The glowing arrow flickers and goes out. Great. A lift can be fine for years but only needs to get stuck once. Or fall, bloody hell. That doesn’t really happen though, you don’t hear of people dying from a fallen lift, you don’t hear of lawsuits against lift companies or cut corners in lift manufacturing. Even in films, when a broken elevator is involved (which isn’t often) they manage to escape, or they’re rescued, or it’s all a dream.
Anyway, Ben’s with me. Not that he can do anything about a falling lift. If anything, an extra body flying around in a metal box would cause more damage, I imagine. Or maybe I would land on him and survive. Or he might land on me. He’d better be riddled with guilt, sacrificing his girlfriend for his own life. But he would hold my hand while we were falling, lie and say everything’s going to be fine. Does that really happen, or is that just in the movies too? Maybe he would be so focused on falling that he’d forget I was falling too.
Anyway, the lift is fine, probably. It’s just a bit old. The metal doors vibrate as it shudders down. Wouldn’t it be nice if there was a lift attendant? Someone in a funny uniform and hat whose sole job is to take the lift up and down all day. They must have felt sick by the time they finished their shift. You don’t see that sort of job anymore, that sort of ornate uselessness. I want to say it’s because of capitalism. Cutting costs, bigger profit, all that. I’ll ask Ben when we’re in the lift.
He’s humming under his breath. Always said that elevator music should be put back into elevators. Make lifts great again! I should definitely tell him that, that’s comedy gold. Surely you have to have speakers in there anyway, for announcements and fire alarms and warnings that the lift is about to fall—it wouldn’t kill anyone to have music playing. I don’t think I’ve ever actually heard elevator music. But it’s a thing isn’t it, it’s a saying. When did it end?
The lift doors open. There’s a man inside, sitting on the floor with his knees drawn up. Trackies and a polo shirt, maybe forty years old, fifty at a push. The grizzle on his cheeks is white and patchy, his hair is thinning, but he’s still pudgy, the sort of football hooligan you see drinking in pub gardens getting redder and redder in the sun and the excitement.
We step aside; it’s the ground floor. You don’t ride an elevator to the bottom to ride it up again. He blinks and stares at us. Ben coughs slightly. So English. The man blinks again.
“It’s the ground floor, mate.”
Mate? Ben doesn’t ever say mate, he can’t get away with it. I’ve heard him say excuse me sir before, like he’s a waiter.
“So it is—only up from here!” He’s slurring. Of course he is, you don’t sit in a lift if you’re sober.
I look at Ben. He’s wedged a foot into the doorway to stop it from closing. It’s nine floors, nine. I’ve walked it before and was a hot sweaty mess when we got in. Anyway, I’m in heels.
Ben tilts his head and steps in, positioning himself in the opposite corner to the man, indicating I stand beside him. Of all the days to wear a skirt. I press close to the wall, the metal bar cold on the small of my back.
The man smiles. “You having a nice night?”
Ben nods. Avoid eye contact. It’ll be over soon, just stand awkwardly until then. The doors start to close.
“Where you been?”
Bollocks. This requires a proper response. You can shrug, I suppose, but that might seem rude. You never know how people will react. He could switch, get angry, stand up, and flatten us.
I feel Ben stiffen. He’s one for a fight, all limbs no muscle, small waist (annoyingly small), thin arms. He would be ripped to pieces. Worse than that, he knows that I know he would be ripped to pieces. He looks from me to the man, weighing up the choices.
“Just to the pub.”
I flinch. We hadn’t been to the Stag. It’s the pub nearest the flat, faded carpets, the bar permanently damp, everything made from a plastic-looking pine. I remember it from the end of a pub crawl, me and the girls, miscuing pool balls and staggering next to the locals, hoping vaguely for a free round. Has Ben ever been there? What would he do there? He drinks more wine than beer.
We had been to dinner. It wasn’t a pub, exactly, more a gastro. Bare pipes on the wall, food served on a wooden board, wine out of a tin cup.
“Oh the Stag! Bloody great pub, bloody great.”
The lift stops on the first floor. The doors slowly open, revealing an empty lobby, polished marble flooring and blank cream walls, but no person. God damn it. Sometimes the kids run from floor to floor, pressing all the buttons for fun. Or it could be the lift, staggering up from floor to floor, unable to work anymore until finally it snaps, gives up and starts to—
“Ah well, we don’t need ’em,” the man says, indicating the closing doorway with a hand the size of a club. “Where was I? Ah the Stag, the Stag!” He slaps his forehead in remembrance. “You like it there too?”
“Yeah, it’s alright,” Ben says in a deep baritone, extending the i sound. He definitely can’t pull off alright. There’s a term for this, someone who tries to fit in with their surroundings. Maybe he would put on an accent. If he tried to talk about football, this would be hilarious.
“We used to do karaoke there, you know. Had a whole system in place and everything—one time me and the missus were on the bar doing the can-can and—”
The lift pings again, and the doors open to the second floor. Empty again. There’s silence as we wait for the doors to slowly shut.
“Where you going?”
We look at each other, hoping the other one will reply. We can’t give him my address, obviously. But even if he knows I live in the building, maybe he’ll want to meet, maybe he’ll talk to me on the stairs, or ‘pop in.’ Ben already hates my flat. He never says it but you can tell. He sniffs when he comes in, like he expects it to smell. I always bleach everything when I know we’re going to mine. If Ben came and this guy had ‘popped in,’ he’d never come again. Maybe then we would move into his place. That’ll teach him.
“To Janie’s place.”
I look at him. Way to throw me under the bus. Could have said visiting a friend, could have said visiting his mother, could have said anything.
“Huh, don’t know a Janie.” He screws his eyes up. Ben grimaces and shrugs his shoulders. He’s a terrible liar, but he might get away with this.
“Nope, no Janie. Who’s that then? I know most people ’ere.”
Does he? Never seen him before, though it’s a big block, and really it’s just the lobby, lift, and corridor I use. Where do other people go? I used to think there would be groups of women gossiping, maybe some diamond-in-the-rough youths who would play football and scamper outside that I could befriend and help down the straight and narrow. After four years I still don’t really recognise anyone. It’s not like I’ve got an excuse to see my neighbours—they’re never too loud, post comes to our own mailboxes, no one has any pets that need feeding. Sometimes there is evidence of kids, graffiti on the lift mirror, the buttons being pushed on every floor. How do you go about meeting people here—this man must have gone from door to door.
The lift reaches the third floor, and the man stretches out his legs, patiently expecting an answer.
“Oh she’s just our friend, she’s hosting a party.”
“Love a party. You like a party?”
I nod slowly, wondering whether I should garnish my reply with a smile. He isn’t going to hurt us, too drunk and chatty for that. But the word party is ominous, associated with sex parties, or swingers’ parties, or pervert parties. Remember when a party was just seeing your friends, maybe some birthday cake and a goody bag at the end? When did it change to sex parties? Not that I’ve been to a sex party, you just hear of them, don’t you?
He’s humming again, and I recognise the notes as the chorus of S Club Party.
I let out a choke of laughter and put my hand over my mouth. That song must be at least twenty years old, I remember dancing around a church hall to S Club. Was that a birthday party? I was trying to look cool in front of Matthew Hannington, the only boy to have hit puberty and who would happily show his pubes to prove it.
Ben looks at me, surprised.
“Ay, you remember them, don’t you darlin’? Used to love singing to ’em, that was me first dance, you know! A happy bunch, them lot.”
I smile, still not wanting to encourage conversation, though sing-a-longs I could get behind. He beams back, eyes meeting mine. He starts to belt out the rest of the song. He has a good voice, very clear, maybe not just used for chanting football songs, after all. Karaoke must have been fun. I tap my foot in time with the beat, a nice non-committal encouragement.
“Never really liked them, to be honest,” Ben mutters. “Bit too in-your-face.”
He likes that phrase. Love Island is a bit too in-your-face as well, so were some of the clubs we had been to. I suspect that he means it’s a bit too shallow. He likes plays and theatre and the History channel. We’ve been to the Globe more times than I can count, and I’d never seen a classical music concert until I met him. He crosses his arms as the music stops.
“Nah, I like in your face—where else would you want it?”
We lapse back to silence, the man still humming. The lift arrives and passes the fifth floor.
“So how long you two been together?”
Bloody hell. Though this is a well-aimed question. Ben called the first six months of our relationship ‘seeing each other,’ and refused to add this to the length of time we have been together. We have different calculations of when our anniversary is. I reckon it’s today, hence the meal at the gastro pub. Ben says the ‘official’ date is sometime in August. He makes a bigger deal about his anniversary; last year we went to fucking Paris.
“A couple of years.”
Nice, vague, and final. I smile at the man again.
“You reckon he’s the one darlin’?”
I laugh again and feel myself blush as I turn to Ben’s face.
“Well he’s alright, I suppose.”
“Ha! Yeah he’s alright.”
He smiles, not meanly, more gormlessly. I feel Ben bristle, wondering whether he’s been insulted. Doesn’t seem like it to me, a drunken man agreeing with the last sober words said. Anyway, ‘alright’ is ok, means he’s on our side.
“You think she’s the one, mate?”
I grin up at Ben. He’s still stony faced, trying to figure out if he’s been toyed with, but then he smiles at the man. “She’s amazing.”
I make a gushing noise and bury my head in his jacket.
“Aw, young love ay! Me and my misses, we was together sixteen years, sixteen! Most of my life with her, you know? She was amazing, fucking great.”
He looks dreamily at the wall as we pass the sixth floor. We shuffle our feet, wondering whether he wants a response. He’s speaking in the past tense—divorce or death? Maybe he’ll start ranting about her affair or start crying about her funeral. It’s not that far to my flat from here, we could use the stairs.
“We used to say she had more lives than a cat. Used to miss things by a hair, you know? Missed a flight that crashed, was hit by a car and walked away. Bloody great woman.”
He grins at the doors as they open, as if she would be on the other side. The hall lights reflect onto the floor, making it sparkle like a grey day at the beach.
“Suppose she had to go sooner or later.”
If it’s divorce, he’s a pessimistic one. We have to say something, we can’t leave him like that. Ben is looking into the mirror, only making eye-contact with himself.
The man is staring at his hands. He has big hands, a bit dirty, and defined arms. Maybe he’s a builder, one of those jobs where you shovel and build and ache at the end of the day but still get pudgy. Maybe I can change the subject, ask what he does. No, too late for that, the knowledge of his life hangs in the air like a cloud obscuring anything else.
“I’m sorry to hear that.”
“That’s kind darlin’, thank you. Ah you probably saw us when you were in the Stag, we was there you know!” He looks up, puppy eyes.
Now I have to continue this bloody lie. “No, think we might have missed you, we went for a walk as well.”
“Ah, well, her picture’s still there, I think the party’s still there. They won’t miss me.”
I shut up. Must have been her wake. He’s run away from his wife’s own wake. We lurch to the seventh floor.
“Tell you, I’ll miss her. She was, she was just amazing, you know. She really was, she had this habit, this memory, I’d say, from years ago that I like that, or I fancy that and she would remember, and my Christmas presents was all these things I wanted but forgot I wanted. She were a great woman. People say they’re the one, well she was the one one, you know? She stood by me, thick and thin. Fuck me, don’t know what’s gonna happen now.”
We stare at him, this hulk of a man curled up on the floor, talking calmly towards the wall. Shit. What do we do? I open and close my mouth like a goldfish. The bell pings for the eighth floor. Ben looks to me and steps out. He probably thinks a flight of stairs is worth escaping from this.
I put a foot in the door. “Are you—are you OK?”
“Thank you darlin’, I’m alright, I just miss her you know, I just miss her.”
“Yeah. Do you live on this floor?”
Shit, what am I doing, I’m not qualified for grief counselling, I don’t think a cup of tea is going to cut this one. Maybe he has someone I can call.
Ben touches my arm. I know what he’s thinking, even if this is true, he’ll need a friend or a professional, it’s not reasonable to expect help from us. For God’s sake, he’s so drunk he’s sitting in a lift, of course he needs help, the first thing he can do is help himself by sobering up.
“No darlin’, I’ll be alright though. I’m going up, you see, I’m going this time.”
“I’ll, I’ll see you around then.”
I step through and let the doors close behind me. Ben is already halfway up the stairs. I watch the metal shudder as the lift continues its ascent and press the down button. The arrow light illuminates my hand. At least he’ll come back down again.
© 2019 James Nainby
James Nainby is a shortish story writer hoping to improve his writing and finish his book.