Performed at “Exits & Entrances,” on December 9, 2019.
After 15 minutes, she took off her shoes. They were new, leather and had a little pinch around the back of the heel. She’d been wearing them, she calculated—any thought process to distract herself—for 13 and three-quarter hours, ever since she’d left the flat that morning at 8. The clothes she was wearing she had chosen with some care that day, with the evening’s event, a university reunion, in mind. She’d even ironed her dress. It had been a mixer, with a panel discussion, disappointing canapes, even more disappointing guests and pre-poured glasses of cheap red wine whose tannins she could still taste now, dry and bitter in her mouth, making her long for the glasses of water she’d walked past as she’d left to catch the lift alone.
That had been 15 minutes ago. The lift had stopped in its descent from the 17th floor, and the doors hadn’t opened. It took her a while to realize that she wasn’t back at ground level and that she wasn’t moving. There hadn’t been a jolt. She was been totally absorbed looking at her phone, her thumb repeatedly flicking the screen down to refresh her inbox, irritation rising as the wheel that denoted ‘still processing’ kept maddeningly turning. When she finally looked up, she was confused. Her reflection in the lift’s big mirror, which lined the doors almost from floor to ceiling, watched her frown and jab again at the G button for the ground floor. Nothing happened. She tried the numbers for other floors, in disbelief, and then all of them, all at once, running her flat palm down the wall of numbers. Nothing. A yellow button at the top had a small alarm symbol on it, underneath a speaker. She pressed it, hard, unease rising, and waited, even tried a ‘hello? Hello?’ but nothing. Everything felt wrong.
Taking a step to the side of the lift, she put down her handbag to free both hands and better grip her phone. She had 37% battery left. She dialled 999, but nothing happened. No connection was made. Like before, the internet wasn’t working. She typed a Whatsapp message to her cousin, her automatic emergency contact in Hong Kong, pressing delete several times as she tried to find the right words to convey the need for help—but not urgently, well, she didn’t think so. Not yet. But really, actually, she did need help. She sent it, but no ticks appeared beside the message. Not sent. “Fuck,” she said out loud, noticing how crazed her own eyes already looked in her reflection as she’d stared towards the doors, an image that bounced back and intensified the feeling.
Taking her shoes off helped. Her feet, sweaty and smarting in places where the shoes had rubbed, were cooled by the metal floor. But she couldn’t help but start to panic. The lift was a silent, silencing enclosure. She felt like an animal secretly stuck inside. It was worse when she shouted, her own cracking voice sounding so muted and trapped in that cuboid space so small she couldn’t have lain fully flat in it. Not that she’d tried that yet. It occurred to her very early on that she might have to spend the night, but once her phone died, how would she even chart the time?
The light inside the lift came from a kind of small, shabby chandelier in the middle of the ceiling, an ugly bowl in which a few dead insects were gathered. It emitted a greasy yellow sheen on the metal walls around her. This wasn’t one of those fancy lifts, with the flower arrangements and ornate details and fucking functioning intercom systems, she thought in fury. Though she wasn’t sure what need she would have for flowers now. At least she could have drunk the water.
She stared at herself. The reason they put mirrors in lifts, she remembered someone telling her, was to distract you as you glided effortlessly up and down buildings. Fun fact.
But now the entire concept felt ridiculous to her, crazily dangerous, to shut people into a closed room that ascends and descends great vertical distances controlled by nothing more than cables and electricity. She couldn’t bear to think about the unknown distance underneath her, but when a full hour had gone by and she slumped against the side of the lift, a surge of tears rising through her sinuses and making her sniff, the thought of the shaft below seemed to loom like a sinkhole, into which she could plummet at any moment. She felt nauseous. She needed the loo. She was getting a headache, and she desperately wanted water.
It took another hour before she squatted in the corner, hot urine pooling along two sides of the lift, into view of the mirror. It smelt, and she smelt it in misery, fear and shame. She couldn’t look at herself any longer but sat against the lift’s side, head hung, mortified.
Two more hours ticked by. She stared at the opposite wall, her eyes throbbing in the ugly light, her mouth dry. Plain sheet metal, nothing to count, even. Could she die imprisoned in here? The thought emptied her lungs of air, made her hyperventilate in fear. Suddenly she got up, again, pounded at the doors with her fist and screamed, screamed for her life. She couldn’t hear a thing outside, even if she pressed her ear against the door. “Let me out let me out let me out help help help” she screamed in one breath, and then collapsed back to the floor sobbing, knocking her head on the wall and cradling it in her hands, rocking.
For the next while she heaved there on the floor, furious and desperate, without options and with fading hope. Exhaustion stole up, without her realising it. She slept, unconscious.
She was still asleep, her hip pushed against the lift’s hard floor and her head on her handbag, when the doors opened. It was 4.47am, the darkest hour of the night, although she didn’t know it. Her phone had died.
In the ground floor alley outside, at the back of the tall office block she’d entered so many hours before, there was no one to watch her start, cry and then desperately scrabble for the exit, falling out of it half on her knees. No one watched as, outside, she remained unable to get up from the dirty floor where she slumped, head back against the alley wall, mouth open, crying, crying, crying in relief.
Eventually, finally, she staggered to her feet. Self-awareness started to creep in, after so many hours on her own. What must she look like? She expected any minute to be found by someone, to have to explain herself, the urine, the ordeal she had been through. But the alley was empty apart from a few scrabbling rats. A thought struck—nobody had to know. She could avoid having to relive this whole mortifying saga, this morbid encounter with death. It could be as if it never happened. Leaving her shoes to the lift—nothing would make her go back through those still gaping doors—she reeled off weakly down the alley and hailed a taxi, attracting no more suspicion than any of the other worse for wear party-goers on their way home. She never told a soul.