Her hair was straw-like and shoulder-length, the colour couldn’t decide what it wanted to be. Platinum blonde gone wrong? To me, it screamed ‘grey in disguise.’ That’s the thing about hair, women’s specifically. It says so much.
Okay, I’ve definitely drunk too much coffee this morning. Shut up, Liam.
That, or we’re in a space too enclosed for a Monday morning. You know what to expect with lifts, no surprises. They’re never comfortable, either over-crowded or under. You’re either sandwiched like a cheese slice between an elderly lady and a mum with a push-chair, or you’re making subtle glances at the stranger stood beside you. Where the only conversational matter you have is ‘what floor?’
Where was I? Her hair. The roots were immaculate, too immaculate for someone with that many creases on their forehead. Since when did I go all hairdresser? That meeting did wonders for my thought process today, next I’ll be trying to distinguish her shoes from Prada or M&S sale.
She was perfectly sculpted, not a wrinkle in her blouse or hole in her tights noticeable. As if it were all for others to pick up on…That was until I saw her nails. Cranberry red, acrylics probably. Chipped like old paint work at the edges. Nervous habit? Or maybe she was in fact a plumber with an early start, the kind of gal who was all ‘I’ve fixed a sink already this morning.’
‘Are you going up?’
Jennifer was forty-nine and she was late. The closer she was to approaching the big five-oh, the more strenuous exercise it was to rise from under the covers. This had never previously been a problem; she’d always been punctual. ‘Organised’ was her nickname in secondary school. Well, that and acne girl. The double duvet, now only for one. No longer needing to be quiet in the morning for the fear of waking anyone.
She could easily make do with a single bed.
Maybe it wasn’t the bed she was clinging to, but the empty space beside her.
The man facing her was young enough to be her son, yet dressed like a middle-aged pub-goer. His shirt, which had been an early morning tucked-in-trousers attempt, now hung creased against his crotch. He hadn’t quite mastered beard growing, it instead resembled a fifteen-year-old trying to grow facial hair, rather than a Brad Pitt look-a-like. He didn’t appear to be married, no jewellery on his finger to de-masculinise his office bloke attire. But rings were removable, that was something Jennifer knew all too well. Did she look married? She was perceivably middle-aged, her forced smile appearing motherly at most. She made effort with her appearance. At least she used to. Maybe she screamed scary business woman more than house-wife. She locked eyes with the woman in her eye view. She looked old. Tired. What point is there to mirrors in lifts? A mid-day reminder of the ever-increasing prominence of your eye-bags?
His feet were stood wide apart, too comfortable for an enclosed space. Jennifer felt like she was in a boxing ring with this stranger, cowering in the right corner of the arena, closest to the door. But even sticking to the sides wasn’t working in her favour.
‘Floor five.’ he muttered. His voice was husky, a smoker for sure. Manners had clearly been abandoned in the car park.
That’s the worst thing about public transport, if you could call a lift such a thing. Rude company. Particularly when said company is just the one; hopeful for a crowd so you’re not stood central under the spotlight. Jennifer struggled to distinguish if it was the enclosed space, or the man whose ego smothered the majority of it, that was causing her claustrophobia. All she could detect was he had a closer relationship with his phone than any physical person; his plastic, electronic device holding his gaze in what could be a flirtatious manner.
The man was stood closer to the buttons than she was, yet his little movement spoke ‘ladies first’. It wasn’t that Jennifer expected a man to take control by any means; her ex-husband was proof of little participation. But this stranger was stood oppositional to the controls and her taking charge would require leaning in front of him. Regardless of limited space, surely there was a difference between enclosed space and personal space. She did the waiting of ten seconds, using the doors shutting as a stop watch. The man’s eyes remained on the screen in front of him, his brief case in his other hand. Jennifer resisted the urge for a deliberately loud sigh to pass from her lips, and lent across, examining the pimple that had emerged on her upper lip in her reflection. Floor five meant he’d be leaving before her. She’d savour the seconds alone more than usual. Lifts, she’d found, were excellent thinking spots. Particularly before meetings.
The silence was the kind where disturbing it would be like waking someone from sleeping. It was a waiting game between the two of them, who would cough first or unzip their jacket. Jennifer could have sworn music was played in lifts, that there was some form of background noise. Only the silence today felt overtly muted. No background hum, no buzzing of the electrics. Swallowing felt like a door slam equivalent. Something felt different, the tingly sensation in her ears caused by the graveyard stillness felt almost painful. She absorbed the room, the metallic box. A fairground’s fun-house. Mirrors enclosing them.
The seeing double – for some it may have been a subconscious comfort if travelling alone. Jennifer had never felt more aware of the double being two. Man and woman. Enclosed space. Silence.
She had returned to her former position in the corner, the control panel being visible to the corner of her eye. It was lifeless. No light visible. She was certain she’d pressed the button. Having to lean across the man again would be embarrassing. I’m more than capable at this technology lark.
Her brain ran through the process like a shopping list. The doors had shut. She’d pressed the floor number. Usually this was narrated for her. Doors closing, lift going up. But the familiar voice hadn’t spoken.
‘It’s being slow today.’
So now the man wants to make small talk.
His eyes had returned to his phone screen the second Jennifer initiated a response.
‘Yes, I did press the button.’
The man smiled back, not quite meeting her gaze, a turning of the lips that felt forced and awkward. Like he felt sorry for her.
I could feel my cheeks burning. It’s as if I’m allergic to male company. Or any company for that matter. I’m getting flustered. Breathe, Jennifer, don’t make a fool of yourself.
He’s everywhere. He instigated my insecurities, made everyday tasks a challenge. He still has a hold of me.
Every man I come into contact with, stranger or acquaintance, reminds me of him. So, this man opposite me looks at me just as he did. That doesn’t make him a predator.
‘You’re incapable. I tried being patient Jen, but if you can’t give me the simplest of things, what are we doing anymore?’
‘You’re leaving?’ I mumbled, my throat coiled over in a lump, my eyes misty like condensation.
‘Don’t make me say it.’
‘This isn’t my fault.’
‘It’s embarrassing, Jen. It’s not my body with the problem. People will want to know, why we haven’t had kids. I don’t want them getting the wrong impression, thinking it’s me. Thinking I don’t want to be a father.’
‘I don’t think it’s moving.’
My body jolted. The man had put his phone away now, probably anticipating the doors opening. The arrival at floor five.
‘Are you sure?’ I said, my eyes turning back to the buttons beside him. He was right. There was a missing step in the order of lift activity: the spasm it did when starting up, the jolt to push the floor beneath your feet upwards.
We were still.
I lent across him again, cautious that his focus was now on his surroundings, and not the alternate reality previously in his palm. My hand pressed the button into the wall harder than before. Expecting the rim around it to glow with a familiar blue hue. Conscious of my chipped nails I hadn’t touched up. What’s the point, with no one there to notice?
‘Maybe the button’s faulty.’ He muttered, his hand reaching across in an abrupt manner causing me to flinch. He tried the others, a typical lad trying to reclaim authority in the situation. Taking over, just as he often did.
One. Two. Three. Four. Five. Six.
‘It might just be slow. Like computers, when they take a while to switch on,’
‘You must be a Windows person.’
‘Maybe these lifts need Apple refurbishment.’
Neither passenger knew the acceptable time to wait for a lift to move. Jennifer’s eyes scanned the premises, whilst blinking repeatedly in attempt at monitoring her brewing anxiety. The longer spent in the enclosed space, the more it felt like the walls were closing in on them. She could have sworn the lift felt bigger, that there was more room, when she first stepped inside it. It was the mirrors. The reflection causing a difficulty in ignoring her whereabouts.
The man’s sigh was exaggerated and child-like. ‘Had I of known it would take this long, I would have taken the stairs.’
Jennifer hummed in agreement. She was tempted to check her phone, but decided against it. His was bulky and touch-screen. Hers resembled a walkie-talkie. She kept telling herself it would move in a second. That the doors would open to the car park, that they would smile at each other in relief, ‘have a good day’, and depart.
He was above average in height, with hair that needed cutting and randomised hairs sprouting from his chin that he should discard. He needed to be honest with himself; not everyone is blessed in the facial hair department. Jennifer tried to subtly examine her sidekick of the situation, without obviously staring. His clothing gave away very little. A button up shirt but no tie, a brief case with no brogues.
‘Are you in a hurry then?’ She sought for a relaxed tone, but it spluttered out abruptly.
He looked up from the floor of their cardboard box.
‘Yeah, well, I would be. My day hasn’t been going as planned.’
‘You mean the lift? I hope it gets moving soon.’
‘Well,’ he paused, as if to rehearse his phrasing. His confidence, that Jennifer had previously mistaken for arrogance, had begun to subside. ‘I might be losing my job.’
He addressed the floor when he said this. He couldn’t hold her gaze, him instead addressing his reflection across from him, as if he was breaking the news to himself. Maybe telling a stranger is easiest. Maybe he didn’t recognise the man across from him. She didn’t know this person; they couldn’t be any further from oppositional. Contrasting in every essence, age to gender, personality to interests.
‘I’m sorry to hear that. What is it you do?’
Jennifer managed a smile at this. Call me Sherlock Holmes. That makes sense. She knew she was nearing fifty, but he did seem over confident in the technology field.
‘Not really my area of expertise.’
‘So you’re not going to materialise us an escape plan?’
Jennifer found herself chuckling, the sound of her own laughter felt foreign to her. I haven’t laughed in months. Her hands dropped to her sides when she recognised she’d been doing it again. Picking at her nails. Nervous habit. She forced her shoulders back. It was rare, this, having meaningless conversation, with someone new. She opened her mouth to continue, and –
The room churned, Liam’s insides flipped in rhythm. He swallowed. He knew this woman was more successful, more self-assured, more collected. The enclosed space alienated him and tightened his insides, as if they were wrapped in barbed wire. Suffocating him of his rationality.
‘What was that?’
‘I don’t know.’
‘Do you think it’s stuck?’
The woman took a moment to answer. A silence between two people in an enclosed space felt all the more intensified. She resisted a sigh – her brewing impatience being kept inaudible. ‘…I don’t know.’ The fact was Jennifer had a fear of being wrong. She hated being asked to explain things, dreaded being asked her opinion. Subconsciously, it was him that triggered this.
She pressed floor five again, with child-like persistence. ‘I hope not; I have to be somewhere.’
‘Urgently?’ Liam retorted. Their conversation had increased in pace in aimless, back-and-forth formation. Voicing the first thing that came to mind, without censorship. Liam felt drunk, the room feeling smaller than before. As if the walls were interlinked by a belt being fastened. He knew they wouldn’t want him back at the office, not after all had been uncovered. They may as well have had the police in there, with the supposed amount of evidence they had.
‘Well, if I don’t turn up I imagine they’ll have something to say about it.’
‘Are you not the big boss? You look it.’
‘Is that a compliment?’
It’s nice to make conversation and it not be perceived flirtatious effort. It’s easy when they’re a stranger, when they don’t know your past. As soon as they catch your name, they think they know everything.
The lift grunted again in a hungry, old-pipes groan. Maybe that was the point, that the lift was going to trap them, swallow the two of them whole. Initial boredom had evolved into panic, both of them participating in mirrored behaviour, scanning the environment for something new.
‘If we are stuck, I can’t see any call for help option.’ Jennifer exclaimed, aware of the high-pitched squeak her speech had become. Aware that her appearance reflected the incoherence of her thoughts; her reflection looking shook up and nauseous. Sweat had developed across her temples, working as a reflector to the light’s uncomfortable fluorescence. Her platinum blonde bob, previously framing her face like a work of marble art, now looked like produce of a vacuum. I look like I’ve been plugged into an electric main. If she were twenty years younger, she’d be blushing in this man’s company.
‘I swear there’s usually an emergency option.’ He muttered, his tone a cross between ‘man in charge’ and irritable, teenage angst.
‘There’s nothing. It’s probably an old lift.’
Liam’s eyes scanned the control panel once more; a pilot of the machine, as if he were to be quizzed on its chronology. Sure, it listed one to nine but he expected there to be more variety to its arrangement. No microphone option, cancellation, or 999. So much for safety procedures.
‘Well, the interior is very, er… nineteen seventy-two.’
‘Watch it youngster, you’ll end up offending me.’
He didn’t expect the composed woman to have such personality, let alone a sense of humour. His earlier presumptions had been altered.
‘What if we don’t get out?’ he said, aware that his lips were trembling. If he shut his eyes, maybe he’d open them to the office, its familiarity now a death trap. Maybe it was karma coming to bite him in the arse. Hold it together Liam, you’re meant to be the computer guy with brains for this sort of thing.
‘Of course we will.’ She tried to sound convincing, in attempt to assure herself as well as him. This kind of thing happened in those documentaries, or viral internet videos.
He hesitated before responding. It was as if this enclosed space, previously a quick in-and-out affair, had become a makeshift confessional. His gaze lifted from the chipped floor, which needed mopping. Her eyes, creased at the edges and a grey-blue, anticipated his comeback. A back-and-forth, turn-taking exchange. Her eyes had warmth, a motherly sincerity. It was the mirrors, the reflective surfaces enclosing them. Like a one-to-one confrontation with themselves. Was it the minimal space that made their heads spin, or the lacking distractions?
He swallowed forcefully. ‘… It would be nice if we didn’t.’
‘What do you mean?’
‘If we didn’t get out. No one knows we’re in here. There’s no phone signal, no emergency exit. It’s like some form of hippie therapy.’
Jennifer resisted her internal hysterics. Ha, therapy. He has no idea.
‘No commitments,’ He continued. ‘It’s like shutting the door on real life.’
‘Which is why I need to get out. I have a meeting.’ She responded in an abrupt tone, before recalling the topic’s sensitivity.
She pressed floor five again, like a nervous habit. Nothing.
The turning of his lips was ambiguous, bordering on sympathy. Sympathetic for her or himself?
‘What is it you do?’
‘Law.’ She was hesitant in saying this, as if admitting to the upper echelon was belittling.
‘Ah, that was my original plan too. I didn’t try hard enough in school, I suppose.’
There was no point beating around the bush. No room left for awkward silences.
‘What happened?’ she asked, her brows furrowed. ‘With your job?’
‘I slept with my boss… It all blew up today.’ He faked a chuckle to disguise his humiliation. It was like admitting a crime to his Mother; like he’d hosted a house party and broken her favourite vase. But disgust was not detectable from Jennifer’s face. Instead, she nodded, expressing an understanding.
She opened her mouth to speak, but was overtaken by a rude interruption.
They exhaled in unison, like a pantomime rendition. Expectations were heightened: cameras, crowds of people, ambulances at the ready. But no soap opera, family reunion became of it. She stepped out first, her calf muscles throbbing from the long-distance travel. Lift jet-lag.
He didn’t know if shaking hands was appropriate.
‘Have a good day.’ She sounded breathless.
‘I’m Liam.’ He confessed, regretting this immediately. Rom-com re-enactment wasn’t the plan.
She smiled and turned away towards the car park.