Going Up (a short story by Kell Smurthwaite)

September 9, 2007 at 9:58 am (Short Stories) (, )

Going Up

Going Up

The sun reflected sharply against the windows of the office high-rise and Jay Driscoll pulled his designer aviator shades out of his briefcase and slipped them onto the bridge of his nose before stepping out of the black sedan. He unfolded himself to his full height of six feet four, and smoothed the front of his exquisitely tailored suit jacket and trousers as the car pulled away from the curb with a slow swoosh. A discrete chirrup alerted him to an incoming call and he reached into his breast pocket for his ultra-slim mobile phone – it was the very latest style and so small that not even a vague outline had shown through the pocket lining to mar the perfect lines of his grey pinstriped suit.

“Driscoll,” he barked as he flipped it open and held it to his ear. A brief pause, then, “Yes, I’m right outside. I’ll be there in a few minutes.” He ended the call without the pleasantry of a “goodbye” and just as he was returning it to his pocket, it gave a shrill peep.

Flipping it open once more, he squinted over the top of his sunglasses and frowned. The battery was almost completely dead. Jay was sure he’d recharged it overnight, but he must have neglected to flip the switch on the socket, so that it instead ran itself flat. With a low growl, he switched it off to conserve what little power remained and prevent it beeping during his business meeting. Returning it to his pocket, he strode purposefully towards the glass and brass of the revolving door.

Inside the foyer was cool, courtesy of the state-of-the-art air conditioning system that constantly churned the air, removing any hint of the clammy heat that seemed permanently resident in the city streets. A perky receptionist with peroxide blonde hair pulled back and piled on top of her head glanced up to greet this new arrival. Coyly, she brushed a stray strand from her forehead and artfully tucked it behind her left ear as she flashed him a brilliant white, toothpaste-commercial smile.

“Good morning, and welcome to Palmer, Hunter and Smythe. How may I help you?” she trilled.

Jay casually removed his shades with one practiced smooth movement and looked her straight in the eye, causing her to catch her breath, glance down towards her desk and blush beautifully before returning her gaze, her rosy lips slightly parted and pouting. He had this effect on a certain type of woman without even trying, and with a little effort, he could extend that to most of the rest of the female population, as well as some of the men.

With a sinful half-smile, he drawled, “Driscoll. I’m here to see Pete Palmer. My colleague, Alan Ingram, is already here.”

Still captured by his chocolate-dark eyes, she started slightly as she replied, “Oh, yes, Mr Ingram went up just a few minutes ago. I’ll let Mr Palmer know you’ve arrived.”

She turned her attention to the telephone and tapped an extension number, her manicured talons quietly clicking on the keys. Pressing the receiver to her ear, she risked glancing back at Jay and he rakishly winked at her, almost causing her to drop the phone and fluff her line as her call was answered.

“Oh, um, yes, Mr Palmer, sir. There’s a Mr Driscoll in reception to see you… Yes, sir… Right away, sir.”

She cradled the receiver and bravely lifted her pointed chin till her eyes met Driscoll’s once more and almost whispered, “You can go right up to the thirteenth floor, Mr Driscoll. Mr Palmer is ready for you in the conference suite.”

“Thank you…” He left the sentence hanging, waiting for her to speak.

“Oh, Polly… It’s Polly,” she breathed.

“Polly,” he repeated, rolling the name round his mouth as though tasting it. “Thank you, Polly.”

Jay turned towards the elevators and then smiled to himself as he heard Polly’s almost-silent sigh float after him. He thought of those pale blue eyes fixed on his retreating form, taking in his broad shoulders, long legs and confident gait. Extending a single finger, he punched it into the call button, and glanced to the display above the mirrored doors to see that the elevator was only one floor above him and would arrive in seconds. Checking his reflection, he noticed that Polly still watched from her perch behind the panelled oak reception desk and as the doors slid open, he turned and graced her with another of his trademark half-smiles while giving a small wave which she returned, her face flushing again at being caught watching him. He continued holding her captive in his sights as the doors slowly moved together till only a narrow strip remained with her at the centre, then nothing.

Immediately after the doors closed, Jay almost lost his cool composure as the highly polished interior reflected him into infinity; his mirror images were split at waist height by a metal bar, dissecting him as effectively as a magician might a scantily clad assistant. Huffing out his breath, he pressed the silver button ornately marked with a 13, lighting it from behind with a golden glow, and then adjusted his slate grey silk tie, tautening his jaw as he manoeuvred it from side to side till the knot was perfectly central.

The smooth movement of the elevator was barely perceptible as it climbed, the digital screen above the doors displaying the floors as they were passed. Jay grimaced and checked his teeth between floors, turning his face slightly to the left, then the right, ensuring his pearly whites were, as expected, pearly white. Running his tongue along the outer edge of his upper teeth, he felt the only tiny imperfection, where the childhood retainer hadn’t quite brought his left canine into alignment; it was barely noticeable, but this tiny flaw always irked him.

By the time he was gliding past the eighth floor, Jay had moved onto his hair. The mirrors gave him a panoramic view and he took advantage of it by worrying at a few stray strands of sable hair at the nape of his neck that were just brushing his collar – at least he wasn’t thinning on top, no, his hair was thick and lustrous soft without looking feminine – then smoothed his eyebrows into place before moving onto his tidily trimmed goatee.

Ten, eleven, twelve; he took a few deep breaths and brushed an imaginary piece of lint from the lapel of his jacket, then almost stumbled as the elevator juddered to a halt. After such a smooth ride, the jolt was unexpected – was there something wrong with the braking gear? He made a mental note to mention to someone that they should really have the machinery checked, then moved expectantly towards the doors.

They failed to open.

Jay glanced up at the display. It was blank.

Pressing the door hold button, he glared at the doors, willing them to part, but there was no response. He was caught between the twelfth floor and unlucky thirteen.

Great.

Repeated jabbing at the button for the thirteenth floor resulted in no movement.

Terrific.

He pulled his cell phone from his breast pocket and pressed the power button. It gave a quiet jingling tone, then abruptly gave a piercing beep and shut itself off again. The battery was completely dead.

Wonderful.

Jay now turned his attention to the columned buttons, looking for a handset to connect him to reception so that he could alert Polly at reception of his predicament. Next to them was the fine, rectangular outline of an almost invisible panel with no handle evident. Gingerly, he pressed his fingertips to an edge, leaving opaque prints on the glossy surface, then, as it popped open, realised he’d been holding his breath in anticipation. He eased open the small door and heaved a small sigh of relief when his eyes alighted on the smooth black handset within. A smile spread across his handsome face as he reached for it.

There were no buttons in evidence, so he assumed it must automatically connect, but there was no tone, no slight hissing buzz to indicate any kind of connection.

“Hello?” he ventured. No reply.

“Hello? Is there anyone there? The lift appears to be stuck.”

Still, he was greeted by silence.

Jay was suddenly aware that his mouth was feeling dry and he flicked his tongue momentarily over his lips, and then tried to produce some saliva to wet his throat. No need to panic, there would always be the alarm button…

Beneath the dual columns of numbered buttons was one bearing a bell icon and he prodded it firmly. He couldn’t hear anything, so he jammed his finger onto it again; once, twice, three times. Still no sound. Perhaps it sounded in reception and Polly would be picking up the phone that would allow her to speak to him in his glass prison. He reached for the handset once more and joyfully spoke into it.

“Hello? Polly?”

There was still no sound.

Jay replaced it in its nook and set his brief case down on the black marble floor that was polished to a sheen almost as reflective as the mirrors all around him. Now his palms were feeling slightly clammy and he flicked open his case to retrieve a handkerchief from one of the inner pockets and dry them off.

He was being silly, he knew. There was no reason to loose his cool.

But still, only a few minutes into his captivity, he was beginning to feel fingers of fear stretching around him, beginning their slow squeeze. He gulped again, this time to rid his mouth of the excess saliva that was suddenly flowing.

He’d never liked enclosed places. It was his secret phobia. Mostly he had it under control, but he hated the feeling of being compressed into a confined, finite space with little room for movement and in particular he had always loathed lifts. They were a necessary and unavoidable evil in his life – many of his meetings were conducted in penthouse offices, making it impossible for him to use the stairs, and so he’d learned to distract himself either with his own appearance, or by observing those who joined him temporarily in his journey up or down.

Now, Jay was alone; the lift had not made a single stop and now he wished some other poor soul was with him to distract him from his mounting terror. No, he wished someone else were here instead of him – he didn’t want to be here at all!

His stomach was beginning to churn and already he could detect the beginnings of dampness under his arms and an invisible band tightening around his head, making him feel dizzy and slightly nauseous. He swept his hand up over his furrowed brow and backwards through his hair, raking his scalp with his fingers. Think, think, think; there must be something he could do? Surely?

Eyes clamped shut in an attempt to clear his blurring vision, Jay’s head fell back, and when his eyes opened, he found himself peering at a perfect square in the ceiling of the box imprisoning him between floors, between worlds – the real world out there and this cramped, ever-decreasing world, this personal hell, in the elevator.

For a few seconds, he did nothing but stare at the fine, dark outline of the hatch. Could it really be so simple? Could he really escape his confinement by clambering through this small door into the other world, like Alice in Wonderland? It was worth a try.

Bracing his brogue-clad foot against the metal railing, Jay’s knee was forced right up to his chest as he reached over to the smooth rail at ninety degrees and balanced precariously, both feet on this narrow ledge, like a circus contortionist, facing his twin, while countless other versions of himself disappeared into the distance behind him. He noted, with some slight annoyance, that his skin now had a waxy sheen where perspiration had readily sprung to the surface only minutes before. Holding his position a brief second to find his equilibrium, he then slowly edged his feet closer together, and his left hand along the pane of glass before him, without relinquishing his grasp on the polished steel gripped in his right. Squeezing his shoulder through the gap between body and wall, his left hand joined its partner, and he switched his feet over so that now his darkened reflection peered up at him from the floor. Bending double as he brought his feet closer to the corner, Jay let got of the railing and positioned his hands directly on the mirrored surface, smearing it with sweat that made his hands stick slightly to it as he walked them up the wall.

Straightening up, Jay now had a foot on either edge of the right angled railing and was spread-eagled in the corner, jamming his shoulders against the walls to keep from tipping forward before he felt more sure of his balance.

A few deep, steadying breaths before moving and he reached out to the edge of the ceiling hatch. There was no handle evident, so obviously he just needed to push it up and it would swing outwards, providing an escape route he now desperately needed – if he could get on top of the lift, he could easily reach the doors leading to the floor above and perhaps force them open so he could pull himself out. His height would be an advantage there, he knew.

Jay gently pushed at the hatch’s corner, but it didn’t move. Shoving it harder produced no movement either. Repeated hammering on its surface did absolutely no good. There must be a handle on the outside, but there was no way out from in here.

He was trapped.

His increasingly violent blows to the hatch unbalanced him and his foot slipped from its precarious perch, sending him sprawling down on the hard floor, winding him as he landed with an audible smack. Now panic was setting in and his breath grew short – panting gasps that caused his mind to reel as he scooted into the corner and hugged his knees to his chest. The walls seemed to close in, inching closer to him with every breath. Jay was sure that while his eye was on one wall, another was edging its way in, squeezing the air out of the shrinking metal box.

He felt chilled; goose bumps standing up on his flesh, yet he was sweating; his shirt now clinging to his sides and back where before it had only skimmed his skin. This dampness was intolerable to him and suddenly he felt much too hot, it was like a sauna, leaving him sticky and uncomfortable as he ripped off his jacket – one button pinging free to skitter and clatter across the floor, coming to rest kissing its own reflection at the opposite corner. His tie was next; torn from his throat where Jay felt it had been restricting his laboured breath. Then the top two buttons of his shirt were wrenched free and he lowered his head onto his knees, scrunching his eyes closed to shut out the myriad mocking versions of himself as he let out a quiet whimper.

Jay knew he’d lost all control over himself – some small part of him, deep inside, was peering out, trying to reassure this outer shell that there was nothing to worry about, but the irrational fear had already taken over and reason had abandoned him to its clutches. He was trapped inside his own body as surely as in this small suspended space. Sliding his back further down the wall, he keeled over to one side and curled up into a tiny ball, trying to make the space around him seem larger by comparison.

Still the mirrored walls seems to slide ever closer to his body as he dulled the floor with the misty huff of his breath, and now his skull seemed to be pressing in on his brain; an organic version of his man-made prison, crushing his thoughts to one, sharp pinpoint. Only one word repeatedly flashed itself through his mind – ESCAPE. ESCAPE. ESCAPE.

Suddenly he was no longer in the elevator; he was in the coal cellar and mother was yelling that this time she’d never let him out, that he was a disgusting, dirty boy who deserved to be punished, shouldn’t play with girls, shouldn’t get in fights, shouldn’t bunk off from Sunday School, shouldn’t this, that or the other. Jay’s ears rang with her tormenting tirade and he squeezed his eyes shut once more, whispering over and over again, “I’ll be a good boy, I’ll be a good boy, I promise.” A mantra to the monster within.

The mechanic whir barely registered. Jay felt his body pressed slightly to the floor as the elevator resumed its ascent, but he could not move. In his corner, he remained wrapped up in himself, arms hugging chest, reaching round to shoulder, knees bent into cramped angles with his heels digging into the back of his thighs. It could not possibly be that this box was moving, that he might possibly be taken from this hell and returned to life. He could not dare to hope, lest it be dashed and send him hurtling deeper into a madness from which he could never escape.

A gentle jolt signalled the end of this journey and the slow, sibilant swish of the doors revealed the tangled wreck of Jay Driscoll. Three figures, looking almost angelic, backlit by a picture window that bathed them in golden white, stood before the open door.

“Oh, my God! Jay! Are you alright?”

The voice seemed distant, echoing, ethereal. Jay blinked and took a deep breath, blinked again, then whispered, “The lift was stuck.”

Alan Ingram stepped into the lift and stopped to his friend’s side. Gently touching Jay’s shoulder, he said, “It was only twenty minutes – I hoped you could hold on till then. We got the technician onto it right away. Come on, Jay. Time to get up. I’ll help you.”

Jay allowed himself to be supported by Alan, the shorter man showing surprising strength, and at last, Jay found himself in a wide, spacious hallway, looking out on a brightly-lit vista of office high-rises and, far below, the bustling city streets. Suddenly he could breath again and the adrenalin drained out of his system as quickly as it had pumped into it. Here, in an open space, he could begin to feel like himself again.

Embarrassed by his loss of composure, he glanced around sheepishly and caught sight of the two other witnesses to his state – one a short, wiry lad in a generic navy suit and blue shirt, both slightly too large for his frame, with tousled hair and grease under his fingernails; the other a stately, white-haired man in a refined, soft-grey double-breasted jacket, with a polished air of professionalism. This must be Pete Palmer, senior partner of the company and legend of the business world.

“I must apologise, Mr Palmer,” Jay stammered. “Small spaces… lifts… I’m sorry…”

“Not at all, Mr. Driscoll,” he replied with kindly smiling eyes. “Alan explained everything to me, but I completely understand. It’s spiders for me – can’t stand them. I get jelly-kneed if I spy one on the wall, large or small. We all have our weaknesses. It’s what makes us human.”

A few minutes later, Jay emerged from the bathroom, almost completely calm and collected, and joined his partner in the luxurious conference suite. Palmer greeted him warmly and shook him by the hand.

“I’ve been looking forward to this meeting, Mr Driscoll. I think that the staff of Palmer, Hunter and Smythe could benefit greatly from your services. Your series of lectures and seminars on performance management and positive thinking have been spoken of as groundbreaking and innovative – that’s just what we need here.”

As Palmer continued, Driscoll found he was slipping back into normality and all thoughts of his brief imprisonment were fading fast. Relieved that his predicament perhaps hadn’t cost Alan and himself this appointment.

“… I’m particularly interested in the ‘Overcoming Fears and Obstacles’ talk…”

“I’m sorry, Mr. Palmer,” interjected Jay, “That particular section is currently under review, but we’d be happy to work out a complete programme particularly tailored to the needs of your company.”

Palmer nodded and smiled.

“That’s absolutely fine. I’ll look forward to it immensely.”

Yes, the “Overcoming Fears and Obstacles” seminar would need more work, Jay thought to himself. As would his ability to put it into practice. In the meantime, he’d be using the stairs.

Kell Smurthwaite, 2007 ©

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