Updated on April 2nd, 2020
I’ve walked these stairs up and down a few times each day now. Sixteen steps per floor; six floors. It feels better than taking the lift. The exercise burns my leg muscles; my heart is pounding in my chest. That’s good; I’m alive. I pass my neighbours’ doors, all painted in the same orangey-pink. One is adorned with a hopeful little wreath, another boasts a bold WELCOME! sign, defying the lockdown. Behind each door, lives are being lived, stories unfold…
They’re everyday, ordinary stories of people staying indoors, in an extraordinary time.
Behind these doors, people are waiting. Worrying perhaps, and wondering about what nobody knows: How long the lockdown will last, and what will happen next.
Behind these doors, I imagine a single pensioner bearing a piercing loneliness; a mother trembling with protective love for her child; a husband holding within himself a desperate longing he can’t even name.
Behind these doors, tender words might be whispered in local and foreign tongues, or sharp rebukes hurled. I’ve read that blows might fall on women. I pray this may not happen here. Not anywhere, really.
Cabin fever. Restlessness. Readjustment. Fear. And a more or less peaceful resignation, a giving in to what cannot be changed.
Step, step, step…. Short walk on the next landing… Step, step, step…
I pass three pairs of shoes neatly lined up on a door mat. Dainty, baby-pink slippers decorated with cheap, glittering stones. White trainers marked with the red symbol of a well-known sports brand. Solid black leather shoes that seem made for heavy work. Curious, I check the nameplate on the door; it’s not a name I know from when I lived here.
Other names, however, I do know.
The old married couple whose children I used to play with as a child. (They are the ones with the wreath on the door.) I know he walks on crutches now, while she is as sprightly and cheerful as ever. And their children? One has moved away. The other, who had special needs as a boy, I’ve seen just the other day, now grown into a man, grey at the temples. He was standing very still on the pavement outside, looking up, transfixed, as if listening to an inaudible melody from Heaven. He didn’t greet me as I passed him.
The Albanian woman who I have often met in the communal laundry room. She washes all the time. Big family, she says, almost apologetically, in broken language, and smiles. How your mother? I shrug my shoulders. Very frail, I reply. Won’t get better, only worse. Her facial expression tells me she understands my woes. It’s like a hug. I have since learnt that she too is looking after two elderly relatives.
The single retired lady who goes to the same hairdresser who also served my mum at home, before the lockdown. So far, she’s the only person I’ve met in my solitary stairwell ascents and descents. She shares my dislike of the lift: Who knows who’s touched the surfaces in there? she ventures. She gets reproachful looks in the nearby supermarket; people her age are supposed to stay home. So she walks further to the local butcher, and on to the small convenience shop, where they’re only letting in two people at any time, and where she gets a personal, non-reproachful service. Independence, perhaps, is hardest to give up when you’re seventy-five…
Fourth floor, now fifth – I’m nearly there. My thighs are killing me by now, but I’m getting stronger. I will continue to walk the stairs down, then up, every day. To get the mail, yes. For some exercise, sure. But mostly, for the consolation of reading people’s nameplates, and imagining – sensing – their hopeful, locked-down lives behind the orangey-pink doors.
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Photo: Monica Castenetto