head a whirl of panic. He can’t be sure of what he heard. The panicked slap of running feet on the cobbles? For several seconds all he can do is cast his eyes around the room to get his bearings. He instinctively pats the bed to his left.

“Helen?” he shouts into the empty flat, knowing it to be empty as he does so. He slides off the bed and pads over to the window. Peeling the curtain back, he peeks out into the street. None of the streetlights are working. It is like staring into a bottomless canyon.

*

Arthur stands at the open front door, but nobody is there. I’m sure I heard knocking. It’s nothing, Jessie. Just your mind playing tricks on you. Go back to sleep.

The pain in his back is worse than ever. The veins and nerves feel solidified, but still as brittle and easily damaged as dried twigs. Each time he moves it feels like they may all snap. He looks around for his walking stick, but it is nowhere to be seen. Where’s that damn woman put it? Never where I left it.

He slides one foot at a time across the polished floorboards to his armchair in the living room. He lowers himself into it with a groan, tensing up at the knots of pain forming all around the base of his spine. His eyes mist over as he finally settles into the spot of least discomfort, but he is startled by a noise.

He turns around, gritting his teeth at the pain of such a simple manoeuvre. The front door is wide open and the faint shuffle of footsteps echoes up the stairwell.

Arthur’s heart tightens as he peers through the door, wondering who it might be. Hoping.

A young girl in a white padded jacket appears at the top of the stairs and walks through the front door.

“You know your front door’s wide open?” she says, but stops and stares at him. She smiles at him with yellow teeth. Half of her face is darkened by a bruise. She looks skeletal; almost transparent. Her smile fades into a thin line as she takes in the expression on Arthur’s face. Tears spill and she turns and runs back out of the flat and down the stairs.

Arthur wants to follow, to run after this person, find out who they are, what they mean to him, but the pain in his back roots him to the chair.

After the resounding clunk of the downstairs door closing, the only sounds left are the scraping and swishing of dust against the building.

*

A milkpan full of water bubbles on a camping stove. The water has boiled right down and sizzles against the sides of the pan.

Arthur stands in the kitchen, a box of teabags in his hand. How long have I been here? He opens the box and tears off a teabag, drops it in the cup and twists the gas burner off. The water hisses and spits steam as Arthur pours his cup of tea.

He limps into the living room and takes a seat in the armchair. The coffee table is littered with empty crisp packets and balled-up pieces of paper. On the arm of his chair is a scrap of notepaper with a message rendered in angular capitals. He doesn’t recognise the handwriting.

He reads, sipping his tea, finding it bitter without milk. The note is brief, just a few lines. It has been written by a girl called Marie. She says she is thirteen years old.

I’LL KEEP COMING BACK AND BRING YOU FOOD AND WATER AND TEA FOR AS LONG AS I CAN. THOUGH YOU WON’T REMEMBER. DON’T GO OUTSIDE. IT’S TOO DANGEROUS. PLEASE DON’T FORGET ME. MARIE.

*

The wind blows down Saint Stephen Street.

Arthur watches the swirls of dust trail out from the walls of the building, joining the enormous yellow blooms that form in the wind, still at first, frozen in the moment. Then they rise up and rush forward like jellyfish moving through water.

The street is almost unrecognizable with yellow dust coating every surface. He looks along both ends of the building, straining to see around the curve, but something in his lower back pops and tightens. Sit down, you old fool. You’re not going anywhere. She’ll be back soon.

He takes one last look at the view before retreating to his armchair. The same view he always sees: an empty, cobbled street and sandstone tenements, being slowly turned to dust and swept away by the wind.


Ilan Lerman lives in Edinburgh, and by day sells expensive shiny things to old ladies. By night, he writes fiction in an Ikea lamp-lit corner of his living room. He has fiction published recently in Hub Magazine and The Absent Willow Review. He occasionally updates a blog with some gibberish at http://ilanlerman.wordpress.com. He says:

Every morning, I walk up the real Saint Stephen Street in Edinburgh, on my way to work. The wind howls down it like a canyon. The story’s first line came to me one morning and I couldn’t get it out my head. I started to imagine an old man peering into the storm from his top floor window, seeing the world being slowly blown away like his own failing memories.



6 Responses to “9:2: “Saint Stephen Street”, by Ilan Lerman”

  1. georgina says:

    This is such an achingly sad story. I love how you tell a small, domestic story which is clearly part of a much bigger, apocalyptic nightmare. Really love that narrow focus – it leaves so much room for wonder and imagination. This is a great, terribly sad story. Thank you!

  2. I do wonder how he came by his anteriograde amnesia; doesn’t that generally require brain trauma of some kind?

    I do like the image of the man trapped in an apocalypse he can’t remember. Enjoyably wistful.

  3. This was a really fascinating story–I loved the slow reveal and the recursive structure.

    Also, though I adore apocalypse stories and have considered from time to time the problem of what happens to babies and small children, and parents trying to care for them, in an apocalypse, reading this story was the first time I thought about what happens to the elderly and their caretakers in that kind of situation. This story will definitely stick with me!

  4. cathy freeze says:

    Perfectly lovely little story, Ilan. These were real people to me, to the point that i feared that he’d outlive her. Sigh.

    Nicely done.

  5. […] days ago he did his summary of Ideomancer and mentioned ‘Saint Stephen Street‘ as one of his favourites of the year. As Claire said – “There you have it: proof […]

  6. […] Ilan Lerman’s The Insect Garden, which can be found here, and Saint Stephen Street, found here. They were published 2009 and 2010 respectively, but I re-read them a couple of months ago, and I […]

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