Story with a Lift

A group of visitors is waiting to take the lift back down to the ground floor. Some of them have souvenir shopping bags. A woman is discreetly scolding a small boy who stares blankly at two red arrows, one pointing up and one pointing down, next to the lift doors.

At the front of the group there is an overweight man of about fifty. He is smiling. Next to him is a little woman of approximately the same age, his wife. When the doors open the fat man is first in. His wife follows and takes up her place next to him without saying a word. The others move into the lift slowly, waiting to see where they will fit in, turning finally into their places like cats. The doors close. People settle themselves with those little movements that lifts call for. The cabin sets off down. Its occupants watch in silence for the LED indicator to change.

Without preamble, the big fellow turns to his wife and says quite audibly:

‘It was awful.’ The people pretend to take no notice. Briefly his wife glances at him. At the same time the little boy turns to face the back wall of the lift which has now come to a halt. More people get in. The boy’s mother jostles him over from her right side to her left side, saying, under her breath:

‘Why do you have to be different?’ As she does this she makes space for a taller, more attractive woman holding her shoulder bag tightly across her midriff. The big man now has a dramatic expression on his face. He turns to his wife who is looking at the lift doors:

‘Absolutely awful. A right mess. Looked like he’d been hit by a lorry. Staggering towards me, he was. Had his arms out like this.’ A man in one corner raises his head and follows as the other re- enacts the scene. Someone else looks over at the man watching and watches him.

The lift stops again and more visitors get in. There is now no longer enough space for people to curl into position unhindered by human contact. Shoes touch. The subtle hiss of fabrics rubbing up against each other can be distinctly heard. Fugitive, embarrassed glances are exchanged. The car is now crowded. The noise of the doors closing is louder, the hum of the machinery and the pepper- honey smell of its lubricated parts have all penetrated into the enclosed travelling box. Everyone is waiting, listening carefully.

‘Blood. All over his face. Eyes all puffed up, nose smashed flat across his face, mouth hanging open like a zombie. A real mess. God knows what they’d done to him, poor sod.’ Mr Fat is totally into the part. Occasionally his wife looks across at her husband, unsure if she should join in or pretend she doesn’t know him. The little boy, however, has become an eager participant and is smiling up at the man while also conveying something to the annoyance of his mother. The attractive woman with the shoulder bag has had to move it higher to protect her chest from the press of her fellow travellers. She is certain you can smell the fat on the foolish man who just won’t shut up.

‘A complete wreck of a man. Well you’d want to know, wouldn’t you? So I asked him: “What the hell happened to you?”’

The LED indicator has finally made it to zero. The lift comes to halt. In spite of the sophisticated soundproofing and mechanical controls the sense of dying momentum and accompanying compression is all pervasive. A feeling of drunken torpor has overcome the people in the lift: eardrums ringing, bodies lurching in desperate gestures, clawing and scratching at faces with sunken eyes and ashen looks. Alarm! Alarm!

The doors open slowly and smoothly. The hall is full of people with eager faces waiting to take the lift back up. Some of the visitors disperse promptly, turning to each other with a smile. Others dawdle, unsatisfied. The attractive woman dashes away into the embrace of a tall man who lisps her name. The box is almost empty. The fat man and his wife are last out. She turns to him and asks:

‘So? What did he say?’
‘What do you mean, “nothing”?’ ‘Nothing. That’s just a story I tell in lifts.’

acknowledgements A.H.