I met him/her on the stairs. The dim glow from the skylight made it hard to be sure of the gender. I’d climbed the nine flights to my flat, as the lift couldn’t be trusted these days, and was one flight from my landing when I’d spotted the figure crouched against the wall near my front door.
My thoughts sharpened in an instant, focused on the threat of violence. My mouth was dry and the sweat brought on by the climb felt cold on my back and chest. I had two bags of shopping in each hand, the handles cutting into my fingers, and without pausing I continued up the stairs. The figure stirred in the gloom and seemed to uncoil and extend upwards into space. He/she had been waiting for me.
I stopped and listened for signs of life in the neighbouring flats, but all I could hear was the blood pulsing in my ears, and a soft whispering which I realised was coming from the shape above. A sudden brightness startled me as the communal light was switched on. I hoped that one of my neighbours had done this, but looking up saw that it was somebody else. It was Fairy Liquid.
My girlfriend had seen him first, almost a year ago. He’d been sitting on the wall of the all-night garage, rocking back and forth while shrieking obscenities at the tight-lipped drivers. Every so often he would squeeze the contents of a washing up bottle into his mouth. She had christened him Fairy Liquid and the name had stuck. I saw him a few weeks later, striding barefoot up the Clapham Road in the rush hour, snapping at anyone who paid him too much attention. We both noticed him frequently after that. He seemed to spend his days howling at the ring road, barking at parked cars and arguing with shop windows.
Now here he was, towering above me, his dreads piled high under a woollen cap that might have been brightly coloured once, but was now caked with city dirt. A fluorescent cartoon skull leered from the front of his filthy t-shirt, and a pair of thin legs emerged from the bottoms of his greasy denim cut offs. He was wearing brand new trainers, their whiteness drawing the eye away from the surreal spectacle above. I stared at these trainers and realised that some kind of negotiation was going to take place before I could reach the safety of the flat.
“Excuse me,” I said.
“Excuse me,” he replied.
There was no threat or malice in his voice, and I couldn’t tell if he was imitating me, or simply wanting me to move out of the way so he could get past. I lifted my bags and shuffled sideways, giving him room to get by, but he remained where he was.
“Excuse me,” he said again, tilting his head to one side and extending a finger towards me. “I wonder, do you have a cigarette?” He tapped my forehead with the tip of a blackened fingernail as he stressed the word ‘you’. His accent was clipped, aristocratic and completely at odds with the tattered vision in front of me. This shocked me as much as the politeness of his request.
“I’m sorry. I don’t,” I replied.
He gazed at me impassively and his tongue flicked out and then in again, as if tasting something in the air.
“Do you know of anybody who might?” he asked.
“No. I don’t. Sorry.”
He raised a stick-like wrist to his face and studied an imaginary watch.
“I shall return in due course,” Fairy Liquid said.
I wasn’t sure that this was a good thing but nodded approvingly. He closed his eyes and stood motionless for a long time. I was about to say something when all of a sudden he stretched his arms up in the air, inhaled deeply and then sang at enormous volume:
“ I love girls that love girls,
And I want dem in my world.”
He leapt past me and bounded down the stairs three at a time, filling the stairwell with cackles, barks and yelps.
When the last echoing trace of him had faded from the stairwell, I climbed the last few steps to the landing. My legs were shaking as I put down my shopping and sat on the floor. I took out my phone and was about to call my girlfriend when the light clicked off.
Sitting in near darkness, I reached into my coat pocket, found my cigarettes and lit one. Five minutes later I smoked another and thought about how I should spend the evening.