I was in my own little world so I can’t swear to it, but when I stepped into the lift I thought I was alone. ‘I love him, I love him not’, I murmured under my breath. I didn’t notice the other occupant until he shouted out ‘fruit.’
It was a surprisingly mild response to a sudden and violent lurch as the lift came to a full stop in between floors. I had something fruitier to say, so to speak, as I fell into this polite stranger’s arms. My subconscious noted that they were muscular. Once I had untangled myself my conscious self, guessed at a well-preserved sixty something and no middle aged spread. He was tall, blond and had corn blue eyes. My co-detainee wore a denim jacket, jeans and an open necked shirt. He had that scrubbed fresh sort of face that motherly types love to take care of.
I was nearest to it so picked up the emergency phone’s handset. “It’s dead,’ I said. “Shit,” I added. “I have an appointment.” I felt a bit self-conscious about swearing in front of this euphemism citing stranger but the occasion warranted it. ‘Sorry,’ I said, I’m getting married tomorrow and I’m going to miss the meeting with the celebrant.’
My stranger explained that he wasn’t offended. It’s just that he had done such a good job of brainwashing his children that swearing no longer came naturally to him. ‘Call me James’ he said, which was a strange way to phrase it.
‘Elly,’ I replied. I took my phone out of my jacket pocket and dialled the emergency number. ‘It’s going to take an hour at least,’ I said and watched him slip gracefully to the ground and sit cross legged against the back wall. I joined him but with my legs tucked in under me.
Damn, I admire people who can do that, especially people who are decades older. James looked more pleased to me than upset at being cooped up in a room with nothing to recommend it, not even its size. ‘Not pleased’ he said when asked. ‘Pragmatic. I can’t see what I can do about the situation except to wait it out so why stress? Congratulations on your occasion,’ he added. ‘Is it a mixed blessing then, being stuck here? Excuse a stranger’s impertinence, but you sound as if you need time to think. I can be quiet. Or, if you like, I’m a good listener.’
He’d heard me waffling on. I had been hoping not. I haven’t blushed since a 9 year old Danny Brown shoved a valentine card in my hand and ran off.
My heart went pitty-pat, but it wasn’t lust or love. Sixty-something is more my idea of a fatherly type than a paramour. I wasn’t after another lover. I needed a counsellor and my best friend Danny wasn’t talking to me. A week ago, Danny, the sod, had run off again and taken his valentine card and support with him.
Danny had crossed the line. He insisted that if I married Sam, that was the end of our 16 year friendship. He wasn’t going to hang around and watch me stuff up my life with some anal bean counter. (Sam is an accountant). I was then forced to defend the anal bean counter, wasn’t I? I was totally pissed off with Danny for putting me in that position. When I had calmed down, I found that Danny had left town and wasn’t answering my calls. Sam was the only person happy with this outcome. He doesn’t believe that you can have a male friend without benefits and brought it up whenever we argued even if it was about something unrelated.
‘You sound like my friend Danny, look a bit like him too, only older.’ I told James. ‘That’s just the sort of he would say, but it’s just cold feet, men don’t have a monopoly on that do they? I’ve only got to hold on for a couple of days and it’s going to be okay.’ I stopped dead in my tracks. I’d said ‘hold on’. And he’d picked up on it.
How was this stranger dragging my private thoughts out of me? I’m not a confider. I might bounce ideas off Danny but in the end I worked out my problems for myself. I felt the tiny five by five foot room close in on me and wondered if there was still air being piped in through the vents. It felt awfully close. I was feeling dizzy and happy I was already seated.
‘Think of it this way, you can count on an objective stranger, Elly, and you won’t have to see me after today, will you? Why not talk it through with your fiancé when you get out?’
I wiped some beads of sweat from my brow. ‘Sam says he prefers facts to airy fairy speculations.’ If I ever brought up an issue that needed a decision from both of us he’d say ‘that’s too deep for me’ and then change the subject. ‘Sam puts all his faith in figures. They are immutable, unchangeable and so they never let him down,’ I said. I stopped again. Sam’s dictum sounded stupid when explained to a stranger. Those brilliant blue eyes seemed to be waiting for the punchline.
Sam had left our apartment early this morning for work and said, ‘Elly, you be there at 1.00. We’ll have lunch, then meet up with the celebrant at 2.30. Don’t stuff things up this time’, he said, wagging a finger at me. It was fate and the universe that had conspired to get in the way of our getting married the other times, I wanted to say, but that would have been a mistake. My opinion had no figures to back up my beliefs. Now I was sitting in an airless room being invaded by thoughts I thought I had nicely tamped down.
Every time Sam and I organised a time and a date for our wedding, something got in the way. Once I fell and broke my leg. It was in a cast for six weeks and then there was the physiotherapy and exercises. The second time, a favourite aunt died. The funeral was a week before the wedding. I hadn’t wanted forever more to be connecting my wedding day with the anniversary of my aunt’s death. This third time was going to be the charm as the saying goes. I didn’t want to be thinking about things like that now. And I didn’t want to share these thoughts with a stranger, whose presence nevertheless was drawing them out of me. ‘Damn you, Danny,’ I said. Damn you for not being there for me when I need you most.’ I was off again. I couldn’t stop.
Today seemed the day for blushes. I looked at James looking at me. It’s as if he had arrived at some conclusion and was waiting for me to catch up. But that’s not possible, he doesn’t know me or my situation well enough.
I’m trying not to think about that affair Sam had a year ago but it keeps popping up in my thoughts. He was contrite; he was loving; it had meant nothing and we were never going to talk about it again, Sam said.
‘What is it? Why are you looking at me like that?’ I was getting pretty mad and uncomfortable. I didn’t know a thing about this stranger and he was getting a pretty vivid picture of me and my petty problems. But now that I’d started I found myself unable to stop.
‘I’m hearing more about Danny than Sam, just wondering why.’
The Royal Palace in St Kilda was where Sam and I met and where I served Sam his first cheese and tomato toasted sandwich and a latte. Make sure it’s extra hot, he’d said. No higher than 160 degrees, or you risk burning the milk and ruining the flavour.’ And that, as they say, is history.
‘Sam is good for me. He says so. I need somebody stable to settle me.’ James raised an eyebrow.
‘Sam’s going to support us both while I write’, I babbled on, not looking at him. What Sam had actually said was that I could fiddle around with writing stories all I liked once we were married.
‘What do you write?’ He turned to face me directly. Those blue eyes looked interested.
‘I’d like to get into writing children’s books. Young Adult maybe. I’ve got some ideas.’ James looked interested. I felt encouraged. I told him some of my ideas and thoughts and he listened carefully and made some helpful suggestions.
Are you a writer? You seem to know things. At least you haven’t asked me where I get my ideas. That’s the first thing people want to know. Then they ask me what my real job is.
‘I’m a book illustrator’, he said. ‘People also ask me what I do for a living.’ He smiled.
‘Really, what are the chances we’d be stuck here together? Are you anyone I would know?’
‘It’s six degrees of separation. We’re all connected. And no I don’t think you’d have heard of me. I’ve illustrated a handful of board books and pamphlets so far. I’m not important yet. Maybe I can illustrate your book one day.’
‘Well, you’re confident. And not shy about it, either.’
‘What’s the point’, he said and stood up to stretch. I did the same. My feet had pins and needles on it from sitting on them the last half hour. ‘I think we’re only through this place once no time for modesty. Sometimes though,’ he looked at me intently, ‘we get a second chance. If we recognise it we should grab at it hard and not let go.’
I felt as if something was trying to push its way through from my subconscious to the frontal lobe. Only for an instant, then it was gone.
A third voice intruded into our tiny world. ‘Hello there, everyone okay?’
‘Yes,’ I jumped up and shouted. ‘Get us out of here.’
How many are you?
There’s two of us. Hurry up. I was getting impatient now. I wanted to get out and away from this stranger who could drag thoughts and conclusions out of me that I never knew I had, or at least never wanted to admit to.
I turned to James with a relieved smile; wondering now that it was over what I would say to him. He seemed less substantial than he was a minute ago.
‘Made it,’ he smiled and looking at his transparent hands. Elly, I haven’t got much time. ‘Danny made a mistake leaving the week before your wedding. He’d spent four years trying to talk you out of the relationship and left you when you were at your most vulnerable, thinking if he did you would be forced to come to your senses. You panicked instead.
And think about what this means, Elly, you have your phone. Not once while you were stuck here did you think of calling Sam.’
As he was giving this speech he was becoming more and more insubstantial until he’d totally disappeared, all except the voice that said:
‘Grab that second chance with both hands, Elly. Don’t let go.’
And he was gone.
Fiction writers: You’re stuck in an elevator with an intriguing stranger. Write this scene.
I wouldn’t say the stranger in this story is intriguing. My original thought was – what if the future comes to meet the past and tries to change it. It’s not science fiction and not really romance. It may not even be a story. I’ve done the occasional short story but it’s not my forte really. I’ve been working on this, whatever it is for days and find that I can’t focus on anything else while I’m thinking, what to do with this piece next? All that work, I think it at least deserves a showing. If you find yourself falling asleep halfway through it, you’ve got my permission to stop.