Jim Nevin, pale and wrinkled, stepped naked into the bathtub.
Damn, but the water was cold.
He clenched his fists and stayed put. He had procrastinated long enough. Instead of getting into the warm bath, he had kept thinking of things that needed organising, jobs that needed a line drawn under them. Just who was he trying to kid? Every one was inconsequential and meaningless. The bath water was cold, so what? He settled himself slowly into the water and decided to savour the chill, enjoy the shivers when they came. The ripples on the surface grew still. There were no bubbles. Bubble bath had seemed frivolous.
Jim thought himself a man who had failed to fully complete anything; a man whose plans had never come together; a man who could never juggle more than one thing at a time; a man who had ignored his dreams and never amounted to anything. He felt that he had drifted through his life by taking the path of least resistance. The only thing that Jim felt sure of was that his life had been a complete and utter waste.
He had planned this, hadn’t he? Yes, planned it and was going through with it. This was not the path of least resistance; this was doing something. This was making something happen instead of waiting for something to happen.
Taking control, god damn it.
His eyes finally focused on the Stanley knife resting on the rim of the bath. He reached out and picked it up. The knife was colder by far than the water he was submerged in, it could easily have been the coldest damn thing he had ever touched. The shivers began. No mere extremity palsy this: no, this was a guts deep shuddering that wouldn’t stop. He pressed down on the top of the knife with his thumb and pushed forward to extend the blade. He watched the tendons move in his wrist.
When had his skin gotten so thin and wrinkled?
As hard as he tried he just couldn’t seem to still the tip of the blade, it wavered to and fro, up and down. What if he missed the mark? He clenched his jaw. No. This, at least, would not be for nothing. He could do this one simple thing. Jim dug the blade into his left wrist near the base of his thumb and ripped a diagonal line down his forearm. He screamed in surprise, an old man’s throaty yelp rather than a high-pitched screech. Whether he had screamed from the pain or the deed he wasn’t sure. Hot blood splashed his chest and face before he submerged the arm into the water. He fumbled the knife into his left hand but could not grip it, the tendons were cut. He did manage to cut his right wrist but it was little more than a deep scratch. The cold water turned red in billowing clouds, obscuring his pale frailty, which was a good thing in his opinion.
After a while, the pain lessened.
He had only gone and bloody done it, by god.
His heart rate slowed. He felt calm. He lifted his eyes from the red bathwater. He frowned. Something had changed. He tried to ignore it but couldn’t. It was like grit in his eye, a stone in his shoe. Something was different in the bathroom
Why couldn’t he just die easy, damn it?
He turned his head and focused his attention away from the bath. The toilet and cistern that had stood in the bathroom for the last twenty-eight years had disappeared. In their place stood a door.
The ‘hard part’ was done, but why should it be easy even then? Taking the path of least resistance was now forever behind him, wasn’t it? He had taken action and there were consequences, weren’t there? Yes. Of course there were.
Jim climbed out of the bath with slow jerky movements. He dripped blood and water onto the bathmat. He wasn’t cold any more, and he felt no pain. The shivering, it seemed, was done.
His head felt too heavy when he lifted it to look at the brand-new door in his bathroom. His feet slapped the tiles as he staggered the three steps across the room. He reached out and gripped the doorknob with his bloody hand. He twisted and twisted but the door remained closed. When he took his hand away he saw that the doorknob was smeared with his blood. Ah. He wiped both palms on the back of his robe hanging on the bathroom door. The real door, the one that had been there all along. He gripped the doorknob of the impostor door again and kept turning until the latch let go and the door opened out towards him.
A stairway led down where his wall and floor should be. Which was, of course, impossible. He should have been able to see through into Mrs. Baker’s flat below, but instead the smooth walls on either side of the stairway, just a door width apart, narrowed towards each other as the stairway disappeared into darkness.
Jim swallowed and rubbed his palms against his hips. Already the blood was drying and felt tacky. No more drifting. No more path of least resistance. He stepped across the threshold and began his descent. The door swung shut behind him with a soft click. He wanted to look back, but he was done with looking back.
Jim stepped down and down and down with the same steady stride that he had used throughout the steady pace of his ineffectual life. The same steady stride that had taken him without apparent alarm into the burnt wasteland of his retirement. If he had stopped to think what his life would be like without the job to occupy himself, day to day, week to week, year to year; if he had thought that his true love dying would leave him this bereft when she was gone; if he had just thought, *damn it, *then he would have killed himself long ago and saved himself the bother.
He knew, as he continued down, that his spindly legs did not have the strength to carry him back up. Why bother? The door was probably gone anyway. No, he had passed the point of no return before he had started climbing down these stairs, before he had stepped into the bath even. Long before. Kick a leg out, unlock the other knee and let the foot fall. What was the point in going back when gravity had helped him get this far? Descending was easy, gravity was his friend. Going back up would amount to nothing more than a wasted effort. Jim was finished with waste.
Bring on the catalogue of waste: a bitter unloved childhood, a laughable education, a loveless marriage, an idiot son, a horrible divorce, one meaningless job after another, then a loving marriage ruined prematurely by a senseless death, a pitiable widower, and then a menial job until retirement. No need to mention the dreams that were dreamt, and forgotten, put aside or sacrificed. The hobbies and past times that intrigued, blossomed, gathered dust and were ignored. No need to mention the time spent gazing at moving images, parking the intellect and letting the eyes feast.
Jim kept throwing a leg out, one after the other, and gravity kept grabbing it and pulling it down.
Retirement was unendurable. Why rest when all he had achieved with his life amounted to nothing? Had he striven for anything? Had he reached the utmost extremity of his endurance in anything that he had ever done? Had he pushed himself beyond any bloody limit, self-imposed or otherwise? Once, maybe, for her. But she was already dead and gone.
Gaps in the walls began to appear on either side of the stair. Light leaked from them into the stairway. There were vistas through those portals, Jim recognised a bedroom where she and he had made love for the first time, a church where they got married, the pub in which he’d seen her smile for the first time. And many more. She was never in any of these scenes, never heard, nor seen. Hadn’t he had enough of personal history? Wasn’t that the whole point?
Yes, it was, but he looked anyway. His eyes and neck strained to look through each portal for as long as he could, hoping for a glimpse of her: a shy smile; a curving hip; a sweep of hair.
What would he do if he saw her? Would he enter the portal and have one last moment with her before he died? Would he be transported to that time and place, his old self shucked like a snakeskin? Would he be given a second chance?
Jim continued down, each portal he passed grew dimmer until each had become nothing more than a patch of open darkness. The darkness was now so complete he could no longer tell if his eyes were open or not. The lack of light did not alter his resolve, and his pace did not falter. Locked in his self-loathing, despair and feeling of worthlessness, Jim failed to notice when he had reached the bottom of the stairway. He stumbled to his knees when the step he felt should be there was not.
Still on his knees, he looked up and found himself in a circular cavern. A faint green light glowed from the rough-hewn walls and ceiling. Spaced evenly around the walls of the cavern were eleven doors. It was only when Jim recognised the markings on the doors as English did he realise that there was light and that he could see.
Jim struggled to his feet. He stood and swayed as black and white dots crowded his vision. He shuffled forward until he stood in the middle of the cave. He turned on the spot and read the word carved on each wooden door: ‘Death’.
A ghost of a smile appeared for a moment on his lips.
It didn’t matter. There was no choice, not down here.
Jim took a breath and steadied himself. He did not linger and he showed no regret. He used tiny steps, barely lifting his feet, to take him to the door straight ahead. He reached out, and with a dry blood-stained hand, gripped the doorknob and twisted. His hand did not slip. He pushed the door open.
Bright wintry light filled the cavern. It should have blinded him.
There came the merest hint of a whisper behind him.
The bright light filled him with the promise of a kind of peace.
Was that her voice from the stairway? Drifting down from one of those dark and empty portals?
There was no going back. It was far too late for that.
Jim stepped into the cold light and pulled the door shut behind him.