The Elevator: Book One
The colour of the sky as I trudged to the office should have warned me that it would be no ordinary day. All greens and purples and tones of black, like a few-day-old bruise. It was eight-thirty on a spring morning, yet the air was as stilled and dusky as twilight. Birds flocked and muttered, unsure whether to roam or roost. I paused and looked up.
Big mistake. The cloud formation above Claridge House, where I had worked for the past eighteen months, swirled and spiralled, the colours and movement combining with my hangover to make me want to heave.
Taking a deep breath, I closed my eyes. And opened them in time to see the flash of lightning fork down onto the roof of Claridge House like the world’s largest spark. I might have imagined the puff of smoke that rose from the roof, but there was no mistaking the sharp smell of ozone or the way the hairs on my neck and back of my hands fizzed and jived and stood to attention.
I waited to see if the building would collapse or burst into flames so that I might turn around and go back to bed. No such luck. Cursing the efficiency of modern lightning conductors, I resumed my trudge to work. My system needed coffee. Badly.
* * *
The foyer on the ground floor of Claridge House could not have been less prepossessing. Unless perhaps it hosted a service for devil worshippers, complete with goat, chalked pentacle and slaughtered cockerel. Grimy, peeling walls and linoleum floor, a suggestion of eau de cats’ piss and a few doors leading deeper into the building or to the stairwell. I made for the shiny, battered metal door which opened into the lift.
The display panel alongside the two buttons, one with an arrow for ‘up’, the other for ‘down’, showed that the lift was on the Fifth Floor. Muttering under my breath—the lift wasn’t ancient, but not exactly in the prime of youth either; it would take a good thirty seconds to descend five floors—I pressed the ‘up’ button. While I waited, I glanced around furtively, hoping that nobody else would come. The lift car wasn’t large; it felt stuffy and cramped with two people inside. I preferred having it to myself when I was in tip-top shape; with a hangover, the craving for solitude was almost as strong as my need for coffee.
The lift pinged its arrival at the same time as a draught and sudden swell of traffic noise indicated the main entrance to the building had opened behind me. The lift door began to slide sideways in its uncertain, ponderous way. By the time the gap was wide enough for me to step through, the building entrance had opened a second time.
On the wall of the lift was an array of black buttons bearing these images in white, arranged so:
Beneath the right-hand bottom button, the one with the image of a bell, was a small speaker from which, so I am told since I’d never had cause to test it, an operator’s voice would enquire of the nature of the emergency in the event that the alarm button was pressed.
Before I was fully inside the lift, I hit one of the top buttons, the one that bore the number six, then the lower button with two inward-facing arrows that would tell the door to close, and stepped to the back of the tiny space. I gazed at the floor, pretending to be in a world of my own so as not to catch the eye of anyone approaching and be obliged to push the button with outward-facing arrows that would tell the door to open again.
Moments before it had fully shut, a set of fingers curled around the edge of the door, tripping the sensors that prevented it from closing on people and squishing them. It began to slide open and I sighed.
“All right?” said the person who stepped in to join me.
The face was one I vaguely recognised, but only because its owner worked on the same floor as me. He appeared to be barely into his twenties, younger than me by around five years. Red rash on cheeks looked like the result of skin unaccustomed to shaving; red rash on nose an acne hangover from being a teenager. In my uncharitable moments, of which this was one, I thought of him as Rudolph.
I grunted a response and resumed my perusal of the floor. Coffee was calling.
* * *
Just when it looked as though the door would close and we could begin our ascent to Six and a caffeine infusion, a hulking document case appeared in the dwindling gap. The case—one of those bulky, black leather numbers which look as if they can hold the entire contents of a filing drawer plus the owner’s lunch—was followed by a stiff-looking woman in her mid-thirties wearing a dark power suit. She didn’t look at me or Rudolph, but checked out the buttons and hit number five, before turning her back to us. When she lowered the case to the floor in front of her, it made a dull thud.
Rudolph had been forced to shuffle to the back of the lift, meaning I had to tuck into the corner to stop from rubbing against him. I felt his gaze on me, probably seeking some sort of buddy-buddy exchange of eyebrow-raising. I wasn’t in the mood.
Suppressing a sigh as the door once more began to slide closed, I let it out in an audible rush at the sound of the voice.
“Hold the elevator!” The accent matched the choice of words: American. “Hold the elevator! I’m coming.”
No I thought don’t hold it. Let the frigging thing close, for the love of God. I need coffee!
Power Suit’s hand shot out and hit the ‘door open’ button. In the widening gap between edge of door and lift wall, a flushed face appeared.
“Oh, thank you,” it said. It belonged to a well-built girl a couple of years older than me, at a guess, although I’m hopeless at accurately estimating women’s ages. It’s like trying to pronounce long words after sinking five pints.
Power Suit reached down to pick up her case, causing Rudolph to squeeze himself tighter against the back wall to avoid a potentially embarrassing collision of backside and crotch, then shuffled to her right to allow the newcomer to enter the lift. The American (or Canadian; I’m not good with accents, either) stepped in and pressed the number four button.
My breath escaped in another heavy sigh; the lift would visit Floors Four and Five before I could step out on Six where the coffee machine gurgled my name.
American Girl may have smiled at me, but I had already looked away. Rudolph must have maintained eye contact because she addressed her remarks to him.
“Gee, I hope I’m not putting you out, but those stairs are a killer first thing in the morning.” She gave a mock sigh. “Though I really should take them. Using the elevator won’t bring back my beach bod.” She giggled.
I groaned quietly. A bold, brash Yank was the last person with whom I needed to be in close confinement. My head had begun to throb.
The door had at last managed to close completely. Even if it were to open again, there was no room for anyone else to get in, not unless they were built like a broom handle.
“We call ’em lifts,” said Rudolph. He sounded peevish.
“Oh, honey, I know that. Been living here for five years. Married a Brit.” She giggled again; it was more irritating than her voice, that giggle. “But, if it’s okay with you, I’ll carry on calling it an elevator. And if it’s not okay with you, I believe I’ll carry on calling it an elevator.”
I didn’t look up, but could imagine her smiling sweetly and Rudolph scowling.
It had grown uncomfortably hot in the lift. I swallowed and tried not to breathe through my nose. If any of my temporary companions exuded an odour, I didn’t want to smell it.
With an initial jerk, but then as smoothly as though it were a finely-tuned machine, not a piece of junk on its last legs, the lift began to ascend.
Hallelujah! Coffee, here I come.
* * *
Only on hearing the murmur of surprise did I raise my head to look at the panel above the buttons on which, in red digits, the floor number was displayed.
The lift normally stopped on the nearest floor whose button had been pressed, regardless of the order in which they were pushed. Yet it was still on the move, ascending to Floor Five.
The American stood sideways on, facing the wall containing the buttons. She turned her head to glance at me.
“I guess it doesn’t want to stop on Four today,” she said.
I shrugged and continued to watch the display panel.
Power Suit straightened and took a firmer grip on the document case; she must have possessed biceps like a man’s to lug that thing around all day. When the lift showed no sign of stopping she, too, looked at the panel.
There is a god and He is good. I could all but smell the coffee.
Rousing from my slouched stance, I cleared my throat to warn Power Suit that I wanted out. Rudolph had the same idea and took half a step forward; any more and he’d have been treading on American Girl’s platform shoes.
The lift jerked to a stop and there followed the usual hiatus while it gathered its wits to let us out.
The door began to slide open.
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