A modern-day Christmas Carol for one Dublin hipster. First published in the Sunday Independent.
Of course my phone was dead when I got stuck in the lift. It’s the classic sort of thing that happens to me.
Without a watch, it’s hard to tell how long I have been here, maybe an hour? I’m writing this on the white background of a roll of wrapping paper with a goldy pen. The paper is blue and white, and featuring a sort of French-style etched portrait of a reindeer.
When I stepped into the elevator, the doors closed slowly, but I didn’t notice, too busy balancing the sherry trifle on one hand and a plastic bag full of ironic presents balancing on my little finger. Now having had the time to consider, I much prefer the word ‘lift’ to the mechanical coldness of ‘elevator’. The engines whirred up as normal, the guttural groan as if an ancient dragon called from his slumber to raise a drawbridge. It was always a slow lift, and the noise was no different to usual. I cursed my lateness, then the lift just stopped. As suddenly as that. My flapping fluster about arriving late to this lunch fell away. One minute I’m all in a tizzy to get out of the house, next the hot sweat of panic is prickling my scalp. The lift was broken. I was stuck in a lift. Trapped in a lift. Unable to get out of the lift. With no phone. No neighbours around. The alarm button didn’t work, nor did the intercom; surely someone has to check these things?
Jamming my finger against the little steel circle intercom button did nothing but render me with an overstretched joint. My body was reacting more than my mind, and I felt my diaphragm drag up and down as my chest tightened and breathing quickened. I am stuck in this fucking lift on Christmas Day!
After the first twenty minutes I started to come to terms with my situation. I was glad of the Baileys. I took a big sweet warm slug of about three shots and let myself slide down the wall. Then I pushed my head flat against the wall of the lift and downed the balance of the bottle. That’s when I got the sudden compulsion to take out the wrapping paper to write this all down. Or at least make some observations.
Fate or the universe or someone has zapped me into this weird place outside of normal life, my prison a room of four square feet held in mid-air by a few pulleys and other contraptions. I suppose I deserve it after what I did.
Anyway, trying not to dwell on that, the purpose of this writing is to distract me, from being stuck in the lift of my empty apartment block on Christmas Day. Despite the bottle of Irish cream liqueur, the adrenaline of this pickle has me striding back to sobriety, with this little pen my only distraction in the unnerving solitude. I did consider measuring the floor-to-ceiling height with the pads of my fingertips, but at least with this written testimony I will have a physical, tangible result of my calamitous incarceration.
It’s not a bad lift. The top half has shiny and clean mirrors. No used needles or pools of urine, thankfully. Not yet anyway. But it’s not the luxurious elevator you’d get in the Four Seasons. At least in a fancy hotel there would be someone to hear me shouting. Which is what I did next. I let myself scream before stopping, it was making the panic worse. I certainly won’t be paying the management company their two grand of blood money this year. I’m also annoyed at myself for only bringing a bottle of Baileys. Why not a properly numbing Christmas whiskey or cathartic, tear-inducing gin?
My desire to get very drunk very quickly has had the opposite effect. I find my senses clearer than ever. I take off my glasses, sure that the neurochemicals in my system have left my vision clearer. Lying on the flat of my back, I can smell the black plastic and sour milk smell where someone let their bin bag rest, in transit to the basement rubbish skips. In fairness the lift had seen a lot of action in the past few days. Household refuse decanted to the heaving waste receptacles underground with the neighbours departing to their respective familial bosoms. I don’t talk to the neighbours, but my flatmate does. Right up until last night she was trying to talk me out of staying. No one could be as cold and mean as to remain in an empty block of flats for the festive season, apparently. I ignored her pleadings over a special bottle of Bordeaux and two rounds of goat’s cheese.
It has been years since I sang any carols, so I decide to go through the repertoire of any Irish national school child. I need to keep making noise in case someone passes by. Hark The Herald Angels Sing, We Three Kings, We Wish You A Merry Christmas. I find myself recalling the Latin version of Oh Come, All Ye Faithful.
I am being punished, I’m convinced of it. For my godlessness, not attending Mass or giving any consideration to religious observation. Forsaking my mother and her signature prawn cocktail. Like a little lab rat, I’m worried about the gods who did this, watching me here squirm. I imagine a conflagration of divine beings, Jesus, Zeus and Abraham Hicks, laughing at me amongst ivy-covered clouds, toasting each other with snipes of Champagne in a Saturnalian feast.
Then I remember the sherry trifle. The trifle – I have never been happier to think of the gloomy dessert. It wouldn’t set properly as I used a full bottle of the Andalucian plonk. I rattle the glass bowl from its tinfoil encasement, pushing the custard lip back and gulping in the bready-sweet wine, and a few chunks of formerly tinned pear. It hits the spot and I feel the hot alcohol burn in my blasphemous throat.
‘Of course I should have gone home to the madhouse,’ I decide to start talking out loud now, ‘to all of my cousins and uncles and tins of biscuits and old movies. She was having 25 altogether.’
‘Instead I’m going to this hipster, retro-style lunch with Tom. And it’s not even with Tom, he will just be there, with lots of other DJs and artists and batista… and wankers!’ I yelled, instantly drawing my hands to my mouth, forgetting I was sinning so vociferously, and then remembering that no one could hear me. I was invited to this Yuletide soiree by Tom’s sister, with whom I work.
‘Maura only invited me because she wanted the 50 quid for the ticket back, we don’t socialise unless you count scabbing cigarettes together at the work night out.’
I pause to slurp more trifle. Curiously aware of the sound of my voice, my accent, how it sounds, I retreat back to an interior monologue.
‘Tom always comes into the library and bats his thick black lashes at me, hinting at a potential dalliance, could there have been a kiss under the Mistletoad?’ The event advertised its inversion of traditional Christmas practices with a picture of dozens of plastic frogs on Instagram.
One practical consideration I have been trying to suppress until now is that of toileting. I will continue to ignore this until I reach a critical point. All of this thinking is very difficult. Through the syrupy blur of sherry, I start into the Spice Girls repertoire.
I’m obviously too drunk and deep in thought to hear his steps but a man shouts in, ‘Hello? Hello?’ my nose wrinkling at the strong Dublin accent. ‘Is someone in there?’
‘Oh God, thank God, I’m stuck, can you help?’
‘Jaysus you’re not serious,’ says my saviour, wheezing like Ronnie Drew. ‘I’m coming for you,’ he’s now running up the stairs his footsteps thwacking on each step. ‘Where were you when the lift stopped?’
The echo of the footsteps pauses.
‘On the 4th floor. It only moved a bit so I must be between it and the third. Can you please ring the lift people, I’ve been here for hours.’
‘Jesus, I will, it’s ringing now. Probably will be slow to answer, the day that’s in it,’
‘Thanks, who are you?’
‘I’m Micko, I’m up on the 4th floor too. Are you the jogger?’
‘No, that’s my flatmate, I don’t exercise.’
‘Here we go, I’m — Yes it’s an emergency, I’m here in Queen Quay flats,’ I shudder with the mention of flats instead of apartments. Thankfully the relief at being rescued is lifting my Christian crisis.
‘There’s a young girl trapped — yeah,’
I don’t need that silver thermal wrap they give to rescue victims but I pictured myself with one soon.
‘Don’t worry, love, I’ll get you out, I’m just on hold.’ Now that an exit is imminent, the toilet question rises sharply without any debate. A litre of Baileys and an entire Sherry trifle is calling for the whole complement of evacuation.
‘What do you mean, three or four hours,? You have to get her out now!’
I can’t last that long. If I go here in the trifle bowl, he will hear. But he’s perhaps not the class of person to mind.
‘Shower of fuckers, if you don’t mind me saying, I’m ringing the fire brigade – they’ll pull you out.’ He gets the emergency call in and we wait.
‘Please don’t leave me,’ I plead.
‘I won’t, love, they’ll be here any minute now… what are you doing in here on Christmas Day anyway, in the name of God Divine?’
‘I’m, eh, supposed to be going to a sort of alternative lunch.’
‘Alternative? How so?’
‘Well, they’re not serving meat but lots of Paxo stuffing, multi-coloured fairy lights etc.’
‘And you convinced the family to go?’
I pause, aware of my badness as a person. ‘No, I was going to go with friends.’
‘Are they good friends? Will they miss you?’
Of course they won’t miss me, I’m sure I won’t have even got one text message about my absence from ‘ALTCHRIS’.
‘No, I suppose they won’t.’ I look at the cleverly conceived hipster-affected presents I wrapped for the Secret Santa. A beard maintenance kit. A watercolour I did at a hen party. A diamond-patterned salmon and yellow knit ‘dad jumper’. Twenty Major cigarettes. I let myself down with the middle-class paper wrap though – redeemed only by the cheap Tesco carrier bag.
‘Was your mammy very sad you didn’t go home? Where are you from anyway?’
‘Yes, she was,’ I said quietly. I got up and stood in the corner of the lift, drunkenly acting like a chastised child. ‘I’m from Navan.’
‘Navan, well I can drop you home, I’m going to my son’s in Cavan and it’s on the way?’
I’m saved by the bell as his phone rings, an appropriately festive electrolysed version of Shakin’ Stevens’ Snow Is Falling.
‘The fire brigade is here,’ he says, and he starts running down the four flights of steps. I don’t hear much now, as I cross my legs, fantasising about the relief of sitting on the loo.
They trundle up the stairs shouting at me, their likely muscular legs making it up each return with ease.
‘We have you now, alright, love.’ It’s a young guy. He sounds like the sort of chap who would be handy to help you down a ladder or catch a spider.
It’s a crowbar that does the job, with what appears to be relative ease. The metal dragging across steel is relieved and the doors slide open. I’m only a few feet from the fourth floor, but I’m waist-deep compared to them. The two firemen haul me out, the pressure on my bladder pushing a wee bit out.
‘Thank you,’ I say, inhaling deeply, completely out of breath. As I start to hyperventilate the young fireman hands me a brown bag and strokes my shoulders. The other one rescues the presents and the empty sherry bowl. I don’t see the old gent anywhere.
‘You were having a party in there were you?’ one says jovially lifting up the empty bottle, trying to distract me from my breathing difficulties. ‘You’ll be OK now in a minute, it’s just the shock of it all, nice deep breaths.’
‘Where is he?’ I manage to get out.
‘Who? Santa Claus?’ the pair laugh gently like a comedy duo. I can tell it’s an act put on to make victims chill out.
‘No,’ I’m heaving now. ‘The neighbour – the guy who called you.’
‘What do you mean the guy who called us?’ True confusion shone through their cabaret performance as they looked at one another, puzzled.
‘There was a man,’ my composure returning. ‘Sitting here with me, he rang the lift people, then he rang 999.’
Their tanned and handsome brows were furrowed. ‘Ah love, let’s get you into your flat now for a glass of water and a lie down.’
‘Where is he?’ I am confused.
‘It was the lift company that called us. When you dialled in the intercom they could hear you. They reckoned the microphone was broken, they said they would get someone out but they didn’t think you heard them.’
‘But that man was here with me,’ I say, feeling sick, wondering if my bladder has exploded inside me.
‘Come on, let’s get you in,’ he ushered me to the keyhole. In the shining silver reflecting back I see him looking to his colleague, raising his eyes to the god of Saturnalia and twirling one finger in a circular motion at his ear. Mad, mad indeed. For the madhouse!