The Englishman stood on the crowded pavement and peered up into the gloom of the staircase. Unaware of the curious looks of the people that brushed past him, he willed himself to start climbing. The staircase was narrow and very steep. No more than three feet wide, it rose up into the old three-story tenement building. The glaring sunlight was cut off by the overhead balcony no more than four steps up from the street and standing there he was the man could not even make out the first landing.
Despite the constant traffic, the sudden clatter of a tramcar startled him and he turned to seek the source of the noise and immediately, he had to shield his eyes from the bright afternoon sunshine. He turned back to the staircase which seemed all the darker now by his eye’s sudden exposure to the glare.
He started up the stairs unsteadily and brushed one shoulder against the wall. He paused to wipe it and felt a combination of dust and grease beneath his fingers.
He was climbing in the dark now and he went up slowly until he found himself on the first landing. He paused for a moment to let his eyes become accustomed to the dark and something scuttled on the floor near him. He almost rushed headlong downwards. Only the near-vertical staircase and the thought of certain injury at the bottom stopped him.
There was a narrow stream of light from a small grime-incrusted window at the next landing and he made his way towards it. At this landing, he turned again and looked up. This time there was a glow from a single red light bulb to guide him. It was not bright enough to reveal the steps but it signaled the end of his journey up the staircase. He went up a few steps and paused.
From where he stood the light showed the top of the door. He could just make out the ornate carving of a dragon curling around and doubling back upon itself. A dragon or a Demon, he wondered. This seems almost like an ascent into hell, he thought contrarily. There was a slithering noise on the landing behind him and he appeared down into the dark to see what had made the sound. That was when he realised the traffic noise had stopped completely they simply did not penetrate into this building.
He turned back to the final flight and hugging the briefcase he was carrying to his chest he went up them as quickly as he could arriving breathless at the landing. It was larger than the one below and there were three doors on it. One to his left, the larger ornate door he had seen from below directly in front of him, and another to his right. Beside them, the staircase continued upwards. He waited just long enough to catch his breath and then knocked gently on the ornate door.
They were footsteps from the other side and then after what seemed a long time it opened inwards. A young Chinese girl, no more than 15 years of age surveyed him through large almond-shaped eyes. Then silently she motioned him to enter. He did so happy to be out of the staircase.
He found himself in a small entrance hall that had doors leading off in all directions. The walls separating the other rooms were only three-quarters in height, ensuring a good flow of air from the front rooms and an equal distribution of the incense that seem to pervade it. The girl let him into a room and there, at a beautifully carved redwood table, sat an elderly Chinese gentleman.
(c) Copyright John Stewart Sloan 2020 – Not for Distribution