The Darkest Hour – A Short Story

The last few steps she took were the worst. At this time of night you could never tell what was lurking in the shadows and, when you entered the small stairwell, the shadows became darker still. She walked carefully, listening for any noises. As she stood in front of the lift she prayed that it was working this time, a wave of relief washing over her when the button lit up at the end of her finger.

She had only lived in the flats for a few months, still unknown to the local gangs and still a target every time she ventured out. It was all so different a year ago. She could feel her heart racing underneath her anorak as she waited for the creaking lift to arrive. A noise by the bins made her turn around quickly but she then saw the scrawny ginger cat running off scaring himself. Another sigh of relief as she told herself not to be so stupid.

Her flat was only on the sixth floor but she had three heavy shopping bags with her and it was so difficult to climb the urine-soaked, concrete stairs. It was all too difficult nowadays. Her mum’s illness had become progressively worse, and although the Doctor had explained that it was a life-limiting condition, her mum now had no life at all. Her life had been limited to zero, she had said once that her only joy was watching Matilda grow into a beautiful woman, but even that had now been tarnished by an overwhelming sense of guilt. Matilda now simply existed, from day to day, in a world that a twelve year old should not have to see.

The lift finally arrived but when the doors slid open they revealed a man, stood at the back, with his elderly face hidden from view. Matilda had to quickly decide what to do. She glanced quickly at the staircase and when she turned back, towards the open the doors of the lift, she noticed the man had looked up.

He had kind eyes buried deep into his wrinkled, unshaven features. “It’s ok,” he smiled, “I don’t bite.” Matilda reluctantly shuffled over the threshold not daring to look up.

The doors hesitated before they closed, sticking irritatingly from the chewing gum build up in the grooves. Once they were shut, her vulnerable hand reached for the number six, highlighted by the dim plastic light. She picked a point on the floor to stare at, just in front of her old trainers, holding her breath for fear of making any kind of noise.

The lift started its gradual ascent. Grinding and lurching upwards, each tooth of each cog could be heard clicking over. Then a noise of scraping metal and it jolted to a stop. A cold, shooting sensation suddenly rose from Matilda’s stomach to her throat making her feel nauseous. Her fear was hard to contain. Tears came to her eyes and she dropped her shopping bags. She froze and her body stiffened in the dank atmosphere of the lift. The old man bent down and picked up a pack of biscuits that had rolled against one of his feet.

“We might need these later on,” he joked, but Matilda did not look up. The man threw the biscuits back into the top of one of the bags and returned to where he was standing. “It’s ok Mattie,” he continued, “we’ll be ok. You’ll be ok. Just have to wait.”

Matilda frowned, still looking at the same spot on the floor, and more tears came flowing from her eyes. How did he know who she was? Her Dad had died tragically, in a train crash, a year ago and he had been the only person that had ever called her Mattie. Her mum knew her as Tilly and the small set of people she could class as friends just called her Matilda.

“I know,” he said reassuringly. “This was never my intention for you, I swear. It wasn’t meant to have been like this. I don’t know why certain things have happened the way they have but I do know one thing. You’re here for a reason, darling. You’re doing so well, and I’m so very proud of you. You’re doing better than anyone could have ever foreseen, and I want you to be strong and carry on. I know your mum doesn’t say it much, she never did, but she feels it as much as I do. We’re both so proud.” He paused and took a deep breath. “Do you remember the song we used to sing?”

Matilda still looked at the floor while a burning pain in her chest spread to every muscle in her body. The emotions, which she had locked away for her own safety, now reached out for their chance of escape and she was scared to breathe in case the tiniest of movements made the moment disintegrate.

“It’s a little bit funny,” the old man croaked in the corner, “this feeling inside. I’m not one of those who can – eas-ily hide. Well,” he said after a pause, “I guess it is funny because I can hide now, but you must remember that I’m always here darling. I’m just hiding.” He took a step towards her. “I see everything though, and I promise I’ll always be with you, and you’ll always be safe. My beautiful Mattie you’re going to do something so special one day,” he began to cry himself, “I can’t tell you what it is but it’s so amazing, and I promise you, I promise that everything that you’re going through right now will make you stronger. You’re going to be ok. I promise the pain is almost over my baby. I want you to know I’ve always loved you and I will always love you. Oh God, I’m so proud of you. I’ll always be here my darling, always.” Matilda turned around sharply, finally ready to embrace her fears, but in the exact same moment the dim plastic light went out.

The noise of scraping metal started above and when the light blinked back on again Matilda was left with the bags around her feet, tears uncontrollably streaming down her face, and the man had gone.

The world stood still as the realisation hit her and she smiled to herself, perhaps for the first time in a year. It seemed as though she had embodied hopelessness for so long that when she stepped out on the sixth floor it felt disorientating, but it then dawned on her, she now had… HOPE.

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