14 // ANGELUS

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I didn't know how long I'd been laying on the staircase.

Maybe a lifetime. Maybe just a few moments.

I remembered getting in the cab, but not the journey home. I remembered fumbling with the key in the lock and walking into the house, although walking was a stretch of the truth to be fair. Shuffling would have been more apt. I'd gotten as far as the staircase and collapsed, half-twisted on my back, staring up at the ceiling. There was a cobweb right above my head, a thin wispy strand that danced on the breeze blowing through the still-open doorway.

I couldn't move. I wanted to, I think I wanted to, I knew I probably should have moved. The front door was open, after all. The keys were still in the lock. But I'd been falling since I'd reached home, falling as I lay on my back staring upwards at the cobweb, falling even though I wasn't falling at all. I was dimly aware that my leg was bent at an angle that was uncomfortable and that there was a dull pain building in the base of my stomach, yet I couldn't move an inch.

The breeze grew stronger and the cobweb danced furiously, dislodging from the ceiling and floating down, the sticky thread landing on my forehead and draping over my eyelashes.

'Oh my,' a woman's voice said, from far away, floating on the breeze with the web. 'You poor thing. Let me help you.'

A shadow passed across my vision. Delicate fingers removed the dusty strand and brushed my hair back from where it was plastered across my face.

'Shall we get you off these stairs? It looks terribly uncomfortable,' the woman said, closer now, although it sounded muffled as if I was underwater.

I was moving now, but not of my own volition. Instead, I felt hands hooking under my armpits and around my chest as I was pulled off the staircase, my legs dragging lifelessly along the floor. I'd lost a shoe and blood was smeared around one coral-varnished toe nail. A scent of perfume filled my nostrils, something sweet but not unpleasant.

The woman pulled me over to the rug and propped me up against the edge of the sofa. I caught the sway of dark curls over a slim, pale face, just before my head drooped down onto my chest, my vision blurring.

'There now. Is that better?' she said. Her accent was well-spoken English, soft, gentle, but clipped in a way unfamiliar to Hackney-born-and-bred Londoners. I'd never been that keen on anyone who spoke like they'd been born with a silver spoon firmly embedded in their gobs, but there was something about her voice that made me wish I could look at her.

As if she'd read my mind, she lifted my chin and tapped me lightly on the cheek, a small encouraging pat to rouse me from whatever hole I had sunk a little deeper into. 'Come now, dear, open those eyes of yours,' she said brightly. 'Now is simply not the time to sleep.'

Even before I opened my eyes, I knew she was smiling. I could hear it in her voice, a warmth that only came from a smile as someone spoke.

I'd been right about the smile, which was wide, perfect white teeth between dark-red glossed lips, and I'd been right about the dark curls, which framed her face in loose tendrils, the rest pinned back and piled high on her head. She was beautiful – stunning, even – and I stared at her in something close to awe and confusion, as she looked at me from where she was crouched by my side, her head tilted as if examining a bug under a microscope.

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