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Jon Ingold

Location: Aberdeen, Scotland, UK
Date of Birth: 5/16/81
Email: jon@ingold.fsnet.co.uk
Website: http://www.ingold.fsnet.co.uk/
Awards: Regional Short-Story Competition


HOW TO BUILD AN IMPOSSIBLE STAIRCASE

Welcome to my front yard. The weatherís good, the sky is pretty blue with clouds which cycle lazily over the tops of the trees. Me and Dr. Kryincov sit side by side on my doorstep, watching bemused as the postman makes his way up to my door. Heís a pleasant man, the postman, with a pleasant face and a jolly demeanour. His short flock of black hair resides under the uniform postal cap; and he looks very happy with his role.

"Thatís the parcel for you, Mr. Griffiths. From the bank." Which he hands to me.

"Thanks," I reply.

The postman sets off down the stairs in my front yard again; that lead from my door to the gate out onto the street. He turns back after a couple and says Ė "I wish youíd put a mailbox at the bottom of all these stairs, Mr. Griffiths, Iím quite worn out!"

Me and Dr. Kryincov watch in silence as the postman walks down the left side of the staircase. Thatís where it bends sideways, like a roller-coaster track, and so he walks along the vertical face, sticking out like a long postal nail. He reaches the front gate and straightens out again, and carries on going down the stairs. He walks past us, sat on my front step, without a second glance in my direction, and then reaches the gate once more. This time he walks straight through it and out into the street.

"I donít think everybody gets it, Dr. Kryincov."

"No, dear boy, I donít suppose they do." His voice is heavy, because heís pining for the Nobel Prize or Fields medal he wonít be winning for his achievement. The panel of judges did arrive and have a look, but they walked around in a circle three times, stood outside my door, tutted and looked serious, then walked in a circle twice and left.

I only get it because I watched them build it; even then it was a while before it clicked. But click it did Ė and thatís what makes me special, Dr. Kryincov very kindly says. I suppose thatís true Ė the postmanís been delivering every morning for nearly a year now, and he still goes round three times to console himself before heíll deliver to me.

Heíll walk straight past my doorstep, where Iíll be sat with Dr. Kryincov, and Iíll say, "Oh, has that parcel arrived from the bank yet?"

The postman pointedly ignores me, as though I were a drunk or a beggar or a madman paying with a pot plant on the bus.

Voosh!

He reaches the gate and climbs the stairs to my door again, and he stops.

"Any word on that parcel the bank are supposed to be sending me?"

Turns out heís only tying up his shoelace. He props his foot up on my doorstep between me and my friend, and neatly fastens his laces. I can see the parcel in his post office satchel as he leans forward, and so very quietly I reach out and pluck it from the bag. Itís the parcel I was expecting from the bank. Dr. Kryincov stares at me in horror, and giggles slightly with excitement.

"My dear chap, thatís thievery!" he whispers.

I nod slightly, and begin carefully opening the tape that holds down the flap on the end of the parcel. Oblivious to all this, the postman starts off again, and continues climbing the stairs, more slowly now as he begins to tire. You can hear him panting as he makes it back to the gate where he started, and his face is bright red by the time he returns to my front door. This time he waves on the last stretch and cries:

"Good morning, Mr Griffiths! Iíve got that parcel from the bank you wanted!"

Heís finally reached my door, and is standing straight upwards, same as me, not sideways. "Iíve got it somewhere here in my bag," he says, as he fumbles around for an embarrassed moment. I donít really know what to say.

"I donít believe it!" curses the postman under his breath. "Iím sorry, Mr. Griffiths, I had it a moment ago, Iím sure I did. Iíve probably dropped it Ė Iíll just go and look. Iím dreadfully sorry."

"Thatís okay," I reply.

"No really, Iíll just nip down and have a look for it. Itís no trouble."

"Bring it to me tomorrow," I offer, hands loosely resting around the very parcel, which is half-opened. "You neednít come all the way back up now."

Dr. Kryincov makes a slight internal squealing noise, suppressing a giggle and releasing it in a controlled explosion through his nose.

"No," the postman replies bravely, "Professionalism, Mr. Griffiths Ė Iíll just go and find it."

He turns round and starts off down the stairs, Dr. Kryincov is biting his lip fiercely, and I wait patiently as the postman walks his way around the staircase once more and approaches us again. He sees the parcel this time, and snatches it roughly from me, saying only:

"Pesky kids. Disgraceful Ė I could get the sack, and from that useless lot of lazy layabouts."

Actually, I think he says more, but by the gate heís out of hearing, and he stops and starts smiling again as he comes within sight of us Ė or rather, we come within sight of him.

"That parcel for you, Mr. Griffiths. From the bank." Which he puts back into my hands again, frowning at the sight of the half-opened tape around one end.

"Thanks", I reply.

The postman sets off down again. He turns back after a couple of steps and says Ė "I wish youíd put a mailbox at the bottom of these stairs, Mr. Griffiths, Iím quite worn out!"

And he goes back downstairs. Somehow his cap doesnít fall off when heís on the part of the staircase which bends so itís vertical, and I donít quite understand that. Itís because his down becomes different than my down; but, no Ė I canít really see it. Which is a shame, because I understand everything else about the impossible stairs in my front yard, which go up but donít have a top or bottom, just one looped middle.

I know the man who built it; he comes and sits on my front doorstep to admire his creation. It gave me rather a shock the first time I saw him there; but these days heís a regular; so I come downstairs and offer him a cup of tea.

Apparently the reason it works is because itís logical like that. Dr. Kryincov tells me that everything in the whole Universe is based on logic; and since the staircase is logically sound; it doesnít matter that itís impossible. Itís allowed.

"My dear boy," he says, reeking of an academic air which died out years ago, "Everythingís so much easier since they found the Theory of Everything."

Yeah, thatís right, the Theory of Everything. Thatís what does it all Ė absolutely everything in the entire universe. This is the theory that can compute the time until the Sun goes supernova, and what you ate for breakfast yesterday morning. Itís all calculable Ė it just requires rather a large number of calculations. So rest assured, the cereal companies wonít be using it to target their adverts at you quite yet. And apparently the Theory also explains why a tennis ball has been rolling down the steps outside my house for the past week now without ever reaching the bottom. Dr. Kryincov tells me not to worry; as itíll soon achieve escape velocity.

"Donít worry, dear boy, Itíll soon.." Ė voosh! goes the ball streaking past him as he sits on my front doorstep, and I walk up to my house having just returned from the newsagent Ė "Donít worry. That ball will achieve escape velocity in the next week, I should imagine; or itíll burrow through the track in the wall. Donít fret, my dear chap. It wouldnít do, it simple would not do."

Thatís another thing. This tennis ball is running around a track set into the inner wall of the ring staircase, the edge which borders the attractive fountain in the middle of my front lawn. Itís a very pleasant fountain to have, and I like it. On windy days little droplets of water get blown on the stairs which then run around and around the staircase constantly, casting maniacal rainbows in all directions, until it develops into a torrent along the far edge wall of the staircase Ė Dr. Kryincov tells me thatís because of centripetal force throwing it outwards. Strangely enough, the water in the fountain bowl is level with the rim of this bowl, and this bowl is flush with the inner wall of the staircase Ė even though the staircase walls are all inclined in different direction. Dr. Kryincov tells me thatís okay, because actually the fountain is on all angles at once but down is always the same, so the water in the bowl doesnít pour out.

This track is set just into the wall and below the level of the steps, and seems perfect size to fit a tennis ball so it can run down the stairs without risking it bouncing away.

"Why is that track there, Dr. Kryincov?" I ask.

"Why? My dear chap; it is aesthetically pleasing, is it not? What more reason does it need to be anywhere?"

"Who set the ball rolling, Dr. Kryincov?" I ask.

"So to speak?" he quips.

"Yes, Dr. Kryincov."

"Who? My dear chap; it is aesthetically pleasing, is it not? So what does it matter who? We should thank who for giving us this incredible phenomenon."

Iím not going to thank whoever gave me this incredible phenomenon, because itís quite noisy now.

Voosh! runs the tennis ball, extremely noisily.

"Itís quite noisy now, Dr. Kryincov, isnít it?"

"Well, my dear fellow, whatever do you expect? Itís pushing air molecules out of its way with tremendous force and at high speed. If it didnít it wouldnít use up any of itís energy and it would already have achieved escape velocity."

"But I live next to it, Dr. Kryincov. Itís rather hard to sleep sometimes."

"Ah dear boy, I do see what you mean." And with a sombre contemplative expression he turns to gaze at the marvel once more.

It can be quite bemusing; when you stand here and try and follow how the thing works. You can feel your mind bend as you follow it around. Itís exactly like youíre putting a corkscrew into a bottle, but the cork is so firm that the screw isnít going in but your arm is twisting up in the opposite direction instead.

You sit on the front doorstep outside my house, and have a good look. The staircase square, with four flights of steps each one of which seems normal, but when they all fit together it goes wrong. At this side you can see it going firmly upwards to the right, and down to the left. You try to take the whole thing in, but itís just not possible to follow them both at once Ė Iíve tried. Itís like trying to eat with only one side of your mouth or holding your breath; your brain always pushes it over or makes you breathe because it knows itís better for you like that. And if you follow the right hand side upwards, it turns sideways like that; and if you follow the left side downwards it turns sideways like this, when suddenly the stairs bend in this other direction which is new. But the left and right sides face different directions, and yet when they meet over by the gate, they hit square on; only going up-down in the other direction than outside my front door.

Iíve tried looking at all four sides at once, but you canít, so you start to wonder if it isnít just that youíve remembered each side wrong. To start with your brain starts rotating everything to make it all fit properly somehow, though it never succeeds. But this does mean that if you look at the left side and then very quickly switch to looking at the right side, resisting a natural urge to follow the stairs around in a sea-sickening circle, then you can spend the next two hours with everything appearing at ninety degrees to the right. Thatís weird, because you can just see your nose and it seems to be on one side of your forehead.

Dr. Kryincov is quietly counting as he sits by me on the front step, his leathery face wrinkled up in concentration and his eyes slitted as though he had a migraine. His mouth is moving emptily, but I know that heís counting, because heís always counting.

"What number are you up to, Dr. Kryincov?" I ask.

His mouth opens and shuts a few times, and eventually he turns to me, eyes still slitted. "I donít know now; youíve disrupted me. Dear chap, I wish you wouldnít."

"Oh Ė sorry, Dr. Kryincov." Iím not really sorry.

Dr. Kryincov, even though heís my friend, just snorts, and begins counting again in furrowed concentration. Which, incidentally, is also calculable by the Theory of Everything.

"The Theory of Everything, my good man, is very simple."

But perhaps not simple enough. He goes on:

"We have got the Universe, the whole of reality and creation," and he waves his arms outwards to demonstrate, and a fold of his too baggy lab-coat slaps me in the face, but I donít mind. "Everything in the entire of everything Ė including this cup of tea; I thank you for it Ė weíve pinned it down to two equations."

The two equations that constitute the Theory of Everything, that express every quantity in the universe or every quantity from which every other quantity is easily derivable by methods contained within the Theory of Everything:

"There are two equations: the short one, and the long one."

"Are they the same Ė like long and short versions of the same story, Dr. Kryincov? Is that it?"

With a quirky gleam in his eye: "You mean, is one the Ďcomplete and unabridgedí version of the other Ďabridgedí version?"

"Yes, thatís what I mean, Dr. Kryincov."

No. No, theyíre completely different.

"The short one describes energy, force and matter, and consists of a single line."

"A single line for all the universe, Dr. Kryincov? Thatís incredible!"

"Well," he says with a slightly consoling voice, "it does need quite a wide piece of paper."

"Very wide, Dr. Kryincov?"

"No, only quite wide. Say this big," and with his hands he demonstrates perhaps the length of a sheet of typing paper, and a fold of his stained white coat tickles my nose.

"And that describes the universe! Fantastic!"

"Well, it would be, dear boy, it would be. If it werenít for equation two."

Equation two: the long one. "Of course, nobodyís actually written it down, but we can be pretty certain whatís in it Ė no surprises."

"Why has nobody written it down?"

"Dear boy, because itís long!"

"Long?"

"Well, very long then, old chap. Very, very long."

"How long is that?"

"Quite damned long, I must say. Damned long."

He sips his tea crossly. Itís a wonder he doesnít get too hot sat there on my front doorstep in lab coat over woolly jumper. We are silent for a bit, watching bemused as the postman comes up to my door.

"That parcel for you, Mr. Griffiths. From the bank."

Cathy comes up the path too, smiling politely and demurely to the postman when she passes him first time, though he ignores her. Then she does a loop around the stairs a couple more times, just for good measure. On her second lap of the staircase, the postman pleasantly doffs his cap to her, but she ignores him.

"Theyíre out of synch with each other, arenít they, Dr. Kryincov!"

He doesnít speak, expect to make a slight squealing noise through his nose, and chew his lip even harder.

Finally, she Ďseesí me, and waves animatedly. "Hi!" she cries, waving, grinning, hopping up the last three or four steps to where Iím stood. Sometimes, when sheís tired or strained, she gets confused and carries on hopping, so that by the time she reaches me sheís hopped up at least thirty steps and is completely worn out and breathless.

"Hi! How are you?" she breezes into my house, stepping elegantly over Dr. Kryincov who tends to still be sat on my front doorstep, counting quietly to himself.

"Iím good," Iíll say, nodding. "How was your day?"

"But Richard, itís only nine in the morning!" she exclaims, still grinning that lovely vacant grin.

"Yes, but how was your day?"

"But Richard, it only nine in the morning!"

Thereís something wrong here. I speak more slowly, like an Englishman in a French café. "How was your dayÖ yesterday?"

"My day was great yesterday," she replies airily. "Oh!" sheíll then add, to make up for the confusion. "Youíve got new curtains! Theyíre lovely!"

Or:

"Oh! Youíve got the new.. gardening catalogue! Lovely..!"

And thereís a slight frown on her face as she smiles vacantly and then goes to read the gardening catalogue. Thatís her mind trying to understand what itís doing.

My house is full of noise whenever Cathyís around. Thereís her light-headed delicious burbling; which floats merrily over the drone of the cars in the street outside. I always leave my front door open these days, so that Dr. Kryincov can come in and go to the toilet, or get another cup of tea ("Positive and negative, dear boy; couldnít have one without the other") whenever he wants to. I never seem to get any of the smog from the road coming in though; that, like the postman, seems to end up going round and round the staircase in confusion.

Dr. Kryincov stands up suddenly and walks past me into my hall. "Seventeen," he says as he walks past, looking a little surprised, and I nod "Seventeen?" He goes up the stairs in my house, sighing a slight sigh of relief when he finds there is a top to them, and goes into the bathroom. Eventually, thereís the flush of the water pipes and the sound of the bolt being drawn back again, and he comes back down to the hall; Iíve stayed there, waiting by the old wooden table on which are my car keys. He passes me gracefully, his lab coat streaming out behind him in the wind, and he walks into the kitchen. I pop my head around the door to see him stealing brazenly from the biscuit tin and say:

"Thirty-two Ė but I was looking through the door."

Dr. Kryincov looks up at me and stares in horror, dumbfounded for a second before he says: "Thirty-two! Really!"

I nod.

"Thirty-two?"

I nod.

"Really!" His hair frizzes around his head, flustered like his hands. "I was looking from the bathroom and got thirty-four."

"Really?" I ask.

"Yes, I did, as a matter of fact. Tut tut tut. This will never do!"

He walks past me into my hall, and with a slight jump he lands himself on the doorstep. That is clearly a practised move. From outside I hear: Voosh! and "One.. two.. threeÖ"

Cathy has been listening to us from where she is perched on the corner of the kitchen table reading a copy of the free magazine supplement with the television listings. She stands and comes over to me, leans on my shoulder gracefully and says:

"Oh, you boys. Your heads are full of such nonsense!" and she gives me a slight peck on the cheek.

I like Cathy, even if she does always ignore me when she comes round Ė and round Ė before something in here decides itís my floor. Occasionally I press the subject.

"Cathy Ė do you ever count the stairs outside my door?"

"You silly man," she cuffs me lightly on the head with long stroking fingers and bobs her dyed-brown Sixties bob. "Why would I?"

"Why donít you try it? Just for me?"

"I donít know, Richard, youíre so silly. Sometimes I wonder why we go out."

"Donít say that, Cathy," I reply, slightly alarmed because sheís still grinning.

"Oh, I donít mean it, love. You know that." Her voice takes on that rich, lovely quality which it always has when sheís being charmingly rude. "You silly man," and she cuffs me lightly on the head again, and pecks me on the cheek.

With fast, serious steps Dr. Kryincov strides into the room, wheels on his back heel and strides out again.

She pecks me on the cheek again and pats the back of my hand, smiling.

"Hang on, Cathy," and I stand up.

"Where are you off to now, you silly boy," she smiles at me, her eyes bobbing up and down in their sockets loosely. She puts a hand briefly on my leg as I stand. I leave the room, and she busies herself in lining out the creases in the sofa cover, and then her dress, and then the sofa cover again. I notice that every time she moves one she makes sure to rumple the other so she can keep going.

"What is it, Dr. Kryincov?" I ask.

Heís sat, staring at the ground, on the doorstep. "Didnít mean to interrupt anything, old man. I tend to forget youíve got other things in your life as well. Iím sorry."

"Thatís okay, Dr. Kryincov."

"Really?" He brightens up, and his silly voice returns. "Dear chap, thatís frightfully good of you." He smiles broadly.

I stand for a little while longer, and then realise that Dr. Kryincov is staring at me so earnestly because heís forgotten where in the conversation he was, so I help him out.

"What was it, Dr. Kryincov?"

"Oh, yes; I though you might be interested Ė forty-nine."

"I had forty-three."

He peers at me. "You werenít even looking."

"I was!" I retort.

This seems to worry him. He stares at me again. He stands up. He sits down. He opens his mouth, then closes it again. On an impulse he reaches into his breast pocket of his lab coat, takes out a small box of powder and spills a little on my doorstep. Then he puts the box carefully away again, and says:

"Oh, dreadfully sorry, old man Ė Iíve spilled something on your doorstep. Let me brush it away."

He brushes it away with a wrinkled palm and sits.

"One.. two.. three.." Voosh!

That tennis ball is streaking around now; still running downwards and accelerating, and I think itís beginning to wear down the stone of the track by friction. That track is filled with the splattered remains of little insects and the like of who got in the way. I go back to Cathy, and when she sees me she straightens down the sofa cover with her right hand and her ankle-length tie-dye skirt with her left hand.

"There you are, my love." She takes my hand and guides me to sit down. "What was your friend after now?"

"He wanted to tell me Ďforty-nineí."

She stares at me blankly.

"But I told him Ďforty-threeí."

Her eyes have this sort of glazed-yet-interested look, like your mother has when youíre five, or like the glass porthole in the door of an open washing machine.

"But actually," I conclude triumphantly, "actually, I hadnít been counting at all; I just made it up to irritate him."

This she understands, and she brightens up because of it, that wonderful kind smile radiating from her soft face once more. "How Ė my - you silly boys!" she scolds happily. "Always playing your silly little tricks and pranks! I donít know why you just canít get on nicely like us women! I donít know!" and she sounds tremendously pleased that she doesnít.

I donít think the staircase in my front yard has done much good for her, like it has for me. She used to be very normal and level-headed. I still love her, and sheís still lovely, but she always seems a bit, well a little bit - I donít know. Dim. I think itís because she canít see in the same way as Dr. Kryincov and I can, in that direction which the staircase runs in which isnít up or down or left or right, and itís confusing her. Something inside her canít accept that she can see but not understand Ė and so doesnít see Ė the staircase looping sideways whilst staying the same way up. Itís playing with her mind.

"Oh, itís all in the formula, if youíre worried, old man," says Dr. Kryincov. "Go and look it up."

"Is it in the long or the short formula, Dr. Kryincov?"

"The long formula, Iím afraid."

"Thatís the one nobodyís ever written down?"

"Thatís the one, my old rooster. Thatís the brick."

"So I canít find out, can I Dr. Kryincov? Because no oneís ever written it down."

"You could always write it down lad." He sees my face looking nonplussed and adds: "Oh go on - please! Youíll be famous! Youíll be the toast of the whole scientific community!" His eyes are wistful as he adds: "We could share a Nobel Prize, or an Oscar, or something!"

"How long is it, Dr. Kryincov? If no-oneís ever written it down. How long would it be?"

"What, the long equation in the Theory of Everything, old chap?"

Heís stalling: "Yes, Dr. Kryincov."

"Itís very long."

"How long?"

"I donít know," he grins, and his eyes sparkle. "No oneís ever written it down."

"But," he adds mischievously, "if you really wanted to know.."

"Well, Iíd quite like to know."

"In that case, old man, thereís one way you could find out."

"Whatís that, Dr. Kryincov?"

"You could always write it down!" He pleads again. "Oh go on, please! Youíll be recognised in every lab all over the world! Youíll be on television! Youíll be the toast of the whole scientific community!"

I find myself pulling that expression that Cathy always pulls, when sheís despairingly happy. A sort of ĎI would be irritated with you, but youíre just too loveable to be irritated with.í Itís a bit odd that I think Dr. Kryincov is loveable, because I donít know very much about him; apart from he likes to sit on my doorstep and he longs for the respect of the academic world.

"Dr. Kryincov?" I ask one morning, as Cathy loops her way around the stairs for the second time. "Why do Cathy and the postman always go around three times on the way up, and only twice on the way down?"

"Thatíll be in it, too," he remarks. Heís in a slightly sullen mood today, though I donít know why. I think itís because the weather is getting cooler; though itís quite a nice morning with the sun shimmering behind a thin cloud and the birds singing. The doorstep has a dying feeling to it, like it was the end of the summer. Dr. Kryincov picks up a small stone from the side of the path and scrutinises it carefully. Then he throws it at the yellow blur in the track, which is crashing past with a tremendous, shattering Vooshing! sound. But the tennis ball is going so quickly that the stone doesnít have a chance to land before it is struck out again and goes flying through my window. But thatís okay because itís already been broken by the other stones and is now just an empty frame.

"No, Dr. Kryincov. Why do you think it is? You know most about this sort of thing."

"You and me, dear boy. Youíre a wonder at it yourself."

"Thank you, Dr. Kryincov."

"Thatís quite all right. Credit where creditís due." With that he finishes the conversation, and picks up another pebble from the gravel just under the black painted doorstep, and throws it at the track. This time it misses completely, flies over the rim of the fountain and emerges slightly higher up on the other side. It doesnít hit the ground quite yet, but loops around downwards twice before hitting Dr. Kryincov on the shoe.

"Itís like a boomerang, isnít it, Dr. Kryincov," I remark.

"No," he replies simply. He is in a bad mood. "Boomerangs work by air pressure variations, not space-curve distortions."

"I see," I reply, which is a lie.

"Sorry," he adds.

"Thatís okay, Dr. Kryincov."

Cathy comes up the path. Iím very glad to see her this morning, because Dr. Kryincov is being recalcitrant, so I show her how much I love her by giving her a big hug as soon as Iím sure sheís reached me. Last time I hugged her when she had only climbed round the stairs twice, she slapped me hard across the cheek, drawing blood with a ring. Then after one more futile loop she said: "Eugh! I donít know why they donít lock people like that up; itís horrible. Sometimes I think itíd be nicer to live somewhere with no other people at Ė oh! What happened to your cheek, love?" And she ruffles my hair, and guides me through the doorway with one hand.

Perhaps your friend would like to go home now. Thatís what sheís going to say. Somehow I can see it from her face, itís written all over her, clear as tears. I used not to be able to guess what she was thinking but now I can sort of see it easily; I think it comes from staring at the stares, because they go up and down and up-down and sideways in a sort of straight-line circle, and I think itís doing funny things to me on the inside Ė which is also the outside, thatís what Dr. Kryincov says. He also says:

"Time is a kind of dimension, too, my good man."

And on top of that he says:

"Imagine, youíre an ant, dear boy."

So Iíve learnt to look at people in this other way I couldnít do before. I think I could win the lottery now first time, if I tried. The whole thing seems paper thin.

"Imagine youíre an ant, dear boy."

"Okay, Dr. Kryincov." Not far wrong.

"Imagine youíre an ant, and you live on this big sheet of paper. Youíve never been beyond it, and it doesnít move."

I frowned. "The ant doesnít move?"

"No, no, no, my good fellow, the paper doesnít move. You are the ant, remember that; itís not it, itís you."

"Okay, Dr. Kryincov. I suppose so."

"Right then. Youíve never been off this piece of paper. So what does the world look like?"

I hesitated. "White?"

"Flat," he corrected. "And because youíre so small, it would seem pretty much perfectly flat. You wouldnít understand if it werenít flat. Youíd be living Ė cruelly, dear boy, but perfectly happily Ė between two planes, being Ďpaperí and Ďskyí."

"So the paperís under the sky?"

"Why, of course it is! Though thatís not the important bit."

"Sorry, Dr. Kryincov."

"Quite all right, dear boy."

You may think itís odd that I have a ring staircase in my front yard anyway. You see, I live in a block of three flats which had the front hallway removed by a demented landlady. They were going to build a series of fire-escape steps to zig-zag up to the various flats, but then along came Dr. Kryincov with his more efficient solution. At a third of the cost Ė one third of the steps needed to be build Ė we can reach all the three flats easily. It looks just a bit odd in the middle of a lawn; even without the bizarre whip-lash shape.

"Dr. Kryincov," I prompt.

"Ah yes!"

"Well?"

"Youíre an ant, and you donít understand up or down, because youíve never seen them. Right?"

The ant again - I sat down. "Right."

"And on your paper thereís a drawing of a capital S. And you walk along the line from the bottom to the top, and suddenly at the top; youíve reached the bottom again!"

"Impossible."

"..for the ant. Not for you."

"But I am the ant, Dr. Kryincov."

"Oh, forget that, dear boy! Concentrate, please!"

"Not impossible?"

"No Ė I would say the S is a circle and the paper is rolled into a tube, so top touches bottom."

"Ah," I replied, seeing what he meant. "But the ant thought it was flat paper."

"Because it didnít know any different. Precisely."

"How come it didnít fall off when it was on the top?"

Dr. Kryincov looked briefly at me, earnestly, and with his long bony fingers he scraped around the base of his nose. "Small hairs on its feet, I believe."

I nodded. "That makes sense, Dr. Kryincov."

He smiled. "Now, for Ďantí, read Ďpostmaní."

"Very clever, Dr. Kryincov. Did you think of that."

"No," he replied despondently. "Itís part of the Theory of Everything. I couldnít help thinking of it. It was calculable."

I frowned and walked inside.

I can hear him now, just the faintest whisper of him counting. Heís trying to count exactly how many steps there are in the staircase, but canít do it because it blurs when you follow it around; not to mention all the steps look identical. Heís also been trying to measure the speed of the tennis ball.

"Cathy, heís trying to measure the speed of the tennis ball, which is always going down and down and getting faster and faster without going down at all."

She looks at me strangely, a little alert, a little surprisingly opaque.

"Whatever do you mean?"

I look at her, trying to think of the right words, which will make it snap to inside her, but itís too late already. Once again her face has slunk down into vacant grin and sweet eyes. "Fair enough, Cathy," I say, a little dispirited.

I asked Dr. Kryincov why he didnít get some fancy piece of equipment to measure the speed of the ball with.

"Dr. Kryincov? Why donít you get some fancy piece of equipment to measure the speed of the ball with?"

"How would I do that?" he asked with some amusement.

"By going back to your lab and getting one," I replied.

"I donít have a lab," he said, "Dear chap."

"Well, where do you do your science then, Dr. Kryincov?"

"Here, on your doorstep, every morning."

I remember watching them building it. It was fascinating. The only way it can be done, Dr. Kryincov said to me when he was wearing a yellow hard hat and watching the three workmen hoisting up the wooden girders, is by building the whole thing in one piece in one go.

You see, it works because itís logical. The reason it goes all around sideways is that every step is identical to all the others Ė perhaps theyíre just being looked at from a slightly different angle. With a very small staircase, Dr. Kryincov says, very, very small, you can step up from one step to itself, or down to itself, because itís so small it doesnít notice. Then you add another step in between, but since you could go up and down in a circle before Ė you still can. Once youíve rolled the piece of paper with the ant on, then of course you can make it longer.

"So we can build that!" and he points dramatically with an outflung finger to the piece of stone cladding the workmen are hoisting onto the wooden supports which seem quite odd. They all look very confused suddenly, and go off to make some tea. Eventually they came back and covered it in newels and the occasional filed etching; and then it was finished. Dr. Kryincov took off his hard hat and wiped his forehead, though he never sweats, even in his woolly jumper and his lab coat.

"So it is logical, yes?"

"Why is that, Dr. Kryincov?"

Dr. Kryincov stands on the first step and says:

"The comical manís brain cannot understand the staircase and cannot accept that it is here. But he is standing on a step, and he sees that he can step from one to the next Ė" and to demonstrate he hops from one step to the next, "so it does not matter whether his brain can understand it or not. It is here. It is too late to argue. We can climb all the way up without going up or down at all because the same applies to each, identical step." His eyes are staring maniacally, each pointing in different directions and his white coat tickling in a breeze as he stands at angle which looks to me nearer the horizontal than the vertical.

"Why are you building it in my front lawn?" I ask after the pause.

"Well, if you made it, where would you build it?" he asks.

"My front lawn," I reply obligingly, and he nods courteously, smiling a mischievous smile.

"Dr. Kryincov?" I begin.

"Itís a circle because that looks nice with the fountain," he answers, as he hunts for somewhere to perch and decides upon my doorstep, seeming to find it rather comfortable.

"I wasnít going to ask that," I reply.

"Oh," and then he ignores me, and begins scouring the sky, tutting and shaking his head. Curious, I look up too and see nothing but a few meshed aeroplane trails. There is a slight noise, and I look down again, and donít immediately notice the tennis ball which is quietly gathering speed in the track carved just below the level of the steps in the inner wall. Dr. Kryincov is sat on my front step, looking innocent.

"Why is there a tennis ball there, Dr. Kryincov?" I ask.

"The Theory could tell you, you know."

"Really? What Theory?"

"Well, itís a Theory of Everything, and Everythingís become a lot simpler since we found it."

"Is it complicated?"

"No, itís very simple. But itís quite long."

That was quite a while ago now. The tennis ball has been rolling ever since. Dr. Kryincov said he lined the track with sandpaper because it gave the thing a nice rustic feel, but I think he wanted to prolong his experiment.

"I think itís about time your friend went home," Cathy says, her bob bobbing.

I frown slightly. I donít like to hear that sort of thing from Cathy, because sheís so lovely and so nice, and itís odd to have a really nice person say something which just isnít that nice, even if itís about someone else.

I go and tell him. Heís sat like a hunched gargoyle, faced furrowing and waning periodically as he peers into the confusing gloom on the far side of the fountainís spray.

"Dr. Kryincov?"

"Thirty-nine. Iíve got thirty-nine now."

I have a serious expression, because Iím not very happy about having to do this. Cathy tells me we all have to do things we donít like doing from time to time because otherwise other people would always have to do something they donít like doing, and that wouldnít be fair on them or me.

"Dr. Kryincov?" I repeat.

"Iíve got thirty-nine. What have you got?"

I really, really, really want to send a spasm of shock of his crusty white face and make the little white hairs of his moustache bounce around by telling him I have forty-two; but I know heís got to go now.

"Yes, Dr. Kryincov. Iíve got thirty-nine too."

"Really?" he exclaims, staring. "Itís so difficult to count it, you know, because all the steps are the same so you have no point of reference. You really got thirty-nine?"

"Yes," I nod unhappily, because Iím lying and I really had seven because I gave up rather quickly.

"Thatís wonderful!" he shouts, jumping up and down on the spot. "Thatís absolutely wonderful! Fantastic! Theyíll have to give me a Pulitzer over this!"

"What does it mean, Dr. Kryincov?" I ask.

He closes his eyes to slits and scratches his elbow, saying in a dark voice: "I donít know. Iíll have to take it back to the lab and think about what it means."

"But Dr. Kryincov, I thought you didnít have a lab."

"I donít. I just got this coat in a jumble sale, and then stained it with ink myself."

"So youíre not a scientist then, Dr. Kryincov."

"No, Iím not. Sorry." He looks embarrassed, and hangs his head.

"But how come you know all about the Theory of Everything if youíre not a scientist person?" I persist.

"I donít know everything about it!" he exclaims, surprised.

"You do Ė you told me everything."

"I didnít know how long it was, did I? Any real scientist, dear boy, would have know that."

"Oh, right," I reply, nodding slowly. Heís right. He didnít know anything about everything because he didnít know how big it was, and so what he did know didnít mean anything in everything terms because everything is so big in comparison. I think.

He starts on his was down the stairs, and grinning maniacally he walks straight past the gate and carries on going down to come back around to where I stand. Seeming not to notice me, he looks upwards and waves, and I worry that Iíve lost him too when he was the only other person who could see it properly. He carries on walking down.

"Dr. Kryincov!" I shout after him.

He turns on his heel, hops up two steps to me and asks directly to me: "Yes?" Heís grinning even wider now, squealing through his nostrils with laughter like a pig.

"If youíre not a scientist person, how did you build this staircase?"

"You should know as clearly as me," he replies. "Itís only a matter of seeing it properly."

I walk him to the front gate, or rather I walk down and out onto the street and he stands just on the rim of the stairs, looking downwards and shouting: "Richard! Richard! Are you all right?"

"Of course, Dr. Kryincov, Iím fine!" I reply casually to him, as he stands next to me.

He runs away, back to my door and then to me again. Looking like a crazed chicken with his crest-like mop of hair and his stick-legs, he runs around in a circle once more and reaches me.

"Itís amazing how you landed on your feet there!"

"When?"

"When you jumped off the staircase," replies Dr. Kryincov, grinning fiercely and chewing his entire bottom lip and half his chin so as not to howl with laughter. I smile too. "Bye, Dr. Kryincov."

"Bye bye, laddie. Iíll see you again sometime, and then Iíll see you." His accent and voice has changed again Ė heís a very odd man.

I walk back up the stairs, lost in thought, trying to work out whatís gone wrong with me. Itís because I can see sideways through things, thatís what it is. Iím thinking so hard I get lost and walk around the stairwell three times before climbing into my house through the empty window frame.

Cathy walks into the room. "Has he gone then, love?"

"Yes," I say, nodding to emphasise the point.

"Iím sorry love, I know you two were having fun, but I thoughtÖ maybe we could spend a bit of time together. You were always rushing off."

"Iím sorry too, Cathy. You were right."

"Thank you," she replies, smiling her happy smile once more, and her eyes floating around merrily in their sockets.

There is a sudden Voosh! noise next to me, and a yellow blur rockets through the empty window frame and lands on the old wooden table next to Cathyís car keys Ė theyíre not mine really Ė with a tremendous, thunderous, tumultuous bang.

"How did that happen!" she exclaims in shock, picking up the threadbare and slightly blackened tennis ball.

"Well," I reply, slightly desperately, "it started going down; and because it had already gone down and it was the same down as before, it had to be able to go down again. So it did and it kept on going down and couldnít stop. It worked because it did, so it did. Then it achieved escape velocity, and came through the window. Dr. Kryincov told me."

"Really?" Cathy asked, and then her eyes glazed over again, the spark of something lost once more. She put the tennis ball back on the table.

"Well, it looks lovely there," she said vacantly, grinning and giggling slightly, meaninglessly.

"Thanks Cathy," I said, smiling too. "That means a lot to me."

In a way, my life is now back to exactly how it was. Me and Cathy, happily doing what it is we do in the way that we do it. Iíve got a job, so has she. I wonder if Iíll ever see Dr. Kryincov again Ė but I have a feeling it doesnít work quite like that.

"By the way," she says as we walk together into the living room and sit down together, on the sofa so that weíre together, "Itís a bit silly, but.. I counted the stairs on each flight on the way up, like you said?"

"How many did you count to, Cathy?" I ask.

"Forty-eight. But it was weird. It was hard."

We sit in silence for a little while, just touching. Then Cathy says:

"What did the bank want?"

Öand everything is around to normal again.