The last stage of Honor Levinson’s life began at the top of the stairs in her home in North London.
The windows had been cleaned two days before by the young man who came every spring with his bucket and ladder. The sun shone through the glass, warming a stripe of carpet and wall, stroking against Honor’s cheek as she passed through it on the way to the stairs, carrying a basket of laundry to be washed.
She was thinking of the laundry she used to have to do: the weight of PE kits and trousers caked with mud at the knees. School uniforms and gardening clothes, shirts that needed ironing, knickers and pants and handkerchieves. So many loads every week, one after the other, unrelenting, just for one child and one woman. Sometimes it had felt as if her home were festooned with dripping clothes. She had to negotiate a jungle of drying socks and tights just to get into the bath. For something that took up so much time and effort, washing clothes was under-represented in literature.
This afternoon her basket contained two blouses, a vest, a skirt, and three pairs of knickers. None of them dirty, really; what did she do to make her clothes dirty these days? Those days of dirt and heaviness were over, the sweat and soil and spills. Now her basket was light, as light as the sunshine in the side of her vision.
Honor balanced the basket on her hip and put her hand on the banister. The wood was warm, too, from the sun. Downstairs on the first floor, the phone rang. She stepped forward to go down the first stair and she missed it.
The shock wasn’t that she was falling. It was that she had missed the step, that her body had forgotten the language of the house, how to do this thing she had done every day for most of the years of her life. Honor put out her hands to stop herself but the banister slipped from her grip and she hit the riser hard with her hip and kept falling, slithering down the wooden stairs on her back.
‘Stephen!’ she cried to the empty air.
No pain, not yet, just thuds as she slid down the rest of the stairs, with no one to catch her. The back of her head bounced off a step and she saw stars. They were clearer than anything she had seen in a long time.
She knew this feeling, as if she had played this out in her mind many times before. The last moment, familiar as a child or a lover.
She came to rest at the bottom, splayed on the floor. The phone rang for the second time. Two rings, Honor thought. It all happened in the space between two rings of the telephone.
She tried to suck in a breath and couldn’t. Now she felt it, or some of it: the back of her head, her hip, her back, her bottom, her elbows, impact rather than pain. Her head was resting on the last step. She lay in another pool of sunlight and dazzle. But she was alive. When she called out, she had been certain she wouldn’t survive.
Honor touched the back of her head. It was warm and wet, and her hand, when she saw it, was shaking and covered with blood.
Seeing it, the pain came.
‘Stephen,’ she said again and her voice came from someone else, someone old and weak.