A collection of short stories and poetry.
State of Undressed – a short story originally published in the Words to Music charity anthology.
The Night We Never Danced – same thing, short story published in Words to Music. I also did a short film reading of this one, together with its song.
Love in an elevator (till death do us part) – a short story which originally appeared on the Year Zero collective’s website when I was invited to contribute as a guest author.
There are various poems which form part of this collection. Most of them are scattered around the blog. At some point I shall pull them together and put them here.
State of Undressed
Nobody saw the cage and its occupant arrive. It must have been installed in the night, witnessed perhaps by a vagrant or two, someone coming off a late shift, someone heading for an early one. But few would have had time or inclination to consider the whys or whats of a metal box lowered onto a stone plinth. Even fewer would have noticed the Man as he unfolded himself within the cage and proceeded to remove his clothes for the first time.
Though later, on close examination, some would wonder how he got in there at all. The cage had no visible entrance or exit. And they would question how the barred box had been so thoroughly fixed to the plinth without the noise attracting the attention of somebody. But, they would agree, this is a city and strange things happen in cities – things come, things go, people modify and destroy and build endlessly. It should not be too surprising for an inaccessible cage, containing a man, to be firmly fixed on a plinth overnight and nobody to notice or care.
A Young Woman was the first to see him, though she is not officially recognised as such. When history recounts the story we will hear that it was Abdul Banerjee, eighteen and from Camden, who noticed the cage when on his way to work – the breakfast shift in a fast food restaurant before college – and the Man within, undressing and wearing no more than a pair of grey cotton shorts. Abdul took a photo with his phone, passed it on to a friend on the picture desk of a national tabloid and so it is Abdul Banerjee, eighteen and from Camden, who is written into history as having discovered the Man on the Plinth.
But, before this, the Young Woman had seen him. Just a few minutes after she arrived in the square and a full hour and a half before Abdul Banerjee would appear. She was tired and, if truth be known, more than a little emotional – more than a little in need of distraction. She wasn’t the sort to cry in the street and had paused at the steps beneath the Column to sit down, to contemplate her life. She faced the Gallery because she liked the view, moved her gaze upwards – perhaps seeking celestial help for her woes – and spotted him out of the corner of her left eye as he began to remove his shoes.
That wasn’t there last night.
It seemed early for the start of a performance – she and the pigeons were the only living creatures in close range, with a smattering of Others on the periphery, going about their business and not having noticed plinth, cage or Man. But for the Young Woman, he was a welcome distraction and she soon forgot to cry.
His movements were quite beautiful. Slow and perfected. He undressed in a way we perhaps all wish we could undress – with grace, with a smoothness born of rehearsal. He undressed with a fluidity the Young Woman envied and she could not take her eyes off him.
After half an hour’s deliberate, focused removal of clothing, the Man stood naked on the plinth. It was still early, the sun had not yet warmed the night’s chill from the concrete, the stone, the iron railings. And yet he stood as if bathed in its warmth, arms outstretched, head tilted back, legs tight together, rising onto tiptoes, closing his eyes and smiling as the imagined sun coated what had previously been clothed. The metal bars striped his body yet concealed nothing. The Young Woman watched as Others passed by – singly, in pairs, heads down, with briefcases, newspapers, mobile phones – all walking within metres of the plinth, the cage, the Man, and yet oblivious.
After five minutes he began to dress, reversing the order in which he’d removed the clothes and (the Young Woman would swear to friends) each movement was exactly reversed. A fact borne out by later analysis of film footage which proved, in the main, an uncanny ability on the part of the Man to exactly repeat his forward momentum in reverse. There was a documentary made on the subject. Others tried to emulate in their own mime acts – but none achieved, when filmed and subjected to the same analysis, the unfeasible ability exhibited by the Man on the Plinth.
When dressed he paused again, but without the raised, majestic posture. He just stood. Arms by his side, face level and staring towards the Column. But never looking down, never acknowledging the ground or the Young Woman sitting on the steps watching him. He gave his fully-covered state the same five minutes he’d allowed nakedness, before beginning once more the slow and deliberate removal of clothing.
Whatever misery had led the Young Woman to sit on the steps – to contemplate, to cry – had been forgotten. Granted she would remember later, when back at home, when faced once again with the choices of the night. But for the next few hours it was forgotten.
When the Man in the cage had stripped to his cotton shorts for this second time, Abdul Banerjee appeared with his mobile phone and curious gaze. This tendency to let his eyes wander had, on occasion, been a cause of trouble. But equally it had allowed him, in his brief eighteen years, to see things others often missed. Like today, and the Man in the cage on the plinth. How many had passed by already, unseeing? But Abdul saw straight away.
That wasn’t there last night.
As he took the photograph with his phone, Others started to notice a naked Man in a cage on the plinth. They too stopped to watch as he removed the grey cotton shorts with more elegance than any had ever before witnessed a man undress, and posed again, naked in his imagined sunshine.
No better than a flasher!
It must be one of those arty things.
That’s not art, it’s disgusting!
He’s just taking off his clothes. Pointless.
The first crowds were mainly Dissenters and Indifferents, though even the latter group watched. Their apathy shaded opinion but did not interfere with curiosity’s arousal. Next came the Officials – police, council officers, the Fire Brigade – to fan away the watchers, who shuffled backwards reluctantly. But all continued to stare up at the Man on the Plinth as the sun’s strengthening rays seeped in between the bars of his cage, lining his nakedness with rippled shadows. Some thought he looked more dangerous with stripes.
In the silence of his first performance the Young Woman had been readily transfixed. Nothing but the coo and flutter of pigeons, the rumble of traffic behind, to disturb her appreciation. But now, as he proceeded to dress for the third time she noticed, with irritation, a lack of focus on her part. Her peripheral vision was distracted by Officials, Dissenters and Indifferents; her concentration spoiled by their raised voices, the laughter, catcalls directed up at the Man, witty quips aimed at Officials, aimed at each other.
Best wait till he’s dressed if you’re giving him a fireman’s lift.
Nah, bring ‘im down nekked, I ‘aven’t got me glasses on, can’t see the bugger up there.
It’s disgusting. He needs locking up.
What’s up wi’ you, missus? Left your sense of humour at home?
Journalists arrived, pushing through the clusters of watchers to focus on the Man, his cage, his repeated performance. They flitted from one spot to another, pointing over-sized lenses, squatting, climbing, pressing forwards, standing back. Some pleaded with Officials to be allowed to go up in the bucket with the designated Fire Officer.
Just one shot before you bring him down.
But all were refused. The Officer himself was only in the sky for moments before signalling to be lowered where he formed a huddle with other Officials and explained how the cage had no door and, not only that, was bolted securely to the plinth from the inside. No adult arm could fit through those bars, he told colleagues, it’s impossible.
How did he get in?
Who fixed the cage to the plinth?
Where are his tools?
The bucket was raised again – with yet another accompanying Official, another opinion – but the Man did not lose a second from his performance time. He never acknowledged they were there, never looked once into their faces, did not even appear to see the increasing crowds below, or hear their chants, their insults, their encouragement. He continued to dress and undress in the same dignified manner as when the Young Woman had first sat alone, in peace, to watch him.
By late morning the square resembled a festival site. The performance took on a new dimension as groups settled on the steps with drinks and snacks. They watched the Man in the cage on the plinth in various states of undress and they watched Officials dashing around, grouping to discuss options, each concerned with their own corner of the world.
The plinth must not be damaged.
It’ll be tricky, but we can cut through the bars with the right equipment.
Speed is essential – get him down, out and away.
In the interim it was agreed the cage should be covered, a tarpaulin lowered from a crane, draped over the whole thing – cage, Man and plinth. All agreed maintaining public decency was key whilst they waited for cutting equipment. Later, when debriefing superiors, these Officials would concede it had possibly been a knee-jerk reaction and, had they known what would happen they may have taken a less confrontational stance. The Officer who had leaked their plan to the press was suspended. A report would be filed.
But for now they waited in smug anticipation for the arrival of tarpaulin and crane and considered that, give or take a few hours’ careful cutting through the bars, the spectacle would be over by dusk.
When word got out that the Man on the plinth was to be covered in a large tarpaulin and the bars of his cage cut open, the Bleeding Hearts arrived.
What happened to freedom of expression?
Where does it end?
Placards were hastily constructed, chants devised. Several Indifferents gravitated towards the Dissenter camp, others moved to join the Bleeding Hearts. Most remained indifferent. An Official from the Gallery stated, when interviewed on national television, the artist’s work had not been authorised – was not officially prearranged – but, he was clear to point out, whilst the Gallery could claim no part in this particular performance, it did, in essence, believe this display of the naked form an artistic endeavour and not one of public indecency.
Art? We all dress and undress. Isn’t it a little pointless?
Perhaps that is the point. Perhaps the artist intends his work as a metaphor for human existence.
But public decency? Surely we’re all bound by our country’s laws? Naked is naked, no matter what the intent.
Look around you! Advertising hoardings, scanty fashions, magazines, films. Lines are flexible, open to interpretation, to context. We could discuss this ad infinitum!
The Young Woman no longer had space to move on the steps. To her left a curious group of females who fell cleanly into neither the Dissenter nor Indifferent groups but somehow straddled both. As though they perhaps had not yet made up their minds. As though they did not have the mental wherewithal or keenness to be anything other than confused and, in that confusion, were compelled to draw on any and every clichéd platitude and social construct they held in their mind’s archive.
It’s disgusting, there’s kids around.
Yeah but he’s a bit of alright, isn’t he?
I wouldn’t kick him out of bed, that’s for sure.
Not right though, is it.
By the end of the day two of the five women would be dead and the remainder firmly placed in the Dissenter group. But for now they laughed and were free. They mocked, tutted and griped. They sat and enjoyed the day’s sunshine, sipping coffee from polystyrene cups and not thinking at all about the start of their evening shift at the hospital, about the staff shortages, the threat of unwanted change, the gloom of politics, dissatisfaction and angst, the hard work, the tired legs and feet.
To the Young Woman’s right a group of students, mixed gender, who were divided into Bleeding Hearts and Indifferents. None were against. But they barely watched the Man’s performance, seeming more concerned with soaking up the general atmosphere, the sunshine and banter, and texting to friends that they were here, in the square, watching a Man in a cage on the plinth get naked. They grew in number as the hours passed and, later, some of them would instigate the climbing of the crane, the removal of the tarpaulin. Some of these students would, to all intents and purposes, be murderers by nightfall.
What did Rousseau say? Laws are the authentic acts of the general will? Nobody fucking asked me.
You got freedom in a cage and you think it won’t cause rage. Ej von Lyrik, you know? Ah, man she’s cool, got her on MySpace, send you the link.
Oh my God, it’s been re-Tweeted fifteen times already!
The Man in the cage on the plinth had been performing for seven hours. Each complete sequence took one hour. He was naked for five minutes and fully clothed for five minutes in each of those hours. For the remaining fifty minutes he was in various stages of dress or undress. This analysis passed most people by – except for the Young Woman, who had watched every routine and was the only person present that day who noticed he had a subtle sense of humour. Twice, once whilst dressing and once whilst undressing, he’d slightly altered the order in which he removed or replaced items of clothing. Left shoe first instead of right. Right sleeve first instead of left. She’d smiled the first time, laughed quietly to herself the next as the edges of his mouth turned up just slightly and she imagined she saw him wink.
When the tarpaulin arrived, along with a small crane, the Officials had to clear a space in the crowd which pushed everyone closer together. Some lost vigilantly held spots and the mood took an ugly turn. It festered for a while – minor scuffles, a few half-hearted shoves, exchanged profanities – but was held at bay, in the main, by the prevailing sense of festival spirit and the glorious weather.
But when the tarpaulin was attached to the crane, lifted high into the air where it dangled to one side of the cage – effectively blocking the view for all those standing to the right – it seemed to darken the scene, as though it were high enough to block out the sun itself, which wasn’t the case, but which somehow seemed the case. The camaraderie began to lag, despite the efforts of those who envisaged the covering of the cage as further entertainment and who cheered and booed to this effect. These few were content to be amused for another hour or so by the incompetent efforts of Officials to wrap a cage, Man and plinth in twenty square metres of blue tarpaulin. And it may have been the case, Officials would later say, that they would have converted the rest, had it not been for the Agitators turning up, split into their respective core beliefs and keen to be heard.
Don’t let the patriarch tell you what offends, sisters! Are we offended? No, we are not! Are we offended? No, we are not!
Democracy! Where was the vote? Have we had our say? Let the people decide!
Fucking freeloader, send him home!
Justice for Fathers!
Despite the Officials, their crane, their tarpaulin, their incompetent efforts to manipulate twenty square metres of fabric, the Man continued to perform. For the remainder of his sequences he stayed true to the original routine – perhaps he, too, had lost his sense of humour. It was the last of these performances, the final three before the tarpaulin was put in place, before things turned nasty, that were captured on film and later analysed to reveal his extraordinary ability to perfectly replicate actions both forwards and back.
Journalists crafted a crowd more interesting than the performance as groups argued, old disputes re-emerged. Those prone to simpler discord started fights with fists. Others used words, rapidly exhausting their repertoire yet compelled to persist, repeating, regurgitating to anyone who seemed in any way fresh to the debate. The television cameras were coveted by all – some said they were a trigger for disharmony. Whether cameras gravitated to trouble or caused it was unclear, though most had an opinion.
The Peacemakers were called. Officials would argue some months on as to how timely this had or had not been. Some believed they ought to have been summoned earlier, others that they should not have been requested at all. Whilst most appreciated the inclusion of soldiers and ambulance crews, few understood who had asked for the priests.
Whether the Man continued to dress and undress after the tarpaulin was put into place, after the crowd started to push and fight and become an uncontrollable mass, after the students climbed the crane, hauled on the cloth, bringing it and machine crashing down the steps, crushing and suffocating thirty six members of various groups – Dissenters, Indifferents, Bleeding Hearts, Officials, Journalists, Agitators and, sadly, a handful of Peacemakers – was unknown. Even the Young Woman did not see the Man’s final performances. Perhaps he stopped at that point. Perhaps he carried on. By then the cameras – those that remained intact – were focused on the canvas, the panic, the writhing of the Injured, the futile attempts of Others to help, the movement of those compelled to run without direction.
Were the screams art?
This was the thought in the Young Woman’s mind as she stood, rigid, back against the column, in what remained of her spot on the steps and watched the apocalypse unfold. It was a guilty thought. It was untimely. But the whole scene had taken on a filmic quality – happening, and yet not real, not possibly real. She waited for a voice to cry cut! through a megaphone so everyone could get up, wipe the blood from their faces, laugh and talk, go to find the canteen. She would then applaud and set out for home.
Jesus Christ, oh Jesus, Jesus Christ.
I can’t find my daughter! I can’t find her! I can’t FIND her!
Can somebody help over here? This bloke’s bleeding to fucking death.
Everyone forgot about the cage, the Man within standing naked with straight gaze towards the column, oblivious to the people running and crying and helping and holding. None noticed his lack of interest. The remaining Officials and Peacemakers, however, didn’t panic, didn’t weep or run, but calmly – and efficiently now – put into place their combined knowledge, their shared years of experience, to arrest the feisty, move away the uninjured, wave in emergency vehicles, set up a makeshift first aid room in the foyer of the Gallery. To organise people. To bring the chaotic back under control.
The Young Woman glanced one last time at the cage. She couldn’t help it. She was possibly the last person to see the Man and he was staring at her. He still did not acknowledge the crowd but she was quite sure he was looking at her. Even later, when she confessed her eyes had been misted and her senses confused, she was convinced he had stared at her. And she’d smiled – a smile she’d been told many times was beautiful. A smile others coveted. But a smile that here, now, failed to change the inexpressive fix of his gaze. Then a hand had gripped her arm, pulled her roughly around and away.
Come on, miss, behind the line, you can’t stand here.
Nobody saw the cage and its occupant leave. Perhaps they just forgot about him amidst the disorder, leaving him behind, silent and unnoticed in the aftermath to wait alone for his helpers to return and remove the bolts, winch away the cage, return the plinth to its naked state.
Who was he?
Where did he go?
Was he responsible?
Officials studied footage – the cameras had continued to roll – but could not see whether he was there or not in those final hours. When filming stopped, when the dead and injured had been removed, when the ground had been cleared of detritus and everyone who could had gone home, nobody was able to say what happened to the Man. Study of the plinth showed no bolt holes. Yet not one provided a rational reason for this lack of visible proof that a cage, containing a Man, had ever been firmly fastened to that plinth.
However, there were many theories.
For the Young Woman, the mystery itself was part of the art. She never stopped looking in crowds for that still, expressionless face. The face her smile had been unable to move.
The Night We Never Danced
Do you remember the night we never danced? It seems silly to think of that now. But still.
It was summer. Was it summer? The air was close and heavy with food and drink and laughter. It was dark. It was very dark – we’d been there for hours – I can’t recall what the time actually was by then, when we danced.
And you. You shone that night, moving from one to another, talking and laughing and shaking hands. I caught snippets of your voice above the rest, coming from all angles as you gravitated from interest to interest. Such a fickle beast, I thought. But I laughed.
There were so many people. The crowd made a big room seem small. How did we all fit in? Were there as many as I remember? It felt that way. It’s how I think of it. Sitting and standing, crouching and reclining, and moving, moving – they all kept moving. When I remember now, when I try to piece together the conversations, the laughter, the names, the colours, the shapes, I can’t put person to voice; can’t put face to encounter.
Though I remember you clearly; the glimpses I saw.
You sat with me for a time. We were quite cramped and around us were others, and they moved and were noisy. But still, you sat with me and we talked. Do you remember that? I somehow thought you would, then. It was significant; it seemed that way. I imagined later you’d recall it as clearly as I. But now I’m not so sure. I wonder if you remember it at all.
Someone suggested moving on. Perhaps we should go to a club. This was such a fabulous idea and I remember your face lighting up and you, you were one of the loudest voices saying yes, yes, we must go on somewhere, the night is young. But I don’t remember us going. You may have gone but I don’t think I did.
You said something to me. We talked for a long time. Or so I thought. Then you looked directly into my eyes and you said something. No matter how hard I think now, I don’t know what it was you said but it was important, then. It must have been important – there was an intensity to your face I don’t recall seeing with others, when you worked the room, when you moved around talking and laughing and shaking hands.
You took my hand. You must remember that. You took my hand when you looked into my eyes and said whatever it was you said. It was noisy. Perhaps I never really heard the words, perhaps I only ever felt their intent. Perhaps I imagined both.
Because the next thing I recall – after the touch of your hand, how yours felt against mine when they met and held – the next thing I recall is you standing, abruptly, distracted by a voice maybe or the flash of a recognised face. You were already looking away from me as you stood. You’d already left before you completed the move. Then you were gone, back into the crowd, back talking and laughing and shaking hands.
And I realised somebody was still holding mine.
It was the strangest thing. There was definitely a hand holding mine. It wasn’t yours anymore – I could feel the difference – but I don’t recall the switch. Whoever was holding it was sitting to my left and slightly behind me. I could see part of his leg, in dark cloth; it was a he with a hand as befits such. But I didn’t turn to see who it was that was holding my hand, who it was that now caressed it. There was little point. Instead I watched you, as you moved around the room, catching the smallest portion of you – your face, your hair, your shoulder, your back – hearing your voice joining in with the plans to move on. Though I don’t remember us going. Perhaps you went. I didn’t.
I remember the night with fondness. It was a wonderful party. So many people in that small space – it’s amazing we all fit in. But we did. Although it was cramped; people sitting, standing, crouching, reclining. The atmosphere was perfect – happiness, wit – and I know there were people there I loved, and I know I too drifted around the room, talking and laughing, kissing cheeks. I remember who first suggested we move on – do you remember her? And I was as enthusiastic as everyone else. Oh yes, let’s move on, the night is young.
But I don’t remember going.
Later we danced. You came back to find me. I thought you came back to find me. I’m not sure now. Perhaps we met again accidentally. But we danced. Or at least we were going to dance. You asked do you want to? You pointed to the middle of the room – I think it was the middle, it was hard to tell with so many people in that small space, but it was where they were dancing – and you said we should.
But we didn’t. I would have remembered that. I think about it often.
Do you remember the night we never danced?
Love in an Elevator (till death do us part)
They leave the party and enter the lift in an unspoken fluidity belying rational thought. A primitive understanding – dressed up as romance or stripped back to its animalistic base, depending on mood.
“What floor?” he says.
She wants him to kiss her again. To press close, hesitant lips connecting in warm suggestion. And he does. The lift judders into life and he leans in, staggering slightly so they lurch against the wall. But they’re no longer in the corner of a crowded room, constrained by public decency; they’re alone and heading towards an impartial bedroom. And they both know where the flirtation, the first cautious kiss, that last drink (and all those preceding it) are taking them.
He anticipates this, presses harder, almost gnawing her mouth, his breathing raw, one hand progressing quickly – too quickly – from her hair, to neck, to shoulder, slinking down her chest and stealing into the low front of her dress.
The lift groans and stops, leaving a numb silence through which their breathing rasps. Seconds tick before they acknowledge this lull, turning to look first at the door, then the control panel, as though an explanation might be visible. He removes the hand holding her breast, but keeps his body tight against hers, reaching sideways to press the number seven button.
“It’ll start in a minute.”
The irrational conviction of the drunk. He faces her again, looks down at the skewed neckline of her dress, returns his hand to its previous position, locking his eyes on hers through a floppy fringe. She touches this hair, strokes it backwards, burrows her fingers, pulling his head closer.
“It’s not going.” She speaks this into his mouth.
“Sod’s Law.” His palm rakes across her nipple, his tongue seeks hers.
There’s an urgency to their movements. At any moment one of them might come to their senses, stop this, straighten their clothes, give an embarrassed laugh and say something about how things can so easily get out of hand. Inspired by this fear he scrunches up the fabric of her dress, pushes a hand inside her pants, feels her wet, wanting; unzips himself, he’s hurrying, the absence of the lift’s hum adds a further desperation – they need to lose themselves, to escape the echo of this fumbling.
He stops thinking about the lift’s inertia and feels only the pleasure of her. She glances at the door, tries to maintain her balance, winces as he increases pace and the metal tip of one of her heels scrapes the floor. Her shoes are killing her. Her legs ache. She wants him to either finish or stop. She wants to undress, lie on a fresh cool bed, stretch out bare feet and get comfy.
So she breathes with more urgency, gives a little moan, tells him not to stop.
His head feels like it’s being compressed, his legs as though they might give way, but he can’t stop now, even if he wanted to. Her warmth, her excitement, the smell of her – it fills him. The roar in his skull is loud. Unbearably so. And the ground is actually moving – whether they’re travelling upwards or downwards is unclear, but he gives that final thrust without caring. She screams.
It should be over, bar the pounding of hearts, the slowing of breaths, but the noise goes on. It isn’t the lift that’s moving, it’s the building. A wrenching, twisting, collapsing sound, mixed and muffled by the steel walls around them. The hotel alarm jangles, the lights dim and flicker and there’s a constant wave of booming, crashing vibrations. She screams again.
“Jesus Christ.” He goes limp almost immediately, shrivelling back towards himself, but they hold their uncomfortable stance, clinging mutely amidst the metallic echoes.
“Do you think it’s a bomb?” she says. She’s whispering, she’s shaking.
“Could be.” His heart’s still racing. “Or an earthquake. They get them here.”
“Shit.” She wants to cry, but it doesn’t happen. She stands tense, waiting for the lift to drop.
They’re still holding each other. The alarm dies but the lights stay, dimmer than before but no longer flickering.
“Must have a backup generator.” He doesn’t know why he said it but she nods, as though it were profound, not taking her eyes off the display above the lift door, stuck at four.
“It’s stopped,” she says and her voice is too loud. She lowers it back to a whisper, “the crashing, it’s stopped.”
There’s almost silence. It seems like silence, for a second or two at least, but they strain and hear sounds again – further away, the same noises. Closer, sirens and what might be people screaming or shouting – they can’t quite make out which. But nothing sounds close enough to touch.
“Why can’t we hear anyone?” she asks eventually. “Outside, in the corridor?”
He moves to the door, presses his head against it, sees the control panel on the wall and reaches towards that instead. Pushes buttons – all of them – bashing them repeatedly when they fail to respond.
She watches. Pulls the front of her dress to where it should be, wriggles to adjust her knickers, uncomfortably damp as the wet of him escapes her. His flies are still open, the corner of his shirt sticks out. She looks away.
“Shit,” he scrapes back the floppy fringe, kicks the door.
She roots in her small bag, pulls out a phone and glances at the display. No signal. He sees this and takes out his too, walks around the lift holding it out at random angles and waiting for the bars to light up.
But they keep hold of the phones, occasionally checking, just in case. They try to dial out anyway. Just in case.
He paces the lift. She hasn’t yet moved from her original spot. Her shoes are still killing her but she doesn’t take them off.
The lift doesn’t drop. The sound of people in the corridor doesn’t come. The distant noise persists, but in retreat. Even the sirens move further away, even what they thought might be screams or shouts dissipate. All they hear distinctly is the shuffling of their own movement; the occasional groan and crash as something, somewhere, falls and breaks.
He leans against the opposite wall. Takes out a pack of cigarettes and taps his fingers against the cardboard, over and over in a nervy beat.
“Could do with a smoke,” he says, indicating the pack. He shrugs.
“Have one then.”
He nods to the wall behind her. A stern notice – faded behind Perspex and screwed tight to the metal. Someone has scratched “fuck off” in angular letters across the bottom.
He turns the box through the fingers of one hand, as though performing a card trick. When he grows bored of this he plays instead with his lighter; on, off, on, off. She folds her arms across her body, hugs herself tightly, digs her nails into her ribs.
“For God’s sake just have one,” she says. “It’s not as if they’re going to say anything.”
“Yeah, but it’ll get smoky,” he says, “in here.”
“Well I want one.” She holds out a hand. He extracts a cigarette, looks at her from under his fringe as he cups a palm to light it. He has the hair of a twelve year old.
“We can share,” he says, taking a drag, blowing it out and handing the cigarette across to her.
She smokes it all. He lights another for himself. The lift fills with a grey haze which travels up towards the ceiling, circles with no escape. They talk about what might have happened, outside, about who’s likely to come and rescue them. They bang on the door a few times. Try to prise it open. Every so often one tells the other to shush and they listen and agree or disagree on what the sound might have been.
She kicks off her shoes, sits down on the floor, tucking her dress in under her knees.
He watches her. She looks different, tired and tense. Her make-up has smudged round her eyes, her lipstick gone entirely. She’s hunched up like a little girl, hugging her knees and resting her chin on her arms. He goes over, sits next to her, stretching out his legs and crossing them. He checks his phone again. There’s one bar showing so he dials a number. Just in case. But the signal isn’t strong enough.
“You okay?” He says. She nods, looks at him then looks away again.
“Someone’ll come soon,” he says.
They hear a low, distant rumble, like thunder. He thinks it’s an aftershock and so it must have been an earthquake the first time. She thinks it’s more bombs. They argue persuasively about things neither really knows anything about. In the end she agrees an aftershock is probably more likely. Wars don’t start without some kind of warning.
“I’ve got a confession,” he says when the debate has run its course. He laughs quietly and uncrosses his legs, brings up one knee and rests an arm on it, dangling the useless phone from his hand.
“In the bar,” he says, “when you told me your name, it was a bit noisy…”
He gives another short laugh, looks at her and shrugs. “I didn’t…”
“Oh. It’s Jane.”
“Jane.” He nods, as though he knew really. “Sorry,” he says.
“It’s okay, you’re right, it was noisy.”
“Me Anthony,” he says, pointing to himself.
They sit in silence for a while, each thinking about the bar, the party: a time which now seems so long ago.
“Do you think they’re all dead?” She says this quietly.
He and his colleagues were due to give a presentation today, or tomorrow – for some reason he can’t remember which – and he pictures them broken and twisted, all arms, legs and dirty clothes, lying scattered in a huge crack in the floor. Or maybe under piles of hotel rubble. Or outside on the pavement, crushed by cars swerving to miss the opening earth.
He wonders how the lift survived, what’s holding them up, now.
He gets up, presses the buttons on the control panel again. Tries to force his fingers between the doors. She stands up too, moves across the lift for the first time since she entered, curls a hand into a fist and uses the side of this to hit each button in turn.
They retreat, sit down again.
“Nobody’s going to come,” she says. “They’re all dead.”
“Somebody will come,” he says.
When the silence gets too much, she suggests a game. They should play favourites, she tells him, it’s simple, each takes a turn to nominate a category and they both state their favourite within that choice. She’ll start. She picks films.
He favours old movies. This surprises her. He watches the funny ones, pre-talking pictures. That’s when cinema was at its best, he says. He doesn’t hesitate in naming his favourite. She’s never seen it, so he gives her the outline plot. He describes the best moments but it’s never as good when you hear it second-hand.
She can’t choose between two favourites and he teases her about this – how the game was her idea but she can’t even play it properly. She says she’ll have to have both because she really can’t choose. But he says no, she must select only one.
After a while she stops finding it amusing and says can they move onto another category – he can nominate this time, it’s his turn. But he insists she pick a film first.
“One favourite,” he says, “otherwise there’s no point playing.”
She chooses one of the two to shut him up and they move onto his choice – books.
They play for quite a while. The challenge becomes one of finding a subject on which they have any similarity. It’s not until they get onto food they discover common ground and it’s a relief to be able to stop.
They’re hungry. Thirsty. Tired. The silence of no game leaves space for fear.
“Nobody’s going to come,” she says.
“Somebody will come.”
Sounds are closer again. Creaking, grinding, banging, clunking, and an ongoing dull vibrating chug that permeates everything. They can sense movement outside, distant, something going on. But still they hear no immediate voices, nothing beyond the lift doors that can be identified as a person.
“We should shout,” she says.
He removes a shoe – it’s black and shiny. Too smooth, too delicate for a man. His socks are red and look wrong against his sharp suit. The shoes are probably expensive – leather soles and subtle stitching – but the socks look cheap. He hammers against the door and shouts. She joins in but her voice isn’t loud enough to rise above the sound of heel beating against metal. She bangs her hands on the wall but, again, the noise is ineffective.
“Stop, stop,” he says, tilting his head to listen.
They stand quiet, he holding his shoe, the red sock leering out from his trouser leg.
“That noise,” he says, “it’s a helicopter.”
She laughs. A nervous sound. “Not much use to us, is it? A helicopter.”
“Might be.” He looks up at the ceiling, points towards one of the panels. “Look, see that? Slightly different colour, it’s a hatch. Fuck. Why didn’t I think of this before?”
He’s energized. Reaches up with the shiny shoe, pokes at the panel but it’s too high to push with any force. He paces round like an animal, not taking his eyes off the hatch – as though if he did it might disappear, become just another part of the ceiling.
“Let me lift you up,” he says, waving her over.
He grabs and holds – one arm round her waist, one round her thighs. She puts her hands on his shoulders. She’s tight against him and it reminds her of before. Hours before. But they’re sober now and tired, hungry. More than anything they’re thirsty. It’s hot and the air is sour.
“Don’t squeeze so much,” she says.
“No, stop, you’re squeezing. Put me down. Put me down again.”
He lowers her to the floor, removes his jacket, shaking his head as he watches her retreat to the far wall.
“What?” he says, arms outstretched, eyes angry. “What?”
She doesn’t answer. Reaches into her bag and explores the contents. She finds the crushed remains of a pack of chewing gum. There’s one piece left and she unwraps the silver paper, examines the stick of gum. It’s a bit stale but she breaks it, offers one half to him, puts the other in her mouth.
They chew for a few minutes, without speaking. He glances up at the hatch again.
“You can’t lift me,” he says, “so it’s the only way. Let’s have another go. I’ll not squeeze, I’ll do it differently.” He links his hands together, makes a stirrup. “Like this, look. You’ll just step up on this.”
“No. I can’t.”
He picks up the loose shoe, hurls it up against the hatch. It drops. He does this a few times. Eventually he throws it hard against the lift door instead and is rewarded with a satisfying resonance. He tries to reach the hatch with his hand – jumps up a few times, his fingers skim the ceiling gently. He hits the wall with an open palm.
“For fuck’s sake,” he says, “You’ve no choice. You want to rot in here?”
“Who made you the boss?”
If he tries to lift her again her bladder will burst. Her head’s thumping and the chewing gum has made her hungrier. She didn’t eat much of the dinner last night. She doesn’t like lamb and, in any case, she was chatting to her friends.
Her friends. Their carefully chosen outfits, the long session in the hotel’s beauty parlour yesterday afternoon, the expectation of the evening ahead.
“I need the loo,” she says, quietly, eventually. “I mean really need it.”
“Yeah, same here.”
He empties the pockets of his jacket, puts it on the floor in one of the corners farthest from the door but not the one below the hatch. He says it’s the most useless corner, they’ll do it there. He tells her to pee on the jacket, it’ll stop it running – keep it contained in one spot. She tells him she can’t. Not in front of him.
“Have you forgotten what we did?” he says.
“That’s different.” But she blushes anyway.
“Look,” he says, “I’ll stand near the door, I won’t watch. You go first. I’ll cover my ears. I’ll sing or something.”
They light cigarettes. Neither says why but they both know it’s to mask the smell. He stands near the door, as he said, covers his ears and sings We Gotta Get Out of This Place. She only half appreciates the humour. He’s got a good voice, even though he’s singing it too loudly.
She finishes, straightens her clothes and taps him on the shoulder.
“Okay, what you going to sing?”
“I can’t. I’m terrible. I’ll just block my ears tightly.”
“It’s okay, I’m joking, I’m not that fussed, it’s only a piss.”
They’re like dogs, mating and urinating in public. Maybe if they’re here long enough the first one to die will be eaten by the other. After he’s done they stand near the door and finish the cigarettes – they don’t look at the jacket, crumpled and wet in the far corner – then he lifts her and she pushes hard against the hatch.
“It won’t move. It must be fastened on the other side.”
She doesn’t like him holding her up, his face too close, too near the base smell of her. She’s filthy, the room’s smoky, hot, the air is stale, the space is shrunken. When he puts her down they move back to the door.
Each hour looks the same. Each hour is unidentifiable in itself, cannot be measured beyond what the display on her mobile tells them. The battery on his phone has died. They think the ceiling lights might have dimmed too and wonder how long the generator will last.
They no longer feel the silent gaps with resentment, awkwardness or dread. Sometimes it seems they haven’t spoken for hours and the sound of a voice jars, is foreign and contrived. Other times it’s as though only a second or two has passed since something else was said, though each knows it was probably longer. They’ve stopped feeling obliged to respond. Conversation no longer seems to have to be a two-way process.
There’s hardly any air. They breathe in steady, shallow rhythms, occasionally taking in a larger gulp, shifting position, slumping back lethargically when they see there’s no point.
“Need to force doors.”
He’s tired of being strong. He wishes she’d have an idea. He wants someone to tell him what to do. Jesus, this is no way to exit the world.
“Need try again.”
She wants to sleep. Properly. She floats in a half-dream in the silences but it’s not enough and he keeps saying the same things – we need to – and they aren’t enough either. All his suggestions have been tried. What else can they do?
“Nobody come not now.”
“Sometimes people days…” but he forgets what he was going to say.
She wakes from a dream where she was outside, somewhere hot and pretty and she’d been for a swim in the sea. She dreamed she was drinking the water – swimming and drinking and it tasted divine and not at all salty. Her mouth, on waking, feels congested. Stuck fast. Her tongue’s too big and the memory of tasting water evaporates. She crawls across to the point where the lift doors meet, dragging one of her heeled shoes with her.
She doesn’t even recognise the sound of herself, but it seems unimportant anyway. The fine heel pokes into the tiny gap more effectively than a finger. She rocks it slowly back and forth and he sees what she’s doing, reaches for the other shoe and joins her.
They pick away at their chosen spot, working hunched and tight against each other like mute primitives, all raw breath and biological drive.
And then there’s a gap. A small but definite gap. The two heels sink in and she follows them with a manicured finger, scrabbling carelessly like an excited kid.
“In, in, in.”
The doors work against her fingers, trying to resist, but she keeps them there, pushing harder, scraping skin and breaking nails. He reaches for his defunct phone and forces it into the space next to her hands, the heels, his fingers.
“Yeah, that’s it, that’s it.”
The rush of air is delicious – damp and gritty but solid, almost tangible – and they press their faces to the gap, mouths open and eat as much as they can.
They don’t move their hands, not even momentarily. Their fingers ache and arms tremble, but they pull and pull until the doors open wider, until they sense that’s it, they’re open, they won’t close again. Even still he sticks a shoe into the space, just in case. Even still they hold on with one hand each, just in case.
But they’re looking at a brick wall. A solid, strong, impenetrable brick wall.
They touch it. Place palms flat on its cool surface, feel the roughness of mortar, the tangle of cobwebs and grime. They push it, as though it might be a portal and open on touch. They stroke it because they don’t know what else to do.