stairway to helen

I’ve never seen so many stairs. The whole place is a monument to them, an Escher wet dream of pointless meandering, a riotous architectural celebration of ascent and descent. It’s a shrine to steps, a mounting Mecca, a pilgrimage to Our Lady of the Handrails and Bannisters.

It’s certainly a lot of stairs.

It’s not simply wilful overuse, though. There’s a simple geographical explanation. Helen and Graham’s house is built into the side of a hill. For a start, the road leads down to it at quite a pitch. Then you have two flights of concrete steps down to the front door, a couple of steps over the threshold onto a landing, and then stairs leading down into the lounge straight in front, or up steeply to the right in two flights to the bedrooms and bathroom. The view from the lounge is an impressive, eagle-eye view of the city; I imagine that’s one reason they bought the place sometime back in the sixties.

I’ve come here with Sye, the physiotherapist, specifically to do a stair assessment (Initial assessment? Too many stairs). Helen has just been discharged from hospital after a total knee replacement. If they haven’t given her the robotically-enhanced version, she’s going to struggle.

‘I’ll be alright,’ she says, shifting uncomfortably on the sofa. ‘It’ll just take a bit of getting used to, that’s all.’

Graham is even more dismissive about the practicalities of the thing. There are two enormous, plush leather sofas in the lounge, meeting at the doorway and making a narrow corridor. It’s awkward for us to get through, let alone Helen, but Graham won’t countenance moving things around to make it easier.
‘You’ll just have to pass the frame over and come through sideways,’ he says.
‘Are you sure we couldn’t just move the sofa over?’ says Sye.
‘Where to?’ says Graham.
We make some suggestions. But it would mean losing a coffee table and one easy chair, something that Graham regards with horror.
‘No,’ he says ‘Absolutely not. We’ll manage.’

And to be fair, Helen seems to be the past master at managing. Once she’s negotiated the Clashing Rocks of the sofas, she hobbles on to the bottom of the first set of stairs.

‘Just remember,’ says Sye. ‘It’s good leg up to heaven, bad leg down to hell.’
‘Heaven. Hell. Got it,’ says Helen.
She makes heavy going of the stairs going up.
‘I think we should make camp here’ I say on the second landing. ‘Strike out for the summit in the morning.’
‘No. Come on, now. Keep up,’ says Helen.
And after a great deal of puffing and swearing, swinging her bad leg off to the side like Long John Silver at musket point, we finally make it to the very top landing.
‘Phew!’ she says, catching her breath. ‘You’d think I’d be used to it by now.’
‘You’ve just had a major operation,’ says Sye. ‘Cut yourself some slack.’

On the return, Helen insists on coming down backwards. That’s the way she got used to doing it in the months leading up to the operation.
‘Unorthodox,’ she says. ‘But it’s the only way I know.’
‘Good grief!’ says Sye, as she turns round at the very edge of the top stair, takes hold of the handrails either side, and begins the slow descent.

Back down in the lounge, there’s the same problem as before, negotiating the narrow gap between sofas before Helen can sit back down in her favourite spot. Graham is sitting the other side of the room, watching a natural history programme, something about bats.

‘All finished?’ he says, as a great flock of them swarm out of a giant cave at sunset.

‘I can’t speak for these two gentlemen,’ says Helen. ‘But I sure as hell know I am.’

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