Mopping the stair is a Sunday job. Always referred to in the singular, ‘stair’, it is the weekly freshening up of the common hallway, landings and stairwell serving the flats in my tenement. There’s an informal rota stuck quietly to the wall at the entrance, whispering to be ignored. It reminds me of our short-lived washing up rota as a child up at home – i.e. advisory, laced with futile parental hope. Enough attention seems to be paid to it, though, for a grimy stair not to become too much of a problem. My turn has come around and I’ll do it later today.
Swept and mopped over and over again for 150 years, for some reason the continuity of the task brings me comfort. Comfort tinged with interest in those who have passed on the invisible baton of communal living. It’s nearly always quiet on the stair, and usually I get through the job uninterrupted. At each landing I’ll stop, take my breath and visualise a ghostly presence mopping with me. I’ll think about the hundreds of people who have done it over the years, implements barely changed in all that time. Nothing like a flight of stairs to bring on my flight of imagination. I picture residents passing on the stair, exchanging niceties, or illicit winks. I can hear groans as bags of coal are hauled up, twangs as pianos are carefully lifted down – the family in no. 8 is moving on to be a better address. I wonder what the old-style bell levers – still there, but no longer working – would have sounded like.
There’s also something meditative about brushing, then mopping it all down and reading the clues from the week. Little dried pellets of earth lie outside no. 3. I decide they are shaped from the ridges on the soles of hiking boots, maybe she’s been hill-walking. (Mental note to get out of town, take the road north). There’s a gluey patch, dark with dust and dirt stuck to it, where the bikes are tied up to the stair rods on the ground floor. I imagine someone hunkering down, locking their bike whilst unsuccessfully balancing a can of coke between their knees. There are always broken elastic bands to be found. For a while, this would baffle me, until I met the postman on the stair one day, post in a bundle in his hand, secured by an elastic band. He flicked through to give me mine, the band snapped and dropped to the floor. Mystery solved. Free leaflets congregate at the bottom of the stair. Lately it’s been offers from ‘Iceland’, but it can vary, depending on the time of year. A couple of weeks ago it was Poundland’s fireworks. And then there are the leaves – many leaves, blown in with the wind as the main door opens and closes. I don’t like to sweep them all up, though, I like to leave some leaves; allow a little of the outside inside. I think of the poem by Scottish Poet, Kathleen Jamie, one called ‘Autumn’, where she describes my leaves squatting in the stairwell:
“sycamore and rowan
desperate as refugees,
crowding against the wheels of street-side dumpsters”
“they’re here, look:
blown into your stair
with the pizza delivery leaflets…
O whither the leaves?”
It’s a sad last line. Maybe her words are my influence for not sweeping up all of the leaves, because I want to nature’s calling card to sit there awhile. Company for the ghosts.