The Thirteenth Step

Step 1: Wake up on a bus with your head pounding and your tongue glued to the roof of your mouth. Pull yourself upright as the windows rattle like teeth in a tin can and the overhead lights flicker on and off. Try to peer through the mud-splattered windows into the blackness outside. See nothing. Stagger down the aisle like a baboon that’s been shot with a tranquiliser dart, grasping and grunting from handrail to handrail. Shout for the driver to stop. Realise that there isn’t one. Fall into the doors as the steering wheel spins and the bus takes a corner. Lie flat on your back, numb monkey paw falling open like a split apple. Admit that there’s a problem.

Step 2: Remember the headlights, merging into a blur, as you lay slumped on your front lawn, choking on your vomit as your neighbour’s yappy dog sniffed at your crotch. Remember that you’re the stick that nobody bothered to retrieve, even in your dreams. Remember fingers pressing in beneath your elbows, below your armpit, lifting you up; falling into the same thumb grooves left by a million bar staff, policemen and friends over the years. Always the same hold. Maybe it’s taught. Like the recovery position. They should have learnt that instead.

Step 3: Get off the bus. Meet a man who looks like an 80s quiz show host or a swinger with a spray tan; like someone who’s trying to sell you something, who hugs you and pats you on the back like you’re old friends. Let him lead you into a portocabin that smells of rotten meat. Let a sour-faced old bag give you a dirty gown to wear and a paper cup to piss into. Let her shine her torch into your eyes, scrape your tongue, put a stethoscope on your chest. She doesn’t warn you like your childhood doctor did. She doesn’t need to. You can’t feel that it’s cold anymore.

Step 4: Wait in the cabin, watching a clock that doesn’t move, facing a TV that shows nothing but static. Try to read magazines that are glued shut. Stare at a fish tank full of rocks. Wait some more. Wait until an envelope appears on the table in front of you, addressed to a number, not a name. Read your results: piss=deep red= top end of the spectrum= unresolved conflict=therapy. Screw up the paper and toss it into the bin.

Step 5: Get back on the bus. Get off. Sit with a bunch of suicides in a circle in the middle of an empty school gym. Strain your ears as you listen to a man who speaks so softly it’s like he’s breathing on glass. Watch as he tries to mist you over, to thumb out the curls and ridges of your fingerprints and wipe you clean, all without shattering you. Remember your grandfather, who left his homeland after the Second World War, who carried secrets that were shards in the soles of his feet; and not one of them was about how girls wouldn’t talk to him or how much of a dick his dad was. Keep your mouth shut.

Step 6: Eye up the skinny blond girl who keeps crying. Watch Glassman pull her from her seat and lift her arm in the air like people do to Rocky when he’s the champion. Watch everybody applaud her as she sags sobbing at his side like someone’s stolen her skeleton. Sit dry-eyed as the group begins to weep; as they puke their miserable lives up onto the floor, then sit around poking at each other’s rancid chunks, hand-in-hand, and patting each other on the back. Realise that your chair is nailed to the floor. Realise when you go to throw it.

Step 7: Admit that you’re wrong. And again, and again. Scribble out your sins; purge yourself in an inky enema, big black blots against the white of your soul. Keep writing. The list of your wrongs will wrap around the world twice, and give every inhabitant a square of shit paper. Cross them out. Save everybody time and just write, “yeah, I’m a cunt.” Hand in your notepad and win a big hug and a smile from Glassman, who thinks there’s been a breakthrough. Smile back. You can play this game.

Step 8: Do as Glassman asks. Write another list.

To those I hurt:
My mother.
My ex-girlfriends.
Claire, the only girl I loved.
That barman I headbutted.
The woman in the off-licence whose dog I kicked.
My best friend.
Claire, the only girl I loved.

Claire. I’m sorry.

Step 9: Get on the bus, two by two, like a school trip. Stand outside Claire’s house, not knowing what to do, as she comes home from work. Spook her in the shower by playing your song. Regret it when she starts crying. Wish you had money to put in her teapot, to make up for all the cash you stole. Make that photo of the pair of you, the one where you’re on the beach, last summer; the one where the sun bought out her freckles, where you’re kissing the tan lines on her shoulder with your eyes closed and without a care in the world, that one; make it blow from the shelf in a breeze that isn’t there, make it land at her feet. Refuse to get back on the bus. Remember that she’s better off without you. Sit at the back, by yourself.

Step 10: Realise that you’re trapped in this happy-clapping hell until you toe the line. Say “interesting” instead of “bullshit”. Turn that frown upside down! Be a buddy. Smile. Hug. Hold hands without wiping your hands on your jeans after. Look sad. Look intense. Stare into the sunset and gaze at the moon Make friends with Glassman. Laugh at his jokes. Make up stories about your dysfunctional childhood. Try not to smirk when he takes your hand in his.

Step 11: Work your way up the ladder. Become part of the welcoming committee, bringing the newly dead to the party; the party where there’s no booze and where the guests just won’t leave. Hug a man you’ve never met, tell him it’s going to be ok, even though he’s got shit in his pants and stab wounds all over his chest. Earn privileges, a night on earth. Find a bar. Find a corner. Find the person sitting by themselves, knocking back whiskey after whiskey, pint after pint. Watch them push peanuts around the tabletop, tear up a beer mat. Leave them to it. Intervention is not prevention. Intervention is not in your job description.

Step 12: Win an award, scoot up the scoreboard, get a nice big desk and a cancer patient for a secretary. Start dressing like an 80s quiz show host and a swinger with a spray tan. Start talking like you’re breathing on glass. Renounce your former life, solemnly swear as you shake hands with the Big Man. No going back. See yourself grinning on the cover of a newsletter; a credit, a success. Earn your chip, your tacky medallion, feel the weight of it in your palm. That’s it. No return. Go back and you’re damned. Think of heaven, hell, Claire. Flip the coin. Heads or tails, heads or tails…

Nicola Belte lives in Birmingham, UK and writes fiction. Her work has been published in Spilling Ink Review, Dogzplot and The Pygmy Giant, amongst others, and you can find her at her blog, here:

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5 Responses to The Thirteenth Step

  1. stevengowin says:

    James Claffey turned me on to this. This line, “Watch everybody applaud her as she sags sobbing at his side like someone’s stolen her skeleton. Sit dry-eyed as the group begins to weep; as they puke their miserable lives up onto the floor, then sit around poking at each other’s rancid chunks, hand-in-hand, and patting each other on the back. ” kills me. This is a very nice piece, not simply because of its fine writing but because of the look inside it delivers. I’ll be thinking about this for days… probably longer.

  2. Curtis says:

    A thoroughly good read, eager to read more from Nicola. And I agree with Steven (above), love the alliteration.

  3. TMH says:

    LOVED this. Brilliant writing. Made me check out your blog. Waiting for more.

  4. Nicola Belte says:

    Thank you all for such lovely comments (and for taking the time to do so), it’s much appreciated!
    I’m glad you enjoyed the story 🙂

  5. Mark Jarrad says:

    As i read this story it took me to another place , as if i were looking through the main character’s eyes …excellent storytelling on a very high level : )

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