The elevator opened its automatic mouth and Nick positioned himself in front of the doors – like a necessary pill, he thought, pushing into the interior, somewhat hindered by his coat swollen with workplace regalia. Once inside, his face assumed a practiced expression of contentment – enough to satisfy himself, as well as enough to make irate some stressed subordinate filing late to the office on a Monday morning. It was a pleasant sensation.
However, this morning there was only one other occupant of the lift. She seemed wedged as if customary in the opposite corner, adjusting her hair with one hand whilst artfully scattering ash from her cigarette with another. She reciprocated his glance with a momentarily scathing overview – her pupils apparently pulsing at various articles of his clothing, before returning faithfully to her hand. A perfect construction of control, Nick thought – how she held herself, leaning deep onto the blade of one shoulder, one foot propped on its precarious heel.
TICK TICK TICK. Strange. He had never noticed the ticking of his watch particularly before – it suddenly arriving in his ear like a late train, allowing him to realise (with a little humiliation homogenous with office politeness) that he had been leaning with his hand and fixatedly staring. The lift had only just started moving, but he was aware that he had indeed been staring and thus checked himself, setting his eyes to the floor as their metal can continued to crawl upwards.
Her thick American accent approached him with an intensity – the very word choice itself seeming strange to him – a word of expression in an expression, just as they were being lifted in a lift. He mused this point momentarily and the elastic bow of his mouth almost twitched to a smirk, but he steered himself and slid his eyes back to hers. Conversation – early morning conversation. The prospect fazed him slightly.
“Yes?” He responded, mitigating the interrogative in an attempt to disguise his rising interest.
She let out a fruity laugh – a noise dripping with something decorous.
“Say, you look so damned nervous! Eight o’clock in the morning and damned nervous!”
Nick had not really considered this reflection of himself before, and he put a distracted hand to his collar where he manoeuvred between tight shirt front and skin sickly with layer of moisture which he had not previously been aware of. It unnerved him a little, and his voice adopted a more guarded edge.
“Can’t say I was aware of it. Just these early mornings, you know –“
“I know what?”
Her voice was suddenly assertive, almost rich with an eagerness for argument. The cigarette splintered in her palm as she adjusted her position slightly, her arrangement of hair dashing the side of the lift like a hastily dragged fake fur. He had to struggle with a smirk again – but in this case, a smirk of discomfort rather than anything else.
“No – I mean – it’s a turn of phrase…”
He embodied this point with a supporting hand gesture. She surveyed him obliquely.
“Gee, you do sure having some weird turning phrases…”
Though the laugh came again which reassured him somewhat. He allowed himself a long, languorous inhalation as if he was smoking himself and thought vaguely about Americans and their country, thought about he had once promised to take a girl there – Julie, she might have been called – though it was a long time ago now, in his college days where he harboured an appetite stoked upon aggressive existentialism which never came to anything.
He suddenly noticed something unusual on his coat lapel – a shattered circle of grease. Silently, he rebuked himself, thinking that it was very unlike him to leave the house in such a state. The layer of coffee on the breath was customary, the hair combed slightly to the left – a usual matter of urgency, but typically he felt sheltered beneath an otherwise tidy appearance. Surveying the stain more closely, its yellowing interior seemed to stir a strange kind of nostalgia within him – perhaps even just in reminiscing upon the hastily chewed toast he crumbled into the outside bin on his way to work. The piece of toast his wife always had ready for him in the anticipation that he would eat it, pressing it into his palm as he left the door under her agitated, eager-to-please stare which seemed to bubble at the edges, like the white of an egg on the edge of a griddle turned up too high.
He shook his head as if to dissipate his thoughts – thoughts now of keeping his home life at home and his work life at work…
But where was he?
His eyes lapsed from their state of inertia on the opposite wall, to the woman, who herself seemed a little stunned.
“We’re still in the lift.” She declared, Nick wondering why her intonation accumulated almost to a squeak at the end. In fact he wondered why she had made such a declaration at all – was she attempting to decipher his thoughts, attempting to answer his momentary confusion? Perhaps he was not only really evidently nervous but insecure too?
But then he realised – he had managed to construct such an elaborate thought in an elevator journey.
It was usually in the lift he thought of nothing – mulling an absence in his mind like a lozenge of comfort. He seemed to suddenly realise his faculty of speech again.
“The lift’s stopped.”
“Bravo, office boy.” The woman raised her eyebrows, answering with a tone externally snide but still failing to conceal the camaraderie. The lift was stock-still, suspended stolidly like the cruel grease which finally seals the artery.
It was strange, Nick thought, the lack of urgency he felt in the situation. Even the woman seemed to have recovered from her momentary wavering timbre, instead appearing, Nick thought, almost to be irritated with herself – opening a tiny spiracle of pocket mirror which he would otherwise had presumed to be a pocket watch and dabbing her exposed cheekbones with rouge in an almost aggressive manner.
“Well I never, well I never –“
“You never what?” Nick quipped before he could stop himself.
She snapped the mirror shut, confronting his face rather than hers, a sly half-smile toying with her lips – pressed to a defiant pout as she spoke.
“It’s a turn of phrase.”
He managed to raise his eyebrows reciprocally – something he realised he had never consciously thought of doing before. This realisation moved him a little, just at the thought of the character he must project everyday – unconscious, a social non-entity to whom even he himself was oblivious…
“Well, I guess this damn thing is stuck then,” This time her declaration more definitive, yet infused with a tone of mild amusement. Nick noticed her eyes surveying the tiny compartment in which they stood – presumably for some means of breach or escape. But she spoke again “Want a cigarette?”
“Thanks. Don’t mind if I do.”
He leaned forward to take the cigarette from her extended palm in an action which seemed to seep through his very fibres – as if overwhelmingly familiar. He felt a stressed flicker of pulse behind his eye. Ah, yes – that was it – the sudden leaning forwards reminded him of how he would customarily do the same each morning to plant a kiss on his wife’s cheek as he left the house, every quick contact with her flushed face a required confirmation of his cool combed exterior. Something he hadn’t done this morning, strangely enough – with the toast almost singeing under the grill because he was still fretting about what to have for his lunch or something similar, his tie confused about his collar – ‘like a trellis!’ she had said, adjusting it.
The touch of the cigarette was a little like her soap-exhausted fingers on the back of his neck, he thought, the ‘tsssk’ of her disappointment in his ear – ‘oh Nick, you’ve only gone and spilt…’. The aviator fan breathed raggedly above his head. He was digressing.
Again, he looked up. The woman’s face was partially obscured by a speech bubble of smoke.
Again, he uttered a kind of thanks, putting the cigarette to his own lips as if the necessary punctuation mark for a spoken sentence.
Her face swam back into view, powerfully powdered he now noticed, still not quite accustomed to the LED glare of the lift light.
“S’alright,” She slurred a little as if flickering tobacco in the movements of her tongue, “I was just checking round, you know, for air vents or something. Do you think it’s safe to smoke in here?”
The question was evidently conversational rather than urgent. She was leaning against one side of the lift now, enveloped by the folds of her great white coat with a lapel which looked almost mechanical, with its array of metal togs and polished articles, clippings of fur which shone three colours. Half human, half automaton – or for a little while. As he mused, she shed the coat from her shoulders with an almost awful peeling movement Nick perceived as having a little gore to it. It was like watching a cat crack open and step from its fur – in terms of the level of abhorrence it seemed to stir within him anyhow.
He swallowed roughly before he spoke.
“Well, as we are stuck here now – surely it doesn’t make much difference?”
He had finally mentioned their entrapment – yet it was strange in a way that it did not feel particularly unpleasant to him. The cigarette seemed to hold a salty edge against his tongue and occupy any insecurity of his hands.
“Nah, can’t see it doing,” Her words worked around her mouth as she spoke, emerging deep and fantastic. She said ;it’ in a way that seemed to infer they were speaking about something monumental, almost beyond words. And yet all we’re really doing is smoking, Nick thought.
She extended the same hand with the rose rounded nails through the thickening fug.
“A pleasure. Nick.”
“Nick as in Nic-o-las?” She spoke the latter with a sing-song quality installed mockingly underneath every syllable.
“No, just plain old Nick – Nick like a nickel - Nick.”
She nodded, the rattle of mysteriously hidden jewellery seemingly accompanying her movement, nodding as if his introduction required confirmation. Her eyes, on closer inspection, looked oppressed and even ugly under the façade of face powder, Nick thought – they seemed to harbour a moist over-ripeness that was lacking in her face. Her cheekbones seemed suspended at strange angles, as if circulating over the words which she seemed to chew and spit like a child with sweets –
“What d’ya think we should do?” She was moving now, striking the walls of the lift with the flat of her palm before pulling back resignedly “This thing is well and truly fast.”
The intensity of their cigarette smoke in such a small environment made Nick feel almost pleasantly unaware of himself.
“You heard me, Nic-o-las.”
He glanced around their suspended cell – the key panel and push button reflecting the sporadic motions of his stare. Jabbing the button in a mock-anger would serve little purpose inevitably, Nick thought, but he did it anyway. The button was greasy to touch and it was a struggle to conceal the spasm of disgust which passed through him.
Lilly laughed, burrowing her back against the wall and sliding to a sitting position on the floor. Feeling u nasally self-conscious standing on his own, Nick did the same. A raw reverberation of sound struck up as his body, unaccustomed to such small spaces, struck the floor.
Lilly laughed again. “Gee, if they couldn’t hear us then, they’ll sure have heard that…”
Somehow, to Nick, the sudden reference to the external world seemed superfluous – as if he had almost evaded his existence. In further reflection, Nick also thought it odd that neither himself or Lilly had seemingly been seized by the impulse to cry for help – despite it being the typical trope of a countless series of films where entrapment as a lift serves as a kind of climax…
“Well, I guess we’re just hanging around –“ Lilly worked her way through apparently aimless speech, more significantly occupied with the cruel clasp on her crocodile skin bag. “- Goddamn – hey, could you open this for me?”
She threw it at him and he intercepted with unpractised hands against which his wedding ring glowered in its possessive gold. The bag felt like a new skin beneath his fingers – glossed and mysterious – the clasp collapsing at his touch. He managed a glimpse of the velveteen interior; a rough assemblage of pots of rouge, exhausted tubes crushed with apparent indention from nails, crumpled tissue. In a sudden strike of self-awareness he realised he had been half-looking through her bag and passed it back to her almost apologetically.
“There you are.”
Hanging around. It was a phrase that thrilled him – like the same phrase thrills young children when rather than describing the task they are doing, they perceive they can use it as an idiom dripping with a kind of credential. It was strange, too – hanging – a kind of suspension, as they were now. Even death by hanging – that was one way of it happening. Hanging by the neck until death. He tried to imagine the lift shaft as some great neck or oesophagus cracked under the weight of a noose. Hanging, dying – somehow all seemed distant and almost cinematic to him…
His thoughts were interrupted by the immense crackle of aluminium foil.
Lilly looked guiltily over the unwrapping on her lap, her legs emerging from beneath an almost overwhelmed pastel dress so her shoes, which almost seemed mis-matched in their comparative level of wear and tear, struck out at the opposite wall. It was common to see people in offices striking walls, Nick thought – like the fiery young foreman seized with the convulsive anger under the eye of the clock which made him buckle and press his palm to any kind of surrounding surface – ‘One of these days I’ll do it, one of these days I’ll do it…’ – he would always say.
Nick never asked him what.
In fact, his sudden perception for questioning shocked him a little.
She smiled back at him. “Sandwiches – I don’t know about you, but I’m starving!”
The sense of domesticity, almost comforting, tempted him to a belly laugh – an indulgence of special occasions, after which he resolved that it would not displease them to do the same.
“I’ve got some sandwiches too…” he squeezed the words between a mouth wedged in a concentration, retrieving a complicated wad of cling-film from his jacket pocket.
“Egg and cress.” He declared, as if coming to realisation himself.
“I’m on jam,” The colloquial turn of her phrase was a little touching, he thought. It was strange for him to be touched by any kind of speech really “Raspberry seedless if you were wanting specifics. Nothing fancy – Dan threw them together for me as I was running late this morning…”
She realised her thinking had seeped into her speech.
“Dan, my partner, that is.”
“My wife makes my sandwiches.” Nick reciprocated, but he wasn’t quite sure why. Neither was he quite sure of motivation behind his next gesture, but it proved a comforting one. “Would you like one?”
For some reason he recalled that he had eaten egg this morning, at one point or another. The concept of repetition seemed somehow horrible.
She paused a little before she took a crumpled egg sandwich with mock-admiration.
“Don’t mind if I do – thanks.”
She handed him a jam sandwich automatically – the brown bread blackening where the steeped fruit soaked into the incision. To him, there was always something comforting, albeit rebellious about eating jam sandwiches.
“They’re not proper sandwiches…” He remembered the roll of phrase his mother used to whine whenever he asked for them – repeating it now, hardly knowing. He only realised when Lilly replied –
‘But they sure are better than egg.” And raised her eyebrows in defiance, apparently disabling the sandwich in front of him, creasing it almost to corrugation. She ate the sandwich in a single mouthful – a way of eating which children typically find fascinating and adults disgusting.
For some reason Nick too found it fascinating.
“Not too bad actually.” She answered over a mastication of cheap white bread and overcooked egg, some of which scattered her exposed neck. Nick had never really thought about his sandwiches before – the hastily crushed up contents which he had always assumed as standard. He was even blushing a little, eating in slow mouthfuls that lingered longer than usual.
“My wife makes them…” he said again, but in a repetition which swelled to expansion. It was as if the cold cloys of bread had served as catalyst for the speech of both – and he talked of his wife, the kids at home, how he hated the new car, and not just the car but the road, in fact, every-damn-mile- taken… – and she listened, as if entirely expectant of such a tirade. It was also as if expectant that she followed – her partner Dan and how ‘he just didn’t think of her anymore’ and how she was ‘seriously thinking of ending it, their engagement at all that, at some point, y’know’, how she had an old school friend, a man, she had been seeing at the weekends, why she would want to get away to the country –
It was in this timelessness of continued conversation and chain-smoking the lift suddenly shook around them. Nick didn’t feel fear, he only felt Lilly’s wrist against his bent leg to steady herself.
But like a stubborn eye eventually exposed to the light – grinding and painful, the doors were suddenly split open.
Nick was initially blinded by the sudden intensity of shine, dancing in the eyes in an almost pack-like flurry of faces.
“Two of them, two of them – yeah – conscious and everything…” A voice swum through as if stretched by a microphone.
Then there was a sudden clamour, and a sound like lashed water on stone as a figure burst forward, a cascade of hair and hastily draped jewellery, dripping tears through a voice which wavered.
“Nick! Nick! You’re alright!”
It took a few moments for him to realise that it was his wife. She stood at the cracked open entrance of the lift, shaking slightly, her face creased with a series of emotions, primarily relief which sweated almost ugly across her cheeks.
“Oh, and I was so worried, and I phoned the office straight away, and all this time… all this… these ten hours… Anything could have happened…”
But the twist of her tone of that last line of speech seemed suddenly different as she stared into the lift, eyes almost bulbous in their eagerness. Nick and the woman were still sat, slightly stunned by the sudden commotion, adjacent to each other upon the lift floor. Due to the confined space, Nick’s knees were bent, beneath which lay one of Lilly’s scattered shoes, poorly-fitting and rain-swollen. Their coats were both crumpled behind their heads, pillowing the heaviness of time slightly, almost accentuating their smoke-flushed and consequently sweat-filmed faces, the smoke which now trickled through the air in a melting steam. In the commotion, Lilly’s hand was still stoppered against Nick’s leg, the fanciful arrangement of her hair now lashed at odd angles from which beneath she stared with querulous eyes and berry-shaded lips.
That was when Nick’s wife’s eyes slid from woman to her husband – the red stain shared by his lips… and now her voice, suddenly squeezed to almost silence as if channelling a great hysteria.
“What have you done, Nick?”
The way she said his voice separately, almost condescendingly, as if addressing a child, irritated Nick – still confused from the sudden transition of scene, the lengthy time of talking and uncertainty suddenly broken. He licked his lips in preparatory way, confronted with a sudden sharp burst of jam, which he realised was still clinging to his mouth – not particularly surprising him considering the slowness with which he customarily ate.
He looked upon at the shaking silhouette of his wife which he did not quite understand.
“Well, we’ve been eating sandwiches – and –“
His wife’s voice was nettled with hysteria, arriving in a sudden shriek. “And - ?”
Lilly answered with a reciprocity that made the whites of his wife’s eye flash almost mauve.
“And we’ve been smoking.”
And it was the truth – the literal truth – food and cigarettes. Yes, all we’re really doing is smoking, Nick thought – a thought that returned to him, unfurled to him.
Yet the world had returned to him too – the world of wavering faces and familial duties and flashing cameras, press stories and public places – a world in which there was no memory, no quiet, no stop, no truth.