Upstairs, Nathan Breakenridge
The rain had started sometime in the afternoon. Michael sat in his car and stared across the road at the tenement door, waiting for the rain to stop. It didn’t, so he pulled his jacket tight around him and set off jogging.
The wind harried him as he went, shouted after him as he shut the door at his back. He stood in the dim light of the close with his eyes shut. He could smell the dead leaves clumped around the walls and at the bottom of the first step. He tried to remember a dream he had had the night before. He couldn’t, so he started up the stairs.
The building was an old one. The stone steps hammocked in the middle from decades of footfall. He had been living there for months but never passed anyone on the stairs. He had joked once that it was like coming through an airlock.
When he reached the landing outside their door, he heard a loud noise come from the floor above, the top floor. Like someone had dropped something heavy. He stood and listened for a little while, then shook his head and took out his keys.
Meghan was standing in the living room with her head out of the open window. He could hear her breathing from the hall. When he put his hands on her hips she said, It’s like a cold drink of water, I love it. She took another deep breath and turned around, pushing Michael’s hands back to his own sides and holding them there. How was it? she said.
I might as well not be there.
She squeezed his hands and let them go, then turned back to the window and shut it. Petrichor, she said, That’s what it’s called. I looked it up.
No, I told you that.
Well, I forgot then looked it up.
She poked his arm on the way past him to the breakfast bar that separated the living room from the kitchen. She lifted a cup that was there and sipped from it and put it down again.
Cold? Michael said.
I don’t know how I manage it. Swear I just made it. She lifted the cup again and carried it over to the sink. I haven’t done anything about dinner either.
We can get a takeaway. Calendar says it’s Friday. He gestured to the word-a-day calendar on the fridge, dated over a week ago. The word of the day had been lambent.
Aye, let’s do that, she said, not looking up from the cup. I keep going to do things then I end up just staring into space.
The weather won’t be helping, he said.
Meghan rinsed the cup in the sink and set it on the draining board. She stood in the kitchen squeezing her sides for a while. Sally’s wanting me to meet her at the Algae. First time for about a year. I feel like a charity case.
Well, something different’s good. There’s football on anyway. He had pulled his phone from a pocket and was reading something on the screen. Have you heard anything from the guy upstairs? he said.
Is it a guy? I’ve never seen him.
Did you hear him drop something there?
I thought that was you. But aye, he’s been moving about a lot. It sounds like he’s maybe running? It must be a different layout, I don’t know how he’s got space for it.
Michael was still wearing his jacket. He went back into the hall and hung it on a hook. When he came back into the living room he said, I don’t know that it’s a guy, I just assumed. Maybe he’s doing the place up.
There was another thud from the ceiling, and a brief, thin cry. That sounded like a guy, said Michael.
Do you think he’s alright?
They both stood still and quiet for a moment. There was a sound of footsteps from above. Aye, he’s fine.
Sally was sat at a table by the bar when Meghan got there. She had a bottle of rosé waiting.
The pub was quiet, but not empty. There were songs playing on the jukebox by the door that Meghan recognised from when she was a teenager. She smiled and sipped her wine while Sally talked, and watched the people at the other tables and the man behind the bar. He had a stud in the middle of his bottom lip and wore a bandana.
It happened to my maw as well, before she had me, Sally was saying, And what the doctor said was that she should just try and get pregnant again, straight away, that was the only thing for it. Soon as possible. She drank some of her wine. How’s Mikey doing? Actually, hang on, I need a pee. She stood up and walked off towards the back of the pub.
Meghan looked into her glass for a while and then up at the bar. There was an older man being served. He asked the barman in the bandana for water. Just to take a pill, son, he said. The barman started to fill a glass from a tap before the man waved at him to stop. A bottle if you please, son.
I’d need to charge you.
That's fine. That’s no bother at all.
The barman handed him a glass bottle with a blue cap out of the fridge. When he brought him his change the older man said, Do you know what it is they put in the tap water, son? To clean it that is?
Can’t say I do, said the barman, already moving to serve someone at the other end of the bar.
Rat poison, the man said, nodding, Rat poison.
Michael came out of the toilet and went straight to the kitchen and pulled another can from the fridge. He opened it and took a sip, then looked over the breakfast bar at the TV. It was halftime so he’d muted it. He watched the three men in suits nodding and gesturing.
Another bang from the flat upstairs made him jump. He squeezed the can and a little liquid frothed out and over his fingers and dribbled onto the linoleum. He looked up at the ceiling but it was quiet again. He used his socked foot to mop up the spill then went back around the breakfast bar and sat down on the couch.
He leaned over and lifted one of the empty cans that were lying by his feet and set it on top of one that was standing upright. He stacked the other two in the same way. He sat back.
He sipped his full can and wondered why none of the three men on the screen were wearing ties with their suits. He knew who two of them were but not the third. The third man was perfectly bald but had a short, dark beard, neatly clipped. Michael tried to decide if he looked familiar. He didn’t think so, and neither did the other men, he decided. Three suits and no ties and no faces.
There was another thump from the ceiling. Two things had been dropped in quick succession. Michael stared at the spot where he thought the sound had come from, in the corner above the TV.
There was another sound like something softer slapping against the upstairs floor. Michael sat very still and listened to something drag itself around on the other side of the ceiling.
Meghan got the bus back around eleven. She stopped inside the front door of the building to message Sally but got no reply. When she got to their landing, she heard a door open upstairs.
Meghan said nothing and pulled her keys out of her bag, then said, Hello? She waited for a moment, then heard the door close and a lock slide back into place.
She had expected Michael to still be awake when she got in but all the lights were out. She found her way to her side of the bed by the light of her phone pointed at the floor. She could just make out Michael, curled up tightly under the duvet.
In a dream that night she banged at the ceiling with an old-fashioned broom handle, until she felt something jerk it up through the plaster, and she was pulled, squealing, into the darkness above.
Michael’s phone started buzzing around seven. It was still dark. He screwed up his face and reached over to grab it. It took him three tries to swipe the alarm off, then he dropped the thing onto his chest and let his arms go limp. He could hear Meghan still snoring lightly.
He managed to sit up and put his head in his hands. He looked at Meghan. She was lying on her front with her arms underneath her pillow. Her breathing had become shallower and difficult to hear. He wondered if she would look any different if she were dead.
His headache got worse when he stood up. In the bathroom he stared at his reflection in the mirror above the sink. He had lost weight.
He went back into the bedroom and pulled on a hoody and his green shorts and went through to the kitchen. He bent down and opened the cupboard under the sink and reached in until his hand found the skinny handle of a plastic bag. He checked behind him and listened for a while, then pulled the bag full of cans carefully out from behind the washing machine and took it into the hall. He slipped on his trainers and put his hood up, then unlocked the door and went out.
The morning was cold. The streetlamps were still on but a lighter grey was creeping up over the rooftops. He went round the corner to the recycling bins, opened one and swung the bag in. Then he went back inside.
Meghan woke up a little later to the sound of the front door closing. She lay there for over an hour, struggling to focus on her phone. When she got up she poached an egg but left it sitting in the water to go cold after the smell made her gag. The shower ran especially hot and she spent a long time perched naked on the edge of the bath with her head under the stream. When she turned it off she realised the water had been running down her back and had soaked the floor.
She managed to mop up the water and do the dishes but left the hoover sitting in front of the cupboard she had pulled it from. She stood in front of the living room window and tried to decide whether the rain was too heavy to go out in, straining to make out the sizes of the ripples on puddles. There was a loud creak and more footsteps from upstairs. She watched the ceiling for a while, tracking the sounds. When they seemed to move across the room and out into the hall, she followed.
She followed the sounds towards the bathroom, walking at pace now with whoever was upstairs. They stopped over the bath. Meghan climbed in and looked up at the ceiling. She felt her socks turning wet. The mop was still leaning against the wall. She leaned over and lifted it, then stepped up onto the side of the bath and stretched as far as she could but could only graze the ceiling. She gripped the damp head of the mop with both hands and lunged upwards, managing to just tap the plaster before she lost her balance and stepped heavily back down onto the floor. She stared up at the ceiling, panting a little. There was a mark where the handle of the mop had scuffed the paint. She noticed a noise then, and turned her head to listen better. A tapping, light and hollow, just on the other side of the mark. She thought it sounded like Morse code from an old film. An index finger tapping out a message through her ceiling. She put on a waterproof and went out.
The rain rang like static on her hood. She walked down to the river and stopped to watch some ducks sheltering under the trees on the bank. Two of them were asleep and the other looked like it was trying to wake them. The sight of the ducks made her well up. She spent most of the afternoon walking along the riverside, crying.
Michael came back late and red-eyed. He found Meghan sitting on the couch with the TV turned down low. A newsreader was looking grave in front of an image of a crying child in a desert.
That guy’s at it, he said when he came in.
Your man, he said, pointing at the ceiling, He was out on the landing watching for somebody.
You saw him?
Nah, I could hear him, he was panting. Must be a junkie.
I hope he’s alright.
The running kept up intermittently for the rest of the night. After a while it was as if Meghan couldn’t hear it anymore, but Michael found himself tensing at every sound, gritting his teeth in anticipation in between.
When they went to bed, he lay awake on his back, tracking the sound of feet scuttling in circles around the flat above, from the living room, over the kitchen into the bedroom, then through the wall to the bathroom, then up the hall and back into the living room. He found himself following the sounds with his eyes.
He looked over at Meghan. He wanted to wake her up but decided against it. The footsteps had slowed down, were moving now at what Meghan would call museum pace. They made their way down the hall and into the living room, to the far wall and back again. Over the kitchen. Into the bedroom. He heard the footsteps stop directly above where he was lying. There was a heavy clatter of knees against a floor, a slap of palms on wood. There was quiet after that.
It took him a long time to fall asleep. He woke to early daylight and the sound of tapping coming through the ceiling. He sat up and swung himself off of the mattress. He heard Meghan groan when the legs of his jeans slapped against the floor.
The door to the flat upstairs was the dark green of pine needles. He noticed there was a nail sticking out of the wood, just below the spyhole. He wondered whether it was for hanging wreaths at Christmas. He knocked heavily on the door.
The sound echoed in the empty close. He could just make out a kind of shuffling from inside the flat. He knocked again, pounding with the soft underside of his fist.
The shuffling stopped. He stepped back from the door. Nothing else happened. He went to knock a third time but instead crouched down to see if he could spot any movement through the keyhole.
Squatting there in the dim close, Michael thought suddenly of a house where he had lived as a boy, maybe nine or ten. Between the main road and the fence at the bottom of the garden there had been a copse of birches. He would push his way through a gap in the fence behind the shed, and wander around among the pale trees. He remembered how he used to think the knots and whorls in their waxy flesh looked like eyes. He had found one that was deeper than the others, that must have been hollowed out for a nest. He had crouched there, just as he was now, staring into that hole in the birch tree. He had seen something move.
Michael stood up straight, frowning at the memory. He couldn’t remember what had happened next. He turned around and started back down the stairs. He must have run, he thought. Surely he must have run home.
Nathan Breakenridge is a writer based in Edinburgh, Scotland. He graduated from the University of Stirling creative writing masters program in 2016, and has since had his work published in Gutter, Neon and Pushing Out the Boat. In 2019, he was shortlisted for the Scottish Book Trust New Writers Award, and was nominated for the Forward Prize for Best Single Poem.