The brownish bakelite buttons slide in nearly an inch as I push them. Like a pair of navels in the wall of lumpy, flaking, off-white paint. I press both the up and down buttons. I haven’t made my mind up where I want to go yet. I decide to leave it up to the gods that seem to control the ebb and flow of this, and so many other, buildings. I have never attempted to understand them, or the caprice which brings movement to some and not to others. I read a story about a guy who was waiting for a lift at the world trade centre, he was mashing the buttons, pissed off with waiting because he wanted to get somewhere, work I suppose. Just then, the first plane hit, but he was safe, and upset, at ground zero. And another one about a woman who worked on the 67th floor, just below where the second plane hit. She decided to go outside for a fag, got in the lift and started going down just in time to be out of the danger zone — the sweet carcinogenic irony of it. I wonder what they did to please the gods.
There are two lifts in front of me, but only one I can use. To my left: lift B. The one I can use. The doors are narrow, like window shutters. Metal painted that faded grey that you only see in public sector buildings, and less and less so now. As if once, long ago, someone ordered too much of it. Perhaps it was left over from the war, and only now, only as the walls were literally crumbling, and the breeze seeping in around the single glazing chilled the patients down way before their long ride to the basement, were they starting to run out of it. On the right the lift is much wider, and nameless, and the doors — unpainted bare dimpled metal — are a three-layer concertina that all peel back in the same direction when the lift arrives. We had come out of that lift a few hours earlier, or days, it was hard to tell. But you could only ride in that lift accompanied by orderlies, or nurses, or doctors, or gurneys, so it was closed to me now. I lacked the special key I’d seen them put in to operate it when we’d ridden up with Dad.
Staring at it now, I was desperate to ride it again, I wanted to pull back with all my weight on the middle door and watch the concertina action open all three up wide and let me back in with the heavy black rubber floor, and the intensity of bleach, and no mirrors. I didn’t care where it went, just to step in and watch the concertina doors slide shut and seal me in there, without daylight or disturbance. The calming hum of the strip lights, and the weightless, timeless feeling of knowing that when the doors open again it will be on to a different world to the last I saw. As if by magic, as if by pure teleportation, into a different life. Each opening and closing of the concertina doors creating a schism in the universe, a pause and a restart. Demanding only that you leave some piece of yourself to it, a sacrifice. Or maybe you leave that piece behind before you even get on, and inside the big lift, with grey bumper strips running round at gurney height, you aren’t really there, you’re in some transit dimension, in between lives.
A nurse whisper-shouting somewhere on the ward behind me pulls me out of my head and back into staring at the wall with the lumpy render. My mind teetered so easily on the brink of falling within itself now. It wasn’t that I felt numb, it was more like boredom, a total internal boredom, an empty hunger for stimulation. Like most of my head wasn’t there, just this weird voice noticing the colour and texture of the doors and walls and the travel of the buttons and the infinite leaden colour of the sky through the thin windows and the tops of the buildings and the air conditioner units and boiler flues and clouds of steam and just endless grey that you could see for miles and miles and miles and miles. I rub my face. The immediacy of my hands bringing me back to the room around me. My face feels strange, like I’m rubbing a piece of meat that has sat out of the fridge for a few hours, waiting, ready to be used.
A man had, at some point in this drifting, decided to wait for the lift next to me. I can tell from his body language that he is perturbed that both the up and down buttons are glowing. This man knows where he wants to go. Well, fuck him and his certainty. I smile disarmingly at him. Maybe — he thinks now — maybe someone else had caused this nuisance, not the sweet girl stood patiently waiting and smiling, and then they’d headed for the stairs when the wait had become too arduous. I assumed there were stairs here, somewhere, though I hadn’t seen them. Dad hadn’t been here long enough for me to really explore the place, had he? Besides, on the 19th floor, who cared. Even in a fire you wouldn’t be bothered, just fucking take me.
The man wears brown corduroys with thick lines of fabric running down them. It’s like he’s dressed to match this place, to blend in with the anonymous drudgery of it all. God, I hate this fucking man. His jacket matches the walls and the doors. His shirt matches the awful bedding that I guessed must once have been white, but which had seen too many nights to pretend to be virginal anymore. His trousers are the colour of changing catheter bags. He looks fairly steady and his eyes are full of impatient annoyance as he watches the numbers ticking by on the little screen above the lift. He doesn’t look like a man who should be here. Here on the 19th floor. This isn’t a floor for fleeting visits, or come-back-and-check-in-a-bit-laters. This is a floor for turning.
No one ever mentioned the turning before. Not to me anyway. Dad never mentioned it when he told us his prognosis. Mum never said anything in her attempt at counselling sessions. Still, when the rattling started things had sprung into action pretty quickly — like they had some internal processes or KPIs or SLAs that depended exactly on that first damp gurgle, that first incongruous sound, that unmistakable fucking sound. They didn’t tell you about that either, just what that would sound like, but then, they didn’t need to. Like a baby hearing its mother’s voice, you knew, you just fucking knew in your bones what it meant. It was instinct. It was a grinding voice in your head telling you to get away from this, withdraw the water, withdraw the food and the energy from this person and get back to the hunt. Protect the young. They were on their way, they wouldn’t be long. That was the phrase the nurse had used on the phone. “We don’t think he’ll be long”. Like he was running late. Like they were covering for him.
But once he’d started making that noise, they started moving fast — no more covering, no more lateness, everything was on time now. Invisible buttons were pushed and levers pulled and heavy set orderlies appeared out of nowhere, summoned by the glottal siren song and swung around the bed and disconnected some things I didn’t understand and attached them to mobile units and hoisted him on to a gurney after double checking the brakes and making sure the trolley wouldn’t fly off with the sudden weight of the man being dropped on it. They were gentle in their own way I suppose, but I never expected to see them turning him the way they did. Once we’d followed them into the big lift and up to the new reality of the 19th floor and into the little room they flipped him, like a winded baby, on to his stomach. They did this every couple of hours. Front then back. For hours at a time we couldn’t see his face, it was buried in the hole in the bed they’d placed him on, like a masseuses bed. Maybe it was a masseuses bed — maybe in a minute someone would come in and start rubbing his back with essential oils. It smelt like nail polish remover. When he was on his front I would miss his face, handsome despite its gauntness. High cheekbones.
I wondered if they laid them out up here on the 19th floor in a special pattern. Like when you cook scallops or halloumi slices in a frying pan. You lay them out clockwise, starting at noon, and by the time you’ve got to 11 o’clock, they’re ready for you to go around and flip them all again in the same direction. This way you ensured uniform cooking of all the slices, and you never forgot your place. It was absurd. The best explanation I could get out of anyone was that it was to increase his comfort. Lying in one position for extended periods of time, they told me, was uncomfortable and distressing. This was even more absurd. I asked them if they would consider turning me around at the same time. The top of my arse had developed a deep ache from sitting in shitty, hard, hospital chairs. They smiled pityingly and walked away.
The hidden bell above lift B, the lift I hadn’t ridden yet, suddenly rings as it arrives on the floor. It startles me and I jump just a little bit where I stand. I feel my heart suddenly pound in my chest with a teasing dose of adrenaline. It feels good. I smile at the man, who has a strange look of consternation on his face as if he can’t grasp my surprise. I let out a muted chuckle, more to myself than to him, fuck him and his beigeness. That feels good too, like stretching your legs after a long flight. I hadn’t cried yet, not once, or at least not in the last few weeks since things had started accelerating. It wasn’t that I’d stopped myself. Jesus, it would have been a lot easier if I had of cried — I wouldn’t have gotten those looks from Mum and Catherine when they started their joint crying, those ‘why aren’t you joining in Sarah, why aren’t you crying with us?’ looks. Like it was some group exercise that would have healed us all. I knew it wasn’t that they thought I wasn’t sad or anything; no, it was worse. I could tell they thought I was so completely broken, that I just couldn’t cry. Maybe they were right, but the expectancy of it, that look, was just such a turn-off. Like when you’re mid-fuck and they ask you if you’re about to cum.
I liked it when they cried though. It gave me something to do. It gave me something to occupy my mind with. I could fuss over them, I could try and reassure them of something, anything. First, it was “he’ll be OK”, then it was “we’ll be OK”. I could lose myself in the repetitive motion of stroking my Mum’s hand, polishing a little smooth channel between her knuckles, and noticing each and every little bump and bone and tendon beneath her skin. Drawing imaginary lines between the freckles, and memorising the shape of her thin gold chain bracelet with the little stones that Dad had bought her before I was born. I could hug them both, I could gather them up and squeeze them, and feel strong and stoic, and imagine some sort of warmth flowing from me to them. Most of all I could make them feel a little better, or that’s how it felt anyway. And that was enough. But maybe they were right.
I would cry, I knew I would cry, and I knew that when it started it wouldn’t stop. It just hadn’t started yet. That was why I’d stayed behind after it had happened. After the gurgling had stopped and the room was suddenly, achingly silent. Christ that fucking noise. It’s so loud. They never tell you how loud it is. I would be outside looking for a glass of water, or pretending to anyway and just wandering around, or pausing on my feet unable to decide whether to go back in or not. I would be outside and I could hear it. I would be talking to a nurse and I could hear it. And I could hear the others too. This rattly floor of ‘private’ rooms. It’s like… It’s like when someone is doing housework next door, and at first it’s so jarring and disturbing. Then you’re kind of angrily amazed at just the volume and duration of it. Then it becomes part of the background. Then it stops, and it’s like you’ve never heard silence before. You feel like yourself again, and not just an extension of a noise. I stayed behind to listen to the silence. To see if I could fill it, whilst Mum and Catherine shuddered down the hallway. But I hadn’t cried. I just listened to the silence and watched the orderlies perform their rituals.
I’d watched them turn him again, this time more gently than ever, before placing him back onto a gurney and wheeling him out. I shouldn’t have been there. The doctor who’d made a note of the time on the little clipboard just like in the movies had told me that I wouldn’t be allowed to wait there, but then the doctor just left. The orderlies didn’t seem to mind much at all, in fact, they didn’t even look at me once now that I think about it. Like I was the ghost to them. After they left, the room was empty. I waited for the tears but nothing came, I just started reading the labels on the various shelves and signs and notices and bottles dotted around the room. After a while I’d picked myself up and walked over to the lift. The lift that is now opening up to me and the man stood next to me.
It is completely empty inside. I peer in and see that this lift has mirrors. They put mirrors in lifts when they can’t put in windows. They do it to make the lift seem bigger, like sticking a big mirror in a shitty little ‘cosy’ room in a house. It extends the light and tricks you into thinking you’re in a bigger space than you are. They do it so you don’t panic, so you don’t freak out about stepping into a little box and hurtling vertically and contrary to your nature. Not like the big lift. In the big lift they knew — they knew you didn’t want to see anything reflected, they knew that no amount of claustrophobia could affect the freak out at that stage, so why spend the money?
The man puts a hand out to indicate that I should get on to the lift first, I oblige him. Inside, this lift is even less like the big lift. It is carpeted for one, and the inside is painted a brown somewhere in a shade between the man’s trousers and shirt, and there is no gurney bumper. You wouldn’t have been able to fit a gurney in here anyway, at most you could fit about 10 people I guessed — upright, not horizontal. You could tell what they were trying to do here, they wanted this lift to look like a fucking hotel lift. Like you were just popping up to your room or down to the lobby, maybe to go out for dinner. All it lacked was some banal muzak. What happened to muzak anyway? You never hear muzak in lifts anymore. They swapped it for deafening, crushing, conversation destroying awkwardness. Did you know muzak was developed to help aid concentration and induce calm? Or that the astronauts on Apollo 11 listened to muzak just before it took off to calm down? Maybe this silence is what the hospital wanted: if you spoke too much in the lift, if you relaxed too much, it might all come flooding out.
I avoid my own eyes in the mirrors and walk inside the lift, the man follows me. My hand hovers over the little console of buttons and numbers. I still don’t know where I want to go, so I half-look at the man and ask:
“Same as you.” I can feel he is staring dead at the back of my head.
I should be scared. I should be terrified of this creep-in-camel-colours following me into this tiny lift and forcing my hand, but my hatred is washing away and I feel strangely calmed by him. Perhaps it’s a symptom of my boredom — this at least was going somewhere. Fuck it. I look down at my hand, still there just floating over the numbers, and out of nowhere in particular, or maybe right out of my head, I feel my hand move towards the highest one, the 30th floor, the observation deck. I push the button in and immediately the two window shutter doors slide closed in front of us and the daylight is gone and the lift starts moving upwards. I can tell by the slight feeling of heaviness on my feet. The man looks relieved by my choice.
I lean back against the mirror, at a right angle to him now. He’s still staring at me, at my eyes now, and I stare right back at him. I take in his features for the first time. His eyes are a kind of pale turquoise that might once have been vibrant green but had seen too much light, or too little. His hair hung down feathery on his forehead like he’d just had a shower and had blown his hair dry without a mirror. It was unkempt and stuck out at strange angles in strange places. He might have been handsome, once. His skin was papery, almost see-through, and in the slightly yellow hue of the lift lighting it took on the colour of pages in a new book. High cheekbones.
He looked impatient as the lift slowly ticked upwards along the floors. I prayed it wouldn’t stop in between to let someone else into the lift. Not at the biomedical research ward, not at the dental school or the lecture hall or the fucking cancer charity.
“So, what’s up there for you?” I ask into the carpeted silence. He thinks for a second.
“I just always liked the view from tall places, you know? I just wanted to take it in from up there. Not often you’re in the tallest hospital on earth.”
“I heard they opened one in Hong Kong that was bigger…”
“Yeah? Well, this is about as high as I’m going to get, so fuck Hong Kong.”
The lift is silent but for the sound of the travel. Thick twisted steel cables sliding along wheels and gears. Counterweights in the distance.
“Why are you here?” I ask again.
“Oh, the same as you I think… I shouldn’t be really, but people expect it of me.”
I take comfort from his voice. He sounded the same as me. Flat but not dissociated, like a ketamine come down. He was all there, but he just wasn’t bothered by being all there. I’m not sure why either of us is going to the observation deck, he was right. I should be going to find Mum. And Catherine. But I felt like someone expected me to do this, they had guided my hand when I’d pressed the button. Maybe it was me. It was April in London, the visibility would stretch about as far as the river, and even then it would only be that same tumbled landscape of mismatched rooftops. I like views, but London never did it for me. Maybe I expected it.
The heaviness in my feet slides up my legs and into my shoulders and I realise the lift has stopped. The doors begin to open. And again I notice the difference with the big lift. There was no schism here, no clear departure from one life and into another, no teleportation or extra dimension, it was a clear continuation. A single thread. It was the mirrors, it was the sight of yourself out of the corner of your eye. If you could see yourself during the journey, if you were grounded by a vision of yourself then you couldn’t undergo the fundamental change. Like the cat in the box — only without observation can that weird state exist, and the shift, the immortality, take place. No this was still me, and this was still the same life I had started on the 19th floor. It must be so for the strange man too.
We step out together onto the 30th floor into a vestibule. I think it’s a vestibule. I can see all the lifts, A, B, C, and D, in each of the four corners of the room. There are no concertina doors next to any of them — the big lifts do not stop on this floor. The flooring is the orange-brown of old pine in a herringbone pattern, and the room is surrounded by floor to ceiling glass windows. The lumpy paint looks smoother here, and the white is more like white, and less like yellow. Dotted around are stylish modernist chairs with grey fabric and dark wooden arms and legs, and little coffee tables strangely devoid of magazines. Polished steel features. The grey light of the outside world seeping in through the floor to ceiling windows and gently illuminating everything. It looked like a giant waiting room and a nice one at that. I guess there isn’t much difference between observation decks and waiting rooms. Both imply staring out into something, some kind of abyss in the expectancy of something else happening, something important. But there was no one here. If it was a waiting room it wasn’t clear what for. I am still not sure why we have come here.
I look around for the strange man and he is already at one of the glass doors that break up the floor to ceiling windows, distinguishable only by the polished steel handles that jut out from them just under halfway up. He motions for me to join him, and I hear my feet echo in the empty room as I half-jog over to him. I can already see some of the view from here, despite the angle of the balcony outside obscuring most of it. I can see the river flowing under the bridge, the total greyness hewn in two by the brown water. He opens the door and immediately I hear the wind rushing past my ears, and it makes me realise how quiet it had been in there, in the sort-of-waiting room, and in the whole hospital for that matter. At least since the rattling had stopped. But now I could hear the sirens outside and the familiar redshift of them getting higher and higher pitched till they peaked out and then dropped lower. I could hear horns and what sounded like railings being moved and dropped, that hollow scraping. I could hear the whipping of the wind, and the whistle as it squeezed through the gaps in the door and filled up the sort-of-waiting room.
The strange man follows me through the door and lets it swing shut behind him. We walk to the edge, to the thick grey concrete railing that runs around the balcony and lean against it and take in the view. I feel less bored now. I watch as the trains flow in and out of the station below, imagining all the different people riding them, the hundreds of lives I was seeing trundle past me every second and try to imagine the reality of a life I am not there to watch. I wonder if any of them are getting off the train and coming here. I look down and realise that the balcony is on a ledge sticking further out than the rest of the building, so that below us is pure nothing. I lean over the railing as far as I dare and look at the absence of space below.
“Why did they build it out on a ledge like this?” I ask the strange man, my voice half-shouting against the noise of the wind and the sirens and the horns and the scraping. For a moment I think he hasn’t heard me, his face is turned away from mine. I’m just about to repeat the question when he runs a hand through his hair and looks me straight in the eyes.
“So that the people who came up here could stand, just for a moment, outside the building. So that they could take a break from those four walls that don’t change for so many floors, up and down. This is the break. This is the place and the moment for it all to start all over again, to take a breath and feel reality again, whatever that new reality means.
“They stuck it out, like this, so that things would happen, really happen, finally.”
The wind howled around our sudden silence.
“Why are you here?”
“You know why Sarah.”
“But what about the big lift?”
“It doesn’t come to this floor.”
He walks over to me and puts a hand to my cheek and I feel it there for a second, a minute, an hour. Then he wraps both hands around the thick grey concrete railing and shifts his weight back on the heels of his feet before vaulting over it and into the air. I look over the railing and watch his body falling through the sky, past all the floors of the hospital, past the dental school and the biomedical research center, past the 19th floor and the turning patients, past all those floors we never saw from the big lift. Then, just before he would have hit the ground, I lose him. His greys and browns blending in with the London palette. I hear no thud or crash. No sudden blaring of sirens or horns, or screeching tyres. I see no disturbance in the ground below. As if he just kept falling. Straight through.
I stand alone on the balcony in the wind for a few minutes. Listening but not listening to the din all around. Feeling but not feeling the wind pulling tight the skin around my face. Aching but not aching in my heart. I swallow. I look up at the featureless sky and barely remarkable outlines of birds against it. I take a step back from the edge, my hands on the railings, and take a deep breath.
Ed Russell is a new writer of short fiction and poetry about not much of anything. He lives in North London, and works as a designer.
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