Ian McMillan: Stairway to health and youthful happiness

Sometimes I think about moving to a bungalow in the next decade or so, mainly because for many years it seemed like the kind of thing older people did.

‘Yes, they’ve moved to a bungalow,’ my mother would say, ‘because they’re getting just that bit older’ and she’d mouth the word ‘older’, meemo-ing it so that the word just hung there in the air. Older. It felt grey and wrinkled. It felt a bit sad. It felt like it wore a cardigan. But, I’d think to myself, one day in a few decades I’ll be older and the stairs will get that bit too much for me, so I’ll need to look round for a bungalow. That’s my mother again, speaking in italics.

But then the other day as I walked briskly down the stairs in preparation for my morning stroll I changed my mind; I resolved that, as long as I can actually get up and down the things, I’ll stick with stairs. And even when I can’t, I’ll buy a stairlift and I’ll sail aloft and below like somebody floating to the stars and back. Or I’ll get some ropes. Or an escalator.

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Maybe it’s different if you’ve always lived in a one-storey house but if you’ve always had an upper floor (or more than one) then stairs are an integral part of your life, especially if you’ve lived in the same house for years, like I have. Every morning you walk down them, still being careful not to step too hard on the fourth one because it creaks, even though there aren’t any kids to wake up any more. Every morning you dream of sliding down the banister whooping and saying Yeeeha! And one morning you will. Every night you trudge back up them to bed. Several times a day you go up and down them, sometimes twice in the space of a minute because you’ve forgotten the thing you’d gone up the stairs for in the first place, or is that just me? I use them as a fitness aid, to be honest; I’m a big fan of the idea of Stairs For Health, always using them in public rather than lifts, and sometimes when there’s nobody else in the house I walk up and down them as many times as I can until I have to stop because my thighs are spontaneously combusting and I’m breathing so heavily that I think I might pass out.

They’re much more than things to ascend and descend, though; they’re centres of the kinds of activity essential to any household. When my kids were little the bottom half of the stairs was a shop piled high with tins, or a school, or a secret hideaway, or the seat of a bus or the deck of a spaceship. Somehow the in-between status of the stairs, always stuck halfway up and halfway down like The Grand old Duke of York, means they’re great places to play; they’re not a room, they seem to be not officially part of the house, just somewhere to use to get from A to B that are actually underused most of the time. Playgrounds of the imagination with carpets and things to hold on to, it seems to me.

If you get cross they’re good for storming up, too; after all, it’s difficult to storm across a flat surface. That’s less a storm and more a retreat. And at least once in your life you fall down them. And that’s a rite of passage, too, as long as you don’t fall too far or too hard, of course!