Margaret was claustrophobic. She admitted to it, but always said things along the lines of “it’s fairly low-grade” or “it doesn’t affect my life”. It was absolutely fine to admit that she would rather sleep on a park bench than live in a basement flat, as in the first place it was hypothetical (or at least, for the foreseeable future!) and in the second place many would agree with her, and there would be empathetic nods. And a lot of people didn’t like tunnels, though they didn’t, perhaps, go quite to the lengths of online research that Margaret did when planning a holiday or a journey to make sure no road or rail tunnels would be involved. She did drive, by the way, but generally had the car window open, just as she had her bedroom window open.  She didn’t see any need to mention the fact that even on the coldest days she didn’t wear roll-neck sweaters as those few seconds when you were somehow never quite sure the sweater was going to go over your head and not perpetually trap it seemed to last an eternity. 

    She didn’t really know why she was that way. Her parents had doted on her and she had most certainly never been locked in a cellar or a cupboard as a punishment, nor been trapped in a burning building or the like. 

    One morning she arrived earlier than usual at the local charity where she worked. Her internet connection was playing up, and she was expecting quite an urgent email, so as she was wide awake and restless anyway, she decided to go to her workplace.

    To help funds, they let other local groups and clubs use the premises for a very reasonable room rent when they were closed. Most of them were very good, and left it in a condition that even the Centre Manager, Tom, who was an absolute love but fussy, couldn’t complain about. But there were always the exceptions. The previous night’s visitors – a local business association she’d have thought better of – had left the carpet liberally coated in cake crumbs and little scraps of paper that had evidently flaked off as they flipped their flip charts and scribbled away at high speed. Margaret quickly checked her email – nothing of any importance yet – and decided that while she was waiting, she ought to run the vacuum cleaner over the carpet. Might as well show willing. They usually kept it in the stairwell, but it wasn’t there – and Margaret remembered that a couple of nights back, the crafters’ group had been in one of the upstairs rooms, and credit where it was due, they always cleaned up after themselves and left not one strand of cotton nor errant sequin. But it seemed they had forgotten to bring it downstairs. Margaret made her way upstairs to the larger of the two meeting rooms, and it was, indeed, there, in a room rendered pristine. 

    It was then it dawned on her. They had one of those large and heavy “Henry” vacuum cleaners, and especially as she had a slightly iffy shoulder after it had been badly dislocated a couple of years back, she doubted she was physically capable of manhandling it down the stairs. Well, that’s that, she thought. They can’t say I wasn’t willing, and they’ll understand.

    And she had already descended a few stairs before she stopped still for a few seconds. “Come on,” she said, aloud. “Don’t be so pathetic. Use the lift. It’s time you got over this!” Now common sense may well have dictated that she wasn’t that desperate to vacuum the carpet and she should have waited until someone else was in the building, at least, before making the grand gesture. But though Margaret was generally easy-going, when she got an idea in her head, it stuck there. And though she knew it was childish, there was something rather tempting about the thought of proudly announcing to her colleagues that claustrophobic as she was, she had USED THE LIFT!

    It was already upstairs, and there was no need to summon it. She opened the door, and manoeuvred the Henry into it, confirming her certainty that lugging it downstairs would have been not only more or less impossible, but highly dangerous. She pressed the “zero” button, and remembered that you had to keep your hand on the rail for the lift to function. It began the descent, without the tiniest hint of a jolt. I don’t like this, thought Margaret, trying to breathe deeply and evenly, but I can stand it. It’s not that bad.

    That was, until the lift came to a halt. It still didn’t jolt. Not even then. It just stopped. It will be fine, Margaret told herself. Maybe I’m  not pressing hard enough on the rail. She pressed harder.   She pressed until her fingertips began to turn white, but it didn’t do any good. It had happened just at that space between floors, when she couldn’t even have the reassurance of looking out and seeing a room and seeing beyond the confines of the lift.  There was only a blank, solid wall in front of her. The lift suddenly seemed to have become very hot, and airless, although she knew that there was no way the oxygen levels could already have started to diminish. But she felt cold, although when she put her hand to her forehead, she wiped off beads of sweat. 

    It will be okay. Phone Tom. He’ll come and see to it and it will be fine. It will all be over in a few minutes. He only lives up the road.

    But what if I can’t get a signal? In an – enclosed space? She tried to blot out the words “enclosed space”, but it didn’t mean the fact of her being in one altered. 

    Where is my phone? Oh dear God, it’s on the front desk downstairs. I am stuck in a lift and I don’t have a phone.

    He will be here soon. He comes in early most days himself. He’ll realise what has happened.

    But yesterday he said he wasn’t feeling very well. Maybe he won’t come in. And Jo doesn’t always come in on Thursdays. 

    Press the emergency button. I know some folk say they’re just a con trick, but surely that’s an urban myth, isn’t it? They must work, surely, there’s bound to be some health and safety law about it. She pressed the button and waited for the reassuring voice to come through the little grille. She pressed again, and waited again. The lift seemed to have grown smaller, and Henry seemed to have grown larger, and it was as if it were backing her into a corner. Who would have thought a squat piece of heavy orange plastic with a fake face could look so malevolent?

    Nobody is going to answer. I might as well press Henry’s on-off switch for all the good it’s doing. Oh dear God why did I do this? I’m not a clean freak and far too old to look for praise because I’ve done something I’m scared of. Please time, run backwards and let me not have done this. Let this not have happened. Time is not going to run backwards.   I have don it.  This has happened. 

    The ceiling was getting lower and lower, and the walls closing in every second, and Henry taking up all the space. She had some vague awareness of her own voice asking for help before she lost consciousness, but did not know if it were a whisper or a scream.

    “It’s okay, Margaret, it’s okay! Take it easy, love, it’s fine! It’s over now. Come and sit down, or would you prefer to sit on the bench outside and get some fresh air? What a thing to happen!”

    “Oh, Tom, it was horrible …..!”

    Except the thing was, the arms around her, and the concerned voice speaking,  and the kind face bending down into hers weren’t Tom’s. They were the previous Centre Manager, Liam’s. And he had passed away a year ago.

September 06, 2019 06:55

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