The main light did not come back on long seconds after the lift had juddered to a halt. An emergency light flickered but did not go out. By its delicate glow, Jesse assessed the other occupant: an old lady transporting a Border Terrier in an old-fashioned pram. The pram had seen better days, but the dog seemed quite content, wrapped in an old tartan blanket.
The woman’s eyes darted across about in alarm then rested on Jesse, regarding her with suspicion. They did not waver, as if she were a prison warden charged with watching a violent prisoner during transit.
Jesse flung an old chestnut at the growing wall of tension, ‘I’m sure we’ll be OK.’ Nothing happened when she pressed the ‘open doors’ button so she held down the emergency call button and offered the old lady a reassuring smile. The woman’s watery eyes met hers with a look that teetered between panic and distaste.
‘Are you afraid of lifts?’ Jesse asked.
‘No dear,’ the woman looked shocked. ‘I just don’t trust darkies.’
Warmth scampered up Jesse’s body and clung to her face like an evil imp. No words came to her, so she simply stood in stunned silence, wrapping her oversized cardigan around herself for comfort. She jabbed the emergency call button again, holding it down. The acrid smell of urine climbed her nostrils.
‘You’re out late,’ the old lady remarked as if chatting to a friend.
Jesse didn’t reply.
‘I said, you’re out late,’ the woman repeated in a louder voice.
‘Yes,’ Jesse snapped, ‘I work at the garage.’ And the school and the hotel, she thought.
‘Oh,’ the old lady replied. A light seemed to come on behind her eyes. ‘Your skin isn’t as dark as those West Indians,’ she remarked.
‘No,’ Jesse replied, bristling.
‘Are you one of those West Indians?’ the woman wanted to know.
‘I’m half African,’ Jesse said. She felt like this were some sort of interview where she’d already annoyed the panel by turning up late. She scolded herself for replying.
The old lady stared in silence.
Jesse prodded the emergency call button again. She retrieved her iPod from her workbag and began to unravel the headphones.
‘Those things are very rude,’ the woman said. Her face had the pinched quality of somebody who has returned indoors after being in extreme cold weather, her long hair the variegated grey of cigarette ash.
‘Oh,’ said Jesse ignoring the comment.
‘I said, they’re very rude,’ the woman persisted pointing at the iPod. ‘You should have some manners and put that thing away in company.’
‘Company?’ Jesse almost laughed. The word sounded more appropriate to afternoon tea than to being insulted in a broken-down lift.
‘This is my lift,’ the old lady remarked gesturing at the drab walls. ‘I live here. Well, me and Jackie live here. He’s my companion.’ The woman tickled the dog under the chin and smiled lovingly at it. ‘He’s not as bothered about darkies as me.’
Jesse’s patience began to wane. She supposed the old lady didn’t realise how offensive the word was.
‘I generally find animals to be more considerate and accepting than most humans.’
‘I suppose that’s right. I’m Dorothea.’ The old lady extended her hand. The skin of her fingers stretched around enlarged knobbly knuckles, resembling the small stubby oak tree branches that littered the park. It appalled Jesse to have to take hold of the old lady’s hand, but she had been brought up to show tolerance and dignity in the face of prejudice. The old lady’s grip was strong, and her gaze bore into Jesse as she held on.
‘My father is white,’ Jesse blurted, wondering why she felt the need to justify herself to this woman.
‘Mine too,’ the old lady said, letting go of her hand. ‘So, your mother’s the…’
‘We say black,’ Jesse cut in sharply. ‘Black is more polite… in company.’
The old lady’s face fell. She started to rummage in a large jute bag at her feet. Finally, she produced a bag of crisps, reminding Jesse of a child in the playground the way she guarded them and crunched them down greedily.
‘When will they come?’ the old lady wanted to know. Then, quite suddenly, she extended the crisp bag towards Jesse with the wariness of a small child patting an Alsatian.
Jesse shook her head at the crisps.
‘Do you want a cup of tea? I have my flask from work and there’s some left. I only have one cup, but we can share.’
To her surprise, the old lady nodded and reached out a hand. It took a while to locate the flask and pour the tea, but the hand didn’t move until the plastic cup was clamped inside it. Once again, Jesse was reminded of the children in her school. She didn’t intend to drink out of the cup herself but didn’t think the woman would notice.
‘Do you really live here?’
‘I sleep here sometimes. People laugh at me because of Jackie.’ She nodded at the dog.
‘Because of the pram?’
The old lady seemed confused. ‘Because I talk to him,’ she corrected.
‘Oh,’ Jesse said.
‘I used to know one. A proper one.’
‘A proper…’ the old lady paused, shaking her hand as if to encourage the word forward. ‘What did you call it again?’
Jesse swept the woman’s face for a clue and understanding dawned. ‘Black is the polite word for a… ‘proper one’. Mixed race is more polite for someone like me.’
The old lady stared again. ‘The real one was kind. He brought me a little something now and again.
‘What happened to him?’
‘I expect he’s dead. He liked a drink. He was my friend.’ She handed Jesse the cup, drained of tea. ‘Thank you.’
‘You’re welcome.’ Jesse wanted to ask why the old lady disliked black people when she had been shown kindness by someone black. But the old lady was a tangle of contradictions.
‘Would you like to stay the night?’
‘Thank you but I’d like to get home. I’m tired and hungry. Hopefully, someone will come soon.’ Jesse pressed the emergency call button again. Please God get me out of here.
The old lady turned her attention to the dog, tucking and fussing at its blanket; it looked very old and tired and had begun to nod off. Dorothea’s hand reappeared holding a packet of biscuits. Jaffa Cakes.
‘Jackie likes these,’ she confided. ‘I’m not fussed myself, but I share them to keep him company. Would you like one?’
Jesse’s stomach answered for her with a loud rumble. She was trying to shift a few pounds, but she gratefully accepted the cellophane pack, tugging it open to extract a biscuit before passing it back. The chocolate had melted and re-hardened into a ridge on one side, but the orangey tang of the jelly was the same as she remembered. A tinny bark from the small speaker inside the lift startled her. She jabbed the emergency call button several times, shouting that they were stuck, although it wasn’t clear if anyone was listening.
‘There’s a man comes usually,’ the old lady said. ‘I don’t tell him I live here; you don’t like giving your address out to all and sundry, do you?’ she gave Jesse a sharp look.
‘Are you on your own?’
‘I live with my grandma and we have a cat.’
Dorothea shrank away, pulling the pram towards her.
‘Yes, for company.’
The old lady eyed her suspiciously, stroking the dog as if it had been struck and needed comfort.
Jesse’s patience was draining away rapidly now, irritation filling the gap it had left. She usually kept her cool in these situations, as her mother had, but under normal circumstances she could walk away.
‘Why don’t you use the stairs?’ Dorothea demanded, turning to poke the biscuits back inside the dog’s cosy nest.
‘I live on the seventeenth floor.’
Dorothea scowled. ‘That’s where my friend lived. Mr Okara. Have you got his flat then?’
‘Lovely man. Lovely. They don’t make them like that anymore.
‘He was my grandad.’
Dorothea’s face scrunched into a Halloween mask. She balled her fists. ‘He was not!’ she screamed, and turned her attentions back to the dog, smoothing his coarse hair.
Jesse took her frustration out on the emergency call button. She slid her mobile out of her bag, knowing that it had run out of credit this morning but checking all the same. Desperation. Now it wouldn’t even switch on. She sighed. Three jobs. Garage attendant. Dinner lady. And she was due on breakfast shift in six hours to wash dishes at a hotel. Normally she tried to sleep between shifts.
The women stood in silence for twenty-three minutes. Both daydreaming of food and a warm pair of arms to sink into. Dorothea broke the silence.
‘I’m sorry about your grandad. He was my friend.’
‘He was black!’
‘So? I can be friends with them if I want!’
The strangled metal bark came through the lift speaker again. Too garbled to make sense of.
‘Won’t be long until you get out,’ Dorothea announced.
The old lady scowled again, ‘I’ve lived here since Jackie here was a pup and I know a thing or two about that thing.’ She nodded at the speaker. ‘The man is on his way. That wasn’t him. That was the other one.’
It made no sense but at least there might be somebody coming.
The women stared at different points on the greasy stainless-steel wall. Someone had written a phone number for sexual services. Several people had given comments about the quality of the services underneath. The reviews were mixed. A dark stain on the wall behind Dorothea’s head looked like dried blood, and an awful vision came to Jesse of the old lady banging her forehead against the wall. It was an old stain, some of it having scraped away.
‘If you could have anything in the world what would you pick?’ Dorothea asked, startling Jesse away from explanations her mind was supplying for the stain.
Anything except for this, Jesse thought, but politeness made her consider. ‘I’d like one job that paid well, either that or a nice man who didn’t cheat on me. And if I’m not allowed that then I’d like to be left alone with my cat.’
Dorothea’s stare intensified for a moment then, abruptly, she lost interest in Jesse and began rearranging her tights through the fabric of her skirt; the manoeuvre reduced the wrinkled nylon to reveal ankles thickened by oedema. Jesse’s grandma had that, and it made her legs ache terribly but at least Grandma had a comfortable chair to take the weight off and a bed to sink into at night. Despite the prejudice of this old lady, Jesse thought of her own grandmother and felt a glimmer of compassion.
‘Can’t you get a flat, Dorothea?’
The old lady shone a glare on Jesse. She lowered her voice to a hiss, ‘We live here.’ She turned away as if they’d had an argument and patted the sleeping dog.
Jesse put her headphones in as subtly as she could, breathing deliberately as the meditation track kicked in. As her breathing slowed, she closed her eyes against the bleak lift and the sorry sight of Dorothea and her dog, hoping the time would pass quickly. The calmness engulfed her as her other senses adjusted, transporting her to a calm place where confused racists didn’t abuse her in lifts and grandmas didn’t struggle to walk. A place where boyfriends didn’t cheat and people could survive on just one job. She experienced the brief sensation of falling, as she often did on the bus into work when she was bone-weary and nodded off sitting or standing, powerless to stop herself.
The lift jerked violently like a vending machine being kicked in frustration to release a trapped Mars Bar. Jesse’s eyes shot open and snatched for an explanation, expecting to see an engineer peering in at them. Instead, a pretty woman stared back at her, designer bag over one arm and a slim fitting navy dress resting just below the knee. The woman appeared confused and Jessie stepped forward to offer assistance, just as the woman did the same. The women shared a smile, causing Jesse’s stomach to clench with understanding. She was staring at her own reflection. A vision of what could be, perhaps, but it felt so real. This was a different lift, well-lit with a marble interior. A bowl of potpourri radiated orange blossom. Dorothea and her dog were gone. The doors opened and Jesse stepped outside.