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Going up to get down

I’m staying with Aunt Sally, but you know, she’s not really my aunt
Some of these memories you can learn to live with and some of them you can’t
- SUGAR BABY

Change is in the air. I’d love to tell you all about it, but I’m afraid I’m under NDA. So, instead, I present in full, for the first time ever on the interwebz, a short story written by my colleague, the great @sallyfoote. Follow her on Twitter, and convince her to start her own goddamn blog so I don’t have to pimp her stories for her. Any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental and the story in no way reflects any personals circumstances.

Going up to get down – Sally Foote

Through the glass boardroom door Jack can see the new IT Director and the woman from HR, heads bent together over sheets of paper, making notes. He counts the straight-backed chairs (fifteen), the potted plants (two) and the framed front pages of the paper (seven). One reads: “Diana is Dead” and another “Does this mean War?” They nods to one another and then look up. The director motions Jack to come in, offers him a coffee, clips the cup onto the saucer and slides it across the smooth wooden table. He doesn’t really like coffee, but he drinks it anyway. The director leans forward over the table, elbows apart, fingertips pressed together.

“Now Jack,” he’d said, “I’m sure you can guess what this is about?” He raises one eyebrow and pauses dramatically. Jack shifts in his chair and tucks his hands beneath his thighs. It’s been over two months since the new IT Director stood up in front of the whole department and invited them to ‘get on board the change train’.

“We’re worried about you Jack. We get the impression you’re unhappy,” the director pauses, “That you’re not happy here at the paper.” They don’t want to alarm him. Would he like some sugar for his coffee? The matching white jar is pushed in his direction. And the meeting isn’t about poor performance, more a lack of engagement.

“Perhaps failure to thrive?” suggests the HR woman. She smiles and sets her pen down next to her notebook.

In his last appraisal, Jack’s manager, Peter, had described him as a quiet chap who preferred to work alone. Jack had vigorously nodded his agreement. They’d talked about the fact that Jack did not like meetings and preferred to be left to get on with things. Jack explained that, in fact, this was one of the main reasons he had become a programmer. Peter nodded and then said that he felt that Jack would benefit from working more closely with his colleagues. Jack should be a bit more proactive, a bit more of a team player, a bit more like Jessica: Jessica, with her long blonde ponytail swinging from side to side as she strides round the building, wearing her enthusiasm like a badge. Jack thinks she would do well in palliative care. He imagines her standing at his bedside asking her questions: “What motivates you Jack?” “Do you want to talk about it Jack?”

“Jack,” says the IT Director, “This is a people kind of company. We’re all about the intellectual property. We like everyone to get stuck in, we like people to get involved. It’s all about vigour. And Jack, we want to help people to get somewhere. Do you know what I mean?” Jack rubs his hand across his forehead. He remembers the white calves of the IT Director flashing across the finish line at the company fun-day. He’d been pushing a wheelbarrow with Jessica in it, her legs dangling over the front.

The director pours himself another cup of coffee. “We don’t want you to be,” he pauses glancing up, “left behind.” Jack smiles stiffly.

The woman from HR has been wondering whether Jack would like to move on, or perhaps take some time off? She splays out her fingers on the glossy surface of the table and tips her head to one side. One of her long silver earrings falls against her cheek. Would Jack be interested in taking redundancy? It is being offered, does he understand? No obligation. He can go or stay, as he chooses. They really do just want him to be happy. The director stands and extends his hand. The handshake is vigorous. “You have a think about it Jack, you have a little think about it, and then get back to us.”

The foyer of the 6th floor is unusually crowded (only one of the lifts is working) and so Jack stands over to one side, near the windows. A faction of journalists are passing a set of pictures between them. “No, no, no,” says the one. “For god sakes,” says another, “does the man even know how to focus a lens?” On the far wall soldiers in a huge black and white print fire from behind a blockade. Jack turns to look out at the satellite dish pimpled rooftops of the surrounding low rise flats. Two forlorn pigeons stare back at him from their dripping perch. Beyond them the glass buildings of the city glisten and steam. Black umbrellas bob past one another like chequers on the pavement below. In the glass of the window he can just see the faint outline of his face hovering ghostlike on the glass. He presses down a stray tuft of hair that has sprung up on his crown.

When Jack came for the interview seventeen years ago, straight out of university, he had expected a maths test or logic puzzle of some sort. Instead he was taken on a tour of the editorial floor. It was nearly seven o’clock and the pages for the next day’s paper were being finished. Jack stood behind a tall man who was typing headlines standing up and shouting instructions across the room. “I’m looking for the picture on 17. Can someone revise forty-seven? Twenty-three is good to go.” The man knocked over a jar of pencils that rolled across the desk and spread themselves in a fan along the carpet. Jack bent to pick them up, scrabbling on his knees between the desks. People moved around him and stepped over him and even when he set the jar back on the desk, no one said a thing. He had a sudden memory of a terrarium of snakes that he had been taken to see as a child. How, invisible in the darkened corridor, he could put his hand right up against the warm glass, palm flat against a snake’s pale belly. He shivered with excitement, to be that close. For all the big breaking stories, he’s been there watching the pages being made, the pictures being chosen, the headlines being typed. He bought the paper after 9/11 and though he had seen the front page a hundred times the night before, he still could not believe it. Lately, what with the change train chuffing its way through IT, he has found himself up there more often, a shadow leaning against a wall, or swivelling, slowly back and forth in an unused chair, disappearing.

A restless woman comments loudly to her companion about the poor quality of the building, the indignity of having to work under these circumstances, the ineffectiveness of the service departments. Jack turns back into the foyer and they disappear round the corner to the stairwell, heels clicking on the polished marble floor, Macintosh tails swishing out behind them. The lift doors open and Jack pushes past the journalists to lean against the mirrored back wall. How’s that for vigour, he thinks. The button console has illuminated numbers for every floor. Jack reaches out and presses “B”. B for basement. B for beneath. B for bowel.

The lift descends to the basement and the doors open but Jack doesn’t move. He is staring at the familiar white wall where for seventeen years he has turned left, walked past the PC support team, past the network specialists, down to the corner where the programmers sit. Each morning, he put down his bag, pulled out the chair, sat down, moved the keyboard closer, entered his name (Jack_Everitt), entered his password (Boogie@10). For a man who likes routine, it was a comforting pattern. Now the day begins with a scrum meeting – they stand in a circle and there is a baton that is passed from one person to the next with the turn to speak. There is a chart on the wall where you are supposed to write the good things that happened to you each week. No one is allowed to make their own tea; you have to earn your caffeinated drinks in friendship.

Jessica had once told Jack, leaning forward, palms on her knees, that if she wouldn’t want to work anywhere else. She said she only liked this job because of the people. “Imagine doing IT somewhere else where you just sat at your desk all day and didn’t go out and chat to people and have discussions about things.” Jessica closed her eyes and shook her head. Swish, swish went the pony tail. “Imagine,” said Jack.

Thanks to Jessica there is invariably a long cold cup of tea waiting for him on his desk.

The doors begin to close, shiny as a mirror, and he watches the two halves of his reflection draw together until there he is – Jack with a line down the middle.

He glances at the buttons, reaches out and then drops his arm, looks down at his two shoes on the red-brown swirls of the carpet, hooks a lock of hair behind his ear. The lift, like so many other things in modern life, must be controlled by a computer. And it would be programmatically impossible for the lift to know he’s here. The doors are not going to suddenly reopen like a mouth and spit him out. The carpeted silence is so beautiful that he coughs, just the once, to reaffirm it.

He still has the first programming book he bought: “The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Visual Basic” with its enticingly titled opening chapter: “An Introduction to Programming: A Walk on the Wild Side”. Jack spent the weekends sitting at his parents’ computer working his way through it. He liked that it was called ‘writing code’ and that no one else could understand it. He liked the precision it demanded – one misplaced colon could meant hours of errors and frustration. He kept the book all through high school and even university. Just last week he took it out of the bottom drawer of his desk and thumbing through “Looping with Do and Until – Around and Around we go” smiled at a blue-biro note from his fourteen-year-old self: “WOW!”

Jack designs his programs like formulas. He begins with the problem, defines the solution and then logically and methodically writes out all the possible ways to get to there.

IF the up button is pressed on the fourth floor
THEN go to the fourth floor
ELSE wait.

Next he adds exceptions to catch unexpected or unusual things that might happen. For example if the lift is already on the second floor when someone inside pushes ‘two’, then the doors should open. Finally he fits it all together and tests it, watches the computer working through the logic, making the decisions. It feels rather good to be an unhandled exception.

The lift bleeps and begins to rise and Jack almost laughs out loud.

A short, rather wide-hipped woman wearing a blue skirt, steps into the lift on the ground floor. She looks at the seven unlit buttons, presses five and then turns to Jack, eyebrows raised questioningly, finger poised. The world, it would seem, is not designed for travel without destination.

“Four,” replies Jack

The doors open on the fourth floor and when Jack makes no move to exit, the blue skirt swooshes round, and the woman says, smiling, “This is four” and then presses her finger firmly onto the ‘open door’ button. Jack steps hesitantly out. He hasn’t been on the fourth floor before and has no idea what happens up here. He can feel himself blushing as he pauses uncertainly, feet together. The office spreads out to his left and he is convinced he can hear a settling of silence – like when someone uninvited steps into a conversation. He checks his watch in what he hopes is a purposeful manner, moves the face back and forth across his wrist. The lift doors slide slowly closed behind him. He takes a deep breath, draws his shoulders back and then strides over to the newspaper stand directly opposite the doors, picks up a copy. He unfolds the paper and turns noisily through a few pages. At page 14 he taps an article with his finger, refolds the newspaper, tucks it under his arm and turns on one foot, back towards the lift doors. He presses the down arrow and waits.

When Jack was 10 an obsession with choose-your-own adventure books had raged through the boys of his age. They read them on the bus, on the stands during athletics and folded open beneath their desks in geography. At the end of each chapter you were required to make a decision and follow the story onto a specified page according to the choice you’d made. “If you think Araya should head west to seek water, turn to page 27 or, if you think Araya should seek shelter in the village, turn to page 81.” He hated the randomness of the choices, you just had to take a chance and pick one. Jack had got stuck in the underwater forest for two whole weeks. Back and forth he went between pages 73 and 36, reading the same paragraphs over and over again.

What would he do with the money? Buy a new computer? Take a trip? He could do something completely different altogether. He unfolds the piece of paper from his back pocket to check the figure again. It’s a lot of money. More like fifty computers, two thousand new t-shirts, a long trip.

He gets back into the lift with two young men. They have neat lines pressed into the front of their trousers and the one has little padlocks for cufflinks.

“Floor?”

“Basement” Jack says and puts his hands into his jeans pockets.

“It’s set in a newspaper,” says the one with the padlocks, “That’s why they’re filming it here. Scarlett Johansen is playing a journalist.”

“Playing a hot journalist!” interjects the other.

“She’s working undercover investigating something or other, and then she falls in love with the guy she’s writing about. ”

“Tell me she shags someone over the editor’s desk.”

“Oh yeah sure, that’s the one they’re filming on Saturday, to see if it’s possible to actually get you to come in on the weekend.” They both laugh.

The lift pings its arrival on the third floor.

“Scarlett Johansen, ready yourself, we’re coming for you!” says the man with the padlocks, hoisting up his trousers.

The windows of the third floor are blacked out with curtains and huge lamps glare down on the far corner of the room. Jack has only seen film sets in films before. He can smell the heat of the lights and the muted sound of a large group of people being quiet. A microphone on a boom sways above the throng of onlookers. Jack can tell there’s no point in trying to get any closer. Every available space has someone in it. One man has lifted his chair up onto his desk and is sitting, arms folded, watching. From the epicentre of the room a voice roars “Cut.”

A young woman gets into the lift carrying a stack of film cans; the red tape running round their sides says “URGENT: UN-DEVELOPED STOCK”. Jack knows exactly who Scarlett Johansen is. Last Saturday he went to see “Girl with the Pearl Earring” at his local cinema. It was part of a festival of films about art. His usual seat (middle of the front row) was taken and he had to make do with sitting further off to the side which ruined the whole experience. Jack likes to immerse himself in films – so close that there is nothing between him and the screen, like an invisible protagonist. The woman carrying the film cans gets out on the ground floor and as the lift doors open once again in the basement, Jack presses the close door button with a firm finger. The painting in the film, the girl in the painting, the actress in the girl, and now the real woman. There’s a symmetry to it that appeals – like opening one of those Russian Dolls. And what’s more:

IF Miss Johansen is not likely to be the type of woman to take the stairs
AND IF this is the only operational lift,
THEN at some point, during the course of the day, she is going to get in it.
ELSE There is no else; Jack is going to be waiting.

On the seventh floor someone steps up to the doors, and then seeing him standing there, takes a surprised step back. This is one of what Jack dubs ‘the turns’ – where the lift reaches one of the extremes of the building, and the expectation that he should alight is all the greater because there is nowhere else to go. He begins to explain that he is actually going back down and gives a small apologetic wave of his hand to cover the missing end of his sentence. After three or four of these incidents, he perfects the gesture in lieu of any explanation. It involves a quick flick of the wrist that is both welcoming in a ‘No, no, it’s ok, get into the lift’ way and also directional in an ‘I’m going up’ or ‘I’m going down’ way. It’s astounding how many people immediately understand what he means. Of course he is not alone; thanks to the broken lift there are lots of other people, too impatient to wait, who are going up to get down.

The lift gets busier after noon as people head to lunch. Women scratch in their handbags, discussing where they will buy their sandwiches – “Pret or that little Turkish place on the corner?” Just after one o’clock it is so full that bodies are pressed uncomfortably against one another, and the doors open to disappointed faces of people on each floor who sigh and turn on their heels to take the stairs. Jack wedges himself into the back corner, crosses his arms over his chest. Most people waited to speak until they were out of the lift, snippets of their conversations drifting back. “Suggested that he just give up. Best thing for it really. There’s nothing more I…” and “That’s what she says she wants but, honestly now, do you think it’s ethical?”

And then they are all back again after lunch, and no-one comments on the fact that he is still there, though one woman, with a carrier bag of sandwiches, chewing on a soft drink straw, points a finger at him and smiles. She gets out on three.

“It’s like I’m CCTV,” thinks Jack, “I see it all, but no one sees me.”

Jack shifts his weight from one foot to the other, tugs down the hem of his T-shirt. This could be it. The lights at the far end have been turned off and some of the black curtains pulled open, spilling daylight in. There’s a great heap of cables lying on the floor near the lift, and a woman just out of sight to the left is calling for water. But no one is waiting to get in.

As the doors start to ease closed, a young assistant wearing a headset rushes towards him, her hand stuck out in front of her calling: “Hold the lift, please.” He doesn’t move and she has to repeat it – “Hold the doors!” Her forehead creases as the doors begin to close and a soft “Hey” escapes her lips. Jack frantically stabs at the ‘three’. The doors yawn open and he apologises. She frowns again, puts a foot in the door, and beckons off to the right. Two men wheel over a large trolley-like piece of equipment. It has rubber wheels that creak over the metal lip of the lift. Jack is forced to step right back against the smoked-glass mirrors.

The men stand on either side of the trolley, looking at Jack.

“Alright?”

Jack nods.

By four o’clock Jack is not alright. He is desperate to go to the toilet. He stands quietly, legs crossed, jaw clenched as long as he can and then bursts out on five, where the bathrooms are directly opposite the lift. He hops as he pees. Two floors below Scarlett could be gliding down to her waiting limousine. He skids back, bathroom door slamming behind him, leaves a wet fingerprint on the down button. A man waiting adjacent to him glances over and says: “Stairs might be quicker mate.”

Jessica is in the lift.

“Oh my God, Jack,” she says, eyes widening with delight, “Where the hell have you been? Did you have your meeting? Peter’s going mental.” She gestures on either side of her head with two rotating fingers. “He called the director and everything to find out what time you finished the meeting and where you were.” She is standing in his spot and so he’s stopped just inside the closing doors. On the back wall behind her, he can see the curious effect of too many mirrors in such a small space, the reflection of Jessica over and over, diminishing.

“Jack, are you ok?” she pauses, rubs the side of her nose, “That guy from the Arts Desk called again. He’s getting some sort of error message, wants you to call him back. I wrote it all down. It’s on your desk.” Jack watches her mouth opening and closing. “Are you going back to your desk now? What are you doing up here? Hey, did you know that Scarlett Johansen is filming on third?”

“I’m CCTV,” says Jack.

“What?”

“Are you getting off?” says a woman on the 7th floor.

“Yes,” says Jessica.

“No,” says Jack.

She turns and waves goodbye.

Two men in mid-conversation get in on the second floor, pausing only briefly. The taller of the two is wearing a pale linen suit, its back lightly crumpled, as if he has been sitting down for too long. He talks rapidly and angrily, pointing at the shorter man’s chest:

“Thing is, right, if you don’t do something about it, it’s cyclical; the whole process, repeats and repeats and repeats,” he pauses, “in perpetuity.” Jack thinks of a furious bee he’d watched on a bus slamming itself against the window. It would crawl slowly up the glass to the very rim where centimetres from fresh air, it would take flight and drop back down again to the base of the frame, and bang, bang, bang. He watched this loop over and over for the whole length of the bus journey. Eventually the bee would die. After he got off, he thought of the bus going round and round its route, with the bee inside going up and down the window. In perpetuity.

When doors open on the third floor there’s a group of people huddled around the lift, facing Jack. He untucks his hands from behind his back and crosses them firmly over his chest. One woman has a clipboard propped on her hip and next to her a tall young man is swinging a roll of thick, silver tape around one finger. Standing in the middle, is Scarlett Johansen. She is lifting her sunglasses up towards her face, and for a very, very brief instant, he catches her eye over the top of the huge fly-lenses.

An assistant gets into the lift and walks towards Jack. She touches his arm and says in a honeyed American accent “Excuse me sir, I wonder if you could do us just the biggest favour? Miss Johansen, and,” she indicates the group of people waiting at the lift with a quick round circular motion over her shoulder, “well, there’s quite a few of us. Would you mind?” The doors begin to close and her arm darts out, a manicured red nail depresses the open button. She smiles at Jack: “Thanks so much, really, thanks.” Scarlett is fiddling with her bracelet, pushing it backwards and forwards over the fine bones of her wrist. The grip on his forearm tightens and he is directed out of the lift.

On the other side of the now deserted floor a man is rolling up a cable, wrapping it over his hooked thumb and down around his elbow, pausing to yank as the plug-end catches somewhere amongst the debris. Behind him the lift pings open again.

“Hey?” says the American woman. “Hey!”

Jack turns back to face the lift. Scarlett has removed her glasses now and is rummaging in her handbag.

“Are you the new runner?”

Jack blinks, sees clearly, nods.

“Where the hell have you been all day?” She says gesturing him into the lift “Come on then”

Ha, ha, thinks Jack, how’s this for vigour?

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