You are ushered into a comfortable waiting room with two huge, ornate lift-fronts at one end. There are rows and rows of chairs opposite the doors – full of people, quietly sitting, watching. Some are calm, some fidgety, all have noticed that the lifts’ call buttons only have a down arrow and that the arrow on the dial above each door moves very slowly until it reaches three o’clock – as far as it can go – and the door opens, but very, very quickly back the other way to the point at which it stops – somewhere different every time.
The only people you ever see emerging from the lifts are the bell boys. They walk from the doors to the front of the chairs and point, and nod, and escort a nervous patient to the doors, walking strangely (the bell boys, not the patients) as if their legs weren’t jointed in the right places. You get the impression that they never point directly at anybody, but, every time two patients start to stand up together, one always sits down very quickly, looking very relieved.
A neighbour turns to you and whispers with a profound air of authority – somewhat like a war veteran who seems far too sane to be saying such crazy things – or like a drunk who grabs you in the street and almost convinces you, until you realise that something does not compute.
“They take them downstairs,” he says. “Downstairs to talk to their boss. The patients’ boss, not the bell boys’.”
“Patients?” you ask, worried to have a crazy whispering guy confirming what the narrator had implied you’d been thinking yourself.
“Yeah, patients, customers, whatever. More applicants really. Applicants is better. You see how they’re nervous – the applicants, not the bell boys – you know why they’re nervous?
“They’re nervous because they know they have to go downstairs and convince their their boss to let them stay. They’re trying to remember everything they’ve ever done for their boss, what went right, what credit they can claim, what lies they can slip past, what excuses they need to make – why they deserve to stay – they have to convince their boss to let them stay. It’s why they’re here. They shouldn’t be nervous though, once they get in the lifts, they’re guaranteed the position they’ve worked for, what they deserve. There’s no need to grovel and beg, but they all do.”
You’re just about to ask him how he knows all this, when a bell boy shambles over, points and nods. Your neighbour stands up, turns to you and says, “Gotta go, nice meeting ya, funny how it’s never empty in here.” and then shuffles over to the lifts becoming more and more agitated and reluctant as he goes.
You look around and glance around behind you – the place is full, at least as full as when you arrived, if not fuller, but suddenly the strangest thing you know is that you don’t know how you got there, you can’t remember your journey, in fact, you’re reasonably certain that you couldn’t have come all this way (where are you again?) just to beg for a lousy job it seems you’d get anyway. As you try to work out what exactly the hell is going on, a bell boy approaches and you feel yourself standing up. You look around desperately, but all the chairs around you are filled with people resolutely sitting and just-as-desperately avoiding eye contact. You drag your feet as you follow and suddenly it becomes very important to remember something:
Reasons to stay?
No, that’s not it.
Something else you’d rather be doing?
Promises made in the heat of the night?
A life pact made with your best friend?
The arrow hits three o’clock with a dull “PONK!”
Did you leave the gas on?
The doors slide open.
No, that’s not it either – if only you could think!
And then it hits you:
A gust of hot stale air from the lift shaft,
The truth, the question, and the answer,
A hint of fresh air from a door you hadn’t noticed before – right next to the lift. It is open, there are steps beyond it, steps leading upwards, and you…